blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Thanks so much for having me. The people with the really expensive tickets didn’t show tonight, so if anyone wants to move a little bit farther forward you’re more than welcome to. And I should say that I do have, I’m sorry that they’re not here, actually I can’t say that I’m not sorry that they’re not here, but I do have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, and as I was leaving, the three-year-old said, “Daddy. Don’t forget this.” And she handed me a large leaf from, magnolia leaf, from the yard. And, well, more about that later. But I’m not sure exactly what they think I’m doing, although whenever they see that book in the bookstore, they always say, “Daddy, Daddy, look, your favorite book.”

And there was a reading that I did in Milwaukee at our local bookstore. We just very recently moved there, so they kind of did a welcome to Milwaukee-type of thing. And they put a big poster of me up in the front and stacked all the books up, and it was very nice and so, and there, it’s a bookstore we go to all the time because it’s around the block, and the girls were very admiring of it. And then we went into another bookstore, I guess a week later, and they had taken everything down, and my little three-year-old went in and she goes, “Daddy. What’s wrong with this store?” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “They don’t have your picture up.” And I said, “I know, sweetie.” She goes, “We’re not coming here again for a very long time.” So she plays for keeps, my children and PR agents.

What I’m going to do tonight is a little bit of a different thing. I’m going to talk a little bit about fiction and a little bit about nonfiction. And so it’s not going to be just a pure reading. It’s actually going to be a little bit of a reading embedded inside a larger talk. It’ll be the quickest three hours that you ever spend at this . . . No, it’s not going to be nearly that long. But I did want to say that it’s embedded in all this, and it talks about some things that I think have been very much kind of on writer’s minds this recent spring. And at least I know they’ve been on my mind.

And it’s also a different way for me to talk about some of the things that interest me. And then frankly because I, Mary said, I knew that this was kind of a different sort of reading for me and it was a warmer, more intimate setting, I decided that I would go in a little bit different direction. And so I’m going to be kind of candid and tell people the story behind the story, The Cloud Atlas, since that interests a lot of people as well, as tell you the foreground story. So fair warning, it’s a little bit candid. It’s all G-rated for the most part, but if you’re the type who’s easily overwhelmed, you may want to come up and borrow my water at some point, okay? But we’re going to secure the doors now so no one can leave. All right.

I’m going to start with a secret. And it was something another writer told me, an older, wiser writer who had read an early draft of my first novel, The Cloud Atlas. “I think she has a secret,” was what this writer said. And it was a simple sentence, six words, but it was probably the most provocative any reader of mine has ever given me. It was June, and I had received my MFA degree the month before, and now I was sitting down with my thesis director, the novelist Susan Richards Shreve, to talk about my book. My book. I was still startled that she was calling it that. But even more unsettling was the fact that she was calling it something else. She was calling it unfinished. And here I thought I had finished it. It was 300 pages. It had a beginning. It had a middle and an end. But it wasn’t done.

Susan thought that the main female character, Lily, had a secret. I nodded. I thought so too. But Lily was as much as mystery to me as she was to the book’s narrator. If she had a secret, she wasn’t telling. Not me. “I think you need to find that secret out,” Susan said.

Fiction writing occupies a strange place in colleges. I teach in a college, and everywhere else in the university, every other classroom, every other desk, we demand one thing of students. The truth. We establish and we observe honor codes. We fight plagiarism. We police sources. We tell students we want them to use their minds creatively but the one thing we don’t want them to be creative with is the truth. What’s the closest planet to the sun? If 2x=4, what’s x? What date did World War II end? Whan that aprill with his shoures soote opens what famous poetic work? In short, we ask them for the truth. And then, they come into their fiction workshop. And we ask them to lie. In a creative nonfiction class, it’s not quite as confusing, or it is. If nonfiction’s about telling the truth, why do we favor a word that permanently marries a genre to its opposite, nonfiction. And if that weren’t unsettling enough for our students, we sometimes tack on that adjective, creative. Now creative license means to take liberties. Creative expression means to roam free of the narrow path. Creative nonfiction means, what? Turns out shockingly that creative nonfiction means the same thing as fiction, at least in the classes that I teach. It means, at heart, telling the truth. It means, at length, writing what you don’t know. It means, at the end, sharing a secret. And that’s what I’d like to do today. I’d like to tell you about my teaching, my writing, myself. And before I leave, a secret.

Over the course of the evening, I’m going to read from two of my works. One nonfiction and one fiction. The nonfiction comes from a personal essay that was published in a magazine not too long ago. And the fiction is from my first novel, The Cloud Atlas. The secret lies—and the word is carefully chosen there—somewhere in between.

First, I’d like to introduce you to another very important character in my story, Chief Warrant Officer Bartleson. Another man with a secret. I should clarify, Chief Bartleson, who lives, by the way, just down the road in Hampton Roads, is a real person, a World War II veteran. A former Navy bomb disposal man. Or maybe I shouldn’t clarify who’s real and who’s not. The narrator of my novel, for example, is an Army Air Corps veteran named Louis Belk. So you can imagine my, surprise isn’t quite enough of a word, when shortly after publication an email popped up in my in-box from Louis Belk. Now an elderly World War II Army Air Corps veteran who, at the age of 80, had gone onto the Internet for the first time, Googled his name, and now wanted to know why I had written a book about him.

But let’s go back to Chief Bartleson. I found him after completing a first draft of the novel. Another early reader of my draft observed that one odd aspect of my book was that, despite the narrator’s professing to have spent his service years as a bomb disposal expert, not a single page of my book had him defusing a bomb. “Well, of course not,” I told my reader. “I have no idea how to defuse a bomb.” This reader told me that I might want to learn. So here’s what I found out. And I’m going to read a part of the book now.

[From The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, published 2004 by Delacorte Press.]

I got a laugh line when I read this at a boy’s school, too, and I thought that rather chilling.

[From The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, published 2004 by Delacorte Press.]

I had developed an email friendship with Chief Warrant Officer Bartleson, and I asked him if he would read my text over for accuracy, things like I just wrote, to see if, in writing fiction, I was actually telling the truth. And he kindly agreed. He had no trouble whatsoever with the strange device at the heart of the book, which is a balloon, that the narrator here has just described as a gigantic gas-filled, bomb-laden paper balloon, quite accurately depicted here on the cover, that Japan sent over at the end of the war. They made about 10,000 of them, and they think about only 1000 of them actually made it to these shores. To this day, only 300 have been found.

This is all true. But I needed Chief Bartleson to help me with my fiction. My young bomb-disposal sergeant in the passage I had just read failed in his attempt to save these soldiers’ lives. Could the Chief help? I wrote another scene. This one took place in a Japanese internment camp in California. An American bomber on a training mission accidentally drops a bomb on the camp and it fails to go off. Louis, who is the narrator, and his team are called in. I couldn’t duck the subject of bomb disposal this time. I actually had to have Louis defuse a bomb. And so I needed Chief Bartleson to help. The Chief told me this might be difficult. He was enlisted. Only officers defused bombs.

[From The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, published 2004 by Delacorte Press.]

I’m reading from the book now.

[From The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, published 2004 by Delacorte Press.]

In fact, now I’m back into my description, you would have never seen this because, you can ask me or you can ask Chief Bartleson, I had asked him straight out, how to defuse an American bomb. I had found a book in the library, an Englishman’s memoir about defusing German bombs, but the Englishman had nothing to say about American bombs. So, Chief Bartleson, “How do you defuse World War II American bombs, five hundred pounds or more?” “I’m not at liberty to say,” said the Chief. I said, “What? I mean, because if you don’t tell me, I’m going to have to write this scene as though a German bomb dropped into the California desert. Honestly, now. How do you defuse an American bomb?”“It’s a secret.”

So write what you don’t know is what I’ve always told my students. At first I did it out of defensiveness. When I first started teaching I felt like I didn’t know anything, not about writing, not about life. But we grew into this rule, my students and I, with great success. We write to learn. Learn about worlds unknown to us or, if you’re like me, World War II Alaska. To learn about the fragments of histories too impossible to be true. The paper balloons cross the ocean. And then, finally, we learn what we are really writing about. Balloons, bombs, or believing in something that can’t possibly be real.

One of my students later told me that this was the best thing I could have ever told her. “Don’t write what you know,” I had said at the outset of that particular class at Georgetown. And she went home relieved. She knew what it was like to be a caterer, a mom, a woman who had gone to the funeral of a friend who had died too young and had since committed herself to making sure that she lived out her dreams before she, too, died. This woman wanted to write. She wrote a novel about a sushi chef and the affair he had with an alcoholic waitress in Manhattan. And despite the fact that this woman was not herself an alcoholic waitress, but the mother of two boys in horse country just outside Leesburg. But she sold the novel. And a second novel. And last year, published her third. Her name is Nani Power. That first book is called, Crawling at Night. It’s wonderful.

“What do you know?” is what I ask students. I think what limits many students’ creative writing is their lack of creativity. They look no farther than their fingertips for the story. They just start typing. That’s fine if the story’s there. But what if it’s not? I encourage them to tackle subjects that may challenge them more. Subjects that may, they may need to research. I ask them to write about what they don’t know, what they don’t understand. And I would ask the same of nonfiction students. What do you want to know? What stories do you want to tell? And I push their fingertips past the keyboard, to the phone, to the newspaper, to the offices, doors of offices and homes of people they don’t know. Make them venture out and report, in other words. Venture out physically and metaphysically. Write what you don’t know, is what I tell them.

Does it work every time? Yes. No. Yes, it works in pushing them, in exercising their abilities and developing skills they’ll be able to use again and again. But in and of itself, it doesn’t always work. But that’s what we write to find out. Can I make this completely foreign world real? First to me and then to the reader. Sometimes we can. Sometimes we can’t. But we have to try.

So Susan Shreve told me that my female lead, Lily, had a secret. I knew Lily did, of course. I assumed this was why Lily had come into the book. Lily was part Yup’ik Eskimo, and I knew that the most important balloon in my novel was going to land in Yup’ik Eskimo country, deep in southwestern Alaska. My sergeant would need her help to find his way around. But as I started writing the characters farther and farther out into the tundra, I realized that Lily was leading them towards something else. A different secret; a secret that, in fact, she and I shared. She knew something that, still today, almost all the readers of my book do not know. Lily knew who Lucy was. “Lucy,” and here I’m reading from that magazine essay.

[“Loving Lucy,” by Liam Callanan, published June 2005 by Good Housekeeping.]

Write what you don’t know. What those of us who teach writing do know is that no advice, no rule, no wisdom applies to every writer. What works for me won’t work for another. When I teach, I offer up different approaches, methods, guidelines so that students can experiment with what works best for them. It’s not always something they know, or I know, at the outset. What about when they want to write about something they do know and know well? Personal stories, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes so much so that they register only pain on the page and nothing more. With these students, I sit down and I ask them to tell me about the story, about what they’ve written. And then I ask them if they really are ready to tell it. Or if this workshop is where they want to tell it. Sometimes what they don’t know is that they’re not ready to tell a particular story.

When I began The Cloud Atlas, I was ready to tell a story, but I wasn’t ready to tell a secret. And neither was my character, Lily. And over the course of several drafts, her secret emerged, she too had had an invisible child. And as it did, I had to determine whether I was ready to tell her story. And whether it really was hers or mine. It turned out to be hers because hers and mine ended dramatically differently. Her caregivers failed her, whereas ours eventually came to our aid. One caregiver who initially failed, though, was an Yup’ik shaman, Ronnie, who years later finds himself living out his days in the same remote Alaskan town as the novel’s narrator, who long ago left his bomb disposal days behind to become a priest. Decades after their original encounter on the tundra, they come together again. It’s too late to help Lily this time, but it’s not too late to help, as the narrator explains in this passage late in the book, which will be the last thing I read.

[From The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, published 2004 by Delacorte Press.]

Write what you don’t know is what I tell student writers because the truth is even scarier. What you don’t know until you do write is that to write is to possess an awesome power. To erase ignorance, to create knowledge, to summon life. Louis Belk is a fictional character. He emailed me. The truth is, I’ve never fired a revolver. I fired that revolver. I never found my daughter. The truth is, I found her here.

Thank you.  

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