Liam Callanan's depiction of Alaska was so real that after his agent read his draft, she wanted to know how long he had lived there. Callanan said that he had never even visited Alaska.
When Callanan started thinking about a subject for his first novel, he knew that he wanted to write about something he himself hadn't experienced.
"My parents blessed me with a very happy childhood, but it was not very exciting. I was very eager to write about anything but myself. I wanted something different and chose to write about Alaska," said Callanan, who credits the local libraries for providing him with the resources he needed — books, Internet and resource materials.
To get more acclimated, he also listened to Alaska radio stations and turned the heat down in his office. "If I can't get there, I'll go anyway I can," said Callanan.
While his novel, "The Cloud Atlas," is set in Alaska, it's about much more than Alaska. The main idea for the novel came from an article he had read in the New Yorker, which talked about the sand used to fill Japanese balloon bombs sent over to the United States during World War II.
"There was something even more fascinating about that than the sand," thought Callanan, who started researching the subject. He found out that very little had been written about the balloons; more so, in January, 1945, the United States' Office of Censorship had told media outlets that they were not allowed to report anything about the strange flying objects that had begun to appear throughout the western United States during the last few months of 1944.
Callanan took the idea and ran with it. He created Sgt. Louis Belk, a newly trained Army bomb technician, dispatched to Alaska to find and dispose of these weapons. Not only did he have the pressure of keeping the bombs secret from an anxious public, but his superior officer was a brutal veteran OSS spy hunter. Along the way, he meets a Yupíik Eskimo woman who claims she can see the future. After the war, Belk returns to Alaska as a missionary, and embarks upon more adventures.
CALLANAN SAID that it took him three years to write the book. He wrote the first draft as his creative thesis for the completion of his MFA degree at George Mason University.
"The professor told me, 'this is good, but this is what you need to get published,'" said Callanan. "He was a great help."
Not only did Callanan take writing classes during this time, but he taught as well. He has been an adjunct professor at George Mason and at Georgetown and he is an instructor in the School of Summer and Continuing Education. Just as one of his professors helped him refine his book, it was one of his students who helped him locate an agent.
After Nani Power took Callanan's creative writing class at Georgetown in the mid-1990's, she published her first book, "Crawling at Night." Callanan contacted her when he was getting ready to publish his book; Power read the book, liked it and referred him to her agent.
The agent not only agreed to publish Callanan's first book, but offered him a two-book deal to secure rights for his second book, which is still in the works.
Callanan was born at Georgetown Hospital, but spent time living in Los Angeles. He moved to the Mount Vernon area after college, living first in Bucknell Manor and then in Hollin Hills. His wife, Susan, works for USAA; Callanan said that she generously agreed to continue working while he pursued his dream of writing a novel.
Now that his first novel is published and doing well, Callanan has been spending time promoting "The Cloud Atlas." He has done readings at local bookstores, including Politics and Prose, where they sold out of his books. He did a reading at one of the Barnes & Noble stores in Washington, D.C., and one of the clerks told him that he had outsold the new book written by Princess Diana's butler.
He will be traveling to Alaska later this month for a book tour. As it turns out, he did visit Alaska before his book was published; he was pleased to see how close it was to how he envisioned it and changed very little in his book after his visit. When he returns from Alaska, Callanan will do a reading at Sherwood Hall Library on April 22.
Callanan continues to work on his second book and does some teaching. He said that he likes teaching because it gets him out of the house. He also does much of his writing away from home. He has spent a lot of time writing at Xando's and Misha's Coffee Shop. More recently, he has found Panera Bread to be a good spot at which to write.
"They have free parking and free refills," said Callanan, who feels that he keeps motivated to write at these places because if he gets up for too long, he loses his seat.