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When he introduces himself to a new group of continuing-ed students in his creative-writing class, Liam Callanan gives the crop of retired grandparents, unsatisfied bike couriers, and distracted lawyers a single tip, written in big letters on the blackboard: “LIE.”
The idea of writing from your life, the 35-year-old Georgetown University instructor says, is too limiting. “Especially with those students. I don’t want to read more stories about the inner workings of the EPA legal department….The truth of writing what you know is writing what you know emotionally. You don’t have to write what you know mentally.”
It’s a point of view that developed naturally from Callanan’s own experience: Stable Catholic kid is raised by caring parents in Southern California, meets his wife-to-be at Yale, then flies by the nets to become a corporate speechwriter living in Alexandria, Va. Not exactly the makings of a sweeping bildungsroman.
“Cruelly, my parents provided me with a happy-go-lucky childhood,” jokes Callanan. “I didn’t have a lot of grist. I was very jealous of all the writers who could write about their traumas before age 18. I didn’t have any traumas.”
That changed, at least in a small way, after Callanan left his speechwriting gig to pursue an MFA in creative writing at George Mason University in 1998. Late in his second year, he started reading up on a footnote to World War II that had intrigued him ever since he’d come across it four years earlier, in one of John McPhee’s geology-themed articles for the New Yorker.
In the piece, McPhee used a handful of stories to detail how investigators use forensic geology to solve crimes. He told the relatively little-known story of how, in late 1944 and early 1945, the Japanese launched thousands of rice-paper balloons equipped with anti-personnel and incendiary devices over the Pacific toward the northwestern United States.
Nearly 300 landings were reported, as far east as suburban Detroit. Some caused small fires. In an Oregon forest in May of 1945, one killed five children and an adult on a camping trip—the only casualties of enemy action on the U.S. mainland during World War II. Yet thanks to a press gag imposed by the military to stave off panic, the story never really broke.
“McPhee’s talking about sand particles,” remembers Callanan, “and I’m thinking, There were balloons that floated over the ocean—and they were made of paper?”
Callanan wrote from 8 one evening to 8 the following morning, churning out 30 pages about an elderly veteran recalling his days as a balloon-bomb expert. He’d been sent deep into Alaska to track down and disarm the weapons. Secrets surrounding his mission come to light years later, magnifying the horrors he’d experienced as a soldier.
Writing about it, Callanan says, was like escaping to a time and place he knew nothing about. Even after his 12-hour writing binge, he was excited. “When I woke up,” he recalls, “I wanted to go back to Alaska. My brain actually thought I’d been there.”
Then came the trauma: His story, the last to be discussed in class, would be put to bed after only four minutes of discussion.
Callanan hadn’t written anything like the Alaskan piece before, nor had he ever written anything so long. “I took it as one of those mystical, muselike visitations that writers always talk about,” he says. In the summer of 2000, when Callanan sat down with his thesis adviser, they decided the hapless short story had legs enough to become a first novel.
Early next month, Delacorte Press will publish the 360-page result, The Cloud Atlas, which Kirkus Reviews has already compared favorably to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Three-and-a-half years ago, however, Callanan wasn’t about to tell his wife, Susan Callanan, that he wanted to dump their savings into an Alaskan excursion that might or might not produce a novel. So he followed his own best advice and went to Alaska mentally.
Callanan tuned into Alaskan radio online. He made Alaskan pen pals and e-mailed them daily. He checked the weather on airport webcams. While he worked, he turned his thermostat down to approximate the chill of an Alaskan home. “I did everything I could to get there without getting there,” he says.
To cover the military end, Callanan became a fixture at the National Air and Space Museum and talked to John Bartleson, a retired bomb specialist for the Navy. “He would say, ‘You do this, you do this, and more than that, I can’t tell you. That’s confidential,’” Callanan recalls. “I said, ‘It’s been more than 60 years. I think it would be good if people knew how to take them apart.’” Bartleson vetted Callanan’s manuscript for profanity, too: No self-respecting bomb-disposal agent, he argued, would take the Lord’s name in vain.
Callanan also met with 75-year-old Silver Spring, Md., resident Robert C. Mikesh, a retired Air Force major who wrote the one authoritative book on balloon bombs, a slim volume called Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America. Mikesh was 13 when a friend of his sister’s told him, in confidence, about a classified mission the man had been involved in on the West Coast.
The subject stayed in the back of Mikesh’s mind until the late ’60s, when he dove into the by-then-declassified records at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Ala. During the Cold War, Mikesh often considered the irony of the balloon bombs’ place in American history: “People were worried about the threat of missiles being launched against us,” he says. “In essence, it had already been done.”
Mikesh’s help proved indispensable to Callanan, who wanted every detail in The Cloud Atlas to be accurate—despite the book’s rather unlikely plot: Over the course of three days, 73-year-old Louis Belk, a Catholic priest, recounts to a dying friend his classified mission during the war. “Eighteen and only getting dumber,” he’d been dispatched to Alaska to track balloon landings. Along the way, he and his hardassed, increasingly unhinged superior officer, a former spy hunter named Gurley, both fall for Lily, a Yup’ik fortune teller who dabbles in shamanism.
As Lily opens him up to the unfamiliar spirits of Yup’ik Alaska, the naive soldier mistakes them for ghosts. “Not ghosts,” Lily says, “but possibilities. In Alaska, it’s all possible. Maybe elsewhere you need things like ghosts to explain what’s on the horizon of what’s real. But here, you’re already past that line. And on this side, the whole world is creaking.”
“I liked the idea of a strange sort of borderlands, a neither here nor there,” Callanan says. “Alaska manages after all these years to be unconquerable. People live there, but it’s a struggle to survive. With a story where so many rules of human behavior—if not logic—would be broken, it would have to be set in a place where everyday rules didn’t apply.”
In the end, Lily and the war make The Cloud Atlas a story about both love and the loss of innocence—ideas very much on the author’s mind as he wrote. In early 1998, Callanan and his wife’s first child, Lucy, was stillborn at George Washington University Hospital. Callanan gave the book a dedication: “To Lucy: Would that I had such a map.”
“One of the dangers of the novel is that it’s about these balloons,” he says. “There’s a novel in there, too, but these fantastic, altogether true things are happening. I could see how other writers would say it could hijack a book. Truth proving stranger than fiction—if not better than fiction.”
In the late ’90s, before he’d taken up fiction writing full-time, one of Callanan’s former continuing-ed students told him she was writing a novel and planned on getting it published. Callanan, “not one to stand in her way,” politely encouraged her. By April 2001, the part-time caterer and mother of two, Nani Power, had a deal with Atlantic Monthly Press, Crawling at Night on bookstore shelves, and a nice blurb from Stewart O’Nan in her press file.
“So this is my student in continuing ed,” recalls Callanan. “After she did it, she was like, ‘You should really try this!’” Her humbled master eventually sent off his manuscript of The Cloud Atlas to Power’s agent. The agent read it, loved it, and was just dying to know: How many years had Callanan lived in Alaska?
“That was one of the highest compliments I got about the book,” says Callanan. “I was thrilled. But it did dawn on me that I’d have to tell her that I didn’t go there.” When he ended up closing a deal with the Bantam Dell Publishing Group after just a couple of weeks, he decided to reward himself with a two-week trip to the place he had so long merely imagined. The journey included a stint in Bethel, which he’d chosen as the setting for much of his novel because it seemed the loneliest spot on Mikesh’s map of balloon landings.
Callanan met up with pen pals such as “Crusty Old” Joe Stevens, a veteran who runs the Kodiak Military History Museum in Fort Abercrombie. He met John Active, on-air personality for Bethel’s KYUK, to learn more about Yup’ik culture. Active turned the questions around on Callanan and, after 20 minutes, told him he’d recorded the conversation. Later, Active put it on the air, making Callanan something of a local celebrity. Callanan even had his own run-in with the Yup’ik spirit world: His hovercraft driver warned him that certain spirits like to meddle with the engine at a particular bend in the river. “You know,” the man said in earnest, “like your leprechauns.”
By the end of his trip, Callanan realized the only things he had wrong in The Cloud Atlas were “the sunlight and the smells.” He later corrected them, long after he’d gotten over the anxiety he’d felt flying into Bethel from Washington. Before landing, he’d wondered if the place would be as he’d imagined it.
“As we were flying down,” he says, “I looked out the window and it was exactly as I’d written it. The whole thing jumped out and came to life. It was really spooky—I felt like I’d created it.” CP
Callanan reads from and signs copies of The Cloud Atlas at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4 , at Barnes & Noble, 555 12th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 347-0176.