Our Q&A with Milwaukee Author Liam Callanan, Author of ‘Paris by the Book’
Liam Callanan

Our Q&A with Milwaukee Author Liam Callanan, Author of ‘Paris by the Book’

Mais Oui! A local author and Francophile has written an electrifying new book about the City of Lights.

Author Liam Callanan has long been a darling of the Milwaukee literary community. But now he’s poised to become something of a fixture of the national literary scene too. His latest novel, Paris by the Book, has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and he’s slated to speak at bookstores across the country in the coming months.

In the meantime, Callanan will be reading excerpts from the novel (and serving up slices of cake!) at Boswell Book Company on April 3. And you can get a taste of what to expect from Paris by the Book here:

Paris by the BookWhat inspired the book?

I was researching an article for the Wall Street Journal about letting your kids guide you through Paris with the help of children’s books. For almost a week, my daughters did just that, until the last day, when they were so exhausted they just wanted to sit or lie down. We found a tiny English language bookstore, and that’s just what they did, flop down in the children’s corner of the store while we talked with the owner. It turned out that she was on the verge of closing, or selling, the business, and half-jokingly asked us if we’d like to buy the store. We half-seriously thought about it, and in the end decided we just couldn’t. But when I got home, I decided we could – that is, I could write about a fictional family who came to own a bookstore in Paris. Discovering the reason why, how, when took longer. Indeed, the book’s a bit of a mystery in no small part because how it would end was a mystery to me as I wrote my way through. I was surprised by the result. But when I look back at that visit to the store, the owner’s offer, I’m not sure what surprises me more – that we half-considered it, or that we didn’t take her up on the spot.

Did you visit Paris while working on it?

I did visit Paris, several times after that trip with my daughters. Whenever I did, I tried to spend as much time as I possibly could outdoors. I really wanted to absorb as much sensory detail as I could. On one trip, I walked across the entire northern part of the city, and then biked (with the help of their bike share system, the Velib) across the entire southern half. It was incredible. And with respect to the biking aspect, it’s incredible that I’m still alive. (I’ve also driven in Paris, and that was almost as hair-raising.)

How does your work as a professor inform your writing process? 

It humbles me. I’m acutely aware when I sit around a seminar table with all those other writers that we’re all in this together. I may have been at it longer – although, with some of my older students, even that is not the case – but I know that we all face the same challenges: how to get the right words down, in the right way, on the right page. I think with other professions, the more you do the work, the more confident you become. What I’ve experienced with writing is that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn. Which makes me grateful that I’m in a university community that’s committed to lifelong learning. I’m a professor, but also ever a student.

Can writing be taught?

Absolutely, and what’s more, it should be taught, and widely. I think of it (especially this time of year) as being somewhat like baseball. No one asks if baseball can be taught; instead, parents and coaches pick up a ball each spring and toss it to the new kid and say, “here, try this.” And with repetition and practice and commitment, those young players get better. Not all of them go to the World Series – in fact, hardly any do – but that’s not treated as failure. What’s more, the World Series isn’t even the goal for most of those who learn the sport. It’s just a way to join a history, a conversation, get some exercise. Writing is exactly the same. We’re not all going to the World Series, but the skills we learn help us nonetheless.

Liam Callanan
Liam Callanan; photo by Patrick Manning

What do you hope your readers take away from the book? 

That dreams and reality differ, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s in exploring the gap between the two that the real adventure takes place. My characters (not unlike their author) are obsessed with finding a mythic Paris, one they’ve derived from time spent with children’s classics like Madeline and The Red Balloon. But the Paris they actually encounter, the one they live in, is different – indeed, it’s made different by their presence in it. I remember when my daughters and I were trying to get a picture of the Eiffel Tower. We were initially frustrated because it was cloudy, and crowded, and it looked nothing like the travel poster Eiffel Tower we had in our heads. But that was, is, Paris. And I wouldn’t change it. So many Paris posters feature empty streets. (Perhaps because they’re inspired by some of the earliest photographers who worked in Paris – but their photos always appear absent of life because the shutter speeds were so slow then they couldn’t get anyone to stand still enough for long enough to remain in the shot.) But Paris would be a terribly sad and lonely – not to mention exceptionally strange – place if the streets were empty.

What should fans expect from your Boswell reading on the 3rd?

Cake. (It’s Boswell’s 9th birthday.) And I’ll read, but only for a bit, and take questions, and test-drive my French language skills, which I’ve been working on with the help of the Alliance Francaise de Milwaukee.

Who are your favorite Wisconsin writers?

1. My students. 2. My friends. 3. Milwaukeean Christopher Latham Sholes, inventor of the typewriter. Without him, there’d be no post-19th century literature.

What’s next for you? 

Sleep. The book’s about 100,000 words, and I wrote about three to four times that during the drafting process. It’s been a fun ride but an exhausting one, too, and is only set to be more so as I run back and forth across the country in the next few weeks for readings. So a good night’s sleep would be great. 

After that, I’m looking forward to waking up, making a cup of coffee (French press, of course), and getting back to work.



Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.