Liam Callanan on Bookstores, Travel and Magic of Paris

in Fiction by

Who doesn’t love Paris?

Whether it’s the language, the culture, the food, or just that element of je ne sais quoi, there’s something magnetic about the city. With so many different words that could be used, it’s telling that perhaps the most common word to describe the city is magic. And no one, it seems, understands that better than author Liam Callanan. His latest novel, Paris by the Book (Dutton), is set in city and thoroughly explores the ways that Paris not only changes you, but allows you to change within it.

Image: amazon.com

When Leah’s husband disappears, leaving behind only airplane tickets to Paris for her and their two daughters, Leah makes a spur of the moment decision and puts them all on the plane. There, Leah searches for her husband every day, running a bookstore to pay rent. But Leah soon discovers that not everything she knows is really what it seems.

Part mystery, part family drama, part something more, Paris by the Book is a truly beautiful work. BookTrib was able to talk with the author about writing the book, the appeal of owning a bookstore, travel and what makes Paris so magical.

BookTrib: Paris by the Book is such a beautiful novel and really encompasses everything you could want in a book. What inspired the plot?

Liam Callanan: My family was traveling to Paris for the first time – we were kind of desperate for a spring break – and I realized that it would be cheaper to fly to Paris than it would be to fly to Florida. Even though the weather in Paris would be the exact same as Milwaukee, that’s where we went. We toured all the sites, and my daughters led us around the city because there were obsessed with several books set there, like Madeline, The Red Balloon, and Hugo Cabret. I have three daughters and each daughter had a book, so for each one we went around just tracking things down from the books. 

On the last day, because they’re such big readers – just book obsessed – and because we have a rule in the family that every time you go to a bookstore you can buy whatever you want, we passed this English language bookstore that we went into. The girls settled down to read, and it was just this wonderful decrepit old place. One thing led to another, and we found that the woman was getting ready to close the business and she was looking for someone to take it over. She had once had a daughter who, when she was young, would lay on the floor and read books, and help mind the till, so she thought that we would be good candidates. She was half-joking about it, but she was also half-serious, so my wife and I thought about it half-seriously. We just decided that the future of the store looked too uncertain, so we didn’t take her up on it. But in this novel, I do.  

I couldn’t get the story out of my head, of what would it be to follow my family to Paris and take over the bookstore. As I started writing it, the voice that came to narrate the book had this sadness to it. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but then one plot point led to another, and it became that her husband was gone. Then the dominoes of the plot started falling [into place]. 

BookTrib: I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore, so I have to ask, do you have any regrets about not buying the store? 

LC: I have regrets everyday! I mean, we enjoy our lives here in America, and we’re on good terms with our local bookstore here in Milwaukee, Boswell Books. I know from the owner Daniel that he loves it, he has a real passion for book-selling. It’s one of the leading independent bookstores in the United States, but it’s also a business. There’s a Starbucks across the street and we’ll be in there Sunday morning and you can look over and see Daniel in the store already working hard. So it’s definitely a dream to run a bookstore, but it’s exhausting as well, so I really have a lot of respect for bookstore owners that do it. That’s not to say I’ll never do it, just not right now!

BookTrib: You weave so many other books by other authors into this one. You mentioned the books your children love like The Red Balloon and others. How did you choose the books included and are they of any personal significance to your main character? 

LC: I tried to let it happen as organically as possible. As I was writing along, my character would be thinking about something and some sort of situation would remind her about something that she’d read in a book – I tried to just let that happen. Because I just had to imagine that when you’re in a bookstore, you’re just kind of surrounded by all these conversations on the shelves all the time. I would just think “how is that going to work?” Once my narrator became, as character sometime do, her own living, breathing person and she had a personality, then I thought I could just follow her thoughts.

I will say that there are no books that she likes that I don’t like also. I think about this all the time that with books on a shelf, it’s just very funny to think about who is next to whom. If only shelves could talk!

BookTrib: Was there a book you considered adding, but decided otherwise? 

LC: There were some big coffee table books that I liked. There’s one called Sculpture of the Eskimo which is just fantastic. One day I got incredibly frustrated with writer’s block and I thought ‘I’ve got to get out of here’ so I went to the library. I was kind of staring around and someone had left this giant book next to me, so I picked it up and got incredibly distracted. Looking through it I just thought ‘this will distract me enough to drive me to my next plot point’. It was perfect. 

BookTrib: The imagery in your books really connects readers to the locations where they’re set – Paris and Alaska, to name a few. How much research do you put into each place when you decide to set the books there? Have you ever lived in or visited the places you describe?

LC: I really like research fiction. I sometimes joke that it’s a wonderful procrastinatory activity, even though it’s not because everything feeds the story. One of the things I was really anxious about was Paris, because I’ve never lived there. I’ve visited before, and I visited again a few more times while writing this book, but I read dozens of books on Paris to really get a feel of the city. I also found these wonderful folks on the internet – they wander around Paris and other cities of the world and just record audio. I think the term is Ambience Soundscape. They don’t narrate anything, they just walk across the city. There’s a couple of them who record for two, three hours at a time, and I would put in my headphones and that would be my workday. Instead of sitting in an office in Milwaukee listening to a leaf blower outside, or a passing bus, I was listening to the odd European siren, people talking in French, the motors. It really got my head there. I also started listening to the French news. 

On the trips when I went to Paris, I tried to spend as little time indoors as possible, because I wanted to really take in the sights, smells, sounds, things like that. I walked clear across Paris, across the northern half, and then I biked across the southern half with their bike-share program. I’m surprised I’m still alive, actually – biking across Paris has by far been the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. They don’t have bike lanes, so the law is that you just share the bus lane, which is all well and good until a bus comes along. But I really just went to get all the sensory details. The other thing was just to try and reassure myself that the character of Leah wasn’t just a Parisian ex-pat. She was someone who had moved there but was still trying to get a sense of the place, and a lay of the land. Still just a fish out of water.

BookTrib: The character Leah is very intriguing. There’s this moment in the book where her right hand “clenches reflexively” because it was the hand that her husband would always hold. Even though the book is written from her point of view, you see that she really defines herself by her husband, but then comes into her own independence. Can you talk to us about this evolution that Leah goes through?

LC: To me, this is a journey of emancipation. I never like it when authors say what their book is about, but really this is kind of a story of how to navigate the world when something you believed in, or someone you believed in isn’t quite what they seemed to be. In one case that is Paris, but that’s also Robert. He’s not entirely the person she married. He is, but he’s also not and she has to free herself from that, and allow herself to escape from that, and she has to do it in a way that doesn’t say “everything that happened between us was terrible” because a lot of good things happened between them, too. But it was untenable.

There’s also this immense grieving process that goes on for her. One of the things that I did during the research was that I read a lot of books and memoirs about people who were grieving a significant loss. What I took from those books is that it’s not a light switch – when someone disappears or dies, especially when they disappear, you just start circling and you’re not really sure which way is up. You’re not sure of yourself and you want to escape but you can’t, because you’re not exactly sure who you’re being faithful to in that moment, or even if there is still something to be faithful to. That’s what really drew me into that part of her psyche, that notion of how she was trying to escape herself. Because she’s harder on herself than anyone else. But it was very important to me that she ultimately stand on her own two feet, because that’s the journey she had to be on.

BookTrib: As I was reading the book, there were several passages that reminded me of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.  

LC: That’s exactly it – it really is magical thinking. And compounding that is the fact that she’s in Paris, which brings it’s own kind of magic. You have this fantasy overlaid on a fantasy overlaid on memory. There’s just this constant feeling of vertigo. 

BookTrib: You tackle grief and loss in many of your works, things a lot of authors find difficult when attempting to translate raw emotion into written word. Is this something you feel drawn to writing?

LN: My wife and I lost our first child at the hospital. She died just before she was born – her name was Lucy – and she was so small that when they cremated her, there weren’t really any remains. And this haunted me, as it would any parent. I’m not one for psychoanalyzing other author’s fiction, least of all my own, but when people ask where this notion, this sense of loss comes from, of people reaching for something that felt so solid but ends up being ephemeral or evanescent, I think it’s fair to say that some of it comes from my own sense of loss. And that loss, which sadly is not unusual for many parents, or losing a spouse or sibling, it’s so different from anything else. I think there’s an emotional core or truth that haunts you like that, or it haunts me. I keep trying to write back to that to understand it, but there is no understanding it. That’s part of what informs my characters. 

A lot of my books are, in different ways, about belief. Not always religious belief, but what it means to believe in yourself and others. I think a key part of that is being patient, so that you give yourself time to develop into the person that you are and also so that you keep on developing, especially if you live abroad. 

BookTrib: Your books are set in locations across the world. Is there anywhere you really want to travel to, or set a book in, but haven’t?

LC: I basically want to go everywhere, but I have not yet been to anywhere on the continent of Africa and I’d love to go, especially to East Africa. I studied Swahili for a year in college and never got the chance to use it. But one of these days I want to get there and particularly to Zanzibar. I met someone from Zanzibar once and it just sounded like an amazing place with an incredible history. And it’s really fun to say. I’m constantly studying French and I think that maybe between my French and my Swahili I might be able to traverse Africa. 

BookTrib: Paris by the Book is part mystery, drama, family story, a love affair – it’s everything. What’s something that you really want the readers to take away from the book?

LC: I want them to go to Kayak.com and book a flight! I’m actually only half-joking about that. On one level, I really do want people to go to Paris, because it’s this wonderful corrector for the soul, but on a deeper point I would love for people to take away the idea of being patient with yourself and not rushing to judge yourself or others for things that may well have been out of your hands all along. I think the journey for Leah is also important, of just figuring out who she is as a mom to her daughters and then being patient with herself so she can move and continue through the world in a powerful way.

Paris by the Book is now available for purchase. 

ABOUT LIAM CALLANAN

Photo: © Patrick Manning

Liam Callanan is the author of The Cloud Atlas, which was an Edgar Award finalist for best first novel. A frequent public radio essayist, his work has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Slate, Good Housekeeping,and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Visit his website at www.liamcallanan.com

 

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