3.11.07: LIAM CALLANAN, ELISE BLACKWELL & JOSHUA FERRIS
3.11.07: A pretty wild night at KGB. Liam Callanan, Elise Blackwell and Joshua Ferris drew a large, boisterous crowd. There was cheering, whooping, laughing and even crying - though we're sure that was a result of the laughing.
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Liam read from All Saints, his most recent book. Or perhaps he performed from it. It was hard to tell. Whatever happened, it was great to see Liam so fully embody a neurotic, lustful, fifty-year-old woman.
Elise followed with a reading from her most recent book, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. It's a thoughtful, beautiful story, and her reading really drew the crowd in. Elise is the author of Hunger. She is currently on the faculty at The University of South Carolina.
Joshua brought up the rear. He read from Then We Came to the End, his debut novel. The excerpts were as funny and heartbreaking and then funny again. Really funny.
Joshua Ferris was awarded his BA by the University of Iowa in 1996. His first published story, "Mrs. Blue", appeared in the Iowa Review in 1999. He lives in Brooklyn.
KGB: Have you had an intensely corporate job or was Then We Came to an End written from observations or hearing your friends' experiences, etc?
JF: I came out of the womb knowing everything about corporate culture.
KGB: That's amazing.
JF: Yeah, it was sort of embedded in my parents' genes, so I emerged fully aware of the trappings and the felicities of corporate life.
JF: Well, I did work, against my better judgment, for several years in advertising. And it certainly wasn't all misery. I had a lot of fun.
KGB: Do you think this book could have dealt with life in any professional area, or is there something about advertising that makes people particularly crazy?
JF: It probably could have been any area, but advertising was particularly wealthy at the end of the 90's. It you were ever curious about where your dot com dollars went, they went to squeeze balls and visors and key chains, which advertising put out to increase a dot com brand. So in advertising during the 90's we were very, very fat and sort of taking for granted the money, the bonuses and all the perks of the corporate world. So it allowed me to heighten the drama because of what was going on in it and because I knew my way around it fictionally speaking.
KGB: What do you think it is about corporate life that drives people to a little bit of insanity?
JF: Corporate life does two things that are really important to keep in mind. First of all, it provides a great deal of self-identity and satisfaction, and I think that while the drawbacks are easy to spot and easy to mock, there is also the other half of that, which is to say the paycheck it provides, the benefits it gives and the inherent community that comes with it. Those things are very important in addition to the things that are comically miserable about corporate life.
What is particularly misery provoking about it are the cubicles, the hierarchy, the euphemisms, the lack of a real spring-forward dialogue. And the fear. The fear of not getting the raise, not getting the bonus, not being the best.
KGB: How did you choose to write the book from a "we voice?" What is that again? Second person?
JF: First person plural.
JF: Businesses never talk in the "I," they always talk in the "we." Even when it's a annual report or memorandum it's, 'Join our group, buy our products,' so the point of view was kind of a given by the time I set out. But I spent a lot of time figuring it out. I experiment in third person but it didn't have quite the voice I needed.
KGB: There's a prologue in the book that reads very different from the rest of it. It has a totally different tone and voice. It reads like an elegy for what's to come. How did that happen?
JF: That came after the book was finished, so it makes sense that you would pick up on the tone change. It is sort of an elegy, though not just for advertising. 2001 was obviously a very eventful year, and not just because of the collapse of the dot com, but because there were big changes globally. I suppose it could be construed as an elegy for a new world order, to be very...lofty about it.
KGB: What are you working on now?
JF: I'm working on a book. It's about family and religion - all the good stuff.
Interview with Liam Callanan
Liam Callanan lives and writes in Milwaukee, where he teaches in the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee In addition to writing and teaching, Liam has regularly contributed to local and national public radio. He's also written for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the Times' op-ed page, the Washington Post Magazine, Forbes FYI, Parents and a number of other publications in locations ranging from Canada to Brazil. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals.
KGB: All Saints is your second book that deals with teenagers. How come you want to spend so much time with them? Most people avoid them like the plague.
LC: Maybe writing is a sort of exorcism for me - I think it is for a lot of people. I think I'm trying to get in touch with the teenager that vanished out of me a long time ago. Maybe he's still inside, and that's why I think I keep returning to the subject.
KGB: Speaking of subjects you're returning to, let talk about religion.
LC: Faith, I have to say, is what it's all about for me. Not just faith in God, but what people do to believe in things they can't really see, like they believe they can still be sexy at fifty, or they can have an attraction to someone who's much younger then they are. Love, I think, is the most extraordinary type of faith of all.
KGB: Your stories are a lot about faith - personal faith and religious belief. Do you have a personal relationship to religion that made you interested in these issues?
LC: I think so. Different writers have different skeletons and spines in their work, and mine, so far, is a sense of religion. Religion is this vast repository of stories that have an ability to mesmerize people. I'm very taken by this quote, I think it's Saint Paul, that "faith is the belief in things unseen," I'm just really taken by what it takes to move someone to believe in something that isn't there. Because to me that's the act of reading itself. You read this arrangement of ink on a page and you can read that a world exists behind that. I'm fascinated by this notion of story telling as a way to get people to believe in something they can't otherwise experience. For me, religion's really a metaphor in that way. But I'm also interested in religion as religion too. I grew up in a Catholic family, I went to a Catholic high school and we still go to church.
KGB: Something I found really interesting about Emily, the protagonist in All Saints, is that she was a woman confronting her past while the people she's teaching are confronting their future.
LC: Oh I like that. That's great. A+.
KGB: Thank you. Do you think that is a natural result of getting older or do you think that's something she's confronted with because she's a teacher? Could she have experienced that level of self-reflection otherwise? Is that something we all go through?
LC: I think it is. I think it's especially true for teachers because you are always taking up this notion of "you have your whole lives in front of you" and meanwhile yours is ticking away behind you. Why it happens to Emily in this novel during this particular year of her life is not so much a product of her growing older, but because of this perfect storm of characters. She has put off her future for too long, so it's less of a journey into her past as much as it is a time that she's finally acknowledging that she has a life that she needs to lead. And it's about time she took a big risk. And by golly she takes a bunch.
KGB: She sure does. So I know you grew up in Southern California. Is there a reason beyond that for why you set both of your novels there?
LC: Actually, the other one was set in Alaska.
KGB: Right! Alaska with the bomb. The bomb guy.
LC: 'Alaska with the bomb'. That's nice. That's a nice way of summarizing it.
KGB: Okay, so that question's irrelevant. Scratch it from the record.
LC: No, I'm sorry, it's taped.
KGB: Fine. So....what are you working on now?
LC: I'm working on a story about a red bar in New York City.
LC: No, I'm working on a novel about siblings right now. Four siblings. I think everyone is interested in people and how they come together and connect, and this is a novel with people connecting across the age divide. I'm interested in what people do when the bonds that tie them together are family. But what the novel will actually be...I'll never know until it's done.
- Anya Yurchyshyn, KGB Bar Lit Intern