How exactly does a girl from Dublin end up writing a western?
Over tea with PW on a rainy afternoon at her riverside cottage in Portland, Ore., Annie Callan recounts her journey from childhood in a bustling Irish household (she has seven siblings) to writing Taf (Cricket/Marcato), a coming-of-age tale set in the wilds of early 20th-century Oregon.
"I began writing as soon as I could hold a pencil," Callan recalls in a soft voice still resonant with the lilting cadences of her native country. "I'd turn a laundry bin upside down for a desk and make up stories. It was my greatest joy in life, and the one place where I felt I had a little power."
She stopped writing in her teens, a tumultuous time that found her running away from home with a friend to tour Europe. In her early 20s, Callan came to the United States (now 42, she recently became an American citizen), but it wasn't until she enrolled at Portland State University that she came back to writing. "It was like discovering my best friend again," she says.
Callan went on to earn a master's degree in poetry from Johns Hopkins University in 1988 and embarked on a series of writing-related jobs, from a stint at the Oregonian to media escort, consulting editor for Glimmer Train Press and writing teacher. She continued writing poetry all the while, and in 1995 published a book of poems, The Back Door, with local publisher Trask House Press. "But then I felt I had more I wanted to say, and it wouldn't all fit unless I wrote epic poetry," she quips.
So Callan expanded into memoir, publishing personal essays in such literary magazines as Agni and Boulevard, and was anthologized in Resurrecting Grace: Stories of Catholic Childhoods (Beacon Press). In 1997, she won a Heekin Foundation fellowship, through which she met her agent, Elaine Markson.
Callan spent the winter of 1998 as writer-in-residence at Fishtrap, a literary organization in Oregon's remote Wallowa County, where she was given a cabin and a small stipend in exchange for teaching at local schools. "I got interested in the Nez Perce Indians, especially the women, and thought I would write a short story," she says.
Then Taf "just appeared" on the page one day. "She had such a vital spirit," says Callan. "And her story was such an adventure--every morning I'd wake up and say, 'Okay, where are we going today?' "
As for her book's setting and themes, Callan laughingly admits, "It felt a little presumptuous for me, not even being a native, to write a western. But when I sent the book to my agent in the beginning and told her how I was feeling, she said, 'It's more Irish than you think, Annie.' And, too, the West is such a myth, even in the Irish psyche."
Markson sent the manuscript to several editors, one of whom suggested they try the young adult market. Callan's friend and fellow writer Jim Heynen recommended editor Marc Aronson, who was then at Holt. "Marc really liked the story, and said, 'Let's keep working on it,' " she says.
In July 2000, Callan was back in Dublin, teaching through a Johns Hopkins program, when she was hit by a truck while walking home and nearly killed. Months of hospitalization followed. There were a couple of bright spots, however. Portland bookstore Broadway Books (longtime fans who hosted Callan's recent book launch) sponsored a fund-raiser to help cover medical costs, and when Aronson moved to Cricket Books that fall to set up a new imprint, he took Callan with him. Taf went through numerous drafts, as Aronson helped Callan shape and refine it. "Marc has been a real champion of my work all along," she says.
The end result couldn't have been sweeter. "My dream as a child was to be Enid Blyton the second," says Callan. "She was my idol. I remember one time she had a new book out, and you know with a big family we didn't have a lot of money. My mum sent me shopping and I had three shillings change, and I just had to buy the book. Mum nearly killed me. She made me take it back, and I stood under the awning of the bookshop because it was pouring rain and read it straight through before I returned it. The feel of that book I'll never forget. And when I held Taf in my hands for the first time--it's still amazing to me that a story conjured from air and the gods becomes something you can actually hold--well, I just felt that I'd come full circle."
These days finds Callan still recuperating, but beginning to ease back into her normal routine (she "cobbles together a living" writing and teaching). She plans to revisit the landscape she explored in Taf for her second novel, picking up the story of two characters who appear toward the end of the book. Meanwhile, she's delighted that Taf is reaching a crossover audience.
"People of all ages seem to enjoy it," she says--including her 83-year-old landlady, whose response provided Callan with her favorite post-publication story. "She was late for a funeral because she couldn't put it down! And that's why I write, that thrill of reaching somebody, somewhere."