The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University

Mason Memories

Fenwick Magic

We were skidding across the water and tundra of remote southwestern Alaska in a lumbering, beat-up U.S. Postal Service hovercraft—the only one they have, and the only way people in ZIP Code 99609 get their mail—when the engine coughed.

I was sitting in the jump seat on the bridge, next to the pilot, who looked up, quite grave. “Sometimes, the spirits—the little people?—they try and mess with the hovercraft.” The copilot nodded silently and tightened his grip on the controls.

But I just sat back and smiled. I’d already seen something more magical than they could ever dream of.

Specifically, it was a dream of mine that began, fittingly, in a building on Mason’s Fairfax Campus where many students sleep—not the dorms, but Fenwick Library.

A graduate student in creative writing, I’d been researching the background of a short story I’d been writing. It was set in southwest Alaska, a place I’d never been. Letting my imagination take the lead, I’d put my characters in a canoe and had them follow one waterway to another, all the way to the sea. (I’d thought about a dogsled, but that seemed cliché. Besides, one of my professors, Susan Richards Shreve, had said she wasn’t much for pet stories.)

I leafed through the map drawers in Fenwick’s Government Documents Room, traveling across the continent quadrant by quadrant until I found the part of Alaska I was writing about. What if the map showed no water? Sure, I was writing fiction, but I wanted it to ring true.

But now came the moment of truth. I’ll never forget it: I peeled back one last map and uncovered the exact stretch of territory where I’d set my story—the entire page was paisleyed with ponds and streams and lakes. I made it to the ocean—my characters would, too.

That was the first bit of magic, finding that Fenwick had read my mind and produced that map for me. The second bit occurred aboard that hovercraft (my story had grown into a novel, and my research needs had outgrown Fenwick). Looking around, I saw that everything was magically as I’d described it. It was as though I’d written the landscape into life.

I owe Fenwick another debt as well. On my way out of the Government Document Room, I noticed a large book sprawled across a desk. The title struck me as odd: A Cloud Atlas of… it began. An atlas? For clouds? How could paper and ink pin down something that was always moving, changing? The book turned out to be a kind of cloud field guide, with pictures identifying various cloud types, but the notion stuck with me.

So when it came time to title my thesis and, later, the novel that grew out of it, I thought back to Fenwick, and typed the words, “The Cloud Atlas.” Two years later when I was preparing the absolutely final draft to send to the publisher, I paged to the end of the document and typed a few more words: a thank you to my professors Susan Richards Shreve, Richard Bausch, Alan Cheuse, Stephen Goodwin, and Beverly Lowry; the M.F.A. Program; and, last but not least, a quite magical place, George Mason University’s Fenwick Library.

Liam Callanan, M.F.A. in Creative Writing ’01, still lives and writes in Northern Virginia. His novel The Cloud Atlas will be published in February 2004. For more information, visit

Do you fondly remember certain places within the George Mason community that exemplified the “college experience”? Were you befriended by a mentor or professor at George Mason who influenced your life? If so, tell us about it. Send your submission to Alumni Affairs, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, MS 3B3, Fairfax, VA 22030. Please keep submissions to a maximum of 500 words.