Author Liam Callanan’s Work Is Animated by His Catholic Faith

Choosing the right path, which was sparked by a chaplain’s letter, informs much of author’s narrative fiction.

Liam Callanan’s latest novel, ‘When in Rome,’ is due out in March.
Liam Callanan’s latest novel, ‘When in Rome,’ is due out in March. (photo: Courtesy photos)

There seems to be a lot of discernment going on among the protagonists in writer Liam Callanan’s growing body of fiction.

The author of four novels and a book of short stories, the Wisconsin-based writer and educator often builds his narratives around a central character’s struggle to find the right path in life. Whether it’s a religious vocation or a response to another kind of calling, Callanan’s characters are driven by a sense of searching, discovery and reflection on choices made.

Callanan, 55, is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He was born in Washington, D.C., and spent his formative years in the Los Angeles area. He later obtained a bachelor’s degree at Yale and a master’s degree from Georgetown.

Despite the presence of priests, religious sisters and struggling lay Catholics in his fiction, Callanan is reluctant to describe himself as a Catholic writer.

“I wonder if the title — ‘Catholic writer’ — is more readily bestowed than claimed,” Callanan told the Register in a recent interview. “I’m not sure I’m worthy of the title. I’m a writer who’s Catholic.”

Callanan did not set out to become a writer of fiction, Catholic or not. Shortly after embarking on a career in corporate communications, however, Callanan felt a call to do something more serious with his writing.

He cites a letter he received from a former chaplain at the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale as a turning point in his career.

“The chaplain’s note said something like, ‘You can serve God or money, but not both,’” Callanan said. “And by ‘serving God,’ he [the chaplain] meant use your gifts, honor your talent and pursue your art.”

The chaplain’s advice, coupled with a heartbreaking family tragedy — the death of a daughter shortly after birth — set Callanan and his wife on a new path together.

“That event scrambled everything for us,” he said. “The brevity of her brief, beautiful life reminded us of the brevity of ours. We traveled; we prayed; we explored. And then we got to work.”

Callanan was 30 years old when he turned to writing fiction. Callanan’s first novel, The Cloud Atlas, was released in 2004. The debut novel describes the experiences of young, naïve and Catholic Louis Belk, who signs up as a bomb-disposal specialist tracking down Japanese balloon bombs on the coast of Alaska in the waning years of the Second World War. Japan’s use of balloon bombs is a little known incident in World War II histories, and Callanan’s evocative rendering of that mysterious time and place makes for compelling storytelling.

Much of the narrative is drawn from Belk’s return to the Alaskan shores after 30 years of civilian life. Now an aging Catholic priest, Belk’s reminiscences hint at author Callanan’s recurring themes of searching, discovery and pondering one’s true path in this life.

Towards the end of the novel, Belk muses on his decision to enter the priesthood, especially after having witnessed in Alaska the influence of Native spirituality.

“Please understand, though: I have never debased my vows,” says the reflective Belk. “I do not pretend to pray to God while secretly in contact with the spirits of whales or walruses. I render unto God what is God’s, but in my prayers to Him, I have always asked that He make me aware to all things unseen, not simply His mysteries.”

Callanan’s latest novel, When in Rome (Dutton, Penguin Random House), is due for release in March. This book tells the story of Claire Murphy, a former nun who leaves religious life to take up work in commercial real estate. After several years of successful but unfulfilling real estate work, the middle-aged Claire takes on a life-altering project.

It involves the property sale of the Rome-based Order of St. Gertrude (Il Convento di Santa Gertrudis), a dwindling order of American-born teaching nuns facing a decline in vocations and the possible shut down of their entire community. To better deal with the protracted negotiations of the convent sale, Claire travels to Rome and takes up residence with the St. Gertrude sisters.

Claire’s time in Rome becomes a retreat of sorts. She is reminded of her experience as a religious sister in Milwaukee, and despite having been married and divorced after leaving the convent, and a mother, Claire feels a near irresistible urge to join the religious community and live out her final years in the Eternal City.

Callanan describes Claire’s dilemma as the novel approaches its gentle denouement.

“And while Claire hadn’t necessarily heard God calling out to her, wasn’t thinking all the time about becoming a nun some sign of God saying something? Wasn’t wanting it enough? Sometimes you got on the train just as it was leaving; sometimes you got to the station early and waited for it to arrive. Wasn’t all that mattered that you were on the right track?”

Callanan was quite open when asked if character Claire Murphy’s discernment in any way mirrored the author’s own search for a more meaningful way to honor his art.

“I do think so, though I’m not sure I was self-aware or self-possessed enough to see that at the time,” he said. “In some ways [a sense of discernment] is in my most recent book, When in Rome, and more important, the women religious I talked to during the research process taught me what a vocation really is. I understood that the work I do — writing and teaching — didn’t make sense unless I understood it as a vocation, a calling. That’s what gets me through the bad days: remembering that I’m called to this work. And like the Jesuits who taught me, I’m not doing it alone. Faith helps me bear the lows and honor the highs.”

Callanan also admits to being “fascinated” with religious discernment, and he is quick to ask anyone who has taken vows how it all came about.

Although Callanan has reservations about being identified as a “Catholic writer,” there is no doubt the faith has influenced his development as a storyteller, just as it has with bestselling novelist Dean Koontz. “I’ll say that one way being Catholic informs my writing — and perhaps vice versa — is that I’m always aware that I’m part of a larger community,” Callanan explained. “When I go to Mass, I’m aware that millions of others around the globe are also at Mass that day, even that hour, and that I’m part of this unseen community. In a similar way, writing a book is like entering a wide community. I see some of that community at readings, but for the most part, these readers are invisible to me. But I know they’re there, and that without them, the book doesn’t exist. Readers complete a text.”

In addition to his appreciation for fiction as a creative force to uncover truths and deeper understanding, Callanan also promotes poetry to his students and the general public. He is co-founder of Poetry Everywhere, a program that began by featuring short poems on video monitors for passengers riding the Milwaukee transit system. Although the animated poetry creations now exist primarily online, Callanan is pleased to have played a part in making contemporary poetry more accessible through new media.

As a writer and word craftsman, Callanan is now gathering the materials for his next work.

“I always say there are two phases to a writing project,” he told the Register. “The first is putting the clay on the wheel; second, taking away everything that isn’t a bowl or a plate — or a book. I’m gathering clay right now.”

Callanan said his books would be rated PG-13 if made into a movie — for adults, not children. He says there is occasional salty language and adult situations, but it is not at all gratuitous.

Whatever the result of Callanan’s next project, it is almost certain to include references to time, place and the unfolding of people’s lives. “I like looking at what time does to and for a character, what sort of wisdom, if any, comes from the passage of years,” Callanan said. “In some ways, all my books are coming-of-age stories, even though my characters most often ‘come of age’ quite late. Some people don’t realize the gifts they have, or realize that they are gifts, until later in life. I’d include myself in that.”

Mike Mastromatteo is a writer, editor and book reviewer from Toronto.