Writers@Work: Writing a Spiritual Novel

March 14, 2023


Note From Rochelle


Dear Writers,


We had a very productive writing session yesterday. I am hoping you can join us next Monday for our Write Now! Write Here Write in. We’ll start with a short reading and then write for 45 minutes. We’ll end the session with another dose of inspiration–and that’s it. You’ll leave with work completed. You can sign up here: Write Now! Write Here Session.


Today I’m interviewing Liam Callanan about his terrific new book, When in Rome. If you live in the Milwaukee area, you can see Liam talk about his book in person at Boswell Books. https://www.boswellbooks.com/upcoming-events


Happy writing,

Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach




Tell us about your new book, WHEN IN ROME.

It’s a cookbook without recipes! Actually, it’s nothing of the sort, but I always wanted to write such a thing. What the novel is, truly, is an exploration of one woman’s unexpected opportunity to start over at midlife, a chance to save a struggling convent in the Eternal City, and the dramatic re-emergence of an old flame. I like Booklist’s take: “If Eat, Pray, Love was organized in a different order, it might feel a bit like [this] introspective and genuine exploration of the sacrifices and opportunities that come with a new outlook on life. Taking a wide view of love of all types — platonic, spiritual, romantic, geographic — When in Rome should appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson, Kate Weinberg, and Emma Straub.” (I should be so lucky.)


Many of your books have spiritual themes. Can you talk about how you weave spirituality into narratives without giving the reader the feeling that they’re being preached to?

Thanks for asking about this. Spirituality is something that just keeps coming in, book after book, not always with me planning it. I definitely don’t preach, and I’m not above a quiet sense of humor, but what ultimately seems to work (for me) is not being performative or showy about it, but sincere.


I’m working on the third draft of a novel and keep finding more things to fix. As a novelist and a teacher, when you see that a novel isn’t working—what advice do you give to writers (and yourself)?

This book went through so many drafts — wildly different, wholly new drafts. Sometimes you need to read the book itself to see what it’s telling you. In an early draft of this novel, the convent that’s at the heart of the book burned down at the end. It took a while, but I finally realized that the manuscript was telling me to burn that draft, so I did. (Electronically.) More practically, I always say it’s important to finish a draft, even if it’s a failed draft. It needs to teach you something, usually how to write the next, better draft.


You teach and write and parent and manage to show up to conferences and book signings. What are your tips for writing a book when you’re juggling so many things?

I used to say, “write every day,” but as the pace gets hectic, I sometimes say, “just bear witness to it.” Open the draft, futz with it, stir the pot before putting the lid back on. My average is one good writing day out of 10, but that good day only comes if I’ve properly suffered the other 9.


What are you reading now?

My classmate James Hannaham’s extraordinary DIDN’T NOBODY GIVE A SHIT WHAT HAPPENED TO CARLOTTA.










Credit: Patrick Manning

About the author. Liam Callanan is a writer and teacher. His novel, Paris by the Book, a national bestseller, was translated into multiple languages and won the 2019 Edna Ferber Prize. Read more about Liam at his website. https://www.liamcallanan.com/




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