This Milwaukee Author’s New Novel Takes Readers to Rome

Liam Callanan talks about his new novel, his creative process, and why Milwaukee is the best city for writers.  


IN A FIT OF INSPIRATION, local author Liam Callanan wrote the prologue to his new novel, When in Rome, while riding a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai in 2018. The international setting was fitting for Callanan, whose acclaimed novels, including Paris by the Book, explore locations around the world through intense character studies. We spoke with the author, who also leads UW-Milwaukee’s creative writing program, about his work. 

When in Rome follows an American woman trying to save a struggling convent in Italy. What inspired this story?   

After the pandemic, a lot of people were asking, “How should I spend my life in the best way? What is this life supposed to be?” I used to live near a convent in Virginia, and when I moved to Milwaukee, I saw all these old convents around town. I was always struck by the history. I grew up Catholic, so I know many people who went into the priesthood or took vows as a religious sister, and I was always really amazed at the journey that they took. I thought that the best way to consider those questions was to explore it through the lives of these religious sisters, alongside people who aren’t religious as well.   


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What is your writing process like? 

Well, first I tear all my hair out. Really, I start with place. My writing is often driven by a sense of place, whether it’s Alaska or Southern California or, in this book, Rome. I look around and see what this place is like, what moves through that space. I’m very much a write-everyday person. I don’t do anything unusual other than take my shoes off because I feel if I kept my shoes on I would run away from the keyboard.  

 Do you think Milwaukee is a good city for writers? 

I think it’s the best city for writers. I always make my argument that without Milwaukee, there would be no 20th- or 21st-century literature because, well, this is where the typewriter was invented. I really think we punch way above our weight in terms of the number of great writers who have come from here. I find Milwaukee a very supportive community.  You can really access the kind of support and guidance and fellowship that doesn’t necessarily come from a larger place. 

When in Rome is out March 14. Callanan will read from it at Boswell Book Co. that day. 

Liam Callanan; Photo by Aliza Baran

Culture By the Numbers

Liam Callanan estimates he spent 5,400 Hours composing When in Rome (although he admits 3,999 were probably spent staring out the window). 

Liam Callanan’s Spring Arts Event Pick

Craig Santos Perez Reading   


Perez is an Indigenous poet, scholar and activist who is coming to UWM to read from his work. “He’s an amazing, world-class poet,” Callanan says.   



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.