My Book Started Before I Knew What It Would Be
Liam Callanan on the Family Story That Changed Everything
As the story goes, my first cousin twice removed Maurice was a successful salesman in Jazz Age Chicago. A philosophy graduate of the University of Chicago, he was quite the man about town, always driving cars that were the envy of his set.
Every year, he’d make a pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby, where he drank and wagered heavily. But after the Derby ended, he’d make another, shorter pilgrimage, just 50 miles south of Churchill Downs, to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery founded in 1848. There he would recuperate and pray and atone. When he was ready, he’d head back to Chicago.
One year, instead of telling the abbot good-bye, Maurice told him that he didn’t want to go back home. He wanted to stay. Become a monk. Join the Order.
The abbot cautiously agreed, but no one thought Maurice would really stay. So instead of selling Maurice’s fancy car—the monks there take a vow of stability, which means, essentially, that they never leave—the abbot put it up on blocks, preserving it until the day when Maurice would (surely!) shake clear his delusion and leave the way he came.
He never did. Eventually, the abbot sold the car. And Maurice, who’d by then taken the religious name Brother Kevin, lived out his days in rural Kentucky, many of them alongside a monk whose story is much better known, Thomas Merton. When Brother Kevin died at 98 years old, he was the oldest Trappist monk in the world.
The monks own an old motel across the highway from their monastery and use it to house monks’ families on the one occasion each year each monk is allowed to receive visitors. By the time I got to go along, Brother Kevin was already ancient, not much for speech. We were introduced, he nodded and smiled.
Each day of our stay there, I woke up at 5 a.m. and made my way across the highway and into the chapel for prayers. I climbed up into the visitor’s gallery and peered down as the monks filed in. I watched and wondered. Why? That car! That life! Why had he chosen to start all over?
The “starting over” genre has particular power for anyone who works with words. I myself will listen to any TED talk or podcast or monk with a story to tell about starting afresh. I find such stories exhilarating, and also terrifying.
When I finished my first novel, I visited my publisher to sign advance copies. My editor’s boss poked her head in the room I was using and asked a simple question that made it feel like the 34 floors beneath me had just disappeared: “So what’s the next book?”
Writers find new stories in different ways. I know one who goes “shopping,” driving down the street picking out things he’ll use in his next book: that tree, this car, the house with the bright, sunny, plant-filled porch and the cozy, curtained third-floor window that still bears scorch marks around its frame from…what? I know another writer who goes for long walks, not shopping, but ruminating. Sometimes he walks so far, he has to get someone to come pick him up because he’ll never make it back home otherwise.
Me, I travel, like Maurice. And every time someone has asked me some version of the “what’s next?” question, I’ve hit the road to start over.
A few years back, I was in Rome with my oldest, then a high school junior. I’d cooked up an article idea: colleges in Europe where the language of instruction was English but the local language was not. (It never saw print, but: ask me about the University of the Arctic sometime!) We toured some schools in Rome, sweated through some sightseeing, and when it was time to turn in, found ourselves at the doorstep of the Donna Camilla Savelli, a small baroque fortress of a hotel high in Trastevere.
We were hot, tired—and embarrassed: some policemen had just yelled at us for cooling our feet in the grand Acqua Paola, a massive 16th-century fountain that overlooks the city. (Overlooks, and, we learned, provides drinking water to the city: hence the scolding.)
We stood in silence while the receptionist looked for our reservation. From a small door to our left, a woman in a religious habit emerged, crossed the lobby, and disappeared through another door. The receptionist batted not an eye. I asked if there was a religious meeting at the hotel, but the receptionist shook her head.
No, she said, the entire hotel had been a monastery for women since the 17th century, but in recent years, their ranks had dwindled so much that they decided to sell off most of the property. A few of the nuns were still living in a secluded corridor.
I wondered about those women, and about the time, coming soon, when they’d have to start over.
I didn’t know it, but my next book started then. We left Rome not long after, but part of me stayed there—stays there still—wondering at that story. Like my Uncle Maurice, those women had, once upon a time, left one life behind to join a community—and then, decades later, their community left them. What would it be like to start life over a second time, and where would you do it? In Rome? Kentucky?
And what if someone had gone and sold the car you used to get there in the first place?
I wrote a novel to find out. And now, like those sisters, like Uncle Maurice exhausted from his Derby days and standing outside the monastery’s door, I’m trying to figure out what to do next.
When In Rome by Liam Callanan is now available from Dutton.