9 January, 2019
Personal Interview with author Patti Callahan, author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis (historical fiction) and 13 contemporary fiction novels
by Karin Pendley Koser
QU MFA 2019
[Full disclosure: Patti and I have known each other casually for about ten years but aren’t in regular touch due to our full lives and physical distance after she moved to Birmingham from Atlanta shortly after we met]
In our interview together, New York Times best-selling author Patti Callahan (Henry) comes across as both comfortably settled into — and articulate about — her process and structure as a writer, as well as quite psychically tuned in to the complexities of the human condition. In a short time, we go deep into how the back story, and subconscious/shadow side of a character, can inform the character’s pain and struggle like nothing else.
Here are the highlights of our hour spent talking just before New Year’s 2019 about Callahan’s first historical fiction novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which debuted to both critical acclaim and strong sales in the fall of 2018. It is, in Patti’s words, the improbable love story between writer/poet/author Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.
KP: You made a big leap with your historical fiction novel that debuted October 2, 2018. Or did you?
PC:My previous twelve fictional novels (written as Patti Callahan Henry) are narrative stories from a woman’s point of view. The process of writing such a story didn’t change with my transition to writing about a real person. I typically focus on the transformational journey of my main character as I did with Joy.
KP: What sorts of questions did you ask of Joy?
PC: I asked the same questions of Joy as I do my other main characters.
What does she want? Why can’t she get what she wants? What will she get that’s better or worse than what she wants? What is the fatal flaw or physical block that she must overcome to get what she wants? The misbelief as it were.
KP: Without giving too much away, how will the answers you found inform what your readers discover about the complex and interesting person that was Joy Davidman.
PC: The key thing I uncovered was that Joy had a misbelief: she firmly believed without even knowing it that she was completely unworthy of anything truly good or loving without having to prove herself. Her parents, particularly her mother, favored her beautiful cousin and her looks over Joy’s inner beauties and strengths. As a result, she grew up believing she could only prove her worth with her intellect and wit and by sacrificing herself to others. That landed her in a rough marriage, though I also learned that her husband, writer William (Bill) Gresham, was not a black and white villain. He was charming, smart and brilliant and they had some good times together despite his alcoholism and philandering. He took advantage of Joy’s sense of obligation, though. It takes two for that to happen. There were times I wanted to leave out some of Joy’s darker side to make her kinder/better/nicer but she wouldn’t let me.
KP: Do you think the repression of Joy’s true self and feelings in the name of that duty and obligation came to haunt her subconsciously?
PC: Great question, I never thought about that specifically but as we’re talking about it, yes, I can see that subverting her own desires to those of others, particularly Bill’s, was destructive to her soul and, at times, caused her to overreact and either spiral into depression and illness and, to even blow up in anger. It may have also had something to do with her health issues, which were significant. We know so much more now about emotional stress than we did in the 50s.
KP: What led to Joy’s ultimate, but brief, time of great happiness?
PC: I tried to write Joy’s story from the key of empathy, rather than from what other people said or thought about her. However, I think during her pen pal relationship with C.S. Lewis and after meeting him, she found someone with a great deal of patience and compassion who validated her awareness that her life with Bill was not sustainable. He both celebrated her intellect and her very being, gently guiding her to know that she deserved so much more than she was allowing herself. Together, they both discovered that a full and complete form of mature love was in their grasp.
KP: How did Joy appear on your radar?
PC: Well I had read several of C.S. Lewis’s books and novels and was a big fan. I wondered about the woman whose death so undid the great writer Lewis that he wrote an entire book about it – A Grief Observed.
Also, I spend a lot of time with a tribe of women writers who have supported me on my writing journey over the last 20 years and one of them asked me if I could write about anything I wanted to what would it be? Her question brought to consciousness for me what was swimming around in my subconscious for a while – to write about the woman C.S. Lewis so fiercely loved.
KP: Talk about the research you did.
PC: I found so many resources available to me: Joy’s own prolific writing – her essays, letters, poems, books, as well as her biography. The Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois which houses a collection of C.S. Lewis’s works. I met with Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, which was so helpful, and traveled in her footsteps in the US and the UK. I used all that to help me create a historical timeline for the novel, as well as to inform the dialogue that I imagined would be most closely accurate to the characters. That was very important to me.
KP: But you kept this work a secret; why?
PC: For so many reasons. For my first foray into historical fiction, I didn’t want anyone to control it, neither my process, timing or the direction of the story. I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. I still have contracts for other novels and was working on those at the same time.
KP: It all makes sense, that and your use of your birth name, Patti Callahan.
PC: Yes, my other novels published by Penguin under my full name Patti Callahan Henry fall squarely into the contemporary fiction genre, whereas my publisher for Becoming Mrs. Lewis and I wanted to strongly signal a genre change, so I went with Harper Collins.
KP: Can we expect Patti Callahan to write more in the historical fiction category?
PC: In a sense, yes. I am working on novel that blends a timeline of contemporary fiction with a tragic historic event; Penguin will publish this one in 2020 0r 2021. Before that, this June, a new contemporary fiction novel – the favorite daughter – returns my readers to the fictional South Carolina coastal town of Water’s End.
KP: How are you so successfully prolific? 14 novels published in 15 years?
PC: Thank you. I write in between the spaces of a busy life; I have three children and a granddaughter now (three months old) and love to go on book tours as well as to writing workshops and retreats. When I sit down to write when I’m home, it’s usually in a specific place – a desk, and done in several hour increments over a regular period. Every writer’s process needs to be unique to his or her writing style and other obligations. I’m very passionate about what I do and I try to make it work.
KP: Any parting words for us about Joy?
I took a leap into the historical fiction genre, challenging both myself and, in a sense, Joy Davidman. I’m thrilled at the reception my readers have had to Becoming Mrs. Lewis and during my tours across the country. It’s been a bonus to find out what an amazing, talented, fiery, audacious woman Joy was. I’m honored that I found a way to “know her” and to put her story front and center since it’s historically been overshadowed by that of her last husband and writing partner, C.S. Lewis. She taught me so much and I am grateful to her for that.