WomensHistoryReads interview: Patti Callahan Henry

Like readers, authors don't always stick to a single genre. The siren call of a particular woman from history can inspire anyone, including a New York Times bestselling author with a dozen contemporary novels already under her belt. I was delighted to hear that Patti Callahan Henry (writing as Patti Callahan in this case) will be releasing her first work of historical fiction, inspired by the life of Joy Davidman -- and even more delighted to share her Q&Q&Q&A with you!

 Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Patti: The fiery poet, novelist and writer, Joy Davidman (C. S. Lewis’s wife) once asked, “If we should grow brave what in the world would ever become of us?” and then she set out to answer that question with her life. Although there have been many fabulous women who have inspired me all through my life, all through my writing career (most notably Anne Rivers Siddons) and all through my life journey, it was Joy Davidman who inspired me to set my pen to Historical Fiction for my thirteenth novel. I wanted to know her, to tell her story, to bring her out from the shadowlands of history where she had been relegated to the dying wife of C. S. Lewis. Born in New York City and raised by strict middle European immigrant parents, how was she ever to know or fall in love with an Oxford don in England? Her courageous transformation so inspired me that I set out to write about her journey. While I wrote about how she changed her life, I slowly began to alter the way I approached the page and a story. The research alone freed me to understand how much we owe those women who have come before us, those who had cleared the way with their courage in whatever form that might take. 

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Patti: Ariel Lawhon’s I WAS ANASTASIA blew my mind and kept me enthralled with every twist. Writing historical fiction isn’t just about imagining things around a true event; it’s about capturing the time and the idiosyncrasies of the characters who live in that time. Ariel does it astoundingly well. The best books are the ones where we enter the story not fully understanding where we are going but immediately being willing to be taken to wherever that may be. This novel does just that and more. I was finishing my novel when I read this book in galley form and it made me want to dig deeper into my own narrative of Joy.

Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Patti: Once a woman has become a known figure by either association with her husband or by biography or movie, it is difficult to shake the mythology surrounding that woman. Who is she really? Who is she beyond the stories and the rumors and the misunderstandings and judgements? One must dig deep below the surface stories and beyond the cliches that have been told over and over about her. The challenge is to understand as well as one can the woman’s own psyche with her original material. BUT this is also the exciting part —to slowly unearth, like a detective or an archeologist, the true bones of her life and journey beyond what has been told about her. The challenge and the excitement are intricately tied together; to fully immerse oneself in the demands of research is to also experience the thrill of discovering a “real” person who changes all of us with her courageous journey. 

And a question for you: When you are setting out to write your historical fiction, which do you dive into first — the time period or the character? Or both at the same time? 

Greer: Usually the character comes to mind first -- she's the inspiration -- but as soon as I know the time period, that's the priority of my research. I have to learn as much as I can about the setting. Not just what they wore and how they got around, though that's always fun, but everything from the prevailing societal rules of the time to whether a particular area of the country would be electrified to what was on the menu at a particular restaurant in the year I'm writing about. When I'm developing a character I can always improvise and invent along the way. But there are experts in the world who know far more than I do about any particular period I could write in, so I need to get it right for them, as well as for readers who count on me to draw an accurate and compelling world for them to get lost in.

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