Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling author of thirteen novels, including the upcoming BECOMING MRS. LEWIS – The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. A finalist in the Townsend Prize for Fiction, an Indie Next Pick, an OKRA pick, and a multiple nominee for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Novel of the Year, Patti is a frequent speaker at luncheons, book clubs and women’s groups. The mother of three children, she now lives in both Mountain Brook, Alabama and Bluffton, South Carolina with her husband.
More About Patti
Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling author of Losing the Moon, Between the Tides; Where the River Runs; When Light Breaks; Between the Tides; The Art of Keeping Secrets; Driftwood Summer; The Perfect Love Song: A Holiday Story; Coming Up for Air; And Then I Found You; The Stories We Tell; The Idea of Love, The Bookshop at Water’s End and Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
A finalist in the Townsend Prize for Fiction, an Indie Next Pick, an OKRA pick, and a multiple nominee for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Novel of the Year, Patti is published in numerous languages. Her articles and essays have appeared in Southern Living, PINK, Writer’s Digest, Portico Magazine, Birmingham Magazine and more.
Her essays can also be found in anthologies and collections such as Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy; Southern Writers Writing, and State of the Heart. Patti is a frequent speaker at luncheons, book clubs and women’s groups.
Growing up in Philadelphia as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Patti learned early the value of storytelling. At the age of twelve, her family moved to South Florida where Patti found the sanctuary of libraries and began her slow but steady journey into understanding the power of story to navigate confusing times in life.
Patti attended Auburn University for her undergraduate work, and Georgia State University for her graduate degree. Once a Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist, she now writes full time. The mother of three children, she now lives in both Mountain Brook, Alabama and Bluffton, South Carolina with her husband.
PCH: I grew up with my nose in a book and have always been fascinated with beautifully told stories. I also grew up as a preacher’s daughter, which is nothing more than listening to the same truth being told over and over in story. I slowly came to realize the power was not in the lecture, but the well-told story. My daughter is the one who reminded me I wanted to write novels. When she was six years old she told me she wanted to be writer of books and this spurned me on to my original childhood dream.
My first novel—actually a memoir—was called “My Life” and was never published. I wrote it when I was twelve years old. Although I’ve been writing ever since then, professionally I pursued a medical career. I am a nurse with a Master’s degree in Child-Health.
Seven years ago, I finally understood that writing is all I’ve ever really wanted to do. When I knew I had no choice—that writing was a necessary part of who I was—I pursued it as seriously as I did my master’s degree. It became essential that I take classes, read books on the writing craft and actually write every day. The path I took to publication required belief in my work, along with persistence, courage, faith, serendipity and a willingness to study the craft of writing. The catalyst for each step of the journey was the decision—the commitment to write.
I write because I believe in the power of story! My Daddy is a lively Irish preacher and I grew up understanding the innate power of story. When I was a child, I was a book-worm, ignoring all those who made fun of me while my nose was stuck in the Narnia Series. I’ve always used story to make sense of my life. The driving force behind my writing is the hope that my story will touch someone’s heart, that I will tell a story that will tell a ‘truth’…and of course my deadlines are a wonderful driving force.
Q: Reviewers have compared your novels to the works of Anne Rivers Siddons, Pat Conroy, Mary Alice Monroe, and Patricia Gaffney. What is it like to join the ranks of such illustrious writers?
PCH: I am humbled and grateful to be compared to such outstanding writers. They are masters at crafting sentences rich in description and meaning. I can only hope that the comparisons arise from the deeper, shared truths we each explore in our novels. Or I can only hope they aren’t offended.
Q: Your writing has a lyrical quality, what I call “a dance,” a rhythm that charms the reader. It also convinces the reader that these people and places are real. How do you do that?
PCH: Wow, What a beautiful compliment. The writer spends hours and hours in solitary work trying to craft a sentence and when someone calls the writing “lyrical”, the heart sings (or at least mine does because my voice definitely can’t sing). I’m not sure how it’s done or if I do it all beyond the daily act of reading and writing, reading and writing – almost like an obsession. And, as for the characters being real – well, they are when I’m writing them, when they are moving and talking and living on the page in front of me.
Q: What does it take to be a good novelist in today’s world?
PCH: Guts, courage, belief in your work and of course…shameless self-confidence. There are so many people out there who will tell us why we CAN’T write, there aren’t very many voices telling us how we CAN write. If I knew what it took to be a good novelist, I’d never waver from it, but I believe the best we can do is tell the truth as we feel it. I also think the novelist needs to be very aware of the kind of book he/she wants to write. It is so easy in today’s marketplace to get swayed by what is hot and what is not—what’s on the ‘lists’. A writer must spend a lot of time searching their own heart about what kind of stories they want to tell.
A new writer must also spend the time and energy to learn about the publishing business.
Q: What is your favorite quote?
PCH: “It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot (1819-1880). And anything C.S. Lewis ever said.
Q: What is one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
PCH: One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to always check my children’s pockets for crayons before I put the clothes in the dryer. Other than that—I think my life lesson over the past few years has been to learn and relearn that the more I attempt to fall into other people’s plans for my life, the more God’s purpose for my life is blocked and remains unfulfilled.
Q: Can you offer any advice to the aspiring writer who wants to be published?
PCH: First I believe you must have an innate and driving passion for writing, the written word and story. After that, I believe that the biggest contributor to one’s work finally getting published is a recognition that there is an art and a craft—in other words there is the deeply creative aspect of writing (ever notice the word art is inside the word heart?), but one must also learn the mechanics, the business, the rules of submission and the technical aspects of writing. Educate yourself on the business of publishing and the specifics of the kind of novel you want to write (the genre).
All writers receive rejections because there are so many different opinions and tastes out there in the publishing world. The key is taking the rejections and using them to your advantage (ex: improving your work, finding the right editor). And if writing is your passion, calling and gift – never give up.
And of course, write and write, read and read, and then write some more.
Q: What urged you to change careers from a Clinical nurse specialist to southern fiction writer?
PCH: I tell this story because it is inspiring and true: I was playing doll house with my daughter (she was six years old at the time) and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told me “I will be a writer of books.” Now she didn’t say she wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize or be on the New York Times Bestseller list, she just said she wanted to write books. It was a huge “aha” moment for me and a life-changing moment as I decided, right there on her bedroom floor, that I was going to finally do this thing – I was going to write a book.
Q: How do you fit in time for being a mom and a best-selling author? Is there a secret to this?
PCH:Everyone has a passion. Mine is writing and telling stories. Motherhood comes first and it is the biggest joy in my life, but writing is a calling and an important role incorporated into woman, wife and mother. I always say that I don’t ‘find’ time to write; I ‘make’ time to write. Which means I sacrifice some other time-spending endeavors to sit down and write (or edit).
Now when I discover the real secret, I’ll shout it from a mountaintop! I only know how to go day-by-day, believing that my beautiful, raucous family is my priority and then moving on from that place to the writing which nourishes and inspires me.
I am often asked a question that—until now—I’ve been unable to answer. That question is, “How do you become to be a writer?” I’ve wanted to give a bullet-list or sure-fire plan, but I only stumbled over a few explanations like “Read more”, “Write more”, “Observe the world through wondering eyes.” And then finally, I realized that I had a step-by-step formula.
So here you go—How to Make a Writer.
Have her born on the first day of spring when day and night are equal lengths and the world is bursting with creativity.
Place her in a family that believes she is an airhead, mostly a dreamer. Have everyone constantly tell her, “Your head is in the clouds.” “What are you always thinking about?” “Join us here on earth” “You live in another world.”
This makes her a wonderer and as a writer there is nothing better to be than a wonderer.
Put that same child in a family that thinks she is a bit “strong willed” (which is just another word for stubborn). She will need this quality to continue to believe in make-believe.
Have her live with a very religious family (say, a family wherein the Dad is a preacher) that tells her all about God and Bible stories full of miracles. You see, miracles will make her believe that the world is malleable and full of possibilities. This is key to making up stories.
I mean, really, who gets to have their Dad baptize them in the River Jordan in Israel.
When she is twelve years old, make her move from the North to the South and then set her up for complete friendlessness. Make her go to a different school from 6th–10th grade, five years in a row, because she will eventually escape into books.
Give her a flowered diary with a key. Don’t try and read her diary, because she is just wrapping words around her world, and they don’t always make much sense. Really she hasn’t quite figured out the difference between lying and fiction.
(This is my real diary without the key—of course I lost the key)
Don’t give her anything to do during her childhood summers except wander forests, lakes and rivers. Let her only toy be a typewriter and art books. Let her only field trips be to the church or library (both of which harbor books of every kind).
Help her staple her “books” made of crooked pages and hand-colored covers.
Let her hide in Libraries but try really hard not to make fun of her for being a “bookworm,” because eventually she will own as many books as the library.
Make her go to five or six church services a week, because eventually she’ll stop listening and learn to daydream while it looks like she is paying attention.
Daydreaming is a fundamental skill for all writers.
Let her first love be fictional. For example: Ned Nickerson.
Don’t roll your eyes when she joins the Latin Club. There is no better place to fall in love with language than the Latin Club. There is no better place to fall in love with mythology. Stories built on stories. It is a wonder and a joy.
Pay for her to go to college in the south where she will meet the most wonderful people, and find a place where stories are more prolific than the truth. It is there that she will find “her people.”
Encourage her to be a nurse or doctor or almost any medical profession. She will then be a constant observer of the human condition and empathy will work its way into her words.
Make her get an advanced degree that requires writing a thesis, and not only a thesis, but one that will be published in the thrilling Neuroscience Nursing Magazine, gaining zero popularity among cool friends who read Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Nothing hones the value of “clarity” better than thesis writing.
After she is married, have her stay home with three children under five years old and have her read to them all the time. She will memorize Good Night Moon and Pat the Bunny, so when she asks her five-year old daughter what the daughter wants to be when she grows up, her daughter replies “a writer of books” and reminds the woman of her life-long dream to write.
Watch in slight amusement as she becomes obsessed with the written word and story, taking classes, writing in the wee hours of the morning. Whisper to one another, “What is she doing?” until finally she looks up and announces, “I am a writer.”
Now that you’ve made this writer, fashioned her from the clay of loneliness and story-obsession, go to her parties and book signings. But mostly let her be a dreamer who often lives in another world. Love her for just who she is—a strong-willed wonderer.
Oh, and one more thing:
Now that she is an author, allow her to use small pieces of her life inside her fictional stories so that the novels aren’t “true” but hold some “truth.”