ATLANTA LIVING & ARTS By Suzanne Van Atten, For the AJC October 7, 2021
Friends & Fiction authors use pandemic downtime to write two books in a year.
Mary Kay Andrews, who publishes a blockbuster beach read every summer, has just surprised fans with a bonus book this fall.
Last May she published the New York Times bestseller “The Newcomer,” a mystery about a woman who discovers her sister’s murder in a Manhattan high-rise and hides from the killer with her 4-year-old niece at a seaside motel in Florida. And last week, she delivered to her fans an early Christmas present called “The Santa Suit” (St. Martin’s Press, $19.99). It’s a heartwarming novella about a divorced woman named Ivy Perkins who decides to start her life over in a small North Carolina town where she buys a century-old, falling-down farmhouse sight unseen.
The story has all the elements of a Hallmark movie or cozy mystery — minus the dead body. While cleaning out a closet in her new home, Ivy discovers a beautifully made, red velvet Santa suit. Inside a pocket is a child’s letter to Santa, asking him to bring her father home from the war. That’s all it takes to set Ivy on a quest to find out if the little girl’s wish came true. In the process Ivy befriends the town’s quirky characters and gets caught up in their messy lives.
Anybody who follows Andrews on social media knows the author loves decorating homes, preferably using things she finds at yard sales. So, it’s not surprising that most of her books, including “The Santa Suit,” contain some element of what she calls “cottage porn.”“I think it’s part of my DNA,” she said.
But Andrews’ personal experiences with the internet also found their way into her latest book.
“I started thinking about this character wanting to invent herself and getting a total do-over on her life,” said Andrews. “One of my hobbies, or my secret vice, is looking at old houses online on Zillow or Realtor.com. And I could see Ivy doing that when she decides she needs to change her life.”
In a comic subplot involving one of Ivy’s new friends, Andrews explores another aspect of the internet.
“I get all these creepy guys trying to follow me on Instagram and they always have fake names and they’re always Air Force generals, flight surgeons, veterinarians, single dads,” said Andrews. “I thought, what if I had a young girl who’s kind of naïve and she meets a guy online and she kind of fudges about who she is and what she looks like.”
Photo Credit: Bud Johnson Photography
Andrews isn’t the only author with local ties who will deliver a bonus book this year.
Last March, Patti Callahan published the historical novel “Surviving Savannah,” about a woman who survives the sinking of a luxury steamship in 1838.
And on Oct. 19, she releases “Once Upon a Wardrobe” (Harper Collins, $24.99), a historical novel about C.S. Lewis’ childhood and how he came to create Narnia in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
The book marks the author’s second time writing about Lewis. Her 2018 novel “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” was a USA Today bestseller.
“It wasn’t really my fascination with Lewis that got me to write ‘Becoming Mrs. Lewis,’ it was my fascination with her because she was (so fierce) and so inspiring to me,” said Callahan. “And yet, when I was writing that book, I did so much research on him, I could see all these breadcrumbs of his life that I knew were in ‘The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe.’ I got to thinking about how authors use parts of their life in work.”
Set in 1950 Worcester, England, “Once Upon a Wardrobe” is the story of 8-year-old George, who has a weak heart and isn’t expected to live long. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” has just been published and George is obsessed with it. He convinces his 17-year-old sister Megs, who is studying mathematics at Oxford, to track down Lewis and ask him where Narnia came from. She succeeds, and over the course of the winter has a series of visits with Lewis who answers her questions with stories about his youth, which Megs relays to George.
More than just a clever way to tell the story of Lewis’ life, the book explores the power of story and the importance of imagination.
“It’s not just about the origins of Narnia, it’s about the origins of story in general,” said Callahan. “It’s about the power of stories and what they are built on and how we can’t separate logic and imagination. Every time we try to separate logic and imagination, we do ourselves a disservice because they should be melded together. Intellect and imagination don’t have to be two separate forces.”
Andrews and Callahan are part of a small writer’s collective formed at the beginning of the pandemic called Friends & Fiction. Every Wednesday at 7 p.m. they stream a live show with guest authors on Facebook and YouTube. If you miss one, they can be viewed anytime at www.friendsandfiction.com. Friends & Fiction also has a podcast and produces a column for Parade magazine.
Both authors credit Friends & Fiction, as well as the pandemic, for giving them the support and the time to write two books in one year.
“The whole reason to write this book is that it was such a sad, dark year, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do,” said Andrews. “I handed in ‘The Newcomer’ two weeks early, and I thought, now what am I going to do? So I just put my laptop beside my bed, and I put myself in this snow globe world, and I said, ‘I’m just going to put my readers in this happy little snow globe world with me.’”
Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.