Patti Callahan Henry graduated from Auburn University with a nursing degree before embarking on a writing career. (Photo/HarperCollins)
Patti Callahan Henry was having a conversation with fellow best-selling author Ariel Lawhon one day, and Lawhon asked her a question.
“She asked me, ‘What would you write if you could write anything you wanted?’” says Henry, who has written 13 books she classifies as contemporary women’s fiction. “Without thinking about it or having ever thought it one time, I said I would write about Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis’ wife. She said, ‘If you don’t write it, I will.’”
So Henry wrote, beginning research into her historical novel about Davidman – a poet, essayist, novelist, screenwriter and critic, among other things – about four years ago.
“I wrote it in secret for a long while,” Henry says. “I didn’t let many people know about it.”
Now, the secret’s out. Armed with pre-publication reviews authors dream of, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” came out last week, and Henry, who lives in Mountain Brook, unveils it to her hometown crowd at an event Monday night at 6:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 3736 Montrose Road in Mountain Brook. Tickets are $35 (including a signed first edition of the book) and $100 (including a private reception) and benefit Sawyerville Episcopal Day Camp in the Black Belt.
Henry, an Auburn University graduate, came into her Davidman project a fan of her husband’s work but not knowing much about her.
“I’ve been a lifelong C.S. Lewis reader,” she says. “I read ‘The Screwtape Letters’ when I was too young to read ‘The Screwtape Letters.’ Then I, of course, fell through the wardrobe door and was a huge ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ fan.
“I did know about his wife, and I knew that she was hugely influential in his life and that her death nearly destroyed him, if you read ‘A Grief Observed,’” Henry adds. “I wanted to know more.”
So Henry began digging deep, visiting Oxford and London, as well as Chicago’s Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which houses major research collections about Lewis and Davidman.
“The more I learned about her, the more I loved her,” Henry says. “Their love story was improbable, but so fascinating. The deeper I dug, the more I wanted to dig.”
Henry – who published “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” with HarperCollins as Patti Callahan instead of Patti Callahan Henry, since it differs so much in tone from her other work, published by Penguin – knew from the beginning she was going to write a work of fiction.
“I would never do that,” she says of a nonfiction work about Davidman. “There’s plenty of nonfiction out there about both of them. I set out to write a novel from the get-go. At the same time, I stay within the confines of the truth. I had a really well-built and well-researched skeleton of truth, and then I had an emotional truth that I layered atop the real truth, and the rest of it I imagined.”
The truth is fascinating in its own right. Davidman earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University at age 20 and won two prestigious poetry awards at a young age. She met Lewis – the acclaimed British writer and lay theologian – briefly in England and then began a correspondence with him.
“The reason it was such an improbable love story is that she was a married atheist woman with two young kids who lived in upstate New York,” Henry says. “She had had this mystical experience she didn’t understand, and she wanted to find someone who might help her understand it. C.S. Lewis is one of the people she contacted.”
Thus began a three-year correspondence, followed by four or five years of friendship and then five years of being in love. “They were only married three years before she died,” Henry says.
The author heard from one of Davidman’s sons from her first marriage while writing “Becoming Mrs. Lewis.”
“She had two sons, and one had passed away a few years ago,” Henry says. “Douglas is alive and well and lives in Malta, and he contacted me because the Wade Center had told him I had been there doing research on his mom. … I told him it was meant to honor her and I wanted to introduce her to a new generation of women. From that point on, he was all on board. He helped me tremendously.”
Advance word on “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” has been extremely positive, including good reviews from industry stalwarts Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Singer Amy Grant, who read an advance copy, also weighed in on Facebook: “Attention ALL readers! Do yourself a favor and order this book! I love Patti’s narrative voice, and her illumination of Joy Davidman’s life is soul stirring. I have read it twice already!”
Henry’s next book, “The Favorite Daughter,” comes out in June 2019 and is another in her contemporary fiction vein, but she’s eager to get back into historical fiction, and she has her subject already.
“It’s called ‘Surviving Savannah,’” says Henry, whose family has a second home in Bluffton, S.C., near the historic Georgia city. “It’s about a shipwreck that happened in 1838 in Savannah.”
But first, she’s touring with “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” and she’s eager to introduce her new friend to her fans.
“I want readers to meet her,” Henry says of Davidman. “She has so much to teach us and show us on top of having an absolutely fascinating story.”
An Evening with Patti Callahan – Becoming Mrs. Lewis takes place Monday at 6:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 3736 Montrose Road, Mountain Brook. Tickets are $35 and $100 and benefit Sawyerville Episcopal Day Camp.
about C.S. Lewis’ wife
By Alec Harvey September 28, 2018