Updated: Sep 12, 2019
How Anne Rivers Siddons Saved Me
Anne Rivers Siddons Photo by Jack Alterman, 2003
"Today — on 9/11 we lost Anne Rivers Siddons to lung cancer. I can't overstate what her work meant to me. I barely knew her personally, but not for lack of wanting. Five years ago, I was feeling grateful for her work and here is the essay I wrote a long while ago in a fit of gratitude for Anne Rivers Siddons and her work."
There are books you discover at the moment in your life when you need them the most, for nourishment or encouragement, or when it’s time to weep or heal. For me, Anne Rivers Siddons books are those exactly. Her novels shaped and influenced my imagination, cracked me open to understand the power of story.
It wasn’t just her stories that softened the edges of my guarded heart. Yes, the novels are beautiful but it was also the way she used words as if they were hers alone and no one else was given permission to manipulate them the way she could, a kind of magic she was granted at birth. We, as mortals, had the same alphabet and vocabulary in our lives but were unable to put them together this way, this Anne-Way.
I was a freshman in college, lost but pretending to be found. I was a girl trying on different personalities to see which one fit best: sorority girl with the pink ribbon? College-football-recruiter serious in the orange and blue polyester uniform? Nursing student on the honor roll? Book Worm? Party Girl? I was all of the above and swinging wildly between each one, a pendulum that never rested, and yet there was one stabilizing force in my life, one thing I never abandoned: reading. I was an obsessive, addicted reader, and the world disappeared as soon as I opened a book. That year that I picked up Fox’s Earth and read it in one sitting. What was this? This kind of story where words came alive like a river or took flight like a mythical creature? Anne Rivers Siddons: I wanted to know everything there was to know about her.
At that time in my life, before google and social media, authors were unapproachable, ethereal and not quite real. They were fancy photographs on the back of book covers, not real people, just images and ideas as fictional as their stories. But Anne? She seemed like she might be real. She went to Auburn University, just as I did. She was in a sorority and she wrote and I was also doing both those things. She lived in Atlanta only a few hours away. Maybe writing was a real thing that women did for a living, or did because they were good at it, No! Because they were great at it.
I started following her like a groupie. She never knew this, but I did. First I went back and read the other books she’d written before Fox’s Earth. Then after I’d graduated from college and was working as a nurse in Atlanta, Peachtree Road came out. Then Kings Oak – a book that irrevocably altered something inside me that I still can’t identify. Without any way to meet her or know her, I did what I’ve been doing my whole life—I went to the library to find out what I don’t know, and this time to look up Anne Rivers Siddons’ history. If there’d been Facebook then, and she’d had one, I would have been the first “like” every time she posted. That’s how I feel about her: I “Like” every damn thing.
I started having these conversations with Anne (Oh, they were all in my head). But I imagined telling her my story ideas, telling her good ideas, which she’d want to write and put in a novel. I didn’t yet know that I could write my own stories, I only understood that her novels had the essence, character and taste of what I’d want to write if I did write. Instead of dreaming big for myself, I imagined offering her my dreams, offering to her the stories I felt worth telling.
When Outer Banks was released in 1991, I saw a sign at the old Oxford Bookstore in Atlanta: Anne would be there for a book signing. I’d never been to a book signing, and I geared myself up for it. I went by myself, not knowing what to expect. The line was at least an hour long, and I was as nervous as if I were going to meet a blind date. I wanted to say the just right thing. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me. I wanted to let her know that she enriched my life. Then it was my turn: I stepped up to the table and held out my book for her to sign. She sat at a table with her husband next to her. She was so tiny, a little thing with white fluffy Q-tip hair, and a big red lipstick smile.
“Your name?” she asked so quietly I had to lean down to hear her, as if she needed a sweet, quiet voice to weigh out the vibrant, earth-quaking voice she used in her writing. Her pen was poised above the title page and ready to write my name.
“Patti,” I said. And then all the compliments and sentiments I wanted to say stuck in my throat like a rock. I mumbled something about Kings Oak, and her husband thanked me for being a fan, and then she was onto the next person.
WAIT! I didn’t get to say anything to her. I had so much to say. So much. How her books carried me through lonely nights when I felt left out by friends or didn’t believe I’d fall in love with the right man, if ever. I wanted to tell her that her stories made me believe that other people in the world felt as deeply as I did, that life was richer than it appeared, that the unseen supported the seen. I was aching to tell her that her words were used as more than just letters in a row, they’d changed me inside, altered who I had become and was becoming.
I didn’t say any of that to her that day at Oxford Books. The bookstore isn’t even there anymore. The years passed, as years do, and I still haven’t sat with her to tell her how I feel.
Instead of giving her my ideas and dreams, I began using my voice to tell my own stories and now, in many ways, I tell Anne Rivers Siddons how much she means to me with every book I write. I reveal how she influenced my life and my words and my destiny. I hope I say the just right things.
—Patti Callahan Henry
About Anne Rivers Siddons
Anne Rivers Siddons, Auburn graduate and esteemed southern novelist, died on Sept. 11, 2019.
Anne Rivers Siddons, author of many best-selling novels, died of lung cancer Wednesday morning at her home in Charleston, South Carolina. Siddons got her start at Auburn University. She was 83.
Siddons was receiving treatment for lung cancer at the Medical University Hospital, according to the Post and Courier. She was born in 1936 in Fairburn, Georgia, where her family lived for six generations.
She went on to work for Atlanta Magazine as a senior editor and published 19 novels and a collection of short stories. “Heartbreak Hotel” was made into a movie and her work garnered praise from artists like Stephen King. She joined a cohort of writers that led to a movement toward the “New South." In 2007, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Siddons is survived by her four stepsons, Lee, Kemble, Rick and David. Her husband Heyward Siddons died in 2014.
She joined the lot of post-civil-rights-era authors after publishing “Heartbreak Hotel" in 1976. The coming-of-age tale was based loosely on Siddon’s experience at Auburn University as a Delta Delta Delta sister and student columnist. During her time at Auburn between 1954-58, she wrote a column and an editorial for The Auburn Plainsman supporting integration. The piece received national attention and she was dismissed from her columnist position at the paper by the administration.
She wrote, “We’re not going to have to worry about the definition of tolerance for a long time—not until we learn the definition of words like ‘justice,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘decency,'” in a column published by The Auburn Plainsman on October 18, 1957. Read More
About Patti Callahan Henry
Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times best-selling author of fifteen novels, including the (Historical Fiction), BECOMING MRS. LEWIS—The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. Now a USA TODAY, Publishers Weekly, and The Globe and Mail bestseller. (writing as Patti Callahan). Her most recent novel, THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, (Southern Contemporary Fiction) was released June 4, 2019, and is available now. THE PERFECT LOVE SONG—A Christmas Holiday novella will be released published October 8, 2019. and available for pre-order now. A full-time author and mother of three children, she now resides in both Mountain Brook, Alabama and Bluffton, South Carolina with her husband. Read More