Author’s latest novel explores the origin of stories, where fiction and real lives meet
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
By Emily Meier
Harbor Light Newspaper
The Harbor Light Newspaper greatly supports the literary community and from time to time contributing writer Emily Meier brings author interviews to our weekly pages.
Author’s latest novel explores the origin of stories, where fiction and real lives meet, and what inspired C.S. Lewis’ Narnia
With the phrase “Once upon a time” many of us are taken back to a memory of a favorite bedtime story and a cozy chair, or a favorite classroom at reading time. That simple phrase signals to readers of all ages that a journey into a story, and into a new world, is about to take place with the cracking open of the spine of a book.
Patti Callahan’s new book, Once Upon a Wardrobe, takes readers of all ages down through that magical rabbit hole with a simple play on this familiar phrase. Once Upon a Wardrobe asks the questions: Where do stories come from exactly? And are fictional worlds somewhat real? More specifically, what inspired C.S. Lewis’ Narnia?
This is the question a young boy, George, has for his sister Megs. As it happens, Megs is a student at Somerville College at Oxford University conveniently within walking distance of where Mr. Lewis teaches at a nearby college. For the love of her brother, Megs begins to visit Mr. Lewis in order to find the answer to her brother’s questions about Narnia, a place so many readers have come to love and revisit through the years.
“What is the origin of a story? The answer, which is fascinating and also infuriating, is imagination. There is no real answer. The ultimate answer is ‘I don’t know’. But I can say that I saw this little boy who wanted to know what I wanted to know, which is how C.S. Lewis —created this book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, this land of Narnia, that is affecting generation after generation. Even if you’ve never read it, even if you’ve never seen the movie–you probably know who Aslan is, and the white witch. It’s somehow entered our collective consciousness.” —Patti Callahan
Callahan is the author of sixteen novels. Many she wrote under the name, Patti Callahan Henry. But three years ago, she made an unintentional shift in her writing career when she began to explore the life and work of the complex woman, Joy Davidman, with whom C.S. Lewis fell in love.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis–The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S Lewis became Callahan’s first work of historical fiction. In order to distinguish her previous fiction from her current works of historical fiction, she dropped the Henry from her name.
Patti Callahan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She is the recipient of The Christy Award — A 2019 Winner “Book of the Year”; The Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2020 and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year for 2019. She is the co-host and co-creator of the popular weekly online Friends and Fiction live web show and podcast. Patti is also a contributor to the weekly life lesson essay column for Parade Magazine.
It was an honor to catch up with her via phone to chat about this most recent book, her shift into writing historical fiction, and the friendship with some fellow authors that has grown into its own business.
EMILY MEIER: I feel like you’re becoming more and more prolific with each year.
PATTI CALLAHAN: I think COVID definitely offered a lot more time to write. I think during COVID some writers froze. And some writers wrote like crazy.
EM: Becoming Mrs. Lewis was your first work of historical fiction. Once Upon a Wardrobe is now your fourth. How did you make the leap into writing historical fiction?
PC: It wasn’t a conscious decision, like I’m going to take a hard right into historical fiction. But I really wanted to tell the story of this fascinating, fiery, complicated, genius of a woman, Joy Davidman. I wasn’t looking at it as historical fiction. But when they (publishers) told me it was historical, I thought ‘well I guess it is’. But I don’t really consider the 1950s historical. Now they’re even calling the 1970s historical.
After I wrote that book (Becoming Mrs. Lewis), with all the research it required, they asked if I would consider shifting my name a little to indicate this change–well that’s when it dawned on me that it was really a change.
I love the research. When I was a nurse, and in graduate school, I couldn’t work shifts because I needed to have a more regular schedule to go to school. So I was a research nurse. And I loved it. I love finding the small things, those nuggets of facts that take the story you think you know and flip it on its head.
EM: Poets often talk about how writing within a form actually allows them to be more creative. Having those boundaries can create a richer interior to the writing. I wonder if you feel that way, writing within the boundary of historical fiction. The boundary being that some of these people really lived and existed and so you can’t make up the facts of their lives. But you can create other characters and a fictional story within the facts.
PC: Oh I love that idea, especially because when I was doing some of my research for Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I was reading about sonnets. She wrote these 45 love sonnets and I wanted to know more about that particular form as I am not a poet. I know the basics. But I wanted to know more about the particulars. And I discovered that poets talk about the sonnet being a particularly constrained form, a sonnet has very strict guidelines. And you’re right, sometimes the creativity is within those constraints and is even better than having the freedom. What’s so fascinating is that writing about a real person gave me the freedom to do and say things I don’t think I was doing or saying with my completely imaginary characters. Writing about Joy Davidman gave me a lot of freedom to write more daringly ever since then.
EM: I love the line in this book, “Reason is how we get to the truth but imagination is how we find meaning.” In a sense, your historical fiction books are examples of this very idea. Your books have brought new light, and perhaps new meaning for readers, to the lives of both C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. But this leads me to a question that all writers get, and one that Megs is asking in Once Upon a Wardrobe. I know you had all this research on Lewis from Becoming Mrs. Lewis but where did the spark for this book originate?
PC: I always joke when I get asked that because it’s such a meta question. What is the origin of a story? The answer, which is fascinating and also infuriating, is imagination. There is no real answer. The ultimate answer is ‘I don’t know’. But I can say that I saw this little boy who wanted to know what I wanted to know, which is how C.S. Lewis created this book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, this land of Narnia, that is affecting generation after generation. Even if you’ve never read it, even if you’ve never seen the movie–you probably know who Aslan is, and the white witch. It’s somehow entered our collective consciousness. And I wanted to know how that happened. I like origin stories. I like Finding Neverland, Saving Mr. Banks, and the one about Beatrix Potter.
And I’d seen all these little bread crumbs throughout Lewis’ life and felt there was a story in there. I find that there are these bits and pieces in an author’s life that you can see in a story, that a reader can sometimes see more than the author can see. And yet, simultaneously, there are these large swaths of story sources that are completely mysterious and unexplainable. I wanted to show that with this book. So, the character of George came first. And then I needed a foil for him. So that became his sister. In hindsight, what I wanted was someone for whom it was life or death to understand this (where Narnia originated).
EM: How do you not get bogged down in the research? How do you balance the research and writing?
PC: Oh I definitely get bogged down all the time. I have to pull myself out of it at times. What happens is that I get interested in something but that something doesn’t really have to do with the book. And it’s one thing to read a little bit of it. But if I’m falling down a rabbit hole, and I have to bring myself back, I ask myself ‘Does this have anything to do with the book I’m writing?’ It was hard with this book because I take seven moments out of Lewis’ life and I have pages and pages and pages of notes about each of those events. I wanted to keep everything but if I’m skimming, or the reader is bored, or it takes you out of the journey of Megs and George, then you can go read it in a biography but it needed to be cut from this book. I want the reader to learn something but really I want them to be touched by a story. In the end that’s the real goal.
EM: How did you decide to switch between first person point of view and third person point of view?
PC: That was a hard decision. I needed a sense of immediacy with George and Megs but then we needed to fall into the story of Lewis and I didn’t want that to be told from his point of view. So how could I navigate that and make the story feel real and at the same time feel kind of dreamy?
EM: There’s a part in the book when George has his eyes closed as Megs is telling him the story. She thinks he’s fallen asleep. But he tells her that he isn’t sleeping, he has his eyes closed so that he can see the story. I felt that same way as a kid being read to, the story coming alive in the mind’s eye. It’s so powerful and transformative.
PC: Any portal world like that –the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the train station in Harry Potter—those portals which allow you to still be your but in a different world are fascinating. I wanted to experience that but as him, as George.
EM: And that comes with that storybook voice—the Once Upon the Wardrobe repeated phrase.
PC: Yes. I needed to give the hint to the reader that that’s where we’re going. That we are entering into a different kind of language, and that we are now seeing a grown man’s world through the eyes of an eight year old imaginative child. It’s this liminal space. I wanted us to see it through that liminal space of the boy’s viewpoint.
EM: Did you figure that out first, in the beginning stage of the writing?
PC: No. That came with time. The very first draft was a very rough draft. And those sections had more of a scholarly feel than a dreamy feel. I knew I would change it. I just needed to get it down. I needed to get the facts down and then, later, I figured out how to tell it. And I spent a lot of time figuring out how it was going to work.
EM: It’s often said that each book teaches the writer something about the writing process. What did writing this particular book teach you?
PC: I agree that every book has something to teach us. This book is a very enclosed story, it’s more concise. It takes place over a couple months. I’d also never had the elements of a fairytale in a book before. What I think I learned is that it’s okay to play with format, that it doesn’t have to be done the same way. That format I’ve never done before and may never do again. But the story is what informs the structure-not me imposing structure from the outside.
EM: What a wonderful thing to have C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, write so glowingly about Becoming Mrs. Lewis and now this book too. Is it intimidating to share your work with the real life families?
PC: If I think about it, one hundred percent it’s terrifying. Mostly I tried not to think about it. And when I did think about it, I’d tell myself the truth, which is that I’m honoring them with this. I’m not writing some salacious tell-all. There’s a difference. Both books, Once Upon a Wardrobe and Becoming Mrs. Lewis, were ultimately honoring their lives. And now that I’m close enough to them that if I made a really big mistake, they’d tell me.
EM: Are there books you return to and reread, or read for inspiration. And how do you balance your reading with your writing? Are you particular about what you’re reading while you’re writing?
PC: I love Graham Greene’s End of the Affair. It’s so beautifully and concisely written. And actually, when I feel empty, I return to poetry a lot. Or a book on psychology or psychoanalysis. I’m always reading. Always, always, always. I’m reading a book to blurb, right now. I’m reading a book for the show. I’m reading a nonfiction book about psychiatry. And I have another book on my Audible. So that’s the thing, I never give up reading. I know some authors talk about not wanting to read within their genre. But that isn’t something I adhere to. I read everything.
EM: Shifting gears a bit. Let’s talk about Friends and Fiction, which started as just a friendly online chat among fellow authors– you, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Kristin Harmel, and Mary Alice Monroe. Tell me about how Friends and Fiction came to be?
PC: What Mary Kay always says is that we’re accidental entrepreneurs because now we have a company, a youtube channel, a podcast, a 55,000 member Facebook page, and upcoming tours. In March of 2020, the five of us got together to talk online because we all had our book tours canceled and we were wondering what we’d do. Mary Kay said let’s all get together on Zoom and whine with wine. I had no idea what Zoom was, and at that point, we had no idea what was happening. We did that and we were having so much fun that Mary Kay said, ‘I bet people would like to join us to ask questions and watch us talk about publishing and books’. We thought it would be a way for us to share some other writer pal’s books and promote independent bookstores while we talked writing and shared some laughs. We thought it would last a month. Next thing we know, all these people are joining us weekly. And I don’t think it’s about us. I mean, yes, we do the work. We work hard to keep the ship afloat and the show going. But what I mean is people came there for the community. They’re not there just for us. What it really did was build a real community. People have found friends there and are now even meeting in real life. They’re finding a community they didn’t know existed.
EM: How do you balance this endeavor, the business of it all, with the actual writing?
PC: I think, for me, Friends and Fiction has been inspiring. It feeds my creativity. I love talking to the other writers. I love thinking about fun things for the show. I love that we have this community. I love that the four of us [Mary Alice Monroe has taken a step back from the group to concentrate on her own projects and family] text all day about the ups and downs, the highs and lows. We ask for advice. We give advice. Yes, it’s a lot of work but it’s also very enriching.
EM: But how do you balance all that with the business of writing and publishing, and the creative part of writing and working on a new book?
PC: I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. So for instance, this morning I’m working on a new book. This afternoon, I’m answering emails. I really try hard to be strict about this, so I can get it done. And if I start to try and check social media, while simultaneously writing, while also answering emails, then I get finished with the day and feel terrible when I go to sleep that night, because I know that I’ve given everything just a little bit of my life. I try very hard to say this is what I’m doing right now, and stick to it. And then, this is what I’m doing right now. But the writing is always the most important. It has to come first, none of the other stuff exists if it doesn’t.
For more on Patti Callahan and her upcoming events visit her website: www.patticallahanhenry.com
She is also on Instagram and Facebook.
Friends and Fiction has its own Facebook page and the show is live online every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. EST.