BBH Fiction: "Guest Blogger Patti Callahan"—Becoming Mrs. Lewis
Join with me in welcoming guest blogger Patti Callahan. Good friend and fellow author Rachel McMillan interviewed Patti for us. I love learning the process for an author behind a book.
Thank you Patti and Rachel,
A Conversation between authors Rachel McMillan and Patti Callahan on BECOMING MRS. LEWIS
INTRO BY PATTI CALLAHAN
In the late 1940’s award winning poet and novelist Joy Davidman wrote in an essay, “IF WE SHOULD EVER GROW BRAVE, WHAT ON EARTH WOULD BECOME OF US?”
And then she set out to answer that question with her life, embarking on a transformational journey that not only changed her life but also that of one of our most beloved authors of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis.
We all fall into our own kind of love with C. S. Lewis, and I had fallen into mine at twelve years old when I read The Screwtape Letters and then fell through the wardrobe door of Narnia. But C. S. Lewis only loved one woman enough to marry, only one woman he called “the whole world (stars, water, air, And field, and forest, as they were reflected in a single mind.)”
Her name was Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, called Joy. His name was Clive Staples Lewis, called Jack and they had decade-long relationship that culminated in a most improbable love story (a married New York writer, married with two children and an Oxford don) spurring gossip and conflicting stories that are told until this day. This novel is Joy’s story….
Beloved novelist Rachel McMillan and I sat down to talk about the novel. Join us in the conversation….
While Joy wrote she was the “world’s most astonished atheist” in an essay, Lewis much later echoed her words by calling himself the “world’s most rejected and reluctant convert.” It is clear that Joy had an influence on him but also on his writing.
Can you speak to that tenet of their romance?
How can we ever know how those we love influence our work or our stories? As Joy and Jack’s lives came together and their deep friendship grew, her words influenced his and his influenced hers. Their friendship began with a letter and blossomed through an almost three-year pen-friendship, therefore words and ideas were their original tools. Their love of literature and story bound them together from the beginning. How could they have not influenced each other’s work, both consciously and unconsciously?
One of the things I most enjoyed about the story was its unique romanticism: you have Joy’s pragmatic voice and Lewis’ imaginative genius, though somewhat closed-off manner toward women. There is a subtle shift in the novel where the two characters –through your narrative style—meet in the middle.
Was there an intentionality in this structure? Much as Joy’s life is intersected by faith, so her path is intersected by Lewis…
It wasn’t so much intentional as a natural progression of their love story. When two people deeply influence each other both spiritually and creatively, there seems to be a coming to middle. I’m not sure we can separate Joy’s life changes into categories – faith and love – as they were knotted together. Just as her “mystical experience” with God set her off on a path of discovery so did her encounters with Lewis. Yes, at first Lewis was shut-off. Was it the atmosphere in which he lived? The time? His friends’ animosity toward a divorced American Jew? His virtues that held him back? No one but Lewis can answer this for us, and he never did. What we do know, what we do see clearly is that he fell in love with Joy and described her as “… my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier.
My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me…” Their mutual love of language and literature eventually led to a mutual love for each other. So yes, there is a shift for both of them. Love tends to do such things.
As a writer of fiction, you have the privilege of creating characters borne of your imagination and you control their destinies. The medium of fictional biography is a different kettle of fish altogether. Yet, while I was familiar with the story, your ability to tap into both Joy and Jack’s psyches made me feel as if I was meeting them on a different level for the first time.
Was there any moment where they “clicked” for you and you found their voices organically moving from pen to page?
Whenever I sit down to write a story, I spend as much time plotting as working toward understanding the internal psyche of my characters. What misbelief holds them back? What do they desire? What are their vulnerabilities? Yet of course this time the characters were real (although they all feel that way to me). Therefore, I dove into Joy’s own words – her letters, her poetry and her essays. Where was she in there? What was she hiding? The work of so many before me – biography and critical work on her poetry – aided the research here, but I was intent on hearing from Joy herself – in her words, not what others thought about her.
They both did eventually click for me, but not suddenly. It was more of a slow understanding that came with research, with solitude, with reading and with walking through Oxford where they lived and moved and fell in love.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis is an accessible read that both readers of faith and those who simply want to know more about a favourite author will enjoy… but, nonetheless, the genre of fictional biography must have been daunting.
What were some of the ways you combatted the arduous task of representing two historical figures people have strong opinions about?
Daunting indeed! I combatted it alternately with loads of anxiety and then with abject denial of what and who I was really writing about. Mostly I had to tell myself that I was just writing another novel (I had already written twelve). But I also knew that wasn’t true. This cognitive dissonance was a constant juggling act as I researched and wrote for years. I believe in the power of story to tell a truth and that carried me through. Also, Joy, she was with me in her words, her letters, her poetry and her essays. Her story needed to be told and often we come to know our historical figures through fictional narrative and then, if we so desire, we can go deeper and farther into their lives. (At the end of the novel, I attach a suggested reading list if readers want to know more).
Also, I tackled the task with love. I so admired her, and of course Lewis, that I approached the pages with humble reverence, but also with the knowledge that they were both human and their pedestals (if they had ones at all) were just as cracked as anyone’s. I didn’t want to portray the idol-marble image, but instead the woman and the man in their daily struggles and doubts and fears, as best I could on this side of their lives.
I know, because I have loved Lewis’s work for all of my life, that we can be proprietary over the authors we admire. I approached this work with trepidation – we can’t all agree on our own lives much less someone else’s. We must know that the “truth” can be told in both fictional narrative and biographical fact, but our opinions and our conclusions are ours alone.
RACHEL MCMILLAN: Do you have a favourite Joy Davidman quote?
Oh, I definitely do! “If we should ever grow brave what on earth would become of us?” This is from her essay titled “On Fear” which is in front of her Smoke on the Mountain book.
RACHEL McMILLAN: Joy is a resonant theme on your social media –can you speak to how Joy Davidman inspires your Joy?
Joy inspires me all the time. She is an example of a brave woman who set off on a
transformational journey. She reminds me, and all of us, that we might not need to pack up our children and cross an ocean to change our lives but we just might need to pack up other’s expectations and search for the truth.
RACHEL McMILLAN: Is there another famous woman you would like to tackle fictionally?
Not yet… but if someone inspires me as Joy did, I would not hesitate one moment.
RACHEL MCMILLAN: You spent time in Oxford to truly paint the canvas of Jack and Joy’s world.
What was a memorable experience of being in such a historical place: not just as the backdrop of their relationship but as a mecca of history and literature?
Walking through Oxford is much like walking through a dream. The city is impossible to describe in its full glory no matter the words we search for and find. I felt very much as if I had walked into Joy and Jack’s story as not much has changed in the structure and sense of the University and city. When I walked into The Kilns or the Bird and Baby, when I strolled through Holy Trinity Church and Magdalen College I felt both a sense of awe and reverence. I also felt giddy with the happiness of new and unfolding stories. I will go back. I must.
Oct 2, 2018
A Conversation between authors
Rachel McMillan and Patti Callahan
on BECOMING MRS. LEWIS
Follow the Journey with Joy & Patti
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