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  • Writer's picturePatti Callahan Henry

Q&A: NYT bestseller Patti Callahan Henry talks 'Surviving Savannah' before Junior League event


April 24, 2022

New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry will talk about her book "Surviving Savannah" during the Junior League of Lancaster event on April 26

The S.S. Pulaski – a luxury steamship known as the “Titanic of the South” – sank off the coast of North Carolina on its way to Baltimore from Savannah on June 14, 1838. More than 100 passengers died during the disaster.

In 2018, divers discovered part of the wreckage off the coast of North Carolina.

That’s when Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of 16 books, took note and became interested.

Actually, it was her mariner friend who was interested, but his persistence and the objects that the divers were bringing to the surface, piqued her interest enough to begin taking notes and conducting interviews.

“I loved how the things that were being found at the bottom of the ocean told a different story and told us what people cared about, what they took with them, what it meant to them,” Callahan Henry says. “When I was working on the novel I was working with the real shipwreck hunters, and every time they would bring up a new artifact I would get a new shift in perspective on the story and what happened that night.”

Callahan Henry, the winner of the 2020 Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year Award, decided to weave together a dual timeline about fictional characters – based on passengers from the S.S. Pulaski – from the 19th century and modern day.

The book was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, but its story about “how to survive the surviving” is just as relevant now as it was when the S.S. Pulaski’s boiler burst and it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Now more than 180 years later, readers can learn about the history of the disaster in the form of a historical novel called “Surviving Savannah.” The book was published by Berkley in March of 2021 and a paperback version was released last week. Fans of the book can learn more from Callahan Henry’s podcast series “The Untold Story Behind Surviving Savannah” featuring interviews with divers, museum curators and other experts.

Since the publication of “Surviving Savannah,” Callahan Henry has released another book called “Once Upon a Wardrobe” about the imagined origins of C.S. Lewis’ classic “Narnia” characters.

The Junior League of Lancaster will host Callahan Henry during their author’s luncheon event on May 6. The event, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, includes a luncheon, a book signing and a discussion of Callahan’s 2020 historical fiction novel “Surviving Savannah.” Ticket sales to the author’s luncheon close on April 26.

“As much of our world experienced unprecedented isolation in the past two years, the Junior League of Lancaster felt passionate about bringing this beloved event back to our community,” says Katherine Keister, of the Junior League of Lancaster. “It is our hope this event will serve as a catalyst to unite us all, having been apart for far too long. Patti’s storytelling is just what we all needed: whimsically written stories that we can all escape to, with a dash of hope.”

Callahan Henry took some time to talk about her work during a phone interview.

Had anyone written a book about the sinking of the S.S. Pulaski before?

PCH: No. That’s what made my job so hard. There was no seminal work on the S.S. Pulaski. There were chapters in some steamship books and some books on tragedy, but there was no seminal work. There was not even a full manifest. I was the first person to make a full manifest of the people on the ship that night. So my work for this novel was very boots-on-the-ground interviews and digging through old files and boxes and museums.

Why did you decide to incorporate a modern plot into this book instead of solely focusing on the historical aspect of it?

PCH: (The year) 1838 can feel so far away, but if we can bring it into today and learn about the family and the things they cared about and what they took with them it brings it home in so many ways. And I wanted to hold up the actual city of Savannah, which is a fascinating, mystical city and hold up its past history – complicated as it is – with its present day history – complicated as it is.

Could you talk about the city of Savannah as a character in this book?

PCH: I think the setting is the soil from which the story grows, and if you don’t have the setting down right, then the story has really wobbly roots. So I spend a lot of time with my setting, whether it’s Savannah or England or a made-up town. So, you’ll get a lot of Savannah history with this novel.

Savannah is one of our oldest cities. It was colonized in the 1700s by the King in England and he sent over a man named (James Edward) Oglethorpe who worked with an Indian chief named Tomochichi to build and found the city. It was founded in peace with the Native Americans. It has a complicated history because, of course, it’s the South. Originally Savannah had a law of no slaves. But eventually, when Oglethorpe came out of power, and they were falling behind Charleston and some other major southern cities, they changed that law. So, by 1838, when my book takes place, there are enslaved people not only on the ship, but in the county homes and in the plantations. I wanted to hold up all that complicated and beautiful history. They had these really grand and lofty goals in the beginning of its founding. Now today, you can walk down to the riverfront where you can have a drink and an oyster sandwich, but meanwhile that’s where the cotton plantation would bring that cotton and where ships would take off and where my ship disembarked from. Yes, I call it “my ship.”

The book is about continuing to survive after a tragedy.

PCH: It is weird that I finished it before COVID-19. The theme of the novel very much ended up being about how do we survive the surviving? And it was interesting to finish that when we started – and are still in the middle of in many ways – trying to survive what we’re going through now.

One of the characters you’ll read about (based on a real person) survived to become a terrible person. He became a slave trader and a slave importer – way past when it was legal. He advocated for the Civil War. He was a horror. It made me really think about what we do with our survival. One would think he’d be grateful for being in the world, because not everybody survived that tragedy and he did. And then he went onto become a very cruel person that went on to commit great atrocities. So how did that happen? How do we take something marvelous like survival and turn bitter and cruel? It made me ask questions about how we make meaning of the meaningless and sense of the senseless.


1 Comment

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