A conversation with Patti Callahan, author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis
By Margaret Evans, Editor
Like so many of my favorite people, Patti Callahan Henry entered my life thanks to Pat Conroy. Though her reputation as a New York Times bestselling novelist preceded her, we met at Pat’s 70th birthday celebration a few years ago, quickly learned we had some things in common – Alabama, for one – and just sort of clicked, like women sometimes (but not always) do. I interviewed Patti for the Conroy Center’s Porch Talk blog when she published her 12th novel, The Bookshop at Water’s End, and our friendship grew, but it wasn’t until I heard about her latest project that I knew we were truly kindred spirits.
Writing under the name Patti Callahan, my friend has just published Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. I may have mentioned here, a time or two, that I’m fond of Lewis. (Okay, I’m an obnoxious fanatic.) Patti will be here in early November as a presenter at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival. She recently spoke with me about Becoming Mrs. Lewis . . .
Margaret Evans: Patti, the early buzz is amazing! A starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and raves galore. Bestselling novelist Paula McLain (The Paris Wife) says you’ve found the story you were born to tell, calling the novel “luminous and penetrating.” Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter) says the book left her “wonderstruck.” I felt the same way while reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis. How did you conceive the idea of a “true life novel” narrated in the voice Joy Davidman, as imagined by Patti Callahan?
Patti Callahan: I have been a lifelong C.S. Lewis reader and slowly, but surely, I continued wanting to know more and more about this man until I began to become curious about his wife. If you read A Grief Observed, you will bone-deep-know how very much he loved her, and how destroyed he was by her death. Who was this woman who so enchanted Lewis?, I asked myself. And as I began to research and learn about her, I found conflicting reports. I decided the best way to get to know her was through her words — her poetry, essays, novels and a huge volume of letters. The more I came to know her, the more I loved her and wanted others to know her also.
ME: I would imagine the book brought some unique challenges. Not only are you telling the story of two people who actually lived – not fictional characters, as per usual – but one of them, Lewis, is something of an icon, with fans who are fiercely devoted and protective of his image. Add to that the challenge of writing a book that would please mainstream readers and Lewis fanatics, who tend to take their Christianity pretty seriously. Too much religion, you turn off the mainstream reader. Too little? You disappoint your Lewis-loving “base.” How did you deal with all of the above?
PC: Oh, now I’m having anxiety. (Laughs.) But yes, these were the questions that sat in my office with me every day, and the questions I told to “hush” because I couldn’t write with them by my side. I had to pretend no one would ever read it, that only Joy and I had any say in what the book contained. I also used a touchstone when I wandered too far from the main idea. The touchstone was this question — how and why did this woman set off on a transformational journey that changed her life and the life, heart and work of one of our most beloved authors of the 20th century, C. S. Lewis? I wanted to know how they met, how they fell in love and married. I wanted to know all of this from her point of view, and focusing on that kept me from the great fear of stepping on Lewis aficionados’ toes. This is her story. It is not meant to be a conversion story or a sermon on pursuing God, but a narrative about a flawed and complicated woman who was seeking the truth. (I mean, aren’t we all?)
ME: Absolutely. And Lewis has played a big role in my own search for truth. But I didn’t know much about Joy Davidman beyond what I’d seen of her in the movie Shadowlands, starring Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins. Had you read much Davidman – or much about her – when you began working on the book, or did you have a lot to learn?
PC: I was the same as you — all I knew about her came from that movie and A Grief Observed. When I started reading about her, I was overcome with curiosity! Whoa! I thought. There is so very much more to this woman— what a genius! What an author! What a poet! And immediately I stopped reading about her and started reading her work in her voice. I had much to learn and I dove into the deep end very quickly. I flew to Chicago to read and see her unpublished papers at the Wade Center at Wheaton. I visited London and Oxford and walked in the “Steps of Joy.”
ME: As a reader of both the book and your Facebook page (ha!), I sense that you’ve really grown to love Joy Davidman, haven’t you?
PC: Absolutely. I feel she is a metaphor and example for all of us today. Her brave spirit and her constant curiosity made her a lifetime seeker. She changed her life in a time when society was screaming at her to stay put. As I say when I talk about her life change, “We might not all need to pack up our children and sail to England to change our lives, but we might just need to pack up others’ expectations and set off on our own quest for the truth.”
ME: How did you create the conversations between Joy and “Jack,” as Lewis was called by his friends and family? Were they based on real letters, journal entries, etc, or were they purely imagination?
PC: The letters in the novel are a combination of all you just mentioned: real letters they wrote to others during that time, and also poetry and essays. I “listened” to their voices from that time. I looked at what they were most concerned about and how they spoke about those concerns. Then, yes, I imagined.
ME: As I said, C.S. Lewis has had a huge influence on me; I credit him with having brought me back to the Christian faith after a two-decade period “in the wilderness.” (He, of course, would say that was God’s doing, not his. Always so humble, that Jack.) I’m wondering what Lewis has meant to you in your life.
PC: I believe I read The Screwtape Letters before I should have (maybe eleven years old?) — spending much time as a child imagining Wormwood trying to “get me.” Then I fell through the wardrobe door of Narnia. I often say we all fall into our own kind of love with Lewis, and I fell into mine. I’ve turned to his wisdom and his stories at different times in my life for different reasons. One of the most fascinating things about writing this novel was seeing him as a real and flawed man with his own wounds and vulnerabilities as well as the genius who changes our lives and moves our hearts. I still stumble across something he said and it resonates like a tuning fork in my chest.
ME: This may seem like a weird question, but I can’t help myself. Were you daunted by the idea of having to make C.S. Lewis a romantic figure – even “sexy”? I think you totally managed it, in a strange, ineffable way, and I’m just wondering how difficult that was.
PC: In the beginning, yes! I was trying to figure out how to describe him in a way that would make us understand why Joy fell in love with him. But since their romance started with the power of words (they were pen friends for almost three years), I was able to see his heart first and show it to the reader. Then once I came to “know” him as Joy saw him, I had a very easy time describing him as a man she would love. If you look at his photos, it is his eyes that draw you in. There is a twinkle, and it’s undeniable. I’m sure it was quite easy to fall in love with that man. The photos of him when he was young are quite striking, and I believe Joy saw that in him as well and hopefully she allows us to see him this way.
ME: Well, he’s always been a cross between Jesus, a rock star, and a favorite uncle to me, and now, thanks to your humanizing portrait, I love him even more. And in Joy, I feel I’ve met one of the great, unsung heroines of the 20th century!
PC: I love talking with you about Jack, and about Joy and their improbable journey. I often, when I’m talking about her, remember her question, the one I think changed her life. “If we should ever grow brave, what on earth would become of us?” And Margaret, I know you love that question too. I always adore our talks.
ME: Me too, Patti. I look forward to seeing you and “Joy” at Conroy Fest next month. Great love, my friend.
Patti Callahan will be in conversation with Pastor Jonathan Riddle at the Bluffton Rotary Club on November 1st at 5:30 pm, and at the ‘Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy’ Dinner at Tabby Place in Beaufort on Friday, November 2nd at 5:30 pm. For more information about the 2018 Pat Conroy Literary Festival, visit www.patconroyliteraryfestival.org