In our column Bookworm Beat, read about some of our favorite books written by women and non-binary authors...
"I often say, 'Let’s stop talking about the women behind the man and start talking about the women beside the man.'"
One such woman behind a man was Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, the wife of author C.S. Lewis. Many of us are familiar with his Chronicles of Narnia book series but his real life love story has been under-explored. In Patti Callahan Henry's latest novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, readers are taken on a journey from how these two originally met to how they tried to keep their romance alive with an ocean between them. From these passionate days came some of Lewis's best books. It also explores how one woman found her voice in a time when doing so was extremely difficult.
Patti shared with us what inspired her to tell this story and the research behind the book. Find out about the love story of one of a very special woman who influenced the stories of one of the world's best writers.
How did you become interested in writing?
I have long believed in the power of story. I started as a reader and didn’t move to writing until later in life! My education was as a nurse — my master’s degree in pediatric nursing. Although I wrote almost every day of my life, I didn’t decide to write a novel until I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not sure I “became” interested in writing as much as I always wrote. But writing a novel was a deliberate decision, and one that took all my passion and dedication.
You have a written a number of novels. What was different about the process for your most recent book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis?
Because this novel wasn’t purely from my imagination but inspired and based a true story, the research was much more intense. It took a long while to filter out my voice and allow Joy’s voice to rise to the surface. I decided I wanted to write from Joy’s perspective instead of about Joy, so the process was a bit more immersive. I loved every single second of learning about her from her. She is a fascinating and inspiring woman. 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). 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 — biographical pieces 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.
What inspired you to write this novel? What kind of research did you do?
Most of my novels delve into the vagaries of love, and this was the most improbable love story I had ever heard about. I wanted to know, how did C. S. Lewis — across an ocean and so different from Joy in both culture and location — fall in love? I wanted to know how it developed and what happened. So off I went into research — first biographies and facts, and then I read letters, essays, poetry and novels they wrote. I visited the Wade Center where their unpublished papers are stored and then off to Oxford and London to “walk in the steps of Joy”. The research was as pleasurable as anything I’ve ever done in my career. Getting to know them through their own words and poetry was incredible.
The relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidson is described as having given both individuals a voice in a time when women were usually not allowed this opportunity. How do you feel about this?
I often say, “Let’s stop talking about the women behind the man and start talking about the women beside the man.” And that was Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis. In working together I believe they both found stronger voices not only in their work but in the world, allowing them to be their true selves, to journey into new work and new love.
Joy makes the journey from New York to Oxford and back to visit Lewis throughout their passionate relationship. Do you think modern readers will learn anything about the power of love through reading this book?
Absolutely, readers will learn more about the power of love. Joy shows us that the quest for the truth and the search for love is worth the convoluted and complicated path of changing our lives.
How do you feel about the future for women writers?
I feel hopeful. Voices are changing; perspective is shifting. As our voices rise, the world will listen. Joy is an example; she is a conversation between past and present showing us that often we need to unshackle ourselves from the expectations of others, from the demands of society and from the creeping sense that we might be fulfilling someone else’s destiny instead of our own.
What is coming up next for you?
I have a novel titled The Favorite Daughter coming out in June of 2019 and I’m working on another historical coming out in 2020 titled Surviving Savannah.