Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling novelist of fifteen novels, including the historical fiction (writing as Patti Callahan) Becoming Mrs. Lewis—The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. In addition, 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, and the RNA UK finalist for Romantic Historical Fiction.
In this interview, Patti talks with us about her new novel, Once Upon A Wardrobe, another tenderly imagined and enchanting story that pulls back the curtain on the early life of C. S. Lewis.
FF: C. S. Lewis is a monumental figure in the literary canon and modern Christianity, and many find him an interesting subject of study. What is it about C. S. Lewis that inspired your interest in his life and influence?
For me, it was not an academic but a personal interest that drew me to C. S. Lewis’ books. As a young child I fell through the wardrobe door of Narnia, and for me, C. S. Lewis is endlessly fascinating. He has written everything from poetry to non-fiction to essays to novels to fantasy. Once an atheist who became an influential Christian apologist, his words cut straight to the marrow of our lives. His books are living things, changing and often becoming what we most need at different times in our lives. The poet and philosopher John O’Donohue once wrote, “A book is a path of words which take the heart in new directions,” and that is exactly what Lewis does for me, and for most of us.
FF: In both Once Upon a Wardrobe and Becoming Mrs. Lewis you’ve written fiction about real, historical people. How do you maintain the delicate balance between being true to the history and legacy of the real person and crafting a compelling story?
Oh, the balance is tricky, a tightrope I can fall off if I am not careful! I believe that the bones of the story, which are the facts, must be weighty and solid. A compelling novel must be built around those factual bones. What makes most stories compelling is the drive of the emotional journey of our character, and that is where the fictional aspect comes into play. We must, as historical fiction novelists on this side of their life, do our best to discover not only the facts but also the emotional truth of their lives. I keep my ears and eyes and heart open to find the nuggets of their life that show us who they were, what they cared about and then make that come to life on the page.
FF: The characters in Once Upon a Wardrobe find so much of value in the fictional world of Narnia that Lewis created. How have the Chronicles of Narnia affected your life?
I have been enchanted by Narnia since my memory begins. I have read it to my children and have sat with them as we all cry through the movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s hard to pin-point how it has affected my life in a logical or pointed way because I think that Narnia, its characters, and its themes affect the heart and the unconscious just as much as the adventure of the story thrills us. That’s the thing with stories like this—they work in different ways than logic and lists, they are their own kind of magic, and that is what I hoped to portray in this novel. Narnia made me first an immersive reader and then made me want to be a writer. Narnia points to the ideas buried deep inside all of us that there is something greater than we can see with our eyes, that we are being led home, and that great love conquers all.
FF: What made you write this story? Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Narnia was and is a powerful part of my life, and yet I’ve never felt the need to dissect it like a specimen on a laboratory slide, or take it apart to find its inner workings, but about a year ago I found myself wanting to convey the power of its mythology in our lives. I felt a story stirring that might reveal exactly what C. S. Lewis meant when he said “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.’ As I considered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a young boy named George Devonshire and his sister, Megs visited my imagination. George asks his sister to find the answer to his most pressing question, “Where did Narnia come from?” Part of what I set out to show that an author’s life (and reading) might inform a story in some ways, and yet there are also large swaths of story-source that are altogether imaginative, mysterious and transcendent. I’m fascinated how Narnia transforms us; how the power of story can’t be fully be explained no matter how much we want to quantify and list its logical associations. My editor at Harper Muse, Amanda Bostic, once said to me, “I’ve always believed that if we can find our way to Narnia, we can find our way home.” And that, exactly that, is the truth I hope permeates this novel.
FF: Which book is your favorite in the Chronicles of Narnia Series, and why?
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And why? Oh, that is exactly what I wanted to show in Once Upon a Wardrobe. Why? That is only answered for me in a story about a story. There is no logical or succinct way to say why this book, of all the books in the world, sneaks its way into the hearts and minds of so many of us. But I can at least try to answer, which is the inspiration and origin of Once Upon a Wardrobe.
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Once Upon a Wardrobe
Genres: Historical Romance
Release Date: October 19, 2021
ISBN-10 : 0785251723
ISBN-13 : 978-0785251729
“Where did Narnia come from?”
The answer will change everything.
Megs Devonshire is brilliant with numbers and equations, on a scholarship at Oxford, and dreams of solving the greatest mysteries of physics.
She prefers the dependability of facts—except for one: the younger brother she loves with all her heart doesn’t have long to live. When George becomes captivated by a copy of a brand-new book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and begs her to find out where Narnia came from, there’s no way she can refuse.
Despite her timidity about approaching the famous author, Megs soon finds herself taking tea with the Oxford don and his own brother, imploring them for answers. What she receives instead are more stories . . . stories of Jack Lewis’s life, which she takes home to George.
Why won’t Mr. Lewis just tell her plainly what George wants to know? The answer will reveal to Megs many truths that science and math cannot, and the gift she thought she was giving to her brother—the story behind Narnia—turns out to be his gift to her, instead: hope.
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