By Margaret Frymire
Journal Staff Writer
Three years ago this past April, Patti Callahan Henry received a Facebook friend request from a girl named Catherine Barbee. Henry, a Mountain Brook author, said she had no idea how that social media interaction would alter her life.
The request came from Henry’s biological niece and would serve as the inspiration for her latest novel, “And Then I Found You.”
Years ago, Henry’s sister Barbi Burris placed her daughter for adoption using a closed process and anonymous paperwork. Twenty years later, Barbee began searching for her mother online. She found her on the dedication pages of Henry’s books.
With the two names in hand, she searched for Henry on Facebook and sent friend requests to both her aunt and her mom.
Henry said the novel began the moment she got the friend request.
“I mentally started writing it right that minute, but I didn’t sit down to start writing it until three months out,” she said.
Henry began the story as a nonfiction account of Barbee and Burris’ journey, but she soon realized she needed to take a different direction.
“It wasn’t working because it wasn’t my story to tell,” Henry said. “It was my sister’s story to tell.”
Henry said she and her sister have very different personalities.
“I couldn’t become my sister to write this book. I couldn’t get inside her head,” she said.
She said that her office started to feel really crowded because she was so concerned about her family.
“I was worrying about everyone in my family and whether I was portraying them correctly,” Henry said.
Henry said she thought it would be easier to write with the basis of a story in nonfiction. But in reality, she said, she found it harder. She ended up making her characters too lovely and good, she said. So Henry abandoned the nonfiction route and fictionalized the entire account.
Her fictionalized story follows Kate Vaughn and her daughter Emily’s search to find her. Emily begins the search at a younger age than Catherine actually did. Emily is 13, and Catherine was 20.
Henry also changed the locations, names and many other elements of the story.
She did include several pieces of Catherine and Barbi’s actual story. In the book, Emily finds Kate through her sister Tara, just like Catherine found Barbi through Patti. In the novel, Tara has a blog, and through the blog and then through Facebook, Emily finds Kate. Similarly, Catherine found Patti through her writing and then through Patti’s Facebook page found Barbi.
Catherine’s last name–Barbee–is Barbi’s first name. In the novel, Emily’s last name–Jackson–is a variation of the birth father’s first name, Jack.
“I took the coincidences–which we all know are not coincidences–and turned them, flipped them on their heads,” Henry said.
In real life, Henry said, Burris and the birth father would call each other every year on Catherine’s birthday. In the novel, the birth parents write a letter on Emily’s birthday.
Henry said her parents would plant a tree for the little girl Burris placed for adoption every time they moved. She included this element in the story because she said it was special to her family.
Henry said that, with permission, she also used several phrases that both her sister and Catherine actually said. In chapter seven, Henry uses the words that Burris spoke when she gave birth to her daughter. Later in the novel, when Kate and Emily meet, Henry uses the words that Catherine spoke upon meeting her mother: “My ‘I’m not wanted button’ was just turned off,” she said.
The novel contains a few details of actual events, but Henry said the most similarities were in the emotions of the two stories.
“I used a lot of the emotional truths–the waiting and the wondering and the unknowing and the trying to love again,” Henry said. “I changed a lot of things, but I kept the emotional truths, for what that story felt like for us, the same.”
Everyone told Henry that she had to write the book about her family story, but it was a long process in realization, she said.
“It was messy,” Henry said. “It was back and forth.”
All three women talked about writing the story from the beginning–as a memoir, as nonfiction, as a novel. They talked about each doing different chapters of one book.
Henry said they finally each realized they had to do their own thing with it because each had a different part of the story to tell.
Burris is currently working on writing a memoir. Catherine does a lot of interviews to tell her side of the story and wrote a blog telling the actual events of finding and meeting her birth mother. Henry said her way to tell the story was through her fictionalized novel.
Throughout the whole process, Catherine has been very involved, Henry said.
“I wouldn’t have written the novel without her permission, her knowledge, and her understanding,” Henry said.
In order for Henry to write the book, she had to have very open conversations with Catherine.
“We’re all very close,” Henry said. “Catherine has different relationships with each of us. She talks to each of us about different things. It’s evolving. It’s only been three years.”
Henry said Burris and Catherine are close and talk a lot, but she made sure to note that it is clear that Catherine’s adoptive mother is her mom.
“The woman that raises you is your mom. Anybody will tell you that. The woman who raised you is your mom,” Henry said.
Henry said she didn’t start writing her novel with a particular mother-daughter theme in mind but that her novel ended up showing how much of an impact the bond between mother and daughter has, even when the two aren’t physically together.
“I think the novel ended up giving a redefinition of what the word ‘mom’ means. I address that in the end of one of the chapters. The mom even says the word ‘mother’ is going to be given to someone else. When she placed her baby for adoption, she passed the title ‘mother’ to someone else. But also I think the novel shows how that bond never leaves you even if you’ve only been mother for 30 minutes. It’s always there,” she said,
Henry also said she thinks the most important thing about being a mom is loving your kids unconditionally.
“I believe so strongly that whether it’s an adopted child or a biological child that everything stems out of that love for who they are, not exactly who you want them to be,” she said.
Henry said it makes such an impact when you love your kids for who they are and don’t have these huge expectations for who they should be or will be. Love makes a bigger impact than anything you could do or buy for them, she said.
One of the things Henry learned through the process of writing the novel is how important your family and personal story are, she said.
“Kids, children, people in general love to know their story,” Henry said. “One of the things that I talk about in the novel is that one thing that helps adopted children so much is to know their story, like who were their birth parents? Why were they placed for adoption?”
You feel more secure when you know your family history, your background, Henry said.
“Talk about their family and their story with your kids,” Henry said. “It makes them feel part of something bigger.”
Two years ago, Henry moved to Mountain Brook, and part of her novel takes place in Birmingham. Her character Jack lives there with his son, and Kate visits him in his Birmingham home. Readers familiar with Mountain Brook will notice actual Mountain Brook details and locations referenced in the book.
It was not part of Henry’s original plan to use Birmingham as part of the novel.
“I didn’t purposely use Birmingham as a setting. I think in hindsight what happened was I was writing this book during a huge upheaval in my family’s life, and setting the fictional story in Birmingham was sort of like setting myself in Birmingham, settling us in Birmingham,” Henry said.
She said that writing about the town and city she lived in planted both herself and the story in Birmingham.
“I’m glad I did it,” she said. “It worked well for the story, and it definitely worked well for me.”
The other location for the action in the story is Bluffton, S.C., where Henry and her family spend their summers.
“And Then I Found You” is Henry’s ninth novel. She began writing seriously in 1999, she said, when her three children were all under the age of 5.
“I decided I was going to stop dreaming about it and do something about it,” Henry said.
She started taking classes, reading more, and writing every day.
She recently finished a draft of her 10th novel–a story about a woman trying to discern truth between two different versions of an event. The novel is tentatively set to debut in the spring of 2014.
Henry is now touring the country to promote her latest book. For more information on Henry and her books, visit www.patticallahanhenry.com