By Emily Williams
Patti Callahan Henry of Mountain Brook recently was named winner of the 2020 Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer.
It is annually awarded by the Monroeville Literary Festival and Alabama Writers’ Forum, named for Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who was raised in Monroeville and returned there to spend her later years.
“Some things you kind of see coming out of the corner of your eye, things that you are hoping for and you look for. You’re really excited when you get them, but you were hoping,” Henry said. “This was so out of the blue that I was completely thrilled.”
The award will be presented March 6 during the Monroeville Literary Festival.
Henry is the author of 15 New York Times bestsellers. She also has been on the USA Today, Publishers Weekly and Globe and Mail bestseller lists and has won and been nominated for multiple awards.
Among her most famous novels was the critically acclaimed historical novel, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis – The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis,” which she published as Patti Callahan in 2018. The book also won her The Christy Award for Christian Fiction in 2019, an award that acknowledges the value and impact of novels of faith in contemporary culture, according to a press release.
The book recounts the poet and writer Joy Davidman’s journey to break free from a life in which she was unhappy, which led to her finding her greatest love story in her relationship with world-renowned author C.S. Lewis. As her first marriage crumbled, Davidman sought spiritual answers and began writing letters to Lewis.
The two became pen pals and formed a friendship that inspired her to leave her old life behind and move from her native New York to the United Kingdom.
While researching for and writing the book, Henry frequently wondered why it had not been written before.
“The love story is known, but what was written was largely based on (Lewis’) accounts,” she said.
Taking a Leap
Learning to tell Davidman’s story and stay true to Davidman’s voice, she said, was a lesson in bravery.
“The biggest thing I admired about her was the willingness to go somewhere without guarantees,” she said. “Traveling around last year and speaking about her, I had to be a little bit braver in my yes’s because I didn’t know what I was heading into.”
Taking a big leap isn’t an entirely new experience for Henry. When Henry, a former nurse, decided she wanted to be a writer and wrote her first book, her children were ages 5, 3 and 1.
So too, authoring “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” was a leap because it was Henry’s first historical novel.
“When I wrote Mrs. Lewis, I got a taste of what it feels like when everything I love to do kind of clashes together into one thing,” she said.
She has finished her second historical fiction novel, which will be about the Steamship Pulaski disaster, to be released in March 2021, and has one more in the works. Each have been inspired by real people and events whose stories have been largely untold in the literary world.
The process of creating a work of historical fiction takes years of research, a task she found she loved while in graduate school and as a research nurse.
Readers Wanted More
Much of her discoveries and interactions didn’t make it into the Mrs. Lewis book. Four-hour interviews, for example, could be condensed into one moment for her characters.
“At book events, I would spend half of the Q&A period answering about what was cut,” she said.
In response to her readers’ desire for more, she has released a seven-part podcast series, “Behind the Scenes of Becoming Mrs. Lewis.”
Each episode focuses on a subject inspired by seven of the biggest questions she had been asked while on her book tour.
“It grew out of other people’s interest,” she said. “It grew out of my readers’ questions and my readers’ wanting more.”
A big reason Henry believes the book has received such a great response is because Davidman’s story is so relatable.
“People respond to the idea of this woman completely changing her life. This woman saying, ‘This will not do,’” Henry said. “Because she changed her life, she changed his life. And because she changed his life, he changed our lives.
“Once you make that connection, the story is so much bigger than a love story. It’s the transformational journey of a woman who changed her own life way before she changed his. Their story is an outgrowth of her personal decisions.”