“In his mind, he was already writing her – the woman who stood at the patio table with her eyes closed and her face lifted towards the sky. She was only a subject, or more precisely, an object. Her slumped shoulders folded inward and her beautiful mouth turned down. Did she know how obvious she was in her sadness? Right there in public, surrounded by syrupy sunlight and azaleas so garish they could be fake?
Could she be the one?”
This is how “The Idea of Love” begins.
The novel belongs to The New York Times best-selling author Patti Callahan Henry, who knows something about drawing readers in. She has written 11 novels from her Mountain Brook home. Her next story is scheduled for release in 2017. It is the story of a shamed emergency room doctor who attempts to save her own life and that of her 19-year-old daughter, by returning to an idyllic past.
Callahan Henry is always looking for what people get out of her novels.
“I would hope people can see themselves through my novels and make a change in their life for the better. Whatever bad situation they are going through, maybe my novels can inspire action to correct things – because they can see themselves in the story,” Callahan Henry said.
She remembers telling stories with the pen from a very young age.
“I still have diaries that are the most boring thing you’ve ever read from my childhood,” Callahan Henry said, laughing at herself.
They say people who laugh at themselves are on the eccentric side, but that doesn’t even begin to describe Callahan Henry. She spoke of her childhood and how she became aware of her life through the pen. Her novel “Driftwood Summer” was a New York Times best seller, and many others have graced countless lists and honors.
All writers look for impact from their books, and Callahan Henry made a huge impact with one of hers.
“My novel, ‘And Then I Found You,’ was inspired by the true story of my sister, Barbi Burris, who placed a baby for adoption when she was in her early 20s,” Callahan Henry said. “Her daughter, Catherine Barbee, came back and found her mother. She was 20, and one day she looked at her birth certificate, and the White-Out flaked off. She saw my sister’s name. She Googled it, but I kept coming up because of my book. She sent me a friend request, and the rest is history.
“Now, my sister and her daughter have a great relationship. I wrote an ebook titled ‘Friend Request’ that tells the true story of that day. Emotional truth is there. Since the ebook and the novel, many others have been impacted. Many have understood adoption, and the low-level insecurity of ‘why I was given up’ is also understood,” Callahan Henry said.
Her writing studio is full of books and art and music and big windows and flowerpots and other beautiful things. It also has the feel of vast space and vast depth, perhaps alluding to the place these novels come from. She calls it the “Compost pile to dig from.” I prefer to think of it as an airy pile that is above the realm of everyday thoughts.
“What feeds my soul as a writer is reading. People ask me ‘you must quit reading so much to be able to write so many books.’ There is no way I would quit reading because for me that means to quit writing,” Callahan Henry said.
Every writer wants to change the world with their books. Not Callahan Henry, she has a more attainable goal.
“My goal with writing is to tell a great story, touch somebody’s life. It is not to save the world. Listen, I’m a nurse by education. I know that doctors and nurses are out saving lives,” she said. “I’m not saving lives by writing a great story, but maybe I could touch a heart here or there. I also aspire to create a moment when you’re reading something that resonates with you and makes you say, ‘me too, me too’ – where you know you’re not alone in the world.”
I asked her if that last statement means she tries to belong, or wants her readers to belong.
“I don’t know if my novels are a search for belonging, but they very well might be. I think we are all longing to belong, and to know that we aren’t alone in the world. Story is one of the ways we can feel less alone. Story can transform us, transport us, and if my stories can do either of those things for a reader, my job is done,” Callahan Henry said.
Patti Callahan Henry is standing at a patio table with her eyes closed and her face lifted toward the sky – longing for her stories to be a part of the bigger story.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning photojournalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected]