Patti Callahan is our guest on The Joys of Binge Reading today – the 200th episode of the show which we started four years ago with the goal to simply reach 50 episodes. I am delighted to share it with an author who has devoted the last seven years of her life to researching the remarkable relationship between C S Lewis and his American wife, Joy Davidman.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler. Patti has produced two best-selling books from this work she’s carried out so lovingly. The first, Becoming Mrs Lewis, tells the story of the precious years of love and marriage the two authors shared before they were separated by Joy’s early death.
The second, Once Upon a Wardrobe, just published, delves into the inspiration behind the magical Narnia children’s series. I couldn’t think of a more uplifting story to feature on our 200th episode or a better Christmas book to talk about. If you’re anything like me, you will find that Once Upon a Wardrobe makes you laugh and cry, sometimes even at the same time.
Patti Callahan guest for 200th episode of Joys of Binge Reading
The other thing Patti covers in this 200th episode is telling us how the American divorcee won the heart of a confirmed Christian bachelor and how she came to the inspiration to frame her Narnia story through the eyes of a very ill 8-year-old boy.
If you want to hear Patti tell us what she dreamed of being when she was a little girl, that’s in the Getting-to-Know-You five quickfire questions. Become a Binge Reading on Patreon supporter, help support the show, and as well you will get some fun bonus content.
- The fascination that led Patti into seven years of research
- Joy Davidman – loved or reviled in equal measure
- A C. S. Lewis-Joy Davidman podcast
- Seeing Narnia through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy
- Joy Davidman the poet
- The unrecognised impact a divorcee had on Lewis’ work
Where to find Patti Callahan
The Podcast – Behind The Scenes of Becoming Mrs Lewis
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now, here’s Patti.
Introducing historical fiction author Patti Callahan
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Patti, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Patti Callahan: Jenny, thank you so much for having me. I’m so honored, especially for your 200th episode. Congratulations.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you. We have got two wonderful books to talk about with you today, both relating to the life of the Christian apologist and children’s author C S Lewis. Your very latest book, Once Upon a Wardrobe, is a fictional exploration of the inspiration behind the Narnia series, which I’m sure are known all over the world.
The previous book, published a couple of years ago, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, is about the romance C S Lewis had with American author Joy Davidman that resulted in his one and only marriage.
You have spent about six years of your life overall devoted to researching Lewis’s life for these two books. Give us a parachute overview of what those last years have been like for you.
Patti Callahan: Diving into the work of C S Lewis, whether it’s his life or his writing, can’t help but shift the way you see the world. But I didn’t dive in for that reason. When I first started my research, like you said, probably six or seven years ago, it was because I was fascinated by his wife, Joy Davidman the poet and writer and author.
She was in this very improbable relationship that started all because of a letter.
And yet once I was in that world, it ended up becoming, in many ways, an endless fascination with not only his work but the origin of some of his stories, especially Narnia. So yes, you’re right. This parachute that dropped me into his life was Joy Davidman, and yet so many stories have risen out of that.
Joy Davidman a polarizing character – Inspired or reviled
Jenny Wheeler: She was a polarizing character, wasn’t she? Even today some people are inspired by her and others are quite disapproving of her. Can you tell us a little bit about that polarization?
Patti Callahan: Absolutely. And I agree. I think part of what interested me in her was that I kept hearing two views of her that were so polarized. There were those who were fascinated that she was the only woman Lewis ever loved, that she was a woman who swooped into his life and completely changed the last decade of his work.
Then there were others who believed that she was not fit for him and were polarized and disapproving of her.
I had a hard time reconciling these two different stories of this one woman, and so what I did was I dove into that story, those polarized views, in a different way – her point of view. It was in her poetry, her letters, her essays, her fiction, her nonfiction. I looked at it from what she had to say about it. Yes, she is fiery and she is complicated and she made decisions you and I probably wouldn’t make and yet she was the woman who wrote C S Lewis a letter and changed the last decade of his life.
In his words to her they were the happiest years of his life, so who are we to judge or become polarized about what we believe about her when that is what he has to say about her?
C.S.Lewis said Joy Davidman was ‘iron to his iron’
He says she was iron on iron for him, that she was the smartest person he’d ever met and that he loved her. He wrote the book, A Grief Observed, about the great grief he had when she passed away.
Jenny Wheeler: One of the reasons that people disapproved obviously was because she had been married before. She was a divorcee, and this was the world still where Princess Margaret wasn’t allowed to even have a relationship with Peter Townsend. It was a different era, wasn’t it?
Patti Callahan: Yes, and I addressed some of that in Becoming Mrs. Lewis where even she acknowledged from the church to society, to family, she was. She shows up in England as a divorcee with two children and Princess Margaret is exiled and not allowed to marry Peter Townsend. The king had abdicated because he was in love with a divorced woman, so there’s this societal and religious belief. It was part of Lewis’s resistance to falling in love.
As we well know, he did not admit he was in love, nor did he tell her he was in love until he knew she was dying and he tried to get special permission from the church to marry her, and yet it wasn’t until she was on her death bed that he was able to do so. His friends were opposed. For example, J R R Tolkien was very opposed, as a devout Catholic, that Lewis would be in love with, dating or marry a divorced woman with two children.
Pen pals for three years across the Atlantic before they met
Not only has that carried over into today, but people believe that she showed up from America and swooped into his life, and yet can’t we give Lewis some autonomy and belief that he knew what was best for him. That judgment has carried over until today, so I wanted to give us a different way to look at.
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned that critical letter she wrote to him. They were pen pals for three years from different sides of the Atlantic before she even met him, and that letter was related to a religious experience she’d had.
It’s rather tantalizing that none of those letters they wrote to one another as pen pals have remained. They have all been destroyed. I was a little bit curious if that was the normal thing that happens with flotsam and jetsam in life, or whether someone deliberately destroyed them.
Patti Callahan: That is the big question, Jenny. Everybody has different opinions about this. I understand Lewis’s letters being gone, the ones she wrote to him, because Lewis destroyed every letter that was sent to him. He didn’t believe in saving the letters after he answered them for a lot of reasons. One of them was that he received such a volume of mail, that there was nowhere to store or keep the letters he received.
But also out of privacy, he never wanted the very personal letters people wrote to him to ever be published, so he destroyed letters and even instructed that when he passed, his letters and journals be destroyed.
Historic letters destroyed by C.S. Lewis’s brother Warnie
And they were. Warnie, his brother, put them all on a fire when he passed away and it is one man named Walter Hooper who saved some of what was to be put in that fire. And yet, why were the letters Lewis wrote to Joy lost, because I can’t imagine that Joy ever destroyed a letter her beloved Jack sent to her. Years of letters. What I would give to read what those letters said.
Her son Douglas has said that what happened – this is what he told me – is that they were stored in a trunk and he stored that trunk in a friend’s shed or barn. Someone broke into that shed or barn and ransacked the trunk. The trunk had letters and had mementos of childhood and they are all gone. So that is the story of what happened to her letters.
I always have this great hope that someday Douglas will be cleaning out something and find all those letters because I know Joy would never have thrown them away. It was only 10 years ago that those poems she wrote for C S Lewis were found in a box in a small cottage in Oxford, England, and they had been considered gone for years. Three hundred unpublished poems along with a file of love poems, love sonnets to C S Lewis were found, so who knows what letters might ever show up someday?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that was remarkable, and those sonnets are amazing. One of the things you do is insert lines from those poetries at the headings of a lot of the chapters and they really speak to what’s going on in her life at the time as well. That’s a lovely addition. You mentioned J R Tolkien. Just in passing, did he ever get to accept Joy or was that restraint always present?
J. R. Tolkien – reconciled with Lewis and the boys before his death
Patti Callahan: Douglas tells the story that when C S Lewis was dying, who was obviously Douglas’s stepfather, Douglas came out of the hospital one afternoon and walked into Tolkien who said, hello, I am Ronnie. I hope you remember me.
Douglas was very much, of course I remember you, sir. And Tolkien said to him, if something happens to Jack, I want you to know that you are welcome to live with me and my family.
So, in many ways yes, Tolkien did come to accept that this was a woman Jack loved and married and was willing to bring her son into his home. I think much has been made of Tolkien’s disapproval, but I do believe that much of that disapproval came from his devout Catholicism and had very little to do with how much he loved Jack, and in the end accepted Douglas as Jack’s family.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. It’s good that we’re turning towards Douglas because your most recent book, Once Upon a Wardrobe, is a remarkable story. It had me crying and feeling joyful at the same time, which is a fantastic thing for a writer to do. You tackle the story of how Narnia came to be through the eyes of a very ill little boy. I wonder for starters, how did that particular framework come to you?
Following the bread crumbs of a Christian apologist’s life
Patti Callahan: When I was writing Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I saw these breadcrumbs in C S Lewis’s life that I could see in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Not being a Narnia Chronicles expert but being a lover of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – a book I have read so many times, I have read to my children, watched the movie – I had never heard anyone talk about these little breadcrumbs of his life in such a beloved story.
I sat with it for a long while and I wrote a book in between. I had a historical novel out last year, and yet when COVID happened and shutdown happened, I started to toy with the idea that I wanted to show these pieces of his life that I saw in the origins of that story. I’m always fascinated with the origins of stories.
I love mythology. I love origin stories of the world from different mythological perspectives, and I wondered about the origins of Narnia.
I started to write a story about it and a little boy named George appeared. He was fascinated with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He wished for the back of his wardrobe to pop out so he could find it, and he asks his sister to ask the author at Oxford in the year of 1950 where this story came from.
I couldn’t for a long time figure out how to do that without lecturing you, which goes back to your question of how I decided to tell it the way I told it. Finally I decided, after much messing around, that what I would do is have Lewis tell this story to Megs, and Megs would tell the story to George, and then we as the reader and me as the writer would see that story through the innocence and liminal space of an 8-year-old’s imagination.
Seeing Narnia through the imaginative eyes of an eight-year-old boy
So I’m not telling you and Lewis isn’t telling you what happened to him. We’re watching it through an 8-year-old’s imaginative eyes.
Jenny Wheeler: If we frame that in the context that when Joy went to England, she wasn’t specifically chasing down Lewis or anything like that. She just felt a need to go to England, possibly to meet him, but she took her two sons with her. It was like she was starting a new phase of her own life.
She arrived in England with these two young sons when she met Lewis. One of the things I wondered was whether your book in some way also reflected what it might have been like for Douglas and David, the other boy, arriving in England and meeting this fellow C S Lewis and then him becoming so important in their mother’s life.
Patti Callahan: Absolutely Jenny. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe came out in October of 1950, which is 71 years ago. That is when the first letter from Joy Davidman arrived to C S Lewis. So when Joy showed up with her sons in 1953, the third Narnian Chronicle was already coming out, and in the end Mr Lewis dedicated one of the books to Douglas and Davey Gresham.
Douglas tells a story of showing up at Mr Lewis’s house to meet him for the first time with his mother. He was only eight years old, which is the age that I have my young boy in my story. Douglas shows up and he expects a knight to answer the door. He expects a great man who might live in Narnia, for how could anyone but a great knight or king have created this entire world called Narnia.
Douglas Gresham – saved by the Narnia stories
Douglas says that saved him and his imagination when he was a young child living in New York during a very bad time when his father, who was an alcoholic, and his mother were getting divorced.
He opened the door and there stood a man in ratty tweed pants and pushed down slippers and a cigarette. You know, a human. He tells the story of meeting him and being disappointed, and then within a half an hour, falling in love with this jovial, funny, smart man who created Narnia.
When Douglas told me that story, it very much impacted how I wanted George, my 8-year-old character to see the author of this story, and to see how the very ordinary world of this man could be turned into something extraordinary through the alchemy and the magic of story.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. It’s true to say that that feeling of a passion for mythology was something that also drew C S and Joy together in an extreme way, wasn’t it? They had very complementary reading habits and tastes, and they could converse as literary critics on an incredibly deep level.
Patti Callahan: Absolutely. They were both such deep thinkers and such extensive readers. They were both sight memorizers and they could both quote entire sections of books they had read without looking at the books. And they both loved mythology.
How Joy Davidman inspired C.S. Lewis’s later work
When the time came that C S Lewis said, I feel like I am dry, that I don’t have another book in me, she asked him, what is something you love and have never approached? What is a book you’ve always wanted to write?
He said, I’ve always wanted to do a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. That is the book they wrote together, and it is called Till We Have Faces. His deep love of mythology shows up in Narnia – Norse mythology, creation mythology, all of it shows up in Narnia. In fact, one of Tolkien’s insults about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when he first read it, is that Lewis used too many different myths in one story. So that love of mythology shows up even in Narnia.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. We talked about Douglas. I want to mention that you’ve got a wonderful series of podcasts on your website for people who are interested in that side of things – Douglas and the story of how it all came to be. The first two episodes are interviews with Douglas and you’ve titled them Those Poor Boys, which is a way that they were viewed at the time by other members of the public. Can you tell us a little bit about why they thought of them as “those poor boys”?
Patti Callahan: When I finished writing Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I had such large swaths of research material that I couldn’t put in the book and it was killing me that I couldn’t put it in the book. Part of that was interviews with Douglas, and that is where the podcast came from. The podcast is called Behind The Scenes of Becoming Mrs Lewis.
A harrowing – and beautiful – childhood with Lewis and Davey
When I interviewed Douglas he told me these stories of their life as young children and his life having a brother named Davey who he says he can now reveal was schizophrenic and bipolar. Douglas tells very harrowing stories of his childhood living with Davey, but also beautiful stories of growing up in a house with a man like Lewis and his brother Warnie.
He talks about coming over on a ship when he was eight years old and learning an entire new life in another country. He talks about going to boarding school and how awful that was for him because he had an American accent and what that did for him and how that parallels the horrific boarding school experience C S Lewis himself had as a young boy when his mother died when he was nine years old. All of those stories can be brought out in a podcast because I can’t put all of them in the book.
Jenny Wheeler: The way he talks about his brother is heartbreaking. It’s shocking to realize that all of that was going on and yet nothing was whispered about it at the time that I’m aware of. This picture was painted of Joy and C S, apart from the illness, having this glorious life together at The Kilns, but you realize that they also had this very disturbed young boy living with them as well.
Patti Callahan: Yes. I can’t quote it directly because it’s not in front of me, but there is one letter Lewis wrote to a friend that said how charming Douglas was and how interesting he was, and he infers in the letter that Davey is very, very difficult.
Living with a boy who was a ‘runaway atom bomb’
I think there was a lot of constraint around it at the time. You didn’t talk about those things. David didn’t stay long. He went to boarding school and then he left England. I believe he left very soon after his mother passed away and he went back to New York and for a time he lived with his Uncle Howard. It is Douglas who ended up staying and living with Jack and Warnie and continuing his life in England.
If it is referred to at all, it is very subtle, but once you know, you read between the lines. There is one letter where Joy calls Davey a runaway atom bomb, so there are mentions of the difficulties, but never in depth until now.
Jenny Wheeler: They have both got such an amazing output of work. I must admit to a little personal connection. I was at an Anglican boarding school here in New Zealand, and we had a wonderful history and divinity teacher who was also the deputy principal. The last year of our schooling she gave all the leaving class a copy of Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain with a little message written inside. So, so special.
I wanted to ask you, do you have a favorite yourself personally amongst their output – Joy’s work and C S Lewis’s. I heard Donald say that he thinks his mother’s best work was Smoke on the Mountain, but that might have been before he was aware of the poetry. What do you think?
Smoke On The Mountain an extraordinary work for an ex-atheist
Patti Callahan: I think Douglas, even with the poetry, would definitely say still Smoke on the Mountain. For me, it’s her poetry. I think Smoke on the Mountain is an extraordinary piece of work, especially for the time that she wrote it. It was the late forties and early fifties, being a woman and trying to write about theology as an ex-atheist in a world she didn’t understand.
One of the things Lewis said when he wrote the intro for the UK version was that she brought a very unique perspective to the Ten Commandments – which is what Smoke on the Mountain is about – being of Jewish heritage. I think she brought a unique perspective in that book, not only being of Jewish heritage, but also being a woman in the forties and fifties and trying to write about a subject matter that was in many ways off limits for someone like her.
But my favorite work of hers is definitely her poetry. Probably my favorite poem of hers is a poem called Fairytale, and another favorite poem is Yet One More Spring. Both of those were written before her spiritual experiences, before her relationship with Lewis, and before she transformed and changed her life. They both have this almost prophetic imagery of what was to come in her life. I find it beautiful that she was writing about things she was starting to feel and think and yet she didn’t know what was coming. I love both of those poems.
Jenny Wheeler: What about Jack? What of his work would be your favorite?
Playing favorites with Jack and Joy’s work
Patti Callahan: That is always such a hard answer. I bet it’s hard for you to answer too, Jenny. Do you have a favorite?
Jenny Wheeler: No, I don’t think I do really.
Patti Callahan: See, it’s so hard. I would say there have been favorites at different times in my life. I’m wagering you would say the same. For example, in my college years I loved the Screwtape Letters and Pilgrim’s Regress because both of those were full of imagery and allegory and metaphors that I could resonate with in college.
As a child and now again as an adult, it’s Narnia. I love Till We Have Faces because it is a retold myth and because I can see Joy’s fingerprints in it, and A Grief Observed is one of the most powerful books on grief I’ve ever read. So I’m all over the place with a favorite for different reasons.
Jenny Wheeler: You alluded to the fact that Joy had a tremendous influence on C S Lewis’s later years as a writer, something that’s only very recently started to be acknowledged as more academic scholarship has been done. He was famous way before she even wrote him a letter.
He had been on the cover of Time magazine and I hadn’t realized that he had done broadcasts to the English public during the Second World War. So how on earth did a little woman from New York manage to have an impact on a man who was already a literary colossus in a sense? What did she bring to him?
Poet Joy Davidman – fascinated by the ‘apostle to the skeptics’
Patti Callahan: That is what drew me to the story in the first place, Jenny, that question right there. How was that even possible?
Like you said, when Joy first wrote to him in 1950 he was famous, but not as famous as he is now. He had been on the cover of Time magazine and he had a few books in the world, but he did not yet have Narnia or Surprised by Joy or some of his more famous works.
Joy not only had started to read some of his work, but she had read an article about him in Atlantic magazine called Apostle to the Skeptics.
It was written by a man named Chad Walsh. She was so fascinated by this deeply intelligent man who had once been an atheist who was now “apostle to the skeptics” and she, being a genius herself, wrote to him.
It is said that Warnie wrote in one of his journals, today we received a letter from the most fascinating American woman. How would you like someone to write in their journal because your letter was so interesting? That was Joy Davidman. What I would give to see what that letter said. It made a huge impact on both of them.
It was enough so he had to write it in his diary. Whatever she wrote to him captured him and they continued with such deep intellectual back and forth for the next three years before they finally met face to face.
A mysterious spiritual experience which changed everything
Jenny Wheeler: The prelude to that letter, to help people understand who might not be aware of it, was that she herself had had some sort of religious conversion experience from a Jewish atheist to some level of belief, hadn’t she? She was querying Jack on that aspect of things, the numinous-ness of it, to speak.
Patti Callahan: You took the word out of my mouth. Numinous experience is how she would describe it too. She was alone at home with her two children who were babies and her husband called to say he was not coming home and he was going to take his own life. She was stranded in upstate New York without a car and not knowing where her husband had gone and believing that he might take his life because he had threatened it before.
Actually in 1962 he did take his own life. But in that moment in the forties, she didn’t know what to do, and she found herself on her knees.
She was, as you said, an atheist and also, very controversially, a communist. She said that when she fell on her knees, she had about 30 seconds of a very numinous and spiritual experience where she understood that she was not alone and, in her words, that life was too intense to forever be endured by logic alone and that something or someone greater than herself was in that room with her.
Making sense of numinous mystery – Joy Davidman
That was not a conversion moment for her. What that was, was the impetus to set off on a journey of discovery to try and understand what that moment meant, and in trying to understand what that moment meant she wrote to a man named C S Lewis.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it’s remarkable. That is a great point to switch our focus a little from the books. We’ve done really well and I hope people understand what fascinating books they are to get into, particularly at this Christmas season.
But turning to you and your personal career and the perennial question I like to ask every writer – is there one thing you have done in writing career more than any other that you would consider to be the secret of your success?
Patti Callahan: Perseverance, Jenny, perseverance. The everyday-ness of it. I touch it every single day even if it’s just a note I make. I do it first thing in the morning, I think about it in quiet moments. I was recently talking to an author pal of mine and she said, what do you think other people think about during the day?
It was such a true question because when there’s a quiet moment, what are we thinking about? The plot, what to do next, what to write about next, what we’re working on now, whether we got to the page that day. So that’s what I would say, perseverance.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. How many books have you got published now?
Patti Callahan: Sixteen.
What Patti is reading now
Jenny Wheeler: Wow. That is wonderful. We haven’t had a chance to talk about some of those but you’ve got a very good backlist of contemporary romance and historicals.
Turning to Patti as reader. This is The Joys of Binge Reading and so we like to hear a little bit about your reading tastes – probably more in the popular end for people who want a little bit of binge reading. What would you recommend and what are you reading at the moment?
Patti Callahan: I read such a wide array right now. I know I am late to the party, but I am reading Circe by Madeline Miller. It is a retelling of the mythological creature Circe and many people say that the white witch is based on Circe, so I’m finding it really fascinating to read a retelling of that novel.
I really loved a book this year called The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. An amazing novel. A contemporary of mine named Kristin Harmel has a brand-new historical fiction that just enraptured me called call The Forest of Vanishing Stars. It is about the Jewish people in the ghetto who ran away and built an entire life in the forest of Poland to survive during World War II. I found that one fascinating.
Jenny Wheeler: They sound terrific. Circling round and looking back down the tunnel of time, because we are coming to the end of our time together. It’s so wonderful but sadly we are. At this stage of your career, if you were doing it all over again, what would you change, if anything?
Patti Callahan: What would I change, if anything?
Jenny Wheeler: About the way you’ve approached your career.
Patti Callahan: Absolutely. I believe that I would like to sit down with myself of 18 years ago and tell her to be a little bit more patient, and also to dive into the definitions and – I’m trying to find the right word – the psychological underpinnings of story. I came to understand a lot of that over the last decade.
Fascination with the psychology of story telling
I think it would have helped me in the beginning. Meaning – what are the archetypes? What are the character motivations? What are we really thinking about when we’re thinking about character development and the definition of story, when it comes to how we impact the human brain. The things I’ve learned over the past decade about that, I wish I could tell myself of 18 years ago.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you used any particular research to get to that point?
Patti Callahan: I love reading anything on psychological studies of human nature from Jungian, but there are a couple of good books about this. One is called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. There is one called Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Both of those dive into the psychological impacts of story on our brain. I find that fascinating.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Just a quick look forward. What is next for Patti the writer? What are you working on now and what’s coming up in the next 12 months for you?
Patti Callahan: The next 12 months I’m going to be working on a novel that I just started and it is probably too tender and squishy to be able to describe yet. I feel like if I begin to try to describe what I’m working on, it will disappear like smoke.
Jenny Wheeler: Sure. Can I ask one question? Contemporary or historical?
Patti Callahan: Definitely historical.
Jenny Wheeler: We will look forward to that one. Thank you so much, Patti. It’s been wonderful talking and I do so admire your work.
Patti Callahan: Jenny, I love talking to you and happy 200th. Thank you for talking with me about these books I love so much. I appreciate it.
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