A conversation with Patti Callahan Henry and Laura Lane McNeal

Laura Lane McNealPatti Callahan Henry

PCH: I feel like I knew you before we met. But I do remember the first time we met -- at a friend's house in Birmingham, Alabama when you were on book tour for your debut novel, Dollbaby. You are about to go on the paperback tour for the same book. What was that first experience like?

LLM:  Getting published and going on your first tour is like presenting yourself naked to the world because you have no idea if people will like your book! I was thrilled when a mutual friend invited you to the party they were having for me when I visited Birmingham, but I didn’t really expect a New York Times Bestselling author to come, much less pay a lick of attention to me, but there you were at the party in Birmingham giving me a big welcome hug. From the moment I saw your adorable face, I thought this is a person I would love to get to know, not because of your success as a writer, but because I felt this spark—I knew I’d met a very special person. And I was right. You reached out and picked me up, told me it was okay to breathe, and offered your friendship and advice wholeheartedly! I can’t begin to tell you how much that meant to me. What I’ve come to learn is that meeting new friends is the best part of this business, and I’m always amazed to hear other author’s stories.

Patti, your new novel, The Idea of Love is your eleventh novel. That is quite an accomplishment! How has writing, or the business of writing and publishing, changed along the way for you?

PCH: Laura, you know I felt the same way the minute I met you. And you’re right, almost any author will say that finding your “tribe” is such a special part of being an author. It’s as if you go out into the world with your new book and discover that you aren’t alone in the world. But publishing has changed so much over the past twelve years. I submitted my first novel in a brown envelope after I’d made a copy at Kinkos. Now, we just hit send from the computer. And yet the writing has not changed so much for me. Sure, I’m more comfortable in the skin of it all, but I still get stuck in the middle, I still have to sit and find a new way to say something that might have already been said. The thing that has changed the most for me is my trust in the process of it all. I don’t get so worried when I am floundering. (I worry, but not as much). Trust in the process.

So, Laura, I know that you trusted that process and Dollbaby has been called a love story to the city of New Orleans. How do you feel about that?

LLM: Sometimes it takes a life changing experience to kick you in the rear end and set you on a new path. That’s what happened to me in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina blew in and destroyed our way of life. I had to move away for five months and put my kids in school in a totally new environment, not knowing if we’d ever be able to return to New Orleans. During this time I did a lot of reflecting, and what I decided was this -- if I was going to have to start my life over again, I was going to do it the way I wanted to, and that was to embark on the writing career I’d put off for so long, and to write about New Orleans in a way that I felt no one else had. It was my way of putting New Orleans back on the map, my way of giving back. So yes, in a sense, Dollbaby is a love song to the city of New Orleans. We all reinvent ourselves in one way or another at different points in our life. Which brings me to your new novel, The Idea of Love, about two people trying to cope with losses or failures and figuring out a way to come through it even when the possibilities are not perfect. So tell me Patti, how did you come up with the story for The Idea of Love, and do you think life experiences give you the ability to cope with issues in a different way?

PCH: It does take life experiences to push us in new directions. But this story, The Idea of Love, came from experiences that happen to me over and over. The seed of this story started on book tour two years ago. Over and over readers say to me “ I have this great story.” And I reply, “You should write it. I don’t want to steal your story.” And that got me to thinking, “Can we steal a story? What does that even mean?” That’s where Blake Hunter, a fictional failed screenwriter entered my imagination. I started toying with the idea of stealing a real story, a love story in particular. So he lies. He goes into the world to meet women, and lies about who he is and what he’s doing. Until finally he meets his match. So, although my first novel came from a deep desire to finally pursue writing, this novel was born of a certain everydayness, a way of seeing what is normal in a new way.
So, Laura, are any of the characters in Dollbaby from your life? Anyone you know?

LLM: I suppose that’s a question we as writers get asked often, especially because of the old adage ‘write what you know.’ Most of the characters in Dollbaby are fictional, but certainly traits can be taken from real life people we know. Fannie, for instance, has my grandmother’s demeanor and in fact Fannie was my grandmother’s name, but Fannie is not my grandmother. Ibby is not me, although I did take certain aspects from my childhood and add them to the story, such as having that silly pageboy haircut, having to wear little puffy sleeved dresses, and celebrating birthdays at Antoine’s restaurant. There are a few characters that did exist, such as Mr. Henry and Lucy the Duck Lady. The rest of the characters embody what I visualize as New Orleans, what makes it such a unique and wonderful place. As in your novel, many of the characters in Dollbaby are hiding secrets in their past. Do you think we all harbor secrets, and is that what makes The Idea of Love something we all can relate to?

PCH: Ah, secrets and lies—fodder for good stories, for sure! Yes, in The Idea of Love, we learn that even a small un-truth can start to wind itself outward into more lies. But we also look at what this might do for good. Ella, the character who is telling the love story to the screenwriter, begins to see what she wants her life to be instead of what it is. Like you, I don’t write about myself or people I know in real life, but I do gather characteristics from those around me and use the most interesting ones. Both the main characters in this novel are disappointed with the turns their life has taken, so they are trying their best to find new ways to live. Sometimes, as we know, this gets a little messy! I think this has happened in almost all of my novels – the characters get themselves into a mess while trying to get themselves out of a mess. Irony at its best. I know Dollbaby is your first novel, do you see yourself repeating some of those themes in your next novel? What are you working on now?

LLM: When I wrote Dollbaby, I sought to write a novel that would endure the test of time, and to do so involves writing about universal themes such as love, loss, hate, redemption, prejudice, sacrifice and family. Each of the main characters in Dollbaby are seeking the answer to a life’s question we all ask ourselves at one point  – where do I fit into this world? For this reason alone, I think Dollbaby has translated into much more than just a Southern story. Many of these themes will again be translated into my next novel, which begins on Christmas eve 1926 on River Road in Louisiana when a menagerie of misfits congregate at an old family home isolated in a bend of the Mississippi River, brought together by the devastation of the Great Flood and Depression, where each must find a new way to navigate through life.

Patti, you’ve found outstanding success as a novelist! I find it amazing that you’ve been able to write eleven novels in eleven years. How do you find new ways to tell stories, and most importantly, what’s next for Patti Callahan Henry?

PCH: Laura, you are so sweet! I don’t know if I find new ways to tell stories, but I do find new stories to tell. I think you’re right—each story asks a question. And often my characters find themselves at a cross roads in life. They are going about their life doing what they do and seeing what they see and living how they live and something stops them in their tracks. It is then that they realize they can’t move forward in the ways they have before. They must make choices and they must change. But how? The bigger questions are asked and they have to do with love, family, loss, friendship, jobs, marriages and all that encompasses the life we lead. But each novel seems to have an overarching question. The Idea of Love asks, “Can something that started out wrong turn out right?” Among many other questions. The next novel I’m working on asks, “When is love enough to change a life?”