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New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry has published ten novels: Losing the Moon, Where the River Runs, When Light Breaks, Between the Tides, The Art of Keeping Secrets, Driftwood Summer, The Perfect Love Song, Coming up for Air, And Then I Found You, and The Stories We Tell.
Some fast facts about her:
- Henry has been shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction
- Nominated four different times for the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Novel of the Year.
- Her work is published in five languages and in audiobook by Brilliance Audio.
- Henry has appeared in numerous magazines including Good Housekeeping, skirt! magazine, South magazine, and Southern Living.
- Two of her novels were Okra Picks and Coming up For Air was selected for the August 2011 Indie Next List.
- Henry lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama.
Check out this fantastic interview!
AMIE FLANAGAN: You were a former nurse! How did being in the medical field influence your style of writing?
Patti Callahan Henry: I published my thesis on closed head injuries well over twenty years ago. It was a grueling and year long process and I believe it was training ground for writing novels. Also, in this new novel, The Stories We Tell, I have a character, Willa, who has a head injury. I incorporated some of my experience in this portion of the novel. Otherwise, I think wearing that white nurse’s uniform hasn’t shown up in any of my work.
AF: Did your interactions with your patients help you as a writer with your interactivity with other people?
Patti Callahan Henry: I sure hope that patient-care influenced the rest of my life. I believe it has helped me take to hear the phrase I like so much, “Be kind, you never know what someone is going through.” I’m probably a little more curious about people’s lives now, and I ask a lot of questions, delving into their stories.
AF: You’re books have such a strong plot and subplots. As a nurse, you had to have been fairly thorough. Do you use an outline or do you have some idea of where your stories are going?
Patti Callahan Henry: OH, I wish I outlined. I’d love to be an outliner and an organized person. But sadly I’m not either one of those. I start with an idea and then I sit down every day and ask “What happens next?”, which isn’t much different than how I live my life. I do outline when I have finished the rough draft just to make sure that timelines are right and that I haven’t missed a major plot point.
AF: You seem to like to play with forms of the stories. Sometimes you write with different narrators (Driftwood Summer) and sometimes through flashbacks (And Then I Found You), how do you determine the best way to tell the story?
Patti Callahan Henry: Every story demands a different narrator. I don’t overanalyze this, or I’d never sit down to write, but I do ask myself, “Who can tell this story this best?” In The Stories We Tell, we hear from Eve in first person immediate, and this is the first time I’ve written a novel this way. It gave the book an urgent feel and I loved that.
AF: In your last book, And Then I Found You, you did the flashbacks so naturally that they didn’t seem contrived. Can you give advice to writers about how you did this?
Patti Callahan Henry: I think about flashbacks in real life – how you are just going along with your day and something triggers a memory: a smell, a comment, a song or seeing someone from the past. I try to do the same thing in a story. The flashback needs to not only be triggered but also have purpose in moving the story forward.
AF: I love that most of your books aren’t over the top. They seem to be filled with the natural drama of a person’s life. How do you strike that perfect balance where a story is dramatic, but it’s not over the top?
Patti Callahan Henry: Oh, what a lovely compliment! I’m not sure how I strike that balance other than my own internal radar for “too much.”
AF: What techniques do you use to keep your readers emotionally invested in your work?
Patti Callahan Henry: I’ve never thought about it this way but it’s a lovely way to think about stories. My goal is to tell a good story where the reader cares about the character. I write honestly, delving into the emotional lives of the characters (for the good and bad of it all) and hope that the reader is along for the ride.
AF: Your characters are so well rounded. They often feel like they are real people. What techniques do you use in order to get to know your characters? Or do they just show up in your imagination?
Patti Callahan Henry: Characters really do just show up, or I guess you could say I make them up. But I also know that along the way I use attributes and foibles of people I know because like we say, we only have our own compost pile to work with! I’m also fascinated with psychology and personalities so often I will know my character’s background (e.g.: alcoholic parents) and then I will know what has influenced their personality.
AF: You do a great job with descriptions. What advice do you give to writers about concrete descriptions that don’t go into purple prose?
Patti Callahan Henry: I do a lot of editing when it comes to description. I tend to over-describe and go back and take out the parts where I’ve repeated myself or gone all purple. My advice would be to fall into the description: the sights, the sounds, the smells, and offer the details. You can always take it out later. The Universal is best told in the particular.
AF: What advice would you give to young writers?
Patti Callahan Henry: My advice isn’t anything new; I wish it were so that I could change a young writers life. But it’s the same as it has always been: read, write, read, read, write, write. Get involved in the literary community—go to readings and conferences and workshops. Follow authors on social media. Ask questions. Take classes. Read. Read. Read. Write. Read. Write. Get Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and . After that, get any other book on writing that you want and glean from it what you can.