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Interview: May 12, 2006

May 12, 2006 contributing writer Shannon McKenna interviewed Patti Callahan Henry, author of LOSING THE MOON, WHERE THE RIVER RUNS, and the newly released WHEN LIGHT BREAKS. In this interview, Henry characterizes writing a novel as an instinctual journey with no guarantees, and explains the basis for her love and belief in the power of storytelling. She also describes her affinity for the South Carolina Lowcountry and conveys what she hopes readers will take away from her books. What first sparked the idea for the storyline of WHEN LIGHT BREAKS?

Patti Callahan Henry: After the publication of my first novel, I took a long, hard look at why I was writing. I wanted to know what drove me to the page every day and I discovered that a large part of the reason I write is because I believe in the power of story. So, I decided that this novel would be about exactly the reason I write: the power of story. I wanted one woman’s story and life to change or influence another woman’s life in a positive direction. I believe the heart and mind communicate through reason and intellect, but the heart communicates through story.

BRC: Kara becomes intrigued with the story Maeve tells her about the boy she loved and lost in Ireland, which Kara later finds out is a blending of truth and legend. What appealed to you about incorporating aspects of Irish history and culture into the story?

PCH: The Irish culture is incredibly rich in myth and legend. Because this novel was about the ability of story to change a life, I wanted to blur the line between story and literal life, and the rich storytelling culture of Ireland was a perfect fit. One of the many themes in Irish legend is the presence of the sacred in ordinary daily life, and this is what I wanted to convey to, and for Kara through an Irish storyteller.

BRC: Kara works for the PGA TOUR and is engaged to a professional golfer, and sprinkled throughout the story are references to the game. Do you golf? If not, how did you research the aspects you needed to include in the story?

PCH: I don't golf, but my husband is an avid golfer as are both my sons. I live some of the golf life with my boys, and for the remainder, I convinced an employee of the PGA TOUR to tell me about her job. I went on site to the PGA TOUR East Lake Tournament and interviewed the amazing people who run these tournaments. Then, of course, I had my husband read the novel and make sure I didn't make a huge mistake (like knowing the difference between a birdie and a bogey.)

BRC: Amateur photographer Kara says that one of the reasons she likes to take pictures is “to keep the memories in order.” Are you a photography buff? Are your personal photo albums organized?

PCH: I am only a photography buff in my admiration of those who can take that great picture that captures a moment in time. One of my dearest friends is an incredibly gifted photographer, and I have always envied and admired this talent. I collect photographs of both my family life and particular photographs that evoke emotion, whether that be a scene or a person. My personal photo albums organized? Not so much --- but it is a goal. Really, it is.

BRC: Do you have a favorite scene in WHEN LIGHT BREAKS? How does this particular scene illuminate the story?

PCH: WHEN LIGHT BREAKS was such a joy to write that I have a very hard time choosing a particular scene that I just love. But if forced --- one of my favorites is the first time Kara and Maeve meet. I love the hints and clues Maeve drops into Kara’s life so the reader knows something good is coming --- something life changing that even Kara cannot see. I also adore the scene where Kara and Jack see each other after fifteen years.

BRC: In WHEN LIGHT BREAKS Maeve’s granddaughter remarks about her grandmother, “She loves to tell stories. She believes they guide and define our lives.” Do you believe stories have the power to guide and define people’s lives?

PCH: I do believe story (or good story) has the power to guide and define our lives. The power of story lies within its myriad ways to change us, or our outlook.

BRC: WHEN LIGHT BREAKS is set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, as were your previous novels. What is it about this setting that makes for great storytelling? What do you think appeals to readers about Southern settings?

PCH: I am drawn to this area for its raw, natural, unspoiled beauty. In a world of schedules, cell phones, Internet, and material acquisition, the Lowcountry reminds me of true beauty, true calm. It is a place where my spirits seem to rest and the family slows down. It is a lush, wild place where characters and readers can settle into a good story.

BRC: When did your affinity for storytelling begin? What made you take that initial leap and begin writing your first novel?

PCH: I grew up with my nose in a book and have always been fascinated with beautifully told stories. I also grew up as a preacher’s daughter, which is nothing more than listening to the same truth being told over and over in story. I slowly came to realize the power was not in the lecture, but the well-told story. My daughter is the one who reminded me I wanted to write novels. When she was six years old she told me she wanted to be a writer of books and this spurned me on to my original childhood dream.

BRC: Reviewers have compared your novels to the works of Anne Rivers Siddons, Pat Conroy, Mary Alice Monroe, and Patricia Gaffney. What is it like to join the ranks of such illustrious writers?

PCH: I am humbled and grateful to be compared to such outstanding writers. They are masters at crafting sentences rich in description and meaning. I can only hope that the comparisons arise from the deeper, shared truths we each explore in our novels. Or I can only hope they aren't offended.

BRC: Why do you think your books have struck such a chord with readers? WHEN LIGHT BREAKS is a work of fiction meant to entertain, but is there something more you hope readers will take away from the book?

PCH: Yes, of course I always hope that readers take away something more from my work. What is amazing to me is that each reader will take something different from each novel I've written. I hope the character's journey touches the reader's heart, makes them look at their own heart's desires, and then they can ask themselves what they really want in life aside from other's expectations. I also hope that readers take whatever they might need from the novel. I love when a reader is struck by a theme or meaning that I, even as the writer, hadn't realized was deep inside the story.

BRC: With the publication of WHEN LIGHT BREAKS, you now have three novels to your credit. Has the process evolved or changed for you in any way with the writing of each subsequent book?

PCH: The process of writing each novel has not changed that much since my first novel. I once heard that writers must always be willing to become beginners over and over again. And this is true. With each novel, I must start over, begin again. Somehow, between each novel, I forget how to write a book, but I start the same way each time: with a theme or “what if” and then watch the story evolve from there. I wish I had a scientific method, a more sure way to write, but it is just a step by step, word by word, page by page journey where I don't always see what is around the corner and there are no guarantees I am headed in the right direction.

BRC: WHEN LIGHT BREAKS will make for a terrific literary summer escape. What books will you be reading this summer?

PCH: SAVANNAH BREEZE by Mary Kay Andrews; FULL OF GRACE by Dorothea Benton Frank; TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee (I want to reread this book before I read her new biography); THE BEACH HOUSE by Mary Alice Monroe (I want to reread this before the sequel, SWIMMING LESSONS, is released next year); and then my just-finished rough draft of BETWEEN THE TIDES so I can clean it up and send it off to the presses.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

PCH: I am finishing a book called BETWEEN THE TIDES. It is a novel I wrote four years ago and have now come back to revisit and rewrite. It is the story of 35-year-old Catherine Leary. When her Southern Literature Professor Father passes away, he has one request for his only child: to scatter his ashes in the only site Catherine never wants to see again --- the Seaboro River in South Carolina, a place she believes she forced her family to leave when she was 12 years old. Now, a year after her Dad's death, Catherine has still not fulfilled his last wish, but when her Dad's colleague hints that her dad often returned to this town of her childhood, she finally returns to Seaboro on a poignant journey full of family secrets, lasting love and self-discovery as she uncovers the true reason her family left their beloved Lowcountry town. Readers can expect to see it on the shelves in May 2007.