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Interview: August 19, 2011

Patti Callahan Henry is not only a married mother of three, but also a New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including BETWEEN THE TIDES and DRIFTWOOD SUMMER. Hailed as a fresh new voice in southern fiction (though she is originally from Philadelphia), her latest book, COMING UP FOR AIR, is about a house on the coast of Alabama --- a place that reveals the truth and changes the lives of Ellie Calvin and her loved ones.’s Bronwyn Miller spoke with Patti about the generation gaps between her characters and how she balanced several storylines in different time periods, such as the early days of the Civil Rights movement. She divulges her organic writing style, how motherhood has influenced her work and also kept her grounded in the “metaphorical dirt of real life,” and why her books appeal to so many avid readers of southern fiction. Congratulations on the publication of COMING UP FOR AIR, your eighth novel! How did writing this book differ from your first, LOSING THE MOON?

Patti Callahan Henry: Each book I write, I “Begin Again,” forgetting that I know how to write an entire novel --- that hasn't changed at all through all eight novels. The panic remains. But the one thing that has changed --- I feel more confident in the way I say things. In writer-speak, I mean that I feel as if I've found my “voice,” and in LOSING THE MOON, I was digging into the soil of my words to find “that way.” 

BRC: In COMING UP FOR AIR, Ellie, her mother, Hutch, Cotton, Birdie, and most of the characters are dealing with regret and worry over whether they’ve made the right decisions in their lives, and their struggles make them so relatable. What is it about regret that everyone can relate to?

PCH: When crossroads appear, we tend to look to the past to discover how we reached that place in our life. We ask, “How did I get here?” and we sometimes find regret. I believe we all have our “road not taken.” We've all made choices that had more to do with the expectations of others than with a desire of our own. Tapping into this universal truth makes a character more relatable, I think. 

BRC: In the novel, we get to see different generations, from Ellie and her complicated marriage to Rusty and feelings for Hutch, to Lillian’s secret love from the summer of ’61, to Birdie and Cotton. Was it challenging to balance several storylines in different time periods? 

PCH: Yes, honestly it was difficult. This book took me a long time to write, and I think it was not only because of the subtlety of the emotions, but also the overlapping storylines. Each individual woman's story influenced the other, and exposing secrets had to be done at just the right time. But I truly loved every minute of digging through these timelines. My research and the characters’ emotions began to overlap and form a story that felt like it began to unfold on its own. 

BRC: Through her conversations with Birdie, Micah and Cotton, Ellie learns about the tumultuous times in Alabama during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. How did you go about researching that time period? 

PCH: This research began as just one event (The Freedom Riders) and ended with a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, where I needed to see the sites in person. I just moved to Birmingham, Alabama, after 26 years in Atlanta, and the history of the Civil Rights movement began to wiggle its way into my heart. We all know the “facts,” but what about the story? The echo of those harrowing times still reverberates through families and individuals, and I wanted to show a very small piece of that truth. 

For the photos of my trip to Montgomery, go to

BRC: Through her mother’s journal, Ellie learns about Lillian’s secret love and her activism, a part of her life she never spoke about. If your children were to read your journal years from now, what might they discover about you that they didn’t already know? 

PCH: I've instructed my children to burn my journals upon my death. Okay, not really. But I'm a pretty open book --- which is both a good and bad thing. They wouldn't find a “secret” I've kept hidden, but I think they would find a woman who is a bit more complex than they imagine at the moment. To my kids, I am Mom who keeps the house and life running and who sort of writes books on the side. I think they will be surprised to see how obsessed I am with story and finding just the right word to say just the right thing. 

BRC: Throughout the novel, the reader is on this emotional journey with Ellie, and her story (and her mother’s as well) is filled with twists and turns that keep the reader guessing right until the end. When you write, do you utilize an outline first and methodically plot out exactly where you want your characters to end up, or is your style more organic, letting the characters lead you where they will?

PCH: Oh, how I want to be that kind of writer --- the outline kind of writer, but I'm not at all. I also want to be the mom who organizes pictures by year and event, and the kind of woman who hangs her clothes by color, but I’m not that either. Maybe that is why this novel took longer to write --- the organic unfolding of two lives. I don't know if the characters lead me where they will, as much as I guide them, but I need to know them before I guide them and that takes time. 

BRC: While at the guesthouse cottage in Bayside, Ellie is fortunate enough to have the rare experience of witnessing a “jubilee.” I had never heard of this phenomenon. Is this something that’s exclusive to coastal Alabama? 

PCH: It is said that the Jubilee occurs in only two places --- The Mobile Bay and The Tokyo Bay. This phenomenon was the inspiration for not only the title of the novel, but also the themes. When I first heard about a Jubilee, I was fascinated, at first not believing that it was “real.” I am consistently curious about the mysterious, the unexplained and the mystical, as the Jubilee seems to be!

BRC: Miss Birdie’s magical bayside cottage, where all truths are revealed, provides the perfect backdrop for Ellie’s emotional journey of discovery. Was there ever an inspiration or mythical place like that in your life?  

PCH: I often write about places, times and towns I wish I had in my life. So although I've never had a home like the bayside cottage, for me rivers and seas seem to be that “magical place where all truths are revealed.” If I can just get my head to be quiet for more than two seconds, the water and quiet will whisper to me.

BRC: In your novel, Ellie and Hutch are fans of the singer Melody Gardot. I had never heard of her before but have since checked out her catalog. She’s incredible, and her torchy kind of music provides the perfect soundtrack to the story. Thanks for the recommendation! How did you come to know her work? 

PCH: Oh! Don't you just LOVE her music? I came to know her work when I was on my Norah Jones Pandora station. The minute I heard Melody's song “Love Me Like A River Does,” I bought all her music. She has such an incredible story behind her music. I love the story behind the story with anyone or anything, and Melody is a grand example of a horrific tragedy turning into beauty. The words and lyrics open my heart every time. I played her music the entire time I was writing this novel. I wish everyone could have her soundtrack to listen to while they read COMING UP FOR AIR.

BRC: You have the poem “With that Moon Language” by the Persian poet Hafiz as a sort of coda to the story. What made you choose that particular poem? 

PCH: That gorgeous, beautiful, heart-opening poem touched me in a way that only poetry can. When I read that poem, I had chills. I read it when I was about three-fourths of the way through writing the novel and I knew that this was the coda (perfect word) for both Lillian and Ellie as they struggled between expectation and love, between rejection and acceptance: “Love Me” is all they ever wanted. Who doesn't, right? And that line --- that incredible line, “who lives with a full moon in each eye” --- broke my heart in the best way possible.

BRC: You’re often called a “fresh new voice in southern fiction,” although you’re not originally from the south. What makes a story or a writer uniquely southern? What is it about your work that appeals to readers of southern fiction? 

PCH: I grew up in Philadelphia, which usually isn't considered southern, right? I moved south when I was 12 years old. I went to Auburn University and then moved to Atlanta, where I lived until two months ago when we moved our family to Mountain Brook, Alabama. Quite the journey from Philadelphia to Birmingham; not a trip I think a lot of people make. “What Makes a Story or Writer Southern” is probably a class I can't teach, but I believe it has something to do with southern setting, tradition, deep melancholy and family ties. If you mix those four ingredients all together in a bowl and stir, I think a “southern” story is made. I can't say, really, what about my work appeals to readers of southern fiction, but I hope it continues! 

BRC: I’m always so curious about writers and their writing schedules, especially ones that are as prolific and as busy as you are. Do you schedule your writing time like a 9-to-5 job? Typically, how long does it take you to complete a novel from start to finish?

PCH: Each novel is different as far as timing. Where BETWEEN THE TIDES was a four-year on-and-off affair, DRIFTWOOD SUMMER took a year and COMING UP FOR AIR was a two-and-a-half-year journey. Because I don't write a particular way, meaning an outline or a predestined ending, the times vary. I do schedule my writing time for the morning. This early-day habit started when my kids (who are now teenagers) were babies, and I needed to write before they woke. Now my muse (if there is such a thing) meets me in the morning.

BRC: You’re a married mother of three. How has your family informed your work? What do your children think of your writing success? 

 My family informs my work in as much as they keep me completely involved in everyday life. If I didn't have my family, or their love, I am quite sure I would be a recluse typing words and stories all day long OR out talking to other writers about words and story, but my family keeps my hands in the metaphorical dirt of real life. My kids don't think much of my writing success, they mainly just want to know what's for dinner and if I washed the baseball uniform. I think for all kids, moms are moms and their job is just what they “do.” I know they are proud, but it doesn't really extend into our everyday life.

BRC: You’re doing many appearances and readings around the publication of this novel, and you also participate in book club events. Writing can be such a solitary endeavor. Do you enjoy this public aspect of your writing career? What do you gain from talking to readers and fans?

PCH: One of the greatest joys of the writing life is meeting readers and fans. I love that part of this career. When you meet someone who cares as much as you do about stories and writing, a friendship is usually born. So, yes, I enjoy being out on the road speaking and meeting people, but there has to be a balance between solitude and socialization. I've found that my “solitude” and my “socialization” must be separated by weeks at a time. I can't be on a book tour AND write. I can't write AND go out every single night. I find my best balance in chunks of time.

BRC: In an interview, you once mentioned that your favorite quote was “It’s never too late to be who you might have been” by George Eliot. Did you have this in mind when you were writing this novel?

PCH: If I did have this quote in mind, it was subconscious. (Hmmm…how much great writing comes from the subconscious? Probably a lot).