In “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry explores the turbulent life of Joy Davidman, wife of renowned writer C.S. Lewis.
Although not as well-known as her husband, “Helen Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis was a fiery, genius American award-winning poet and novelist,” Callahan Henry said. “She was also a former Jew, ex-atheist and ex-communist. She was a married woman with two children when she wrote a letter to C. S. Lewis in late 1949. And the story unfolds from there as Joy sets out on a 10-year transformational journey that not only changed her life but also the life and work of one of our most beloved authors of the 20th century — C. S. Lewis.”
“Becoming Mrs. Lewis” — Callahan Henry’s first historical novel — explores Davidman’s life, bringing to light her struggles and triumphs, her literary works and relationship with the renowned C.S. Lewis, who referred to her as “my whole world.”
Callahan Henry — whose books include “The Favorite Daughter” and “Losing the Moon” — also writes under the name of Patti Callahan.
Q: What did Davidman bring out in Lewis that other people didn’t? What did his friends think of her?
A: Joy has a wonderful quote where she states that she helps C. S. Lewis write more like himself, and I believe that this is also true about his life. She helped him become more like himself. Those who knew him say that he was joyful and softer with Joy than he’d been before.
There were mixed reactions among his friends. Famously, J.R.R. Tolkien did not like Joy — yet so many of C. S.’s friends loved Joy and spent time with her and traveled with them both. The negative reactions, I do believe, stemmed from societal, religious and behavioral differences. Joy was a Jewish New York divorcee; she was outspoken and brilliant. These attributes didn’t always meld well with Oxford dons and British sensibilities. Tolkien was also a profoundly devout Catholic and completely disapproved of his friend cavorting with a divorced woman with children, and yet there is a lovely story that Douglas, Joy’s son, tells of Tolkien inviting Douglas to live with him when C. S. — or Jack to his friends — passed away. Relationships, as we know, are complicated.
Q: What obstacles did she overcome?
A: If looked at from an aerial view, Joy’s life seems to be littered with obstacles. Maybe that’s why she was such a powerful woman — because she overcame them one by one. She came from an immigrant family that treated her harshly; she was sickly as a child and still kept up with her school work; she married a talented writer who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was therefore both an alcoholic and a philanderer. She had little support in either society or family for her work outside the home, and she eventually was diagnosed very young with stage four breast cancer. Her obstacles in many ways formed her, and yet they also brought her to a place of peace and love.
Q: Is your novel a love story or a journey to find truth of self?
A: My novel is a transformational journey of a woman who needed to find her self worth outside a relationship with a man and separate from success. But it is also the story of a woman who found Eros with a man who ended up loving her as deeply as she loved him. The love story and the truth of self — I call, like Thomas Merton, true self — is a braided story here.
Q: Why was the word “acceptance” so important to Joy?
A: Acceptance was so important to Joy because it was something she never had as a child, or as a wife in her first marriage. It was communicated to her in big and small ways that she was inadequate, wrong, and needed fixing. She ached, as we all do, to be accepted for who she really was even as she lost track of who she really was.
Q: Please talk about meeting Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham. What unique things did you learn about her?
A: What an honor it was to meet Douglas, and it all happened in the most synchronistic way. Two unique things he told me about her: One was the scene in the novel where Joy is sick and yet Jack kisses her on the lips. That, to Douglas, was proof of their love. Another was a time when he felt like he knew exactly what his mother wanted and brought it to her just as she needed it — a simple fly swatter. This was a story to show how very connected they were. He loves his mother deeply, and I can’t imagine the pain in losing her at such a young age.
Q: How would you like her to be remembered?
A: I would like Joy to be remembered as the brilliant poet and writer she was. I’d like people to know how brave she was in changing her life and therefore changing C. S. Lewis’ life. If Joy hadn’t stepped out in courage, Lewis’ work and our lives would be a little less rich.
Q: Why were you motivated to start your podcast “Behind the Scenes of Becoming Mrs. Lewis”?
A: There was so much extra material that didn’t end up in the novel — fascinating material. We talked about many options from essays to another book, but landed on a podcast. I took the seven or eight most asked questions and interviewed the experts I had interviewed for my novel. It was a much more involved and a much richer process than I had anticipated. I am thrilled with the entire collection.
Q: Please talk about your partnership with the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, or WAM.
A: My novel, “The Favorite Daughter,” is about the power of memory. In this story, the father has Alzheimer’s and I had interviewed Alzheimer’s experts to write the story. I had run across WAM and was completely impressed with what they were doing in the world, so I contacted them to partner. Everyone should know about them — they are doing amazing work in the world.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I have just finished a novel titled “Surviving Savannah,” a dual time line historical novel set in modern day and 1838 with the Pulaski shipwreck, called the Southern Titanic. We follow a family of 11 onto the steamboat, through the explosion off the coast of North Carolina, and forward. In modern times, a museum curator is designing an exhibit of the recently found Pulaski treasures while she uncovers the stories of that night — true story! It is very much a novel about the interplay of fate, destiny and choice and about how we survive the surviving. It will be released in March of 2021.