Did you ever come across someone and there are just so many coincidences you can’t help but acknowledge and celebrate them? Not only was I a reader of Patti Callahan Henry’s books, but then I found out we had the same publisher. And the same editor. And that she was born in Philadelphia, like me. So, how could I resist another opportunity to share Patti with all of you, to celebrate her eleventh novel (ELEVENTH NOVEL OMG OMG OMG), THE IDEA OF LOVE. Today, Patti shares her insight and expertise on finding your story and giving it life, and how she approaches novel-writing. I can’t write a book or a story or an essay without understanding WHY it’s a story I don’t want to tell, but need to tell. At some point my characters take over, it’s their story after all, but hearing this from Patti re-emphasizes that women’s fiction (at least the kind I want to write) comes from a well, and it’s our to reach inside and bring out whatever is there. Please welcome Patti Callahan Henry back to WFW!
Patti Callahan Henry Advises: UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE TELLING THIS STORY Amy: Yo, Patti! Congratulations to my Philly-St. Martin’s-editor-sister on your newest novel, THE IDEA OF LOVE! In your book, Ella’s husband dies in a sailing accident (this is not a spoiler, folks) while trying to save her, or so she’ll have everyone believe. So, what sparked the idea for the story? Do you remember the moment the idea came to you? Patti: Hi AMY! My Philly sister. So glad to be here again. I do remember when the seed of the story was planted. But it took me a while to realize it was a story. On book tour, I often hear this, “I have such a great story. Will you write it?” And I often joke that I don’t want to steal their story. But then I started to think, can you really steal a story? What would that mean and what would that look like? I imagined a desperate screenwriter trying to do just that. And then the characters started coming alive, like they tend to do. I added a little twist (not telling) and let it go from there. Amy: If I counted right (which is math, so there’s always “if”) you’ve had eleven novels and one short story published. What comes first to you? The premise, the characters, or something else? Has that changed with different books? Patti: What usually comes to me is a “what if” wrapped around a character. So I’d say they are inextricably tied together — the idea and the character. It really hasn’t changed since my first novel. I imagine the story, but I imagine it about someone, not as an abstract idea. Amy: What’s your work style? Do you plot and plan and theorize, and then write? Or do you sit down and write and see where the story and characters take you? Patti: Oh, Amy. I’d love to be a plot, outline, notecard kind of writer. I’d also like to have my spices organized alphabetically and my clothes by color and use. But that’s not how I roll. I sit down and wonder the same thing that I hope you wonder, “What will happen next?” Of course it’s not as free-for-all as that, but mostly it is. I do know what it is about. And I spend a long time thinking and free writing about who the characters are and what they want before I start Chapter One. Amy: In THE IDEA OF LOVE, Ella and Hunter get caught up in a tangle of lies. I’m always fascinated (and often write) about secrets and lies and how people deal with the repercussions. What did you intend for the reader to take away from this part of the story? Or what was your hope? What, if anything, did you learn from writing this (I always learn things from my characters, they’re way more insightful than I). Patti: Oh, I never have a goal for my readers to “take away.” I believe in the power of story so that they will take away what they want and need. Or at least that is my hope. And you are so right — my characters always teach me things. A couple in this book: People connect through the power of story. Even if those stories aren’t fully true. A connection is forged and empathy is found through the telling of the stories. And also there is power in re-telling the narrative of your life, in maybe even telling how you want it to be instead of how it is. And then there is the story of friendship and how someone can show up in your life in the most unexpected ways and if you remain open and curious, you just might find a new friend. Amy: It’s true, looks aren’t everything, but look at that book cover! It’s beautiful. As the author, what does it say to you about the book? And did you have a “cover vision” in your head? Patti: Oh thank you so much! I didn’t have much at all to do with the cover except saying, “OH I love that.” I didn’t have a cover vision in my head. Eleven books later, I’ve learned not to do that very thing because what I see and what the art department sees rarely converge. As the author, this cover seems to say, “What is that dress for? Why is love involved at all?” And as a reader I would want to find out. Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction? (Because really, that’s what they’re here for, in addition to adding to their TBR piles.) Patti: I am so remiss to give out advice because part of the writing process is about finding our own way. Yet, I also believe in the power of a community like this where we can share our stories and then find out what works for us as individuals. So in that light, I’d say, make sure you understand why you are telling this story. What does the character want? Why can’t they get it? How will they get it or something better in the end? Our minds feel comfortable in a narrative arc. We can tolerate discomfort and anxiety in a story when we know that there will be resolution. For me, the heart is the first target. Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling storyteller of eleven books, including The Stories We Tell, And Then I Found You, and Driftwood Summer. Patti lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama with her husband and three children, where she is crafting her next story.
6 thoughts on “Author Interview: Advice From New York Times Bestselling Author Patti Callahan Henry: “Understand Why You Are Telling This Story””
Terrific interview as always, Amy! Patti, I love this basic premise–that you have to understand WHY you’re telling the story first, if you’re going to write a book that resonates with readers. Very fun breakfast read this morning!
Yes, why you are telling this story needs to drive the arc of the action and influence the characters motivations. Congrats on your new book and thanks for underling this prime advice. LOVE YOUR COVER.
Hello from another Philly-area sister! Have to tell you I was flailing around with my next novel idea, dealing with that infernal voice that says “this is crap, this is crap,” because I too didn’t know why my character NEEDED what I thought she WANTED. So I agree, Patti and Amy, that your character must provide this puzzle piece of crucial information before you can devote the hours upon hours necessary to write her story. Great interview!
A thoughtful post. I often don’t find the heart of the story until I am halfway through.Then I do the reams of writing and discovery. I’m trying to be more thoughtful beforehand, but we all have our ways of working and I don’t seem to be able to do otherwise. If anyone would like to come over and alphabetize my spices, by all means.
Thank you both.
Wonderful interview. That cover on The Idea of Love is gorgeous. Patti’s comment about the cover and what she sees and what the art department sees, stirred my curiosity. How close was your conception of a cover and the art department’s? All of your cover’s are lovely. Amy, did you have a preconceived idea for a cover for The Glass Wives or The Good Neighbor? I love books with beautiful covers to match the beautiful story inside.
What a delicious new book! (Yes, my TBR list is piling higher as we speak.) The cover is beautiful and I love the list of ideas the story has taught you.
Patti, you didn’t say how long you freewrite with your characters, but somehow just hearing you say it gives me permission to fill notebooks instead of jumping in too soon and then having to rework the first half of the book.
Thanks to both of you for an insightful interview!