Rachel McMillan Interviews Patti Callahan on New Book About CS Lewis’s Wife Joy Davidman, the Woman Who Wanted Something More

Patti Callahan is the author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels. Her new book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, lifts Davidman from behind the shadow of her famous husband, shining a spotlight on her spirited personality, her accomplishments as a writer, and her profound wrestling with the mysteries of God and life. Novelist Rachel McMillan spoke with Callahan about her take on this remarkable romance.

It was easy to tell that Joy Davidman is a major passion project of yours. Why come out with this book now?

Timing is such a mystery. Years ago, I’d hit a dead-end in the work I was doing. Creativity and writing have always been my worship, my simple way of understanding God and the world as best I can, and yet after 12 novels, I was floundering with how to proceed. One night, with a group of my writer pals, someone asked, “What would you write about if you could write about anything?”

“C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman,” I said without any forethought. I hadn’t consciously admitted it to myself even once. “But I don’t write historical fiction.”

My friend’s face broke into a broad smile. She said, “If you don’t write that, I will.”

Well, that was all I needed. I believe Joy tapped me on the shoulder. Her brave personality, her indomitable spirit, and her no-holds-barred attitude joined me in my writing room. I felt, bone deep, that I needed to tell her story in a narrative that would bring her to life beyond the factual biographies (which are interesting and informative) and her public image as the dying wife of C. S. Lewis.

I want the world to know the woman not behind Lewis but next to him—the brilliant writer, the wife, the mother, and the eros-love he called his “whole world.”

The genre of fictional biography must have been daunting. How did you set about the arduous task of representing two historical figures who inspire strong opinions?

Daunting indeed! I dealt with loads of anxiety as to what and who I was really writing about. Mostly I told myself that I was just writing another novel. This cognitive dissonance was a constant juggling act as I researched and wrote for years. I believe in the power of story to tell a truth, and that carried me through. Also, Joy was with me in her words, her letters, her poetry, and her essays. Often, we come to know historical figures through fictional narrative, and then, if we so desire, we can go deeper and farther into their lives. (At the end of the novel, I attach a suggested reading list for readers who want to know more).

Also, I tackled the task with love. I so admired her, and of course, Lewis, that I approached the pages with humble reverence but also with the knowledge that they were both human and their pedestals were just as cracked as anyone’s. I didn’t want to portray the marble image but, instead, the woman and the man in their daily struggles, doubts, and fears as best I could.

There is an essay Joy once wrote called “On Fear,” and in that essay, she asks this question: “If we should ever grow brave, what on earth would become of us?” And I believe she answered that question with her life. I wanted to be as brave as she was—and this thought pulled me through every doubt.

Authors may have been tempted to make Joy’s “mystical experience”—one that was very much a Road to Damascus moment and trumped logic—the pivotal climax of the story, yet you decide to place it at the beginning. Can you talk about getting the “Come to Jesus moment” out of the way?

Really, it was her inciting incident, the one that set her off on a transformative journey. The climax of her story is the understanding that she is loved and accepted by the very God she encountered that night. There is first the experience and then the journey.

Joy could have ignored the on-her-knees moment when her first husband [noir author William Lindsay Gresham] threatened suicide and she was alone with her two boys, but instead she chose to dedicate her life to understanding what it meant. A less determined woman would have allowed that confusing night to fade into the background of her “hard-boiled skepticism” and dismissed the mystery as nothing more than fancy.

She is the first to say that her progress in the spiritual life was “heartbreakingly slow.” So if we are to talk of the experiential as an encounter, then what Joy experienced was just that—an encounter with God, and she was set to find out what that meant for her, her children, her work, and her life. And there the novel starts.

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Source: Christianity Today