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Interview: April 11, 2013

Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, AND THEN I FOUND YOU, is inspired by true events and tells the story of Katie Vaughan, a woman whose life is full of tough choices and who has dark secrets. Katie needs to confront those from her past and make peace with a secret that has been haunting her in order to live and love to her fullest. In this interview with’s Bronwyn Miller, Henry shares her personal ties to this story, the theme of making peace with the past, and the experience of writing a novel so based in truth. She also discusses her writing regimen, another upcoming book tour, and the challenge of being a full-time wife, mother and author --- three elements that have greatly impacted her career. The genesis of AND THEN I FOUND YOU comes from a source very close to home --- from your very own sister’s life. What made you want to base the book on such a personal story? What was your sister’s reaction? What sort of feedback did you get from the rest of your family?

Patti Callahan Henry: This new novel isn’t so much based on my sister’s story --- that is hers to tell --- but is definitely inspired by her story. The real life story was amazing, a true reunion and love story, and we all wanted to shout it to the world. But the question was --- how? It was a family decision to write the book. I wouldn’t have written it without my sister’s blessing. And yet, I didn’t use the facts of the story, just the emotional truths with some hints of “real life” hidden inside the narrative. So far, the family reaction has been wonderful, positive and inspiring.

BRC: Many of your novels deal with characters who are trying to make peace with his/her past. For example, in AND THEN I FOUND YOU, Kate wants to put things right with Jack before moving forward with Rowan. What is it about this theme that is so appealing to you?

PCH: I don’t know what makes this theme so inspiring to me. It’s a subconscious choice that I seem to repeat over and over. I think what I do when I write is this: I put a woman in a situation where she must make a choice, and to make that choice she must look at the past to decide her future. I play with the “what if” and “I wonder what happens next,” and often this involves looking at the past.

BRC: Ever since she was young, “Kate wanted to be something and someone different than she was --- she wanted to be a girl with purpose and a meaning.” Could this also describe a young Patti Callahan Henry? How much of yourself is in your characters?

PCH: Yes, I’m sure it does. I don’t think I thought that deeply as a child, but I know that every time I read a book or disappeared into a fictional world, I had the tugging-feeling of something larger than I was at the time. I had the vague feeling of wanting more and reaching out for it in some amorphous way I couldn’t describe. I don’t know how much of myself hides inside my characters, but I always say that even though the characters aren’t me, of course they come from me.

BRC: Did your real-life niece inform the character of Emily? If it’s not too personal, does she have a relationship with your sister now?

PCH: My niece’s name is Catherine, and yes, she did inform Emily’s character. Not entirely, of course. I spent some time talking to Catherine about her feelings with adoption and finding her birth mother, and then I incorporated those into a character who had already been developed. Yes, she has a beautiful relationship with my sister and actually with all of us. She is active in our lives and is best friends with my daughter, Meagan. Our family grew with this single reunion.

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from AND THEN I FOUND YOU?

PCH: I don’t usually have a “take away” I want for the reader. I want to tell a good story that is well told. The novel is about so many things --- waiting, wondering, losing, finding, and the profound changes that reunions bring to a life --- that I wouldn’t want to choose what is most important for the reader. I’d like the reader to choose what is most important to them!

BRC: You first released an eBook work of short nonfiction, entitled FRIEND REQUEST, that tells the real story upon which this novel was inspired. How was this experience different from writing a novel? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction in the future? As an author, do you feel there is more pressure on you when you’re writing about an event from real life, even if you fictionalize it?

PCH: I loved writing that nonfiction piece, but my heart belongs to fiction, so I’m not sure when I would do that again. The experience was different (and difficult), especially since I was writing about someone very close to me (my sister). So, yes, I felt more pressure than I do when someone I love isn’t involved in the story. But it was a great experience, bringing us all closer.

BRC: Can you tell us a little bit about “A Good Blog is Hard to Find”? On that blog, the late writer Julie Cannon was quoted as saying, “I think the key to making a story come alive is being willing to rip a page from your own life, to draw upon your deepest pain without flinching.”It seems as if you did just that with this novel. Would you agree? What has been the most challenging part of this experience?

PCH: Absolutely. You nailed it with that quote! I flinched, of course, but I tried not to! I’ve had numerous readers (who know my other works), ask “What did you do differently? I can feel it.” And my answer is that I tried not to flinch, but to stare into the harder thoughts, emotions and situations. While I was writing this novel, I was going through some of my own major life changes (my oldest child and only daughter leaving for college while I was simultaneously moving from the city and the house where I raised my children). I believe that my honest and hard look at not only the fictional story, but also my own changing life, came through in the narrative.

BRC: I heard the first thing you ever wrote was actually a memoir entitled MY LIFE. Have you ever thought about publishing it now? What inspired you to start with a memoir rather than a novel, and what caused you to make the switch to fiction?

PCH: I have absolutely no thoughts of publishing it, ever. I wrote it when I was 12 years old. In hindsight, I see it was my first attempt to make sense of the world through words (we’d just moved from Philadelphia to South Florida).

BRC: You’ve published nine novels since your first book, LOSING THE MOON, in 2004. That’s an incredible amount of work in such a short time, not to mention being a full-time wife and mother of three. I can imagine you have to be extremely disciplined about your schedule. Can you tell us about your writing regime?

PCH: I’m actually not very disciplined, just very obsessed. I attempt to get to the desk every morning after the kids have left for school. I don’t work much on the weekends unless it is editing or reading. So, my ideal schedule is writing in the morning, which I find to be my most productive and imaginative time.

BRC: Kate was so dedicated to her work with the girls at the Winsome Wilderness camp in Arizona, especially young Lida, to whom she became an unlikely mentor. Is there anyone in your past, either personally or professionally, who has mentored you? 

PCH: Growing up with my dad as a preacher, I’ve had innumerable mentors in youth group directors and young adults. Through the years, the mentor roles change, of course. When I was growing up, it was a woman who was a close family friend. In adulthood, it is mostly the writers like Mary Alice Monroe, who have taken me into their confidence and offered me an example of professionalism and wisdom.

BRC: You do a number of appearances and readings with your novels. Is this an enjoyable part of the process, or is it nerve-wracking? What is the most pleasurable part of the entire novel-writing experience? How does social networking enter into the picture?

PCH: It is both enjoyable and nerve-wracking. Just now, I am preparing to leave on a book tour (17 events) and I’m nervous. And excited. And tired. The most enjoyable part is meeting my readers and seeing friends on the road. I am always re-energized seeing something beyond my attic-office and computer screen. Social networking has changed the writer’s world dramatically. I am constantly torn between writing the story and engaging in an interesting conversation on Twitter and Facebook where I am active! It’s a balance and I don’t juggle well…yet.

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

PCH: I am working on a story about a woman who must find the truth between two stories --- a truth that will change her life.