Atlanta novelist Patti Callahan Henry chats with author Karen Spears Zacharias about Henry's latest work, The Art of Keeping Secrets, and the art of being a mother and writer in today's hectic world.

 Patti Callahan Henry

The Art of Keeping Secrets: Overview

It's been two years since Annabelle Murphy learned that her husband Knox's  plane crashed in the Colorado mountains. His remains have finally been found, along with those of an unidentified woman. Annabelle doesn't have any idea who the woman is, so she  immediately suspects the worst -- that Knox has been cheating on her. Her world shattered, she wonders -- is anything about her life -- past or present-- true? She embarks upon a quest to find out just exactly what and who she can believe in.   


The Art of Keeping Secrets: Interview

Q: How much of this story did you know before you sat down before that blank computer screen?


PCH: I knew less about this story than any story I’ve written to date. I only knew that Annabelle believed in her safe (and maybe small) life. She didn’t think she had the problems and issues that others dealt with (like those who wrote into her advice column). I knew that this “image” of her life was going to be dealt a severe blow when they found her husband with another woman. After that, the reader takes the same journey I did to discover who this woman was and why she was on the plane.


Q: With AnnabelleMurphy, you've nailed that emotional flux that widows/ers face -- the constant remembering of how things once were while trying to accept the reality of the present. Did you have someone in mind when you developed Annabelle?


PCH: I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind when I wrote about Annabelle. She seemed to be alive and separate from anyone I knew. Her vacillating emotions are individual and universal at the same time. I believe we all look at the past and wonder if it was really as great as we remember. Are some things better as a memory?


Q: I love that scene in which Annabelle forgets to take food to the bible study group, but I wonder, is that a payback scene, written primarily to allow the author a moment to indulge in The Art of Being Snide?


PCH: Snide? Me? Never. Okay, it’s a fair question. Actually I think it was a bit more of the Art of Paying Attention to the ridiculous way women sometimes treat other women who are in pain. There are many people who believe that doing everything “just right”, or never messing up, defines a well-lived life. But sometimes life is messy and on the other side of that mess is a new and better life. Sometimes. And as a preacher’s daughter, yes, it is fun to poke at the absurd rituals like ‘bringing snack’ to bible study.

Q: The interplay between Annabelle and her son Jake is classic southern mama loves her boy stuff. Did you craft Jake after your own sons, or after another man in your life?


PCH: If I crafted this relationship after my relationship with my sons, it was unconscious. As a parent, the love I possess for my children is deeper than anything I’ve experienced, and I used this emotion to imagine how Annabelle would feel about protecting Jake. I put her in the worst possible place – attempting to let him go as he is now in college and needs to make his own choices, and yet needing him to help her through this storm of unknowing. I believe this combination of needing him and releasing him made things worse for her in the middle of the book, but I wanted her to be stronger at the end of the story.


Q: I learned so much about dolphins and Greek mythology from Sofie. Who did you learn it from?  


PCH: I have always loved myths and legends. Almost all my books have some element of myth in them (When Light Breaks is all about the Claddagh legend). I took what I knew of these this particular Greek myth(Ariadne), and then did some research to delve deeper into why the character would hide behind the name and the myth. I believe, as most storytellers do, that myth and legend influence the way we look at life, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.


Q: One of the things I love most about your stories, Patti, is the same thing I love about Anne River Siddons's tales -- you are always taking the reader around the blind corner to encounter the unexpected. Where'd you learn to plot like that?


PCH: My stories take me on the same unexpected twists. I often think I know where I’m going with a character or plot, and suddenly I’m around the corner doing something else and then I have to readjust. I’m not a very good outliner, or pre-plotter, although I wish I were so the writing would move faster and smoother. I usually just understand the “what if” and go from there. Of course the downside to this kind of writing is that I have to revise numerous times (please don’t ask how many). Also, my stories often require research, and I find inspiration and plot twists inside the ‘real’ life research (for example – in this story, the dolphin research enriched the plot turns). And from a writing-craft position – the Hero’s Journey offered insight into the natural and inherent human understanding of and need for story structure.


Q:  Besides being a bestselling novelist, you are also the mother to three absolutely darling children kids with the very busy schedules of dance and baseball and school. How do you make the time to write a bestselling book every year? Who cooks dinner at your house?


PCH: This is the constant struggle – balance. On some days I have the chapter written, the laundry folded and a hot dinner on the table just in time for the baseball game. Okay, so that is an ideal day that has happened once or twice. On most days one of those above-mentioned things just doesn’t get done. I’ve had my dark moments of wondering if I can do it (write a book) again, and bright moments when I know I can. I return again and again to my belief in two things: 1. Writing is a precious gift from God; it is easier to keep writing than quit, and 2. there is power in a well-told story. My teenage daughter is home sick today so the chapter didn’t get written because we were at the doctor. I try very hard to step back and look at the larger tapestry and not get bogged down in the panic of perfection. All of this –family, kids, friends, life and writing – are gifts and I try to embrace them all and not turn them into a burden of busyness.

Q:  Who are the people who've mentored you in this art of writing?


PCH: Over the past ten years my mentors have changed from authors I’ve never met to dear friends and confidantes. Many whom I count as mentors, I’ve never met. In the beginning, the mentors were the authors who wrote about the art of writing and made me believe in its gift: Anne Lamott; Julia Cameron; Stephen King; C.S. Lewis: George McDonald; blessed Madeleine L’Engle. Then after I was published, I began to meet and befriend some of the most inspirational and beautiful people I’ve ever known—other authors. My heart flew wide open when I found the world where other people cared as much about books, words and stories as I did.


Q:  My most favorite truth from the story is when Mrs.Thurgood tells Annabelle that our conclusions and assumptions are like "poorly packed luggage -- falling apart and needing to be redone as we journey through life." Is this your line or did you borrow that line from somebody?


PCH: No borrowing allowed. Thank you for the compliment. Sometimes the characters teach me something. When Mrs. Thurgood said this, I laughed. And therein lies the mystery of writing – sometimes, on a very good day--the characters know more than we do.


Q:  Okay. No secrets now. What are you working on next?

PCH: The book is tentatively called DRIFTWOOD SUMMER. It is about a family, a summer-resort town and a bookstore. The novel is narrated by three sisters -- when their mother falls after her evening martini and breaks her hip, the sisters – two who are estranged over a man they both loved– must come together to run the family bookstore called The Driftwood Cottage. The cottage is turning 200 years old, and a large anniversary celebration for the small town, and the cottage have been planned. Like driftwood washed ashore, time has changed many things. During this celebration, many people from the pastreturn, including the man whom the two oldest sisters once loved. Secrets are revealed, wounds are healed and both the town and the sisters will be changed forever.