- Published: 27 August 2011 27 August 2011
"Romantic storytelling at its best," says Kirkus in a starred review of COMING UP FOR AIR, the latest novel from Patti Callahan Henry. It's a tale about mothers and daughters, about the lives we live and the loves we regret, and about the choices we make and the ones we wished we'd made. Join author Karen Spears Zacharias as she and Patti talk about writing, about choices, about children and about the Jubilee.
KAREN: Patti, I have a confession to make. Reading Coming up for Air made me really uncomfortable at times. I saw a lot of myself in Ellie’s mother, Lilly. Where did the characterization of Lilly originate?
PATTI: I'm not sure where she originated, probably in the strange recesses of my subconscious. But I got to know her through her journal. As I wrote her yearly entries, I came to know her (over eighty pages of her journal aren't in the novel, but I have them). I knew she'd had a broken moment in her life and had then shut off her emotions, wanting to protect her daughter from all forms of mistakes and heartbreak...
KAREN In many ways Ellie goes off the deep end when Lilly dies. Her mother’s death causes her to reevaluate her life’s choices. How often did you see this sort of thing happen in your other life, as a nurse?
PATTI: I was a pediatric nurse, so really I saw the opposite -- parents grieving the illnesses of their children. But death and the accompanying deep loss, make many of us look at how we are living our life. Ellie realizes that she was living her life without understanding the "story behind the story", which of course she does!
KAREN: You grew up in a household full of women. The daughter of a preacher. Did you feel that your life was constrained by your father’s profession and the expectations others put on the preacher’s kids?
PATTI: Absolutely. The expectations were high and the vigilance of those who "watched" us was even higher. Even long after I left home, I felt as if I was being watched by what I call a cloud of witnesses: invisible people critiquing my every move. I had to let go of that belief when I started writing, otherwise I would have never written the first story.
KAREN: One of the things I love about your writing is the attention to beauty. Whether it’s in the physical surroundings or, in Ellie’s case, as an artist, Beauty seems to be a character as much as any person in your stories. What role does beauty play in your own life?
PATTI: I am so happy you noticed what I was trying to do! Yes, beauty awakens our heart -- maybe that is its job. I try as best I can to keep my surroundings filled with beauty because chaos and "ugliness" do make it harder to write and work and be happy. In my office I have art and leaves and shells and anything that reminds me of the inherent beauty of our world.
KAREN: After Lilly’s death, Ellie discovers that her mother had secrets of her own. That’s usually a huge revelation for any young woman isn’t it? Do you remember when you first saw your own mother as a woman, and not just your mom?
PATTI: I do remember a moment when my dad gave me a tape recording of a talk my mom had given at church and I thought, "Oh, wow. She is not just a mom." I think I might have been twelve or thirteen years old. But because my mom has always been so active in our church and community (my dad is the pastor), I think I always viewed her a woman who was reaching out to others. It was never a sudden realization. She is also very open and kind, where Ellie's mother was cold and hid behind the pretense of perfection.
KAREN: Your own gorgeous daughter Meagan has just left for her freshman year at Auburn. How much of the emotions that you were going through as a mother during her senior year did you write into this story?
PATTI: I wrote most of this story when she was both a Junior and a Senior in high school and I'm sure I wove the threads of dread into this novel, but it wasn't intentional at all. I'm sure there were moments that my own fear of her leaving worked its way into this story though.
KAREN: In fact, Patti, you’ve had a lot of life changes over the past couple of years, with the most significant being a recent move to Birmingham from Atlanta, where you raised your family. Seems fitting that the title is Coming Up for Air. Change often leaves us breathless. How has all this change affected you?
PATTI: Wow, great analogy Karen! Yes, you're right. It has left me breathless at times. It was almost too much change all at once, and I'm not sure how it has affected me because I am still in the middle of it. Meagan has been gone for a week; I'm a week into a new book release, barely out of boxes in our new home and I have two boys who just started Junior High and High School in a new town. I'll tell you how I feel about it when it's over -- right now I am living by fifteen-minute increments. I'm so busy "doing" that I'm not quite sure yet how I 'feel" about it all. Change is good, that much I know, but often bumpy.
KAREN: You address a pretty significant piece of history in Coming up for Air. Why did you weave this piece of history into the story?
PATTI: I grew up in Philadelphia, PA and the civil rights were a glossed over portion of history that barely impacted my life. But now I live in Alabama with my family and this piece of history is an integral part of the landscape. I didn't intentionally set out to teach a lesson, or "use" the 1961 events, but I did know that it was these events that changed Lily's life forever and we needed to see why.
KAREN: You dedicate this book to your lovely children, and say that they are the most creative parts of your soul. How does being a mother make you a more creative person?
PATTI: Wow. Tough question -- I'm not sure being a mother makes me more creative, I just know that nothing I create for the remainder of my life will compare to the creativity and life I have invested in them.
KAREN: Tell us about how you settled on the Mobile Bay area for this particular story.
PATTI: This book began before I even knew it had begun. I was in Fairhope, Alabama on book tour when a college friend told me the story of a Jubilee. I was fascinated and then told my friend, Karen (you), who was living there at the time and then a few nights later, Karen experienced this blessed event and told me all about it. The story of the Jubilee would not leave me and its metaphor of coming up for air at the peril of death fascinated me..
KAREN: You’ve got a big tour coming. What do you love most about touring?
PATTI: I absolutely love meeting my readers and people who love books, story and words as much as I do.
KAREN: Are you at work on the next book already?
PATTI: Absolutely. I'm always at work on something. I'm not sure yet what this book will become, but I'm on the way to finding out...