Telling Good Stories With Patti Callahan Henry (Plus a Playlist)
The Alabama author’s new book The Stories We Tell explores how denial, white lies and secrets can result in the ultimate betrayal.
The Morrisons are the ideal Savannah family. Successful husband Cooper, artistic and loving wife Eve and beautiful daughter Gwen make up a picturesque trio beloved by their community. But not everything is as it appears. After an accident creates secrets and lies within the family, a deeper tension rises to the surface culminating in a truth revealed that Eve never expected to find.
Patti Callahan Henry often writes about the power of secrets and how they can affect our lives and relationships in books like And Then I Found You and Driftwood Summer. The Stories We Tell may be her most innovative novel yet. As Eve stumbles and struggles to seek truth when her sister suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident with Cooper, the cultivated image of a perfect family turns to one on the verge of collapsing. Both Cooper and Willa tell different stories about the night of the accident, and Eve is forced to re-examine the story she’s been telling herself for years.
Henry expertly dissects family dynamics through Eve’s heart-racing search for truth as she decides who to trust among those closest to her. We caught up with the author via email from her home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, where she lives with her husband and three children. Get to know her in our interview below before Friday’s Twitter chat, when we’ll ask Patti to reveal more of her storytelling secrets, fascination with memories and her own journey while writing this book.
Scroll down for more details on the chat and a giveaway for The Stories We Tell.
EZB: Telling stories is the overall theme of this book, whether it be true ones or the ones we tell ourselves. Where does your storytelling ability come from, and what do you think makes a good story?
PCH: I can’t peg the exact attributes of a good story, because stories hit us all differently. A book can change one person’s life and then the next guy can’t finish it because he thinks it is terrible. There are of course the elements we all discuss: conflict, change, character development and love — always the love. But what can’t be argued is that stories are an integral part of our lives and how we understand the world.
EZB: A line in your prologue says “When I don’t think something is possible, I just don’t notice. Even if it’s happening right before my very eyes.” That’s true of all of us, but seems to be especially true for Southerners. Why do you think we do that?
PCH: I think that we are trained early and well to look at the “good,” to turn away from the “bad” and put a little white paint on the peeling fence. Denial is in full force when we are trying to maintain a perfectly lovely image, and that is evident everywhere of course.
PCH: I’ve been fascinated with letterpress and fine stationery for years. Then a friend of mine opened a letterpress studio and it seemed the perfect job for my character, Eve, who is struggling with the creative, handmade life in a technology image-filled society. The Ten Good Ideas card line happened organically as I wrote about Eve and her sister, Willa’s, childhood where they rewrote The Ten Commandments. As they reminisced about this time in their life, they turned it into a card line that pushes the story forward.
EZB: Eve’s sister, Willa, has a brain injury and trouble with her memory. What type of research did you do to learn about how the brain and our memories work, and how did that plot point contribute to the book’s overall message?
PCH: I was a pediatric nurse when I decided to go back to graduate school to be a Clinical Nurse Specialist. It was there that I focused on head injuries and worked on the Neurology floor. My thesis was on closed head injuries, which now we commonly call TBI. When someone says they’d like to read my first published work, I dissuade them of that idea when I tell them that it was in The Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. I haven’t, until this novel, written about my job or used my nursing experience. This story seemed to be the right one in which to delve into some of my fascination with memory, imagination and brain activity.
EZB: Music is a big part of this book, and your soundtrack includes Johnny Cash, The Civil Wars and Alison Krauss. Why was music important to the story, or is this what you were listening to while writing?
PCH: This music is important the story AND I was listening to it while I was writing. Willa (the sister with the head injury) is a songwriter, and music is essential to their creative life and healing.
EZB: In the end, it’s not some huge act of betrayal or horrible action that causes a break in Eve and Teddy’s marriage. It’s lies, half truths and secrets. You often write about secrets and how they can affect our futures. Why does this subject interest you so much?
PCH: I’m not sure why this subject is so fascinating to me, but I do believe that even if we don’t know about the deceit, it is still affecting our lives. I also believe that it is just these kinds of “small lies” that can ruin an intimate relationship, but it can also be salvaged with enough truth and love.
EZB: Is there anything else you want readers to know about The Stories We Tell?
PCH: I loved writing this book. The week after I handed in the rough draft, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This story, and working on this story during treatment, kept me from wallowing in the self pity I might otherwise have found myself swimming in. I haven’t talked much about this experience, but I can tell you that this novel holds a place in my life that nothing else will ever be able to do. It is being released exactly a year from the date of my biopsy. I am doing well. This has a happy ending (my story), and writing this novel had a lot to do with that happy ending.
Chat with Patti via Twitter on Friday, July 25, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We also have one copy of The Stories We Tell to give away courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. Comment on this interview for the chance to win. We’ll choose *one winner on Monday.
*You must live in the United States to win. Winner will be notified by email and must respond within two weeks. If winner fails to respond, another one will be chosen.