“We wanted to hint at Narnia, but also, the book is about so much more than Narnia. I wanted to play on the idea, that story, that magic word, ‘once upon a time’… .” Author Patti Callahan discusses her book Once Upon a Wardrobe with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
J.T. Ellison: Welcome back to A Word on Words.
Patti Callahan: I am so happy to be here. When you called and said, would you like to be on A Word on Words again? I was like, yes, absolutely.
Ellison: Well, then let’s start with something easy. What makes a great book?
Callahan: Oh, what makes a great book? Something I can fall into. Something that almost feels like a dream. So real and yet so imagined that I want to stay in it that I am constantly asking. I wonder what happens next?
Ellison: Well, I think Once Upon a Wardrobe qualifies as a great book–
Callahan: Oh, thank you.
Ellison: –because that’s exactly what it was. It was a “falling-in” kind of story, and I could not put it down. I couldn’t look away, and then I cried, which I have an issue with you making me cry. It was absolutely beautiful.
Callahan: Is it bad that I’m glad I made you cry? Is it bad?
Ellison: No, no, but you made me cry. It’s a very special book and a very special story, and it’s an exploration into where Narnia came from, but it is so much more.
Callahan: So much more.
Ellison: Tell us about the story.
Callahan: You get asked, I get asked, almost every author gets asked, where do you get your ideas? And we stumble when we try to answer. Oh, we have a box in our office full of story ideas, or there’s a magic cave in the desert, that we all get our stories from. There’s no real answer to where do your ideas come from? There are certain parts of our life that work their way into our stories. There are certain events, conscious and unconscious and subconscious, that work their way into our stories. But there was also this completely ineffable quality to the ideas and the stories themselves, especially the stories that stick with us or the stories that affect universal consciousness as Narnia does. Even if you’ve never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you know who Aslan is. You know who the white witch is, and how do you really explain something like that? There’s logic, and there’s imagination, and the book is a lot about how do we take these two things that seem polar opposite and blend them together to understand the story.
Ellison: Megs and George are our main characters. George is a sick little boy. Megs is his brilliant older sister who is going to Oxford, studying physics. Tell us about them.
Callahan: George is eight years old, and the year is 1950 in Worcester, England, and he is ill. In the winter of 1950, a brand new book burst onto the scene. It was called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and George reads this book day and night. He hides in his wardrobe hoping to pop out the back and end up in the snowy forest. His sister, who was a math and physics genius, attends Oxford University. When she comes home for the weekend, he tells her about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she says, “That’s really nice. It’s a great children’s book. Good for you, George.” He says, “I know that the author teaches at your university. I need you to find him and ask him where this magical place came from.” And she says, “That’s ridiculous. It’s imagination. It’s a story.” But she loves her brother, and so she sets off to find the answer for him.
Ellison: She’s an engineer.
Ellison: She just does not get this.
Callahan: She believes that logic runs the world. This is the years after Einstein. This is 1950, where we’re coming into this new generation in an era of scientific understanding of the laws and rules of physics, and she believes that logic and physics and equations are the hidden machinery behind the world and that if she can figure that out, she can figure out the world. He’s over here saying, but there’s also this. And so much of Meg’s journey is trying to understand how to parcel logic from imagination and not keep them separate.
Ellison: How much fun is it to write a character who’s having an awakening like this?
Callahan: Ah, I love her. I can see her as if she’s standing right here with us. She was so set and firm in her beliefs and you and I both know… we talk about this a lot. The best parts of some of the best stories is the transformational journey. The journey from thinking you can plant your flag right here and then transforming and realizing that you’re not going to die on that hill. That the beliefs you had can shift and change, and in this book, they shift and change with stories. To watch her change, and she meets a boy named Padraig, and he helps with that, then here’s her little brother, and of course, there’s C.S. Lewis telling her stories about his life. Stories of dark stories, of light stories, of joy, stories of despair, so that she can see that yes, those breadcrumbs might show up, but there’s still something you cannot explain.
Ellison: She and George are not real.
Ellison: They are fictional characters, but C.S. Lewis, Jack, and his brother Warnie and the Kilns and what he does at Oxford is real.
Ellison: Tell me about how you married these two stories, and what was the goal with that?
Callahan: When I was writing my book Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I saw all these little breadcrumbs of his life that were unfolding that I could see in Narnia, and I’d never heard anybody talk about it that way. For example, when he was a child, he used to hide in the attic with his brother Warnie in the little end room. And they made up an entire world called Boxen, with talking animals, and they had wars and battles and families. I’d never heard that before, but there were enough books written about Narnia, full encyclopedias. You could cover half your bookshelves and books about it with an appendix and logical explanations, and I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to take the true things of his life and his brother’s life and their childhood and losing their mother and World War I.
They were both in World War I, and it impacted them dramatically. I wanted to show him teaching. I wanted to show where they lived. I wanted to talk about the children that had come to live with him during the war and how that had inspired him, and I loved showing that for us as authors. This is fun. That he started Narnia with four different names, and then years later picked it back up, and it was then Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.
Ellison: Isn’t that funny?
Ellison: How stories just grow with us when they’re in our heads, and it’s not time to write them yet.
Callahan: Yes. And that they’re living things, these stories. They’re not set in stone. Stories and imagination aren’t something you carve in stone, and they stay. The very best stories are living stories. Every time you pick up that book or any of your favorite books, they change. They change with your age. They change with your circumstance because they’re a living thing. I wanted to show that it wasn’t A equals B equals C, and then he said it down that there was a growth to it, an organic, like I said before, an affable quality to the creation of this.
Ellison: Well, and during this, in your book, he is writing his autobiography.
Ellison: I loved the stories that she’s taking back to George because she sits down with Jack and Warnie, she hears the stories, and then she goes home. She writes them in her notebook, and she gives them to George.
Callahan: Yes. She reads them to him, and then we see those stories through George’s eyes. We’re separated almost by three. We have Lewis telling the story. We have her carrying home that story. We have her writing this story, but we see it from George’s eyes.
Ellison: And the lens through which we see story is the truth of the story.
Callahan: Yes. What he’s seeing and what she’s written don’t always match.
Callahan: That’s the magic of it.
Ellison: It is the magic, and you did an absolutely brilliant job with the structure of this. Just the conversation between the characters and how that works. It’s just brilliant.
Callahan: Thank you.
Ellison: The title is so incredibly sweet.
Callahan: Thank you.
Ellison: Can you tell us how the title came about?
Callahan: Wow. How do titles ever come about? You and I talk a lot about titles and what they mean. I just asked you if you liked my new title–
Ellison: I love it.
Callahan: –and I stared at your face to see your reaction. I’m going to see the first reaction. Titles are hard for me. They are. [[Laughter]] I’m just being honest. Titles are really hard for me. I rarely have a title before I start a book. I’m very envious. You often have these great titles before, and your title is an integral part of the book you’re going to write. I often have a title that I know is only a working title, and I struggle with the title. This book was originally called Into the Wardrobe. But there is a non-fiction book that is my favorite book on Narnia, actually written by a man named David C. Downing, who is the co-director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College in Chicago, and it’s called Into the Wardrobe. I knew I would have to change the title. We went around and around. We wanted to hint at Narnia, but also, the book is, like you said, about so much more than Narnia. I wanted to play on the idea, that story, that magic word once upon a time, because when you hear the phrase, once upon a time, don’t you lean forward?
Ellison: Oh, absolutely.
Callahan: Don’t you go? What’s next? What is she going to tell? Once upon a time. I wanted to play with that, and finally, it just rolled up once again, like a story I don’t know how to explain where it came from, but that it wasn’t easy. It came when the book was done and sold.
Ellison: When she tells George the story and starts it with “Once Upon a Wardrobe…”
Callahan: Yes. So everything you read was exactly the way it was, where he says you started it wrong. And she says not very long ago and not very far away and then once upon a time. I went back and just made that part of their conversation, and you know, as well as I do that, sometimes when we go back and put a missing piece in a book, we add a scene, or we add a theme or even a simple phrase. It’s like the book was waiting for it.
Callahan: You can tell when you’re trying to shove a round peg–
Callahan: –into a square hole and shoehorn something in because your editor asks for it, and there are other times that you’re like, oh, that was waiting for it.
Ellison: How did I not think of this?
Callahan: How did I not see it?
Ellison: How did I not see this with the first 10 drafts?
Callahan: Yes. Exactly. Exactly.
Ellison: No, I do totally get that. What do you want the reader to take away from this book?
Callahan: What do I want the reader to take away from this book? Whatever they want. I want them to take away what touches them the most. I want them to take away the part that made them stop and think, wow, like you said, about 10 drafts, there are many drafts of this book, just like any book, and I got something different out of every single draft.
Callahan: Yes. So I feel if it’s a living thing, it will give to the reader what they most will resonate with. I would like for readers to think about whether they are separating logic and imagination and how things don’t have to be so binary, so separate. It can be both, with logic and imagination. We don’t have to argue one against the other all the time.
Ellison: That’s absolutely the theme of this. I think the readers should have The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe next up on their To Be Read list so you can finish this and then go read that and experience–
Callahan: It in a new way.
Ellison: Completely. I cannot wait to read it again. I’m so excited. Do you think it’s safe to say that you have a fascination with C.S. Lewis?
Callahan: I think it’s safe but probably not…
Callahan: Accurate. I think because I have a fascination with his wife. When I wrote Becoming Mrs. Lewis, it was because I was entirely, as you know, fascinated by this woman who had completely transformed her life. And by transforming her life, a New York, born and raised, never left New York. Married to another author with two young boys, moves to England and completely transforms the life of C.S. Lewis and the last decade of his work. She is who I was fascinated with, but in doing that, I learned so much about his work and his writing and the way he came to these imaginary lands. So yes, I’m fascinated by that.
Ellison: That book is called Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
Ellison: It is absolutely wonderful, and it is my next question. You went to Oxford, and you visited Magdalen College, and you went through all… I saw the pictures from Oxford. I was so jealous because it’s one of my absolute favorite cities. Tell us about the research.
Callahan: I organized a trip to England called “In the Steps of Joy.” Joy Davidman is the subject of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and much of it shows up in Once Upon a Wardrobe because I visited everywhere that you read about except for Scotland. But I visited everywhere, the Kilns where Louis lives. The common room you read about in Once Upon a Wardrobe. The backyard you read about, his office, what they call your study in England at Magdalen College. The bridge she is standing on in Once Upon a Wardrobe with Padraig. I stood there and watched the river flow under. Watch the punters. I went punting. The pubs. The pubs I described I went to them. I sat in them, and I soaked that up.
I didn’t go as a tourist. I went as a character in my own book. I went thinking, not what do I think of this, but what would she think of this? What would this feel like in the year 1950? This book takes place in 1950, and Joy’s book, she shows up in England in 1952, so it’s the same time zone. As we both know, Oxford has not changed that much since 1952.
Ellison: It’s amazing.
Callahan: Since 1700, 1500, yes. It feels very ancient and solid and part of a much bigger story than me and you and Lewis or anyone, for that matter.
Ellison: You had not started writing this book, though. Were you thinking about this book when you were there?
Callahan: No. No.
Ellison: So did this come out of that trip?
Callahan: Yes. What came out of that trip was, as you know, such a deep love of Oxford and of England and of Lewis and of Joy and of the Kilns and of this… I want to find the right word… this storytelling culture in Oxford. Think of the writers that have come out of there. I mean, there are poets, to, too numerous to mention. And from Tolkien to Lewis, to McDonald, to Alice Wonderland, to Lewis Carroll, Graham Greene. When you think about the literary history of Oxford, when you’re there, you can feel it, so I am sure that this was a seed that was planted on my visit that didn’t grow until lockdown.
Ellison: Until lockdown. Well, so let’s jump ahead and talk about that because Jack says, “Ink is the great cure for human ills.” So did writing help you through the pandemic?
Callahan: Oh, you know the writing helped me through the pandemic. Writing was my touchpoint of the still center in my life during all of that. Like you, like everybody watching, I was locked down with my family. My boys came home from college. We were all in one house. My husband was working from home. My boys were doing college and grad school from home. I was locked away from my daughter, who lives in Hawaii, and I couldn’t get to her. And this book Once Upon a Wardrobe was my daily touchstone, my still point in a very chaotic turning world, and you were, too. We talked every day during that time. There’s something about ink to paper, story to paper, words, that keeps us from, I think, spinning out when everyone else is doing so.
Ellison: I think half of the writers couldn’t write because they were too upset–
Ellison: –and half of the writers were desperate to write to escape.
Ellison: I was trying to escape. You were trying to escape.
Callahan: Yes. I was trying to escape, but I was also trying to constantly come back to center, like not allow… I remember thinking over and over, I’m not going to allow this to spin me out of control. That didn’t happen every day. There were days I allowed all of that to undo me and my family and the kids and the fear and angst. But on the whole, I was like, I’m going to use this to come back to center every day.
Ellison: It absolutely worked. One of the other things I absolutely love with Jack is the Inklings.
Callahan: I know.
Ellison: His creative group, and we have a creative group, and the power of the connection between artists…
Ellison: I would love to hear your perspective on that.
Callahan: I was interviewed the other day, and somebody asked me what was the one thing I love about being a writer that I never expected. My answer, I didn’t even have to think about it, the community. The community… I’m going to get choked up. The community of writers and the community of readers and of booksellers and of anybody involved in this world of creation and creativity. You cannot do this as a lone Wolf. Maybe somebody can. I cannot. There’s something about knowing you’re not alone. We talk about we hit the middle of a soggy middle of a book. If we were lone wolves, we’d think we were desperate, but then you talk to your group, and you’re not the only one. It isn’t always about having people read your work. It’s about talking about the creative life, about how to sustain it. How not to let go of it. How to nurture it. How to protect it. For me, a lot of our community is about how to protect, nurture, and bring in the creative life. Even if it’s not about craft, it’s really important.
Ellison: Your work has evolved–
Callahan: Oh, thank you. I hope so.
Ellison: You’ve shifted gears. You’ve shifted genres.
Ellison: You had a book called Surviving Savannah. This is a historical. Joy’s book was historical. Can you talk about that evolution and why you’ve made this shift?
Callahan: It wasn’t a deliberate shift, but I had hit the wall. I had hit a moment where I was frustrated. I felt empty, like a dried-out sponge, like an empty well. I could drag up a storyline, but it was going to be brittle. It was not going to be juicy and interesting, and I was frustrated by that. Our friend Ariel Lawhon said to me–I was expressing my frustration probably with words I don’t use on TV–and she said, “What would you write if you could write anything you wanted?” And it just fell out of my mouth. I said, “I would write about C.S. Lewis’s wife.” And she said, “Well, then why don’t you?” And I said, “Because I don’t write historical fiction.” And she said, “Really, why is that?” It just hit me. Why? I get mad when other people put me in a box. Why am I putting myself in one? Why does it have to be a genre? Why can’t it just be a story?
But what I discovered when I wrote that book was my absolute and sheer love for her research and historical fiction. I think one of the most fascinating things to do is dig into the research. Find that one little nugget that shifts your perspective on a story you thought you knew. I did it with Mrs. Lewis. I did it with Surviving Savannah. I have an audible original called Wild Swan about Florence Nightingale. I plucked this little moment out of her life that shifted everything, not just for her but for history, but I’d never heard anybody tell that part of the story. So I really love that, and a lot of what’s in Once Upon a Wardrobe are these nuggets of Lewis’s life that I haven’t seen. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done, but I haven’t seen other people ascribe to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I love falling down a rabbit hole, finding these nuggets, coming back up, and shifting the story you think you know.
Ellison: The Lewis family has been very instrumental in helping you. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with them?
Callahan: Yes. My experience with the Lewis family has been extraordinary. There’s only one living person, and his name is Douglas Gresham, and he is C.S. Lewis’s stepson. His Joy Davidman’s son. When his mother, Joy, married Lewis and then passed away, he lived with C.S. Lewis for the last three years of Lewis’ slife as his son. He is in charge of the C.S. Lewis’s state and the C.S. Lewis company. Which means if I’m going to write about his mother and quote her poetry or write about Narnia, I have to get his permission, but I got more than his permission. I got his friendship and his support. There’s a letter from him in the back of this book. It was an unexpected bonus to find a friend while trying to find what I thought was only permission.
Ellison: What inspires you?
Callahan: Curiosity. If I find someone like you, who’s willing to be curious, and we can talk about what we’re curious about even if we don’t end up answering the question. I love interesting conversations and interesting reading about things that I’m curious about that I want to know more about. I am not inspired by bland facts or, I mean, we need them to balance our checkbook, but I am inspired by the curious.
Ellison: By the myths instead of the truths?
Callahan: I am inspired about… how I love that J.T. I’m inspired by the truth we tell in a story we made up. The lie that tells the truth. I am inspired by the great myths that tell us a much bigger truth than a list of facts.
Ellison: How can creatives search for that thing? You hit a wall. You had to do something new. How can they find that the passion for their work, for the stories? What shifts can they make to level them up?
Callahan: The first thing is to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves. You know that. You can’t flog the creative horse. You can’t whip your creative self into being more creative. If there’s a dry spell, maybe it’s time to stop. Sit still. I’m a big believer as you know, in Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way to just dump it in the page in the morning. See what you’re feeling. See what shows up. Be gentle with yourself that you’re dried out. Be compassionate with yourself that there’s right now, not something that inspires you, but simultaneously ask yourself, what are you curious about right now? What are you thinking about when you’re in the shower or driving your car? When you’re letting your mind wander, what are the curiosities that you have right now that might lead to a story?
Ellison: You are the epitome of a busy writer. We were just talking about, oh my gosh, the schedule is just absolutely out of control. What is your day-to-day writing life look like?
Callahan: I am sacred about my writing time. My mornings are my writing time. I can’t do that on book tour or this morning, but actually, I did do it this morning. But my mornings, I try very hard to keep my morning sacred. To leave them for the creative work and for the page. To leave them for the, what happens next, and even if they’re really crappy words, at least they might be a path that leads to better words. I am very protective of my morning writing time.
Ellison: Tell us about Friends & Fiction.
Callahan: Friends & Fiction has been the biggest blast of my writing career, a blast in a double entendre way. Not only fun a blast but has blown up. When COVID hit five of us got together and said, let’s just talk live. It was Mary Kay Andrews’ idea. It’s Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Hormel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and I are the four who are the hosts now. We got on a live Zoom on a Wednesday from Mary Kay Andrews Facebook page, and people showed up. It was like the field of dreams. People just showed up to listen. I think Mary Kay was wearing her pajamas, to be honest. Then we decided to make a page so we wouldn’t have to use her page and that was 19 months ago. We are 50,000 members strong. We have a live show every single Wednesday night where we talk to an author, everyone from you to Kristin Hannah, Delia Owens, Chris Bohjalian, name one of your favorite authors and they’ve probably been on. Our 100th show [was] in November 2021. 100 live shows interviewing authors, and you know, 600, 700 people show up live every week, 50,000 members.
We talk books, we talk publishing, but the best part about it is it’s just an incredible book-loving community on the page, and there’s also a YouTube channel, and we have a podcast it’s just–
Ellison: And a column in Parade magazine.
Callahan: And column in Parade magazine.
Ellison: This has turned into quite an endeavor.
Callahan: Yes. It’s been wonderful, though. I think it has been a lifeline for readers and for us and for authors when none of us could be out in the real world.
Ellison: We’ll make sure that there’s links to it in the show notes because it’s a really neat, very personable… My brother, who isn’t into book stuff, watched it, and he said, “I really liked that format.”
Callahan: That’s so great. It doesn’t sound like a format that would work. Four authors, interviewing another author. But guess what? For all of you watching this, you can watch us interview J.T.by going to the YouTube channel and putting in her name.
Ellison: [laughs] Patti and I are helping each other out. I want to ask you one last question.
Callahan: Oh, last.
Ellison: I know this goes very quick. What brings you joy?
Callahan: What brings me joy?
Ellison: I find it ironic that you found joy in a woman named Joy.
Callahan: So much. My family, my friends, creativity, my writing community, thinking of a new idea. Going to the page in the morning and realizing I just moved the story forward. Meeting readers. Doing this show, but what’s bringing me the biggest joy right now, my daughter is due [to give birth] today.
There are so many with all the bad things going on right now. There are places to find joy and friendship, reading, writing. We can focus on one or the other.
Ellison: I cannot think of a better way to wrap. Thank you so much for coming back, for being a part of this show from the very beginning. We are indebted to you, and it has been an absolute joy having you.
Callahan: You bring me joy. Thanks for having me, J.T. This was awesome.
Ellison: Keep reading!
Patti Callahan Recommends
The Forest of Vanishing Stars, by Kristin Harmel
We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker
Her Dark Eyes, by J.T. Ellison