New Book Shares the Untold Story of the Woman Beside C.S. Lewis

Becoming Mrs. Lewis explores the “improbable” relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman.

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- Posted on Sep 27, 2018

Author Patti Callahan

Patti Callahan is the author of numerous novels, including the New York Times bestseller Driftwood Summer. Her latest book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, is her first foray into historical fiction.

It is not the first time the unlikely story of Davidman’s relationship with C.S. Lewis has been fictionalized. The 1993 film Shadowlands, based on a play of the same name, covers Lewis and Davidman getting married so she could stay in the United Kingdom. The marriage was platonic until Davidman was diagnosed with cancer and Lewis realized he was in love with her.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis covers large chunks of Davidman’s life—including the disintegration of her first marriage to the volatile writer William Lindsay Greshem and the spiritual awakening that led her to begin a correspondence with C.S. Lewis. It’s an intimate portrait of a complex woman that will appeal to fans of Callahan and Lewis alike.

We spoke with Callahan about her long research process, what she wishes people knew about Davidman and the surprising impact she had on Lewis’ work.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: In the author's note, you said Joy Davidman’s story grabbed you years ago. What was the writing process like from there?

Patti Callahan: The minute the story grabbed me, I started writing, but there was an intense amount of research to be done. Although I had been reading Lewis all my life, I only knew about [Davidman] what the movies and the gossip [showed]. I didn't want to start off running haphazard, writing about her with other people's voices in my head. I wanted to write from her point of view. I wanted it to be as if she were speaking to us.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG The book is written in a very intimate voice. After you had done all this research, how did you find her voice within your own writing style?

PC: I always say none of my novels are about me, but they are from me. I put myself aside as much as possible…and let her do the talking. She has much more bravado and assertiveness than me. That was very freeing for me. She would say the things that I would be afraid to say.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: You also wrote in the author’s note that you felt a kinship with Joy. Where do you think that came from?

PC: I did feel a deep kinship with her, I think for a number of reasons. I had a totally opposite upbringing…but [we both had] this kind of fiery way of being that everybody [said] might be too much, told you to tamp down. She had breast cancer and so did I. Mine was discovered very early, and hers was ignored. I felt a deep kinship with her there, that fear when you get the diagnosis.

She was always looking for something more. She always seemed to be saying to the world, "Show me what else there is. There's got to be something more." She was always asking that because she wanted something that would satisfy her intellect, her logic, and the mystical experience she had, so her heart. In that way, I felt a deep kinship with her, in struggling to find the answer in the big mystery. Because she was an intellectual. I mean, she was a genius, so she needed it to make sense on all sides.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: Many people will be at least vaguely familiar with the end of her life, but the novel covers a great deal of time. How did you decide which periods of her life to cover and which to leave out?

PC: My rough draft was probably 800 pages long, but what I finally came to was that I had to pick the touchstone of what the book was about, and the touchstone for me was the improbable love story. How did they meet, how did they come together and how did they enrich each other's lives and work? Anything that didn't touch on that had to go.

The people who do know anything at all about the story already know that they married on her deathbed, she lived three more years, and they had a very happy marriage, and it changed him and his work. I didn't want to do a retelling of what's been told. I wanted people to meet her, not just as Lewis's wife. People say, "Oh, it's so interesting learning about the woman behind the man!" I'm like, "No, no, no. We're learning about the woman beside the man.” I want people to see that woman.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: What did you find most surprising, or what do you think readers will find most surprising, about Joy?

PC: Number one, what a genius she was. What an intellectual powerhouse she was. How well-read she was. How quick-witted she was. I think they'll be surprised to discover how influential she was on [Lewis’] work.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG : How did she affect Lewis's work and writings?

PC: Well, she essentially co-authored Till We Have Faces. She helped edit Surprised by Joy, which is his biography. She typed many of his Narnia Chronicles. She encouraged him and helped him work through the book On the Psalms.

GUIDEPOSTS.ORG : What do you hope that readers—especially fans of C.S. Lewis—take away from Becoming Mrs. Lewis?

PC: I never want to tell readers what to get out of my work…but for me, I want people to see this woman who had a mystical experience and set out on a transformational journey in search of the truth, against societal expectations and against other people's opinions. I want people to see that that search for the truth is one of the most meaningful things we can do with our lives, and we have to put fear aside to do that. We have to put other people's expectations aside to do that, and that's what Joy Davidman did.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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