Guest host Julie Chavez chats with New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry about The Secret Book of Flora Lea, an enchanting and refreshingly original novel about a woman who discovers a rare book that has connections to her past, including long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during WWII. Patti talks about her spectacular audiobook (narrated by actress Cynthia Erivo!) and then reveals how this story came to be. She also discusses the book’s themes (from young love to the universality of story-telling), how she finds meaning in her daily life, and what she loves most about being a writer.


Julie Chavez: Patti, welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so glad you’re here today.

Patti Callahan Henry: I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Julie. This is great.

Julie: I’m thrilled. I can’t wait to talk about your book, The Secret Book of Flora Lea, which I just finished on — let’s see. I finished it two days ago. I was walking around the house with this book. I listened to a portion of it on audio as well, so I want to talk about that too because it was incredible. I’m a big fan, of course, of You’ve Got Mail. Kathleen Kelly just has major vibes for me. When I was reading this book, I told my husband, “This book is enchanting. I feel enchanted by this book.” It just was so beautifully done. Congratulations. I’m so excited.

Patti: Thank you so much. I literally can’t think of a word that would mean more to me than enchanting. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you. I love Kathleen and You’ve Got Mail. You’re the first person who’s picked up on that vibe, so yay!

Julie: I’m so glad. It just kept coming to mind. I thought, I’m enchanted by this. I wanted to say, too, that part of the wonder of it — for people who want to read it in text, great. It’s beautiful that way. Also, I think this is one of the most beautifully produced audiobooks I’ve heard. Cynthia Erivo was unreal. Unreal.

Patti: Can you even believe it? Cynthia once narrated an Audible Original that I wrote called Wild Swan, which is a two-hour short story about Florence Nightingale. It was during COVID. Of course, she was out of work, so they hired her to read it. She read it. I was so — I’m going to steal your word. I was so enchanted with the way she reads that when it came time for this book, I said, “Can you get her again?” They said, “She doesn’t read novels.” Whatever magic they had to use, she said yes. I am the first full-length novel she’s narrated. It is pure magic.

Julie: I can’t imagine. I had that on my list of questions for you, if you had listened to auditions, how that came to be. I was wondering. I’ve heard her sing and perform. She’s incredible.

Patti: She’s won a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy. What the heck?

Julie: Now she’s narrated a full-length audiobook.

Patti: I hope she wins an Audie for it. Then she gets one more thing.

Julie: Absolutely. Yes, she’ll be close to the EGOT. EGOAT, maybe. Something like that. We can add it. She was incredible. The thing I liked about it the most is that she really captured the spirit of the book, at least for me. Just listening to it, I thought, this is exactly — a book I read years ago that I’m constantly thinking about was The Elegance of the Hedgehog. There’s a line in there about consonance. She described it as, it’s the feeling of, this is arranged exactly as it ought to have been. That’s how I felt about her with the audiobook. This is spoken and performed exactly as it should have been done.

Patti: I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but I listened to the beginning. I was listening to it walking down the sidewalk on book tour. Tears were — the woman I was with, Meg, I said, “Listen.” I made us just stop and listen.

Julie: You’re so right. I actually will listen to books often on a higher speed because I got things to do.

Patti: We’re busy.

Julie: That one, I refused to for that exact reason. I thought, nope, this deserves to be listened to at the pace that she recorded it. I’m so glad. Her rhythm and all the things well-suited the story. However, brava to you because the way that you structured your sentences, the way that you wrote the rhythm of this book is part of its magic. It was a joy to read. I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so moved and invested and involved in a book. It was so great.

Patti: Thank you, Julie. It was a joy to write. From the moment I wrote the incantatory opening of, “Not very long ago and not very far away,” I wanted the whole rhythm of the book, in places where it could, to feel that way.

Julie: You achieved it. I wanted to talk a little bit about a few of the things I marked in the story. I went into this completely cold. I didn’t read anything about the book, which is how I prefer to read.

Patti: Me too.

Julie: I was fortunate to get an advance reader copy, but I didn’t read the letter from your editor. Then I went back afterward and read it. If I may, she said, Trish, “One of an editor’s biggest thrills is to find a book by a veteran author who finally hits the big home run, the completely fresh and imaginative tale she uses all her experience and considerable storytelling skills to write.”

Patti: Are you trying to make me cry?

Julie: As soon as I read it, I thought, that’s so perfect. I just want to talk to you a little bit about, is this the story that’s been waiting for you? I look at your career and how long — you’ve written so many books and produced so many different things. You’re with “Friends & Fiction.” You just have so many wonderful ways that you show up in the world. How does this book fit into that? How did it feel for you?

Patti: What an interesting and fantastic question. I don’t know if it was waiting for me, but I do believe in stories finding us. I a hundred percent think that my favorite and best stories have been ones that I have been paying attention and gotten the chill bump and been curious about it and taken a deep head dive into it. I do think that this is a culmination of all the things I love. I wrote probably ten or eleven contemporary fiction. Then I started writing historical fiction, starting with a novel called Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and then started really moving deep into historical fiction. This book is a combination of the things I love, fairy tales, story, the British countryside, myth, fable, legend, and then this irrevocable hope that we don’t let people take away from us. If we’re living with hope for something that everybody else is saying is impossible — i.e., I don’t know, Julie, a publishing career. This, I wrote not under contract, which you well know, but for all of you listening means you’re writing it hoping to sell it as an entire book instead of writing it under contract for a publishing house. I wrote it on spec, which is what we call that. I wrote it very quietly. The only people who knew I was working on it were my dearest writer pals and my agent. I think that because of that, I was able to put the things that matter the most to me in the novel.

Julie: You feel that just listening to you describe it. There is a magic. It is a secret book in some ways. I love that that’s reflected in the title. One of the themes, stories finding us, that you were just mentioning, one of the lines I pulled out of the book was, “Despair leads us to stories. We invent them so we can live in a world with meaning.” I wanted to ask you, where do you find meaning? Obviously, in story. Just on a bigger scale, where does that come from for you?

Patti: I love that. When I give a talk about story, I always talk about how we as humans are a meaning-making people. When there was this huge decades-long psychiatric study, it said if you ask people what they think they want, they always say, I want to be happy. I just want to be happy. When they took a deeper dive, what people really mean when they say that is they want meaning, purpose and meaning. They want the things that happen to them and that happen to others and that happen in the world to have meaning. We can tolerate not being happy as long as we know or feel that there’s meaning. There are so many different ways that people find meaning in their circumstances in the world. That’s through science, through story, through religion, through spiritual practices, through poetry. For me, one of the ways that I have found or made meaning out of the meaningless or sense of the senseless has been through story, either the ones I’m making up or the ones I’m reading. The other thing that grounds me and helps me a lot when things seem senseless is poetry. It kind of brings down the defenses and takes us out of logic and into a different realm where things are connected, and things have more meaning because they’re connected. There are different ways. For me, almost always, it has been — you as a librarian would probably say the same. It’s story. It’s what we give to kids. It’s how we help them make meaning of things too.

Julie: Absolutely. Yes, you can reconcile all of these tensions and all of the pain that we experience that’s part of being human. It’s much easier to reconcile it or to feel that there is an ability to make meaning through a story. You’re exactly right. I feel that very much, which is part of why this book was so precious for me. There were parts I read, and I thought, that feels exactly like me. That was a gift. Some books are mirrors. Some are windows. This was both. You did a beautiful job with that. About Hazel, who’s one of the sisters in the story — I don’t want to tell people too much, like we were talking. I don’t want to give them too much of a run of this. As you said, I wouldn’t categorize this as historical fiction. Mostly, I say, just read this. Just do what I tell you to do. If we’re friends —

Patti: — Just trust me.

Julie: That’s right, exactly. Trust me.

Patti: Don’t make me explain it.

Julie: I did like, about Hazel, “She loved knowing why things happened, because if she did, it was quite possible she could keep them from happening again.” Are you like this?

Patti: Julie, I always say that being a writer is often — and you are too — is often like being a psychotherapist. Great question. Repeat the quote so I can kind of…

Julie: I will settle you in it, but the reason I ask is this is definitely me. I won’t make you only share issues. Let’s just get messy. “She loved knowing why things happened, because if she did, it was quite possible she could keep them from happening again.”

Patti: I think that goes back to, as humans, what we were talking about before, making meaning, which is the other thing we’re after. We have these eighty-four billion brain cells, and they’re after one thing. Control. Control the world so that I am safe. Scan. Look for meaning, look for connections so that I can control it. When we finally realize — it’s usually only for about three seconds at a time. When we finally realize that we have no control — we can check our rankings. We can send our emails and do our posts. We can’t control who buys and doesn’t buy our book. We can’t keep our loved ones safe. There is a fantastic memoir written by a dear friend of mine called Bomb Shelter, by Mary Laura Philpott. You’ve read it.

Julie: Love that book. Love it. Yes.

Patti: That’s what the book is about, that we feel like we can be this bomb shelter in the world for the people we love, the people we care about. Because Hazel — it’s not a secret. She loses her little sister. That’s what the book is about. It’s what happens to her little sister, Flora Lea, when that terrible thing happens. For the rest of her life, she wants to control the world so that these unexpected things — she’s lived through World War II. It’s now 1960. She has her life in these neat little boxes, but she’s not doing the thing she loves. She loves the bookshop, but she’s keeping herself from her one true love, which is writing. She’s got her job, her boyfriend, her mom. She keeps these little tight boxes because to go outside of those or to even look at the past is too out of control. I think that is her way and our way, meaning you and me, of saying that we try to control things that are, in the end, ultimately never in our control.

Julie: Isn’t that the most painful, beautiful truth of loving people?

Patti: It is freeing and awful all at the same time.

Julie: It is. Gosh, I have to remind myself of that, like you said, every three seconds.

Patti: Every three or four seconds.

Julie: I think I’m in a three-second cycle, of course, which I think my husband really enjoys.

Patti: It’s so fun for the people who we live with. So fun.

Julie: Yes, I know. We’re such a delight. They’re so lucky. You’re welcome.

Patti: Absolute delight.

Julie: Something that I really like that you talk about in the book is you talk a lot about pagan stories. I appreciated the way you did. There’s something in our culture that sets pagan stories against some of the religious narratives, especially the Judeo-Christian ones. I thought you did a really nice job of including them all and seeing what was there. What are your thoughts on that when you think about story in that way? Tell me a little bit more about that.

Patti: As a caveat, I am a preacher’s kid, so I grew up with the biblical version of those stories. In high school, I took Latin instead of a language I might speak when I travel. I took an only-written language.

Julie: Why would you want French?

Patti: It’s really helpful when I go to France. What I also studied — when you study Latin, you study mythology. When I began to see how story is built on story, is built on story, is built on story, I think that if we open our eyes to that, we see that throughout history. We have been trying to explain our origins, the natural world, spiritual things through these stories that all grow out of each other. They’re not all that different in the end. There’s an honoring I feel for the old stories, that we don’t discard them because they aren’t true anymore. We don’t believe in Zeus. Of course, we don’t. There’s no Zeus, but there’s an honoring in the stories that have led to where we are now. I enjoy that honoring. I’m really fascinated by the overlap of them. One of the places they really overlap is with Brigid because Brigid is both an Irish Celtic goddess, and she is also a Catholic saint. It’s the same person and the same stories. They’re celebrated on the same day. How do we rectify that? How do we combine those? How do we hold that nondualism in our minds and hearts while simultaneously honoring both? I was trying to do a little bit of that. It’s such a minor subplot, but it was important to me because of the overarching theme of the importance of story in the novel. That was important too. All stories are honored in their own way.

Julie: I really appreciated seeing that there because I think we tend — obviously, now oversimplification is the way of the day. Seeing something that holds the truth of things and recognizing that there’s a kernel there, like you said, you’re building on what is true, and you can discard the trappings of it. I just think there’s so much to be said there .

Patti: We try to make something simple, yes. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid. When we try to do that with something as ethereal as story or spirituality or psychology or the psyche, when we try to keep it simple and in a black and white world and in a right and wrong world, we just don’t do ourselves any good for the complicated ways that we are in the human condition. It does no good to make it black and white.

Julie: No. Save that acronym for your budgeting or something .

Patti: Exactly, for your next meeting.

Julie: Who doesn’t love an acronym in a meeting? I did want to say one brief line about the pied piper business, speaking of stories, and the naming of that. I really hope that someone got fired for that naming.

Patti: I’m still trying to track down somebody in the British government who can explain this to me.

Julie: It is incredible. This is part of the children during World War II being moved out of cities. The idea was to keep them safe. If we called it today, the “stranger in a van” movement or something, what are we doing here? This is not a good idea.

Patti: It makes me think of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Julie: I love that. Yes, terrified by children for years.

Patti: Terrified me.

Julie: Oh, yeah. The child catcher was really — even when I watch that as an adult, I’m like, Mom.

Patti: “Candy. Lollipops.”

Julie: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such a weird movie.

Patti: It’s like somebody had a psychedelic dream and wrote it down.

Julie: One million percent. Even when I watch now, I’m a little bit confused. When the water comes up on the car, I’m like, wait, are we in a dream or not? What’s happening?

Patti: I read this the other day, and I remember I knew this a long time ago, but Ian Fleming wrote it. James Bond author wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Julie: I did not know that. That’s incredible.

Patti: I’m here to broaden your world.

Julie: Yes, you are. Ian Fleming, wow. I’m going to have to look into that. Man, he must’ve had some dreams up in there, either hallucinogenic or non. We won’t say.

Patti: We won’t judge. It worked.

Julie: It worked. That’s amazing. I really love that. I think something you do really well is you write tension really well. I think it really speaks to your wanting to pull together opposites or pull together seemingly opposing themes or issues when really, there is a middle ground for them. You write that really well.

Patti: Thank you.

Julie: I also love the way that you write about love and care. I just thought that it was beautiful. I really liked the parts where you wrote about young love a little bit. There was a part — I won’t say anything except that you described it so aptly. You said, “Needing him to like her and pushing him away at the same time.” I just kept going back to that and thinking, that is so true. Why is that? Did you think about that when you wrote it, or was it just ?

Patti: I think what I was tapping to is the way that we feel when we’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen, on the cusp. There’s this attraction. I think almost everyone, unless there’s been some kind of trauma, can remember being thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. There’s this attraction. Oh, my god, he looked at me. Push him. Hit him on the playground. There’s this great fear of being seen, maybe, or being seen for liking them in case they don’t like you. Hazel is talking about it. In this case, she is living in his house because during Operation Pied Piper, you lived with strangers. Not only is it multiplied by the fact that they’ve been living together for a year, but it’s not her brother. They act like it, but they’re not. I really wanted to tap into this push/pull. Someone is supposed to only mean this to me, but I think they mean this to me. How am I supposed to know? I’m only fourteen, fifteen years old.

Julie: I love the way you express that. Listening to you talk about that just now, it really makes me realize that even in adulthood, I feel that push/pull when it comes to being deeply vulnerable. There’s something about vulnerability. Listening to you talk about it makes me realize that that really is your first taste of it, is that young love exposure.

Patti: Even if it’s a new friendship, right?

Julie: Yes, indeed.

Patti: Wait, I think they see me. Is that good? Should I keep going? Like I said, we play psychoanalysts in our novel, but I don’t think that ever leaves us. I really don’t. I think we can grow and learn from it if we’re a little self-aware. In the meantime, I just don’t think it ever leaves us.

Julie: It’s so true. That was something I really appreciated. The way that you structured this, you really do get to see Hazel as an adult and Hazel as a child at the same time. There’s something so true about that. We’re all who we are and also the seventeen-year-olds we were.

Patti: We are all the ages we ever were.

Julie: All of them. It’s so strange. Wow. I want to find out, for you, what is — we talked about earlier, your publishing career, this great act of faith that we hold in our lives. From where you are now, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

Patti: Julie, I love that question. I am so stealing that for “Friends & Fiction.” I can answer that. It’s never what people think it is. People think that you will say, I hit number eight on The New York Times list, which was “blow my mind” amazing. Of course, that’s awesome. They think you’ll say, seeing my name on a book, which is amazing. There are two things I love the most. The first is when I’m writing, and I lose myself. I don’t know if I’m explaining that right. I step out of my limitations and my ego and my needs and my constant longings and desires and blah, blah, blah. I’m so sick of me, what I’m stuck with in my head. I’m not there anymore. I’m on the page. I’m riding that current and that river. I come back to myself. I’m like, ah. It doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen all the time. The second thing that is my favorite thing about being a writer is the writing community. Look, we just met, and we’re already friends. We care about the same things. We’re looking for the same things. We’re diving for the same things. We’re mining our own compost pile for the same things. We’re trying to find a way to be in the world with meaning and purpose. I’ve always said that it’s the writing and reading community. “Friends & Fiction,” and same with Zibby’s community, shows you even more that the people who care about these things are the best people in the world.

Julie: I love those answers. There are moments — you’re right, they’re so hard to find — where you feel like, oh, I’m just bringing these words here, but they’re not about me. It’s the most freeing feeling to be separated from —

Patti: — You’re so free. What’s your favorite thing? I’m flipping it.

Julie: Gosh. I think it’s right now when I am able to express something, and it resonates with someone. So much of what I write about is motherhood.

Patti: Yours is a memoir, right?

Julie: It is. Knowing that someone can see themselves in what I’ve written — my greatest hope is that it eases it for someone else.

Patti: Touches someone.

Julie: Yes, that they find ease or grace in whatever they’re pulling out. When it becomes not about me or my story, but just, oh, that resonates for me because it’s suddenly about the reader. I think that’s my favorite.

Patti: I love that. Madeleine L’Engle says that a book is a bridge between a reader and a writer. That came to my mind while you were describing it. That’s what it feels like.

Julie: You’re exactly right. It is a bridge. I also have a piece that I’m going to send you because you talked about untrue things or the untruth. Was that C.S. Lewis or Tolkien?

Patti: Tolkien.

Julie: That was, okay. There’s a piece by her where that was what she was asked about Bridge to Terabithia. Is it true? It’s a beautiful essay. I think you’ll really love it. I’ll send that to you later.

Patti: Send it to me. We’ll link it in the podcast for anybody who’s like, wait, I want to know.

Julie: Good idea. Yes, I will share it with all the people. I wanted to finish this by telling you that when I finished this book — this was completely accidental. I was sitting at our local coffee place, which is called Inklings.

Patti: No way.

Julie: Yes, which is named after their group. There’s C.S. Lewis stuff and Tolkien stuff all over the place. I was sitting outside. The sun was coming through the tree. The pattern was on the ground. I thought, this is just a moment of perfect synchronicity. I just have to let you know your book was a gift to me in this wonderful moment. I’m so glad that it’s out in the world. I can’t wait to put it in everyone’s hands.

Patti: I love that moment. It sounds like a moment of pure grace. That my book was with you, I am so happy. Thank you, Julie. This was so great. That was two minutes, wasn’t it?

Julie: Yep. Two minutes of time, we’re done. I like to make things fast.

Patti: Two minutes. Swish, swish.

Julie: Thanks so much, friend.

Patti: Thank you, Julie.

THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA by Patti Callahan Henry

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens