Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author and co-creator of Friends & Fiction Patti Callahan to talk about her two novels, Surviving Savannah and Once Upon a Wardrobe. The two discuss how Once Upon a Wardrobe grew out of the research Patti conducted for her 2018 book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, why her books read so visually, and how she finds ways to weave her experience as a nurse into her stories. Patti also shares how she had heard the story of the SS Pulaski five years before she decided to write Surviving Savannah, as well as what project she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Patti. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss Surviving Savannah and also Once Upon a Wardrobe. Congratulations.

Patti Callahan: Thank you. I am so thrilled to be here. We get to talk off camera sometimes, but it’s nice to do it and actually discuss books. This is fun. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. We first — maybe not first, but one of the times we got to know each other was when you all were interviewing me, which was so nice, on “Friends & Fiction.” I just love all of your cohosts. You guys do such a good job. I was so blown away by how professional, everything from the graphics to the conversation to coordination. It felt like I was on a real show.

Patti: You were on a real show.

Zibby: It’s really produced. It’s like a highly produced TV show on the internet. It’s very cool. It’s just very cool.

Patti: Thank you. It was so much fun talking to you. That had to have been over a year ago, right?

Zibby: Yeah, it was a long time ago.

Patti: That was fun.

Zibby: Can we talk about Once Upon a Wardrobe first?

Patti: Absolutely.

Zibby: I am in love with this book. I was not even expecting it to be as — I was like, okay, C.S. Lewis, great, Narnia. I was like, stop what I’m doing. This is such a good book. I am so interested in his life. The way that you made us rooting for this little boy and his family and the mom with the heart of the oh, my gosh. It’s really, really good. Why don’t you tell everybody what it’s about?

Patti: Thank you. I just sat and listened to you talk about it because it fills me with so much happiness that this book, which most got me through most of the lockdown, was my place to go when the world was madly burning around me. It’s March of 2020, almost exactly two years ago this week, Zibby, that we all went, wait, what? My college-age son came home. My graduate-school-age son came home. Then my husband came home. There we were all in one house with one internet when I’m accustomed to working alone. The world is madly burning and going crazy around us. It’s not hard to remember how it felt that March and April. I’m sure this book would’ve been written at some point, but it definitely was the book where every single day I was able to go to England and spend time with Jack and Warnie and this boy, George, and his sister and the countryside of England and Oxford. I could go there and almost find my centering in it.

What it’s about is what you asked. It came to me when I was writing Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which is a story about C.S. Lewis’s very complicated and amazing genius wife, Joy Davidman. When I was writing that book, I noticed all these little seeds of Lewis’s life that I could see in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I am not a Narnia expert. I’m not a Narnia scholar. I could see these moments in his life. It just struck me that, for all of us, including you, there are these moments in our life that you can point to in some people’s work. You read so much, Zibby. I’m sure sometimes you meet someone and you’re like, oh, that part of your life is in it. Even though we can point to that, there are these large swaths of story source that are completely ineffable, completely mysterious, completely unexplainable. You can’t really answer the question, where did that story come from? no matter how many angles you come at it from. I imagined a little boy who was ill and obsessed with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in the year it came out of 1950. He asked his sister, who went to Oxford, to track down the author, who taught at Oxford, and ask him where Narnia came from. She wanted a simple answer. Instead, he told her stories from his life.

Zibby: Which were amazing. Did you know any of this? Did you research? Was this all true? Was he really missing joints in his thumb? I mean to google if that was true.

Patti: Yes.

Zibby: That was true. Yes? All true?

Patti: All of that is true. I learned some of it when I was writing the book about Joy. When I started writing this book, after I picked the seven events I wanted to narrate, not tell you, that I wanted to narrate through George’s eyes, once I picked those seven, then I did a really deep dive and found things like, he was bad at sports because he was missing a digit in his thumbs, which sent him to sketching and writing and drawing. These are things that, when we find out about these small moments in an author’s or person’s life that changes the direction of their life, I just think it’s fascinating.

Zibby: It’s absolutely fascinating. I love how he and his brother, really together, made these whole worlds. What was it called? Nexor or something like that? I got it wrong.

Patti: Boxen. B-O-X-E-N.

Zibby: Boxen, sorry. Boxen. They had this whole other world. It was almost like this Animal Land meets — this fusion of both of their imaginations as the precursor to what became Narnia. It’s just them using their brains. This is mind-blowing for kids today, thinking of what goes on in my house, that this is what comes, and even just the notion of, where? Where does it come from? Even Megs who’s like, there’s no answer, and then of course, C.S. Lewis, Jack, is just like, of course that’s not true. It’s very real. Especially the part where Megs says, I don’t read it. It’s for kids. He was like, no, no, no, this is not a kids’ book. What was your experience of reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe originally? Did you have a special place in your heart for it, or was it just great fodder for a novel like this?

Patti: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, for me, is probably one of the seminal books in my life, probably foundational. It’s a book I found when I was very young and read over and over. What’s fascinating about that book, as most books that are powerful, is that they change with age. Reading it at nine years old and reading it at fifty years old, you get two completely different things out of it. When I was a child, I would walk around the forest of Cape Cod looking for a secret door. I believed that somewhere, I was actually a queen. I could find a secret door and walk through it. What is so amazing about that book is not only the imagination that it came from, meaning the author’s imagination, but the imagination it spurs in us when you read it. It’s one of the few books in the world that even if you’ve never read it, you know what it’s about. You might meet somebody and say, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. They’ll say, you know, I’ve never read it, but they know who Aslan is. They know who the White Witch is. They know who Tumnus is. It’s become part of our, almost, consciousness, this story. For me as a child, it unlocked my imagination in so many ways.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I read it. I read everything that came next. I loved it, but it wasn’t one of those books for me that changed my life. I don’t know why.

Patti: You read them, and you wanted to know what happened, right?

Zibby: Totally, I loved it. Yes.

Patti: You probably, once in a while, think about it. Something in the world comes up, and it reminds you of Narnia. That’s what’s so crazy about the power of that. It’s the same with people who love Lord of the Rings or any of those world-building things. You’ll see a lamppost in a snowy forest, and you’ll think, Narnia. How many books do that? Hardly any.

Zibby: I know. It’s so true. You have this funny line in the beginning. Well, not really, but whatever. This is when Jack is explaining it. “But maybe Narnia had its first seeds in a land that my brother and I imagined as children in our attic. We called it Boxen. ‘What do you think, Warnie?’ ‘It’s quite possible,’ replies his brother. But there was no real magic in those stories. Maybe the magic came later in Narnia.” Then Jack says, “Perhaps I was training myself to be a novelist.” I love that.

Patti: It’s true. I love looking back and — I bet you do too. Have you ever looked back at what you think are the steppingstones that you didn’t know at the time, but the steppingstones to doing what you’re doing now?

Zibby: I actually just wrote a whole book about that.

Patti: That’s my point. That is my point, Zibby. I knew that. It’s fascinating because we can look back at those steps and say they were all leading to right here. Your memoir, I can’t wait to read it to hear what those are. Sometimes we don’t stop and look backwards to see that. Sometimes when we do, it’s astounding. Maybe I was training myself to be a novelist.

Zibby: Somebody said, what advice would I give? at one point. I was like, someday, it will all make sense. It doesn’t make sense at all. I’m like, this is going nowhere. There is no way all these different threads are ever going to link up into this beautiful French braid. No. It’s just going to be a mess, but you don’t know. You don’t know. Your brain keeps all these things. It sounds so obvious.

Patti: No, it’s a spiderweb. What goes into that is, we can get so caught up — now we’re having a psychology moment instead of talking about books. We can get so caught up in this idea that we have to know what we’re doing all the time. This thing I’m spending my time on right now needs to have purpose and make sense. Sometimes if we just follow our curiosity and do the next thing and then the next thing, that’s what happens. When I was writing that book and I was looking at his life, there were probably huge swaths of time where he felt — I know there were — when he felt lost and wounded, losing your mom at nine years old or going to a horrible boarding school or being beaten. Then you look back, what you just said, and then it all makes sense. To be able to take those ordinary moments in your life, which he did, and then, through the alchemy of story, transform them into something extraordinary is the gift of looking back and paying attention.

Zibby: The way you wrote about the mom’s illness and being on the table, oh, my gosh, heartbreaking.

Patti: It’s so painful. I know.

Zibby: It’s so painful. Also, I want you to talk about Surviving Savannah, which is now in paperback. Congratulations. Very exciting.

Patti: Thank you.

Zibby: Tell me more about that book because I have to admit I have not read that book, but I did love Once Upon a Wardrobe.

Patti: Oh, I did not give you time to read Surviving Savannah. Surviving Savannah is the true and lost-to-time tale of a shipwreck that happened in 1838. I found out about it about eight or nine years ago when a pal of mine in Bluffton, South Carolina, said, “This feels like your kind of story. Only four women survived. It’s this fascinating tale that was literally lost to time.” I said, “No, I’m not interested. I’m not interested.” Then about five years later, I said, I’m just going to look it up because it is starting to sound interesting. By then, I was writing historical fiction. I plugged it into the computer, looking up this ship after doing some reading. A headline popped up that said “SS Pulaski –” which is the name of the ship — “just discovered thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina a hundred feet deep.” They found it a hundred feet deep. It hit me that there was a reason, there was a timing for why I wasn’t interested in it before. Now they have found it. While I’m digging up stories about this lost ship, somebody else is quite literally digging up the treasure from this lost ship.

This company is a treasure-hunting, shipwreck company. They were bringing up the gold and the silver and the jewelry and these fascinating artifacts from 1838 while I’m over here digging up stories about the passengers. I discovered a family who boarded the ship together, a mother, a father, six children, a niece, nine of them. They boarded the ship together. The father was a financier for the ship. He took his whole entire family. It blew up off the coast of North Carolina. I knew I had my people. Now I had this treasure hunter. It is a dual-timeline story about a museum curator who’s working on bringing up the exhibit. Then we meet two women. I feel like most shipwreck stories are told from the men’s point of view, the captain, the first mate. We meet two very real women from history. I changed their names. We see them on the ship. Captains are thinking about something different than a woman who has six children on the ship. Men and women were housed separately on steamships in 1838. We follow these women, some floating five days and five nights at sea, while also learning about what they’re discovering at the bottom of the ocean.

Zibby: Amazing. That sounds great. All your books are like movies. They all sound like movies. They all have this cinematic feel, even the way you talk about them, which by the way, I feel like I could listen to all day. Are these going to be movies? I’m always so interested.

Patti: They always tease and call, but nothing’s happened. If you have someone you want to give a ring to, feel free.

Zibby: It feels to me like how Tom Hanks did that remake of — what was the one with the train and the boy?

Patti: Oh, The Polar Express.

Zibby: Yes, thank you.

Patti: That one. Especially Once Upon a Wardrobe. Zibby, when I write — when you were writing your newest, your memoir — you’re calling it a memoir, right? Yeah. Do you see things visually? People ask often, where do your ideas come from? Sometimes there are questions. So often, they’re visual. When I’m writing, so hopefully when I’m describing it, it feels visual too. I think stories and images and scenes come to people in different ways. Some people, it’s literally with words. For me, it is very visual.

Zibby: I see it in scenes. It plays. I try my best to transcribe or something.

Patti: Transcribe, yes. It’s so hard because it never ever matches. You can remember that scene from your life, I’m sure. You write it down. You’re like, I didn’t, all the way, capture it. I do that with scenes in my novel. They’re on this floating piece of wood. They’ve gone three days without food and water. You’re having to find this courage and strength and perseverance really deep down that you’re not sure that you have. I read it, and I’m like, but I saw it so much better than that. We do the best we can.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Patti: I have a book that’s coming out next June. It is, right now, called The River Child. I have a feeling the title will change. I’m really excited about it. Once again, it came to me in an image. What happens to me often, too, is when I’m researching one book, another idea starts to bubble on the backburner in the back of my mind. I don’t even realize it until — they all seem to be outgrowths of the book before in some way. When I was writing Once Upon a Wardrobe, one of the seven events in that book, as you know, is when children were sent away to the country to live with other people and leave London or Lancaster or any of the large cities so they could be safe. It has the strangest name. It was called Operation Pied Piper. If you know anything about the Pied Piper legend, it is about a piper who plays a flute and leads the children out of a town to drown. They all die. Everybody in the legend dies except a child who is blind and doesn’t follow him. It’s a legend and lore that’s based on a myth out of Germany but also based on — it has all kinds of moral code in it, as most of those do. I became fascinated with, why would they name an operation — they would call it a scheme in England — to save children from bombs and name it the Piped Piper? That got my wheels turning. I imagined — this is what it’s about — two little girls named Hazel and Flora who are sisters. I’m still learning to talk about this book because it’s brand-new.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Patti: The older sister, Hazel, keeps the younger sister who’s five, Flora, safe and comforted with a fairy tale she makes up. She makes up a fairy-tale land that only the two of them know about. When things are rough and they’re missing their family, they go to this secret land called Whisperwood and The River of Stars. A year goes by. They’re living with a lovely family. Some children didn’t get lovely families. They were living in a small town outside of Oxford, England, called Binsey, which has its own legend and lore. During the Blitz, the little sister disappears. It is assumed she drowned in the river. Then we flash to twenty years later. The older sister is working in an antiquarian bookshop in London. A book crosses her path in the back room. It is a first signed edition with original illustrations of a fairy tale by an American author called Whisperwood and The River of Stars.

Zibby: Wow. You’ve definitely piqued my interest.

Patti: It’s about how story can save us. This fairy tale helps to solve a mystery that’s twenty years old.

Zibby: Patti, what part of your life has been saved by writing?

Patti: That’s a great question, Zibby. I love that. So many parts of my life. I would say that the first one was when I was really young. I was twelve. I grew up outside of Philadelphia. My family moved to South Florida when I was twelve. It was awful. I went to three different schools in three different years while they were figuring out where to live. My dad was a pastor, so where they were going to put the church. It was terrible. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. It was terrible. I lived outside Philadelphia. I lived in Ardmore in Narberth. I had my friends and my life. This is in the mid to late seventies, so we’re not calling each other. We’re not Snapchatting. I would hide in the libraries. Libraries were my sanctuaries. In books, everything made sense. What we were just talking about earlier is, someday it will all make sense. When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen and hiding in the library, I believed that. I believed that someday it would all make sense. The only reason I believed that was because I was reading books.

Zibby: I love that. How did you get through the rest of the high school experience? Did you find your people? What happened?

Patti: I did eventually. When I was in tenth grade, my parents said, “We’re going to stay in Coral Springs. You’ll go to the same school until you graduate.” Zibby, I decided I would be popular and make friends. I joined the Latin club. That’s not how you get popular.

Zibby: I’m like, was she a cheerleader? What did she do? Latin.

Patti: Latin. I loved it. Like we were just talking about earlier, it was a steppingstone to becoming a novelist because I became obsessed with the — no, I was a nurse before I was a novelist. I thought I was taking Latin for medical reasons, so that I could understand medical language and carry that forward with me, which I did. It was that. It also helped me become obsessed with the origin of words, the origin of stories, with mythology. Little did I know I was training myself to be a novelist.

Zibby: Now the more medical parts of the story make sense a little more.

Patti: In the hospital, yeah.

Zibby: In the hospital and when George’s lips are blue and even how he is when he’s born and not really robust enough and all of that, now I get where you’re coming from too.

Patti: People ask me a lot, have you written about being a nurse? I said, I never have, and I probably never will. You know we never say never. I do know that almost every book, I’ve used something from that time, whether it’s a scene in the hospital or a family falling apart or a family at crossroads. I was in pediatrics. I was a pediatric nurse. Even if I don’t write directly about it, it shows up.

Zibby: Again, the mishmash of our brains and what ends up coming out of this funnel. Just quickly, I know we’re almost out of time, but why did you leave nursing? When did that happen?

Patti: I left nursing when my kids were six, four, and one. I was playing dollhouse with my daughter one day. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was six. She looked me right in the eyes. She said, “I want to be a writer of books.” I said, “No, that’s what I want to be when I grow up.” She said, “You’re already grown up.” I signed up for a writing class at Emory the next day.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool. Is she now a writer of books?

Patti: Not of books, but she is writing blogs and things like that. I think she will. Right now, she has a three-year-old and a five-month-old, so she’s not doing much aside from survival. She’s a beautiful writer. She has a huge following on Instagram, Megan Moon. She’s a beautiful writer. I didn’t sit down to write my first book until I was thirty-five. You never know when. Same with you. We’ve changed. It should’ve been obvious all along. When it happens, it feels like a sharp left turn, but that’s not what it is.

Zibby: I love that. It’s where you were meant to go all along.

Patti: Exactly. Now it all makes sense.

Zibby: Amazing. Patti, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for sharing your story and your stories with me. Thanks again for letting me reschedule to a different time.

Patti: Thank you, Zibby. This was a blast.

Zibby: Have a great day.


ONCE UPON A WARDROBE by Patti Callahan

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