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Pat Conroy calls Patti Callahan Henry’s debut novella lyrical – “Patti takes you to those places in the heart you didn’t even know you wanted to go.”
In The Perfect Love Song, Callahan Henry tells the story of Jimmy Sullivan, who has been living on the road with his brother, Jack, and their band. The road is Jimmy’s only home and music his only savior until he falls in love with a beautiful girl, Charlotte Carrington. Spending time with Charlotte inspires Jimmy to write a love song for her, which becomes an overnight sensation.
As Jimmy finds himself caught up in the desire for fame and fortune, the genuine lyrics of the song are overshadowed by his career ambitions. Will Jimmy miss his brother’s wedding in Ireland for a chance to put on a biggest show of his career in New York City —or will he find his way back to his family, to Ireland…and to the love of his life, Charlotte?
Join in as Karen Spears Zacharias talks with Patti about her much-anticipated story:
Karen: This story – THE PERFECT LOVE SONG — is your first novella. What are some of the challenges of writing a novella versus a novel, and how did you deal with them?
Patti: I found this a thrilling way to tell a story because I focused on ONE situation. I brought the lens closer and closer to the main characters and allowed the outside world and its tangents to blur into the background. I concentrated on Jimmy and Charlotte’s journey together. I eliminated any subplots and used the symbol of the Claddagh ring to hold together the events of the story. I didn’t find this a challenge at all, but merely a new way to write, a fresh way to tell a story. Writing a novella wasn’t so much about page count or cutting the length as it was redesigning the focus of my storytelling ways. When I wanted to delve into a subplot or another character’s needs, I reminded myself what this novella was really about and steered my words back onto the main road.
Karen: Readers who are familiar with your previous work will be delighted to encounter familiar characters from WHEN LIGHT BREAKS. So did you know when you finished that book that you’d revisit those people again?
Patti:I had no idea I would revisit those characters, yet at the same time my characters always live on. They just do. In the past few years, I’ve received a lot of email asking, “So when will Charlotte and Jimmy get together?”, so the question must have worked its way into my writing soul and I finally decided to find out what happened to ole’ Jimmy Sullivan. I never write a book with the plan for it to continue past “the end”, yet this time it did. I think part of the allure for adding to this story was hidden within the character Maeve Mahoney. She still had something to say and something to teach. Her story and her legend continued.
Karen: This story is narrated. Is this the first-time you’ve used the first-person to “tell” a story? Why did you choose that?
Patti: I don’t premeditate the way I tell a story; I write the story in the way it comes to me. I’ve written seven books and have gone from third person male POV to first person female and almost everything in between. This story came to me as a narration – almost a fairy tale or legend. The narrator knows more than the characters and we are privy to her information: I found it a fascinating way to tell a story. In many ways, the narrator told me the story!
Karen: As a writer, are there characters you encounter that linger long after the book is finished?
Patti: Absolutely. All of my characters seem to linger not only in my mind, but in my readers’ minds also. They go on living. Even after their situation is told, their story goes on.
Karen: There are parts of The Perfect Love Song that read almost like wisdom literature — nuggets of truth. For instance, the line “The smallest actions lead to the biggest changes.” Can you think of a time in your life where that’s been the case?
Patti: Wow – nuggets of truth? I had hoped that was true about this story. Yes, I can think of one very particular time when “the smallest action led the biggest change” – when I quietly said to my five year old daughter (who is now almost eighteen years old), ‘I am going to be a writer of books’. This statement and gut-knowing decision changed my life slowly and deliberately. I think sometimes we don’t know the seeds of change have been planted, and yet other times we do know for certain, and this was one of those times!
Karen: You have been a huge fan of Amy Grant’s husband, Vince Gill, for several years now. Did you model Jimmy Sullivan after Gill in any fashion? Are you sending an autographed copy to Gill?
Patti: I have been a fan of Gill’s songwriting in a way that could be called more “envy” than admiration. This man can write a song, a song that changes the heart and soul of anyone who hears it. He can take one stanza and say what takes me 300 pages to convey. I don’t know how he does it, and I can’t help but follow his career and music with something akin to obsession. His vulnerability and ability to show us the hidden places of the heart is nothing short of miraculous, and his gift is something to strive for in my own storytelling.
Jimmy Sullivan isn’t based on Vince Gill at all. But I do believe that the character Rusk Corbin has a bit of Vince’s kind spirit (or what I deem to be his kind spirit by listening to his music). And if I knew where to send a signed copy to Vince and Amy, I most definitely would.
Karen: You’ve teamed up with one of Nashville’s top songwriter– Dallas Davidson — to find that perfect love song. Tell us more about that. Any chance Dallas can hook you up with Gill?
Patti: Dallas Davidson is one of today’s top new country songwriters, with eighty songs recorded in the past six years and five of them being number one hits. I am so excited that he’s agreed to judge our “Finish the Love Song” contest. I am enthralled with the art of songwriting, and yet I could only pen the first two lines of Jimmy Sullivan’s perfect song! Dallas, I am quite sure, will be able to help me find the rest of the song! As far as meeting Gill….hmmm…I haven’t asked, but maybe I should.
Karen: Tell us why Jimmy Sullivan’s love song “Undeserved” is considered the perfect Christmas song. How did the title of the song present itself to you.
Patti: Jimmy wrote this song when he was overwhelmed with Love (and as the narrator says,’ what is love if not overwhelming?’). He felt he didn’t deserve to be loved as he was and that he didn’t deserve to feel the way he did. When he wrote the song, it was from the purest place (the soul). When others heard the song, they dubbed it “The Perfect Christmas Song” because the lyrics were all about undeserved love changing a heart from the inside out. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Karen: You grew up a preacher’s daughter. How does that upbringing and your own personal faith journey play out in your writing?
Patti: I think that our childhoods and our upbringing are underground rivers that we don’t always see or even feel, yet always inform and infuse our work. So, maybe I don’t wholly understand the impact my preachers-daughter influence has on my work, but I am sure it is there.
Karen: Ultimately, this story is about how our choices, career or otherwise, can impede our relationships. I couldn’t help but wonder if part of this story is your own. When you hit the New York Times bestseller list last year you were on the road. This year your first-born child is a senior in high school. As Jimmy Sullivan wrangles with the issues of where his fame has taken him, is Patti Callahan Henry also wrangling with some of those same issues about her own career?
Patti: Wow, Karen, you know how to get to the heart of things. You’re right, I have missed events and moments when I’ve been on the road – the one event that hurt my heart the most was when I missed my youngest son’s ninth birthday (years ago). I have always attempted to balance this tightrope-walking act between pursuing my passion of writing and family love/obligation. I think for the most part I stay on that rope, but I have fallen off and hurt myself many times.
I don’t regret for a single moment writing or touring. I also don’t regret the choice I made eighteen years ago to be a stay-at-home Mom. I can only hope that when I have erred, it has been on the side of family (the most precious thing in my life).
I also believe it’s incredibly important for children to see their mother pursue her gifts and passions, to understand her love while seeing her reach out into the world. I so hope I have done this very thing. In this novel, Jimmy struggles with this very same issue of love versus fame, yet his pendulum has swung all the way to the “fame” side of the scale, obliterating his view of all that is important. What can heal this kind of error? Love.
Karen: Recent polls indicate that a large part of today’s youth — I think it was like 46 percent — want to be actors. In other words, they are looking to be famous. You’ve got a household full of kids. What do you think this attraction to fame is with today’s youth?
Patti: The media makes fame look so….easy and beautiful. TV, magazines and movies make the young long for that kind of beauty and money, that kind of ease when of course it is all smoke and mirrors – nothing real at all.
Karen: Parts of the book take place in Ireland. Have you been to Ireland?
Patti: Yes! I’ve been to Ireland three times. Once just out of college and twice with my daughter when she was an Irish dancer. The land there is so rich with story that you can almost hear the earth whispering to you! I love that lush land and hope to return again soon.
Karen: Your writing has an undercurrent of the lyrical and the mystery of myth embedded in it. How does a writer go about crafting work that has those elements?
Patti: What a beautiful and wonderful compliment. Thank you! I don’t know if or how a writer can deliberately craft their work to hold the elements of myth and lyricism. I grew my writing wings in the land of mythology and legend, so I believe my writing must reflect that love. So many elements work their way into a writer’s voice: childhood, reading habits, geography, friends, education, etc… that I’m not sure you can force a certain kind of storytelling into an author’s “voice”. I write the way I ‘hear’ the story.
Karen: Do you believe there is interaction across the dimensions? Do you think those who’ve passed on before us are involved in our daily living still?
Patti: Interaction across the dimensions? Yes, I’d like to think so. I’ve never experienced anything like it, but I believe those who say they have. This story – THE PERFECT LOVE SONG – hints at such a thing, but still leaves the question unanswered
Karen: Do you think you’ll do another novella? What’s next?
Patti: Yes, I definitely believe I’ll write another novella. The form and the structure appealed to my storytelling soul. There was a certain thrill in writing this tighter narrative. This novella stretched my writing muscles in new ways and as soon as I find the right situation, I will write another novella! For now, what’s next? My next full length novel will be out some time in 2011. Details coming soon!