Bestselling author shares her story at tea party

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

SPENCER — “Once upon a time…..” A familiar phrase that begins many stories and draws the reader into wanting more is how Patti Callahan Henry began sharing her story with a group at the Spencer Public Library on Thursday.

As Henry spoke, the 32 women who gathered to listen were enjoying a British-style tea complete with finger sandwiches, cookies and a variety of other treats.

Beverly McCraw, librarian, said she came up with this idea because Henry had written multiple books based in England.

As she welcomed the group, McCraw told them this was the first tea held at the library, so they were all making history and proceeded to introduce Henry as a New York Times bestselling author as their speaker and that she had won lots of awards. Some of these awards, as was noted in Henry’s biography, are recipient of the Christy Award, the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year Award and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year. 

Co-host and co-creator of the popular weekly online live web show and podcast Friends and Fiction, she and her husband Pat live in Alabama and they have three children and two grandchildren.

Henry said she and McCraw met when they were both attending a conference and McCraw learned that she was to be speaking in Albemarle and asked if she would stop on her way through, to which she agreed.

“She charmed me to come, and I was thrilled that she did,” said Henry, telling how she loves libraries and that Spencer was a charming town.

As she began her story with “once upon a time” she asked, “don’t those words make you kind of lean forward, want to know what happens next?” to which she said the reason is because “we are literally wired for story as human beings. Stories are a way that we make sense of the senseless and meaning of the meaningless.” 

It is how we communicate, understand, remember, fall in love and get to know each other, she said.

A lover of books and reading all of her life, often getting into trouble for reading and told to “get your nose out of that book,” Henry said throughout her school years, she didn’t consider becoming an author. 

The daughter of a preacher, she said they moved around a lot and it was hard to make friends when you had to keep leaving. 

“So for me, the library was my sanctuary. That’s why I always say yes to libraries when I can,” Henry said. “Library was a place where I could read a book and the world made sense because the world didn’t make any sense to me otherwise.”

When they moved for the last time and her mom said she could graduate at that particular school, Henry thought, “I will make friends and be popular so I joined the Latin Club. It didn’t work, but it’s where I gained the love of languages.” 

Her first career was as a pediatric nurse and said she loved being a nurse; however, she continued to constantly read and scribble short stories, but still wouldn’t have said she wanted to be a writer.

That changed after she got married and had children and she and her young daughter were playing dollhouse. She posed the question to her daughter, what does she want to be when she grows up and her daughter replied, “I want to be a writer of books,” to which she quickly responded, “no, that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

And she went the next day and enrolled in a writing class at Emory.

“I went in there with a goal, to write one book to prove that I could do the thing that sustained me all of my life, that I could write a story that might touch somebody and that was 15 novels ago,” Henry said.

Her first book came out in 2004, but she said she started writing seriously probably five years before that. Her novels are all fiction, getting her inspiration from things she is curious about.

“So if I’m curious about something, then there’s probably a story in it,” Henry said.

In addition to her novels, she has written in other formats including essays, short stories and an audible original, and she has a new novel coming out in April of next year entitled “The Story She Left Behind.”

Her most recently published book, “The Secret Book of Flora Lea,” came out in hardback in May 2023, and the paperback version just came out. Henry shared some about the book, saying it was set in 1939 in England and in it the reader meets sisters, Hazel, 14, and Flora Lea, 5.

An edict has just come down from the government that all children must be sent away from their families to live in the country with strangers to be kept safe from the bombs. They are sent to the countryside of Oxfordshire and end up with a good family.

To keep her little sister calm, Hazel makes up a fairytale world called Whisperwood and the River of Stars. In this world, the girls can be anything they want. It’s a secret world only between the two sisters. A year goes by and the unthinkable happens when Flora Lea disappears.

Years pass and a book arrives, creating a mystery for the reader.

“This book is special to me,” Henry said, “because I put all my favorite things in it. It has a little bit of a mystery, it has sisters, it has a fairy tale, it has the river, it has England, I put in the things I care about the most.”

While the book is about many things, she said, “mostly it’s about the power of story” and it’s that deeper love of story that Henry said she hoped people would take away from the day.

The event concluded with a time for questions and the opportunity to buy copies of her books and have her sign them.

When asked what she would share with those just beginning their writing journey, she said, “perseverance.”

Henry said she didn’t think her career has gone the way it has because she’s better than anybody, but she pointed out that she has “been relentless and persevered through the bad agents, through the good agents, through the books that didn’t do so well and then the books that did amazing. So you have to be in it for the long ride. So perseverance,” and, she added, to keep reading and practicing at one’s art daily.