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Joy Davidman: The Woman Who Wanted Something More

Patti Callahan uses historical fiction to trace the transformative journey of C. S. Lewis’s wife.
Joy Davidman: The Woman Who Wanted Something More
Image: University of New Hampshire / Gado / Getty

Patti Callahan is the author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels. Her new book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, lifts Davidman from behind the shadow of her famous husband, shining a spotlight on her spirited personality, her accomplishments as a writer, and her profound wrestling with the mysteries of God and life. Novelist Rachel McMillan spoke with Callahan about her take on this remarkable romance.

It was easy to tell that Joy Davidman is a major passion project of yours. Why come out with this book now?

Timing is such a mystery. Years ago, I’d hit a dead-end in the work I was doing. Creativity and writing have always been my worship, my simple way of understanding God and the world as best I can, and yet after 12 novels, I was floundering with how to proceed. One night, with a group of my writer pals, someone asked, “What would you write about if you could write about anything?”

“C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman,” I said without any forethought. I hadn’t consciously admitted it to myself even once. “But I don’t write historical fiction.”

My friend’s face broke into a broad smile. She said, “If you don’t write that, I will.”

Well, that was all I needed. I believe Joy tapped me on the shoulder. Her brave personality, her indomitable spirit, and her no-holds-barred attitude joined me in my writing room. I felt, bone deep, that I needed to tell her story in a narrative that would bring her to life beyond the factual biographies (which are interesting and informative) and her public image as the dying wife of C. S. Lewis.

I want the world to know the woman not behind Lewis but next to him—the brilliant writer, the wife, the mother, and the eros-love he called his “whole world.”

The genre of fictional biography must have been daunting. How did you set about the arduous task of representing two historical figures who inspire strong opinions?

Daunting indeed! I dealt with loads of anxiety as to what and who I was really writing about. Mostly I told myself that I was just writing another novel. This cognitive dissonance was a constant juggling act as I researched and wrote for years. I believe in the power of story to tell a truth, and that carried me through. Also, Joy was with me in her words, her letters, her poetry, and her essays. Often, we come to know historical figures through fictional narrative, and then, if we so desire, we can go deeper and farther into their lives. (At the end of the novel, I attach a suggested reading list for readers who want to know more).

Also, I tackled the task with love. I so admired her, and of course, Lewis, that I approached the pages with humble reverence but also with the knowledge that they were both human and their pedestals were just as cracked as anyone’s. I didn’t want to portray the marble image but, instead, the woman and the man in their daily struggles, doubts, and fears as best I could.

There is an essay Joy once wrote called “On Fear,” and in that essay, she asks this question: “If we should ever grow brave, what on earth would become of us?” And I believe she answered that question with her life. I wanted to be as brave as she was—and this thought pulled me through every doubt.

Authors may have been tempted to make Joy’s “mystical experience”—one that was very much a Road to Damascus moment and trumped logic—the pivotal climax of the story, yet you decide to place it at the beginning. Can you talk about getting the “Come to Jesus moment” out of the way?

Really, it was her inciting incident, the one that set her off on a transformative journey. The climax of her story is the understanding that she is loved and accepted by the very God she encountered that night. There is first the experience and then the journey.

Joy could have ignored the on-her-knees moment when her first husband [noir author William Lindsay Gresham] threatened suicide and she was alone with her two boys, but instead she chose to dedicate her life to understanding what it meant. A less determined woman would have allowed that confusing night to fade into the background of her “hard-boiled skepticism” and dismissed the mystery as nothing more than fancy.

She is the first to say that her progress in the spiritual life was “heartbreakingly slow.” So if we are to talk of the experiential as an encounter, then what Joy experienced was just that—an encounter with God, and she was set to find out what that meant for her, her children, her work, and her life. And there the novel starts.

Lewis’s writing has stood the test of time in a way that Davidman’s writing has not. Yet you are passionate about her craft in its own right. Where should readers begin to learn more about Joy as a talented wordsmith?

Before Joy wrote her first letter to him, Lewis was already quite famous. He had not yet published the Narnian Chronicles, but Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and many other works were already in the world. He’d been on the cover of TIME and been called “The Apostle to the Skeptics” by Chad Walsh in the Atlantic Monthly. Joy’s work was also widely acclaimed, yet she was not nearly as famous as Lewis.

By the time they met, Joy had graduated from Columbia at 19 with a master’s degree in English, been awarded the Yale Younger Poet’s Award for her poetry, worked for prestigious magazines, and written movie reviews. She had won the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize. She had been to Hollywood as a screenwriter and published two novels, Anya and Weeping Bay. She wrote a book on the Ten Commandments titled Smoke on the Mountain (Lewis wrote the foreword) and many essays. Her work stands on its own, with both its critics and its admirers. I hope Becoming Mrs. Lewis will have readers returning to Joy’s writing and poetry, and that they’ll find her work both deep and satisfying.

I am fascinated by the title of your book. Some readers might find it ironic, because as much as Joy’s faith journey is changed by Lewis, she very much holds her own in the novel, and her impact on him is easily as great as his on her. Can you speak to this choice?

Becoming: That description of Joy came to me late in writing the novel. The title speaks to Joy’s transformational journey. The title is not meant to imply that her “becoming” was about being a wife but instead about growing into the woman of faith and acceptance who surrendered to death and stated, “I am at peace with God.” That woman was Mrs. Lewis.

As a general-market writer with a strong faith background, how do you hope nonbelievers will approach this love story?

I never write a book hoping someone will take something particular from it. I don’t have a message, and I’m not hoping to impart knowledge or conversion. The mystery of story is that we take from it what we need or want—there is no prerequisite or test at the end. Madeline L’Engle said, “We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us.” And that is the highest good I can hope for in a novel.

Joy and Jack’s story isn’t meant to be a lesson in Christianity or a how-to book on living a good life. If I wrote this novel to reach anyone with a message, it would feel insincere. The story reaches our hearts because it is true and because it involves the suffering and joy that comes with intimate connection, the meaningful search for God, and the effort to make sense of what seems senseless.

Joy Davidman experienced her fair share of criticism, especially as a strong, intellectual woman who infiltrated a male-dominated environment. Writers and biographers have very strong labels for her. How did you create your own view of Joy, separate from the critics of her time period?

Joy influenced Jack in that environment with her wit and intelligence—and her bravery, bravado, and confidence. Joy had her insecurities and her vulnerabilities, and they deeply influenced her life and the choices she made. But her brilliance shone like a diamond. She suffered from the misogynistic tendencies of her day and of her husband (he once stated that a man needed to have two things to succeed as a writer—a typewriter and a wife, and they should both be in working order).

When I first began my research, I wouldn’t read too much into the names that others called her in articles and biographies. But the more I came to know Joy, the more I spied the derisive language used to describe her. Her vilification was everywhere—the diminishment of a woman with a single scornful adjective.

She was called names such as brash, abrasive, aggressive, impulsive, divisive, difficult, and much worse. By the time I finished my research, I had new names for Joy: Courageous. Lionhearted. Kind. Fiery. Brilliant. Vulnerable. Frightened. I also began to listen to how we describe other women. I perked up at the once-ignored descriptors and adjectives used for our most fiery characteristics. Is it because brave women in history and even now are too much, too loud, too bright?

The theme of “something more” is an integral motif in Joy’s life—and yet her life was cut short tragically by the return of her cancer. How do you think her legacy and her impact on C. S. Lewis manifests that “something?”

As a younger woman, Joy would not allow herself to believe in the very things she longed for in her reading and in her writingsomething greater than herself. She was a curious and brilliant child, awestruck by nature, and yet as she has written, she believed that “beauty existed but of course God did not.”

When we look at Joy’s circumstances, when we pen the bullet points of her life, how could we claim that her life was better because she trusted God? Because she believed in “something more?” In many places and times, her life seems both tragic and difficult. But she knew that her life was more profound and relevant with her deep desire for a mystical knowledge of God that could govern her daily life.

Joy carried with her a profound respect for mystery, for the answers she would never have, but also a faith that her questions were worth asking. She understood that there would never be answers that would fully satisfy her intellect, but that never, not once, stopped her from asking the questions.

I always love the unintentional connection between Lewis’s autobiographical title, Surprised by Joy, and then later, the literal surprise of Joy arriving in and changing his life. What most surprised you about Joy?

It surprised me how very much I came to love her, how I came to see her heart and its vulnerabilities as strength. I started this novel a little enchanted with Lewis and his work—and curious about Joy and their love story. I ended up finding a woman who taught me about the undivided life of a soul searching for God.

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