Driftwood Summer, the latest release from author Patti Callahan Henry, tackles the always complicated relationship between sisters, but it also confronts the troubling reality of economic hardships many Independent Booksellers are now facing. Henry says this drama unfolded in a quinky-dink fashion. Join Henry as she takes a moment from the preparations of the launch of her book to answer questions posed by author Karen Spears Zacharias.
Q: In your latest novel, Driftwood Summer, you weave a complex tale of the three Sheffield sisters. You, in fact, dedicate this book to your sisters. How much of your own relationship of the Holy Trinity of Sisterhood did you draw from?
A: The Holy Trinity of Sisterhood – now that’s funny! We definitely weren’t a “holy” anything. I didn’t use any of our exact experiences, but I don’t think a writer can avoid using the implicit emotional memories of sisterhood’s dynamics. I purposefully made each sister very different from who we (Patti, Barbi and Jeannie) are really like as oldest, middle and youngest.
Q: Which of the Sheffield sisters do you most identify with?
A: I identify with all of them. I know that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but I wove so many features into each individual sister that I can’t identify with just one more than the other. I was extremely careful not to model a sister after myself or my other two sisters, and therefore I ended up combining characteristics in a mixed-up version of all of us in all of them.
Q: Just like Riley Sheffield, proprietor of Driftwood Cottage Bookstore, many of our Indie bookstore owners are in over their heads financially. What made you decide to confront this issue?
A: This is one of those “synchronicity” things I just can’t explain. It was not a conscious decision on my part to tackle this difficult subject. I began a story in the same place I always do – a feeling, a lump in my throat, a “what if”. And then I took two of my favorite things – beaches and bookstores – and combined them into a story. I knew this was a story about three sisters facing each other, their family, their town and their past and I set them inside a bookstore.
Q: How did you go about the research? Was there a particular bookstore owner that you turned to for insight? Or a couple of them?
A: When I was on book tour last year, I used the opportunity to interview bookstore owners, watch the customers, and listen to the great stories that come from bookstores. Depending on the area of the country, every bookstore owner had a particular insight into the business. Some are competing with WalMart and Target and others are battling a sinking economy in their area. Hopefully I combined the majority of the concerns, and also the joys of bookstore ownership! The dynamic that impressed me the most was that these stores are anchors for the town or area in which they thrive. They are gathering places, places where book clubs meet, friends talk and friendships are formed. A sacred place in many ways.
Q: It’s not uncommon as a writer to run into a bookstore owner who wants to write their own book someday. Some of them have done just that. Do you ever have a hankering to quit writing and open your own bookstore?
A: I have dreamed of owning a bookstore just like The Driftwood Cottage, but I am also realistic enough to know it is just that: a dream. I don’t believe I could run a bookstore and continue to write novels. I’ve watched the commitment and dedication that it takes to keep an independent bookstore afloat, viable and interesting. I think, for now, I’ll channel that passion into my writing.
Q: Describe for us your favorite bookstore from your childhood.
A: The library was my favorite bookstore. I spent innumerable hours huddled inside air conditioned libraries, picking out my books for the week, browsing the shelves, and imagining all the worlds and words contained in the pages.
Q: Riley and her sisters, along with plenty of support from the community, rally to save the bookstore from demise. What are some real things we can do to help our local Indies stay in business?
A: This is one of those “take it for granted” issues. I believe many people love their independent bookstores, but don’t understand the problems the bookstore is going through. Readers are very upset when a local Indie shuts down, yet they don’t understand the things they could have done to prevent the bookstore’s demise!
I think the best things we can do to help save our local Indies are to visit them, buy our books from them and spread the word about them. Buy Local: it’s not just a slogan, but a real way to save our Indies and help the local economy thrive. Visit the events that take place at the Indies – from art classes to author lectures. And spread the word to friends as I don’t believe most people understand the plight of the Indies.
Q: Riley and her sister Maisy are complicated women, who, at times, compete against each other for the Martyr of the Year award. Do you think that’s common among sisters? To compete for the “Who’s suffered more, me or you, distinction?
A: I would like to believe this isn’t true, but I do think there is a battle that is often waged in sister’s actions and words. We all want to believe we are contributing to and helping the family, yet unconscious needs often drive our ways of relating. Yuck.
Q: As the mother of three daughters myself I thoroughly enjoyed the way you captured the emotional tug between the love and loyalty and jealousy and strife of these sisters. Do you think that strife is inevitable in the kinship of sisterhood?
A: Absolutely I believe that strife is inevitable in the kinship of sisterhood. It is how we individuate, how we come to know self and family. We work through problems: talk about them, solve them, joke about them and then hopefully somewhere along the way love each other while becoming individuals of strength.
Q: While the love interest between Riley and Mack is compelling, it is really the love between Riley and her son Brayden that is truly captivating. Riley believes her refusal to identify the father of her son is in everyone’s best interest but in the long run it’s a selfish and very costly decision, particularly for Brayden. We do that a lot though don’t we? Convince ourselves that we’re protecting others when what we are really doing is protecting our own selfish interests.
A: Denial is a powerful force in our lives. I think we all “tell” ourselves tiny untruths (or large lies) to live with our choices and actions. Riley believed, truly believed, that she made the best choice for Brayden and for herself, yet when a new circumstance arose (the grandparents showed up), she understood the selfish motivations behind her choice. I think it is often this way: a new circumstance in life causes us to look at our life in a new way, from a different angle and then our choices change.
Q: Both Riley and Mack are at that age when their parents are facing challenging health issues, yet, those illnesses become a gift in an ironic way. You were a nurse in your former life. Did you witness that often? Where the illness became an unexpected gift to a family that had been distant from one another?
A: I believe illness is often one of those life circumstances that can break open our heart to new understanding. We can be moving along in our life and believing certain patterns and ways of living are working when an unexpected event causes us to stop, look and become aware. I hate this very fact of life – that often the very hardest circumstances cause us to grow and change for the better.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It is a mother-daughter story with a bit of a magical twist. And as Forrest Gump says, “that’s all I have to say about that.” For now.