Sunday Brunch: A Chat with Authors Patti Callahan and Shelley Nolden


[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the chance to chat with authors Patti Callahan and Shelley Nolden and ask them a few questions each. Up first, Patti Callahan.]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel?  

Patti Callahan: The story of the “Titanic of the South” — the shipwreck of the Steamship Pulaski — had never been fully told. When I found out that a shipwreck hunting crew had found the remains of the steamship, I knew that while they were bringing up the lost treasure I wanted to bring up the lost stories. 

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?

I related most to the one who might think I would relate to the least — the historical character of the single woman, Augusta Longstreet. Although we have nothing in common on the face of things, we had a lot in common in matters of the heart. Her love for her nephew, Thomas (my son’s name is Thomas), her need to thrive versus just survive (for me it was after breast cancer), or her belief that her thoughts and feelings were just as important as any man’s. I also felt a bond with her as I found her pages-long handwritten account of the disastrous days and nights when the ship sank and she found herself on a small scrap of wreckage for five days and five nights in the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean. Hearing directly from her in those pages brought me the closest to her, although I can’t slight Lilly and Everly: I love them madly, too!

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

We want to know how others survive and thrive. Right now we are all  thrust into the unknown, into a present and a future that looks nothing like we thought it would. Tenacity, strength and vulnerability in our characters are also what we value in others during such a time as this. 

Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it.

My latest read I just love is When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain (author of The Paris Wife). This is a passionately written thriller about a missing teen girl in Northern California. This novel is a genre switch for Paula and yet her poetic prose, her wise insight into human nature and her ability to take you into the story in the same wondrous way remains. 

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

On October 19, 2021 I have a new novel, Once Upon a Wardrobe, coming out! It is inspired by and set around the impactful novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Set in 1950 during the book’s release we follow the adventures of a young boy who asks his sister to find the answer to the only question that matters to him. “Where did Narnia come from?” When his sisters asks C. S. Lewis she doesn’t get the answers she expected…

Who is your current favorite writer?

Why? It is always and forever Anne Rivers Siddons because she is the writer who made me want to write. 

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?  

Oh, I am loathe to give out advice when some advice works for some writers and other advice works for others. But this right here has saved me when I am stuck: know what your character wants more than anything else in the world. You know that desire and your story will start to unfold. 

Up next, author Shelley Nolden!
What was your inspiration behind your debut novel?

I first glimpsed North Brother Island, the setting for The Vines, from thousands of feet above the East River. My husband and I were on a plane descending to LaGuardia Airport. He spotted it from his window seat, elbowed me in the ribs, and said, “You should write a book about that island.”

Shock. And wonder. Those were my initial reactions to seeing the small spit of land with its decrepit buildings and barren forest that February of 2014. Despite my clamminess from turbulence a few minutes earlier, a chill passed over me. The hospital ruins looked bleak, desperate, bitterly cold. And completely out of place in the middle of New York City. 

“How could I not know this place exists?” I asked myself during my initial research. At the time, I’d been working in Manhattan for over ten years. Now, as we’re introducing The Vines to readers, I’m hearing that same shock, wonder, and question from many others.

Equally interesting to its obscurity is North Brother Island’s history. In 1885, it became home to Riverside Hospital, a quarantine facility for the city’s poor immigrants. Its most famous resident, Typhoid Mary, lived there in a one-room bungalow until her death in 1938. In the 1950s it was converted to an experimental rehabilitation center for heroin-addicted teens. Tragically, in 1904, North Brother’s southwestern shore served as the grounding site for the PS General Slocum, a steamship that caught fire, resulting in over 1,100 deaths, most of the victims women and children. 

Back in 2014, when I was first developing this story concept, I was still healing—emotionally and physically—from three years of treatment for leukemia. Since Riverside Hospital had originally served as a quarantine facility, a story centered on one family’s quest to end disease, at any cost, catered to my own fears of recurrence and secondary cancers. 

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?

I relate most to Lily Skolnik, who’s battled cancer twice and lives in fear of not only that disease but all the other freakishly low probability ways one can die. When the trauma from my leukemia ordeal was still fresh, I was afraid to even step into the sun because of the risk of skin cancer. Lily doesn’t let her fears consumer her, but they’re omnipresent in the back of her mind.

I’m still heavily involved in the cancer community, and so, unfortunately, I know too well that many patients and survivors share my anxieties. I created Lily for everyone in that community. Because we “get” what it’s like to live with this fear; we’ve been there. I also tucked in a small reference to honor those whom we’ve lost. Lily has a cacti memorial garden. Each cactus on her windowsill represents a friend who’s passed away. The two names Lily mentions when looking at her garden are the first names of two people who meant a lot to me. I still think about them often, and miss them so much. 

Lily’s foil is the main character, Cora McSorely. While drafting this novel, Cora was the person I longed to be. And not just because she has an incredible immune system. Cora is strong, resilient, and brave. Unfortunately, given the challenges that are forced upon her, she needs every ounce of grit she can muster. 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

Often, unfortunately, there is a connection between distinctiveness and adversity. Many of the most unique characters in fiction are so compelling because of the strength they’ve gained through navigating extreme challenges. Fear has been such a universal emotion throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises of the past year. Rooting for these characters, and witnessing their transformations, renews our confidence in our own abilities to weather hardship. 

Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it.

Currently, I’m listening to the audiobook version of The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, another debut author. The Amazon page for The Vines has been telling me that customers who’ve bought my novel have also bought The Sanitorium. Now that I’m engrossed in this eerie, suspenseful thriller, I feel very honored by this connection. Pearse’s atmospheric novel is set in a remote tuberculosis pavilion that’s been converted to a luxury hotel. The most prominent building on North Brother Island is its tuberculosis pavilion. In addition to simply enjoying the gripping storytelling in The Sanitorium, it’s been fascinating for me to see how a common element became two drastically different novels. Yet there are similarities in our works as well: rusted medical equipment and old hospitals that have housed significant suffering make for chilling backdrops.  

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

I’m taking a weekly virtual writing class through the Iowa Summer Writing Festival while working on the sequel to The Vines. I love interacting with the other writers in the class and am eager to read their works. 

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! I love Greer Hendrick’s and Sarah Pekkanen’s mastery of suspense and plots twists. I also hugely admire Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s authentic portrayal of gritty characters, dark tones, and complex, emotional dilemmas have heavily influenced my writing.  

Any writing advice for aspiring writers? 

Outside the pool area of my high school (I was a swimmer), there was a picture pinned to one of the bulletin boards that showed a crane attempting to swallow a frog. All of the frog was lodged in its throat except its front legs. Those extended from the crane’s mouth and were locked around its bill, preventing it from fully swallowing him. The caption above the struggle read, “Never Give Up.” My advice to aspiring writers is to be like that frog. 

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