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Patti Callahan: On Writing About Another Culture

New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan explains why her newest novel, Surviving Savannah, underwent several sensitivity reads and what her experience was like.

Patti Callahan is a New York Times bestselling author and is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer of the Year. 

Patti Callahan

Patti Callahan

In this post, Callahan explains why her newest novel, Surviving Savannah, underwent several sensitivity reads, what her experience was like, and more!

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Name: Patti Callahan
Literary agent: Meg Ruley of The Jane Rotrosen Agency
Title: Surviving Savannah
Publisher: Penguin Random House/Berkley
Release date: March 9, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: The Titanic of the South—a dual timeline journey with a modern-day museum curator and shipwreck hunter uncovering what happened on the night of June 14th, 1838 when the Steamship Pulaski blew up off the coast of North Carolina with the elite of Savannah and Charleston on board.
Previous titles by the author:

  • Becoming Mrs. Lewis
  • Wild Swan: A story of Florence Nightingale
  • The Favorite Daughter
  • The Bookshop at Water’s End
  • The Idea of Love
  • The Stories We Tell
  • Coming up for Air
  • And Then I Found You
  • Driftwood Summer
  • The Art of Keeping Secrets
  • When Light Breaks
  • Between the Tides
  • Where the River Runs
  • Losing the Moon
Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan

Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan

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What prompted you to write this book?

A dear friend of mine in Bluffton, South Carolina told me about this 1838 shipwreck years ago. I wasn’t interested in writing it … until I was. When I found out about a family of eleven who had boarded the ship in Savannah, I grew curious about who’d survived and what each of the survivors had done with their lives. What I discovered was stunning and brought into question all the ideas we have around the ideas of fate and meant-to-be.

And then, when I was just starting to brainstorm this story, the remains of the great steamship were discovered at the bottom of the sea a hundred feet deep by a shipwreck hunting company. Suddenly, I was all in. It felt like this story wanted to be told.

(Historical Fiction: Discover New Truths in the Past)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

It took me three years from the moment of “I will write this” to a finished, edited manuscript. It did change during the writing, many times in fact. There wasn’t one definitive book about the ship or its disaster, so there was a boatload of research to be done, museums to visit and interviews to conduct. There were also a great many untold stories hidden inside this shipwreck and I needed to find the one story that would carry us through the narrative. Finally, I did. I discovered that there had been a 14-year-old boy who traveled with his family of eleven; he’d survived five days and nights at sea, helping others and earning the nickname The Noble Boy. And then twenty years later, he earned a new nickname: The Red Devil. He had become a horror of a man and a slave trader. When I uncovered this story, I finally found the door into the larger theme of the novel: how do we survive the surviving?

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Yes! My ship explodes in the middle of the night in the middle of the sea in the year 1838 when the abomination of slavery was legal. During the publication of this novel, I had a number of “sensitivity reads” and learned about my own blind spots when writing about another culture. I could not be more grateful that I had the expertise and wisdom of the publishing house to help me navigate this.

(The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

There are always a great many things we learn in the process of writing a book, if we’re paying attention, that is. But one of the things that struck me during the research of this novel was the importance of museums when writing historical fiction. We can’t find everything on the internet and, of course, we shouldn’t. Not only do the museums curate a much larger and deeper story in curated exhibits, but they also tell history from varying points of view. Museums are doing a hero’s work in keeping history alive in more than dry statistics and facts.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I definitely don’t want to provide any answers, but I do hope my readers are hit in the heart and ask what poet David Whyte calls “the beautiful questions,” the questions and curiosities that have the ability to change us. What does it mean to survive? What do we do with past trauma and how do we move on? How do we survive the surviving?

Patti Callahan: On Writing About Another Culture

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Know your character’s deepest desires: once you discover that, the story begins. 

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