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First Person: How author Anne Rivers Siddons saved me

Author Patti Callahan Henry shares how Anne Rivers Siddons inspired and influenced her. CONTRIBUTED
Author Patti Callahan Henry shares how Anne Rivers Siddons inspired and influenced her. CONTRIBUTED

When Atlanta writer Anne Rivers Siddons died Wednesday at age 83, she left a legacy of 19 novels, and of countless writers whom she has inspired. Patti Callahan Henry is one of those writers. 

There are books you discover at the moment in your life when you need them the most, for nourishment or encouragement, or when it’s time to weep or heal. For me, Anne Rivers Siddons books are those exactly. Her novels shaped and influenced my imagination, cracked me open to understand the power of story.

It wasn’t just her stories that softened the edges of my guarded heart. Yes, the novels are beautiful but it was also the way she used words as if they were hers alone and no one else was given permission to manipulate them the way she could, a kind of magic she was granted at birth. We, as mortals, had the same alphabet and vocabulary in our lives but were unable to put them together this way, this Anne-Way.

>> RELATED: Atlanta novelist Anne Rivers Siddons dies at age 83

Best-selling author Anne Rivers Siddons has died at the age of 83. Siddons, who wrote “Peachtree Road” and was a member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, died of lung cancer. She was born Sybil Anne Rivers on Jan. 9, 1936, in Fairburn and attended Campbell High School. Her family has lived in Fairburn for six generations. She lived in Atlanta until 1998, when she and her husband, Heywood Siddons, moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Siddons cited traffic, unbridled development and the destruction of h

I was a freshman in college, lost but pretending to be found. I was a girl trying on different personalities to see which one fit best: Sorority girl with the pink ribbon? College-football-recruiter serious in the orange and blue polyester uniform? Nursing student on the honor roll? Book Worm? Party Girl? I was all of the above and swinging wildly between each one, a pendulum that never rested, and yet there was one stabilizing force in my life, one thing I never abandoned: reading.

I was an obsessive, addicted reader, and the world disappeared as soon as I opened a book. That year that I picked up “Fox’s Earth” and read it in one sitting. What was this? This kind of story where words came alive like a river or took flight like a mythical creature? Anne Rivers Siddons: I wanted to know everything there was to know about her.

Anne Rivers Siddons, author of 19 novels and a lover of cats, served as a role model for many Southern women who hoped to become writers. FILE PHOTO
Anne Rivers Siddons, author of 19 novels and a lover of cats, served as a role model for many Southern women who hoped to become writers. FILE PHOTO

At that time in my life, before Google and social media, authors were unapproachable, ethereal and not quite real. They were fancy photographs on the back of book covers, not real people, just images and ideas as fictional as their stories. But Anne? She seemed like she might be real. She went to Auburn University, just as I did. She was in a sorority and she wrote and I was also doing both those things. She lived in Atlanta, only a few hours away. Maybe writing was a real thing that women did for a living, or did because they were good at it, No! Because they were great at it.

I started following her like a groupie. She never knew this, but I did. First I went back and read the other books she’d written before “Fox’s Earth.” Then after I’d graduated from college and was working as a nurse in Atlanta, “Peachtree Road” came out. Then “King’s Oak” — a book that irrevocably altered something inside me that I still can’t identify. Without any way to meet her or know her, I did what I’ve been doing my whole life — I went to the library to find out what I don’t know, and this time to look up Anne Rivers Siddons’ history. If there’d been Facebook then, and she’d had one, I would have been the first “like” every time she posted. That’s how I feel about her: I “Like” every damn thing.

I started having these conversations with Anne (oh, they were all in my head). But I imagined telling her my story ideas, telling her good ideas, which she’d want to write and put in a novel. I didn’t yet know that I could write my own stories, I only understood that her novels had the essence, character and taste of what I’d want to write if I did write. Instead of dreaming big for myself, I imagined offering her my dreams, offering to her the stories I felt worth telling.

>> RELATED: ‘Becoming Mrs. Lewis’ a departure for author Patti Callahan Henry

When “Outer Banks” was released in 1991, I saw a sign at the old Oxford Bookstore in Atlanta: Anne would be there for a book signing. I’d never been to a book signing, and I geared myself up for it. I went by myself, not knowing what to expect.

The line was at least an hour long, and I was as nervous as if I were going to meet a blind date. I wanted to say the just right thing. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me. I wanted to let her know that she enriched my life. Then it was my turn: I stepped up to the table and held out my book for her to sign. She sat at a table with her husband next to her. She was so tiny, a little thing with white fluffy Q-tip hair, and a big red lipstick smile.

“Your name?” she asked so quietly I had to lean down to hear her, as if she needed a sweet, quiet voice to weigh out the vibrant, earth-quaking voice she used in her writing. Her pen was poised above the title page and ready to write my name.

“Patti,” I said. And then all the compliments and sentiments I wanted to say stuck in my throat like a rock. I mumbled something about “King’s Oak,” and her husband thanked me for being a fan, and then she was onto the next person.

WAIT! I didn’t get to say anything to her. I had so much to say. So much. How her books carried me through lonely nights when I felt left out by friends or didn’t believe I’d fall in love with the right man, if ever. I wanted to tell her that her stories made me believe that other people in the world felt as deeply as I did, that life was richer than it appeared, that the unseen supported the seen. I was aching to tell her that her words were used as more than just letters in a row, they’d changed me inside, altered who I had become and was becoming.

I didn’t say any of that to her that day at Oxford Books. The bookstore isn’t even there anymore. The years passed, as years do, and I never was able to sit with her to tell her how I feel. Now she is gone and the Southern literary world is less for her absence. We mourn her and we will forever miss her. Now, I tell Anne Rivers Siddons how much she means to me with every book I write. I will continue to reveal how she influenced my life and my words and my destiny. I hope I say the just right things.

Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling author of “Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis,” and of this year’s “The Favorite Daughter.” She lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama, and Bluffton, South Carolina, with her husband.