What made you want to write about Joy?
I was reading a lot of CS Lewis in the year after 9/11. I had been very involved in the recovery and relief effort on a voluntary basis and spent a lot of time working with family members who had lost loved ones.
I was grappling with the concept of grief and asking where God was. I read The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity. There’s so much wisdom in those books but Lewis is also very intellectual, logical and rational. There’s a lack of emotional warmth.
Then I read A Grief Observed, [written after the death of Joy] and it’s exploding with emotion. He’s angry and questioning God, his faith is shaken. The way he talked about Joy was so moving. I wanted to know more about her.
One of the things that got me started with the project was that I was finishing my Master’s [degree] at Columbia University when I learned that Joy had done her Master’s degree at Columbia in 1935. I walked over to the reference desk and asked to search for Joy’s thesis and they had it! It was the original typed manuscript she had turned in. As far as I know, no one had ever thought to look for it. Living in New York [where Joy grew up] made it possible for me to start doing the research.
Many of Lewis’ friends disliked her
Is it true she went to England to seek out CS Lewis and always had the intention of pursuing a romantic relationship with him?
Yes. Joy wrote some love sonnets chronicling what I think of as obsession and infatuation with Lewis that began during her first marriage, before she ever met Lewis in person.
You’ve spent ten years writing and researching this book. Where did you travel to, and how did it influence your writing?
I tried to go to every physical place that was important to her. Joy moved out of Manhattan into the Hudson Valley, and I would drive to where she used to live. Nature was so important to her. I would go for walks in the woods and really steep myself in the environment.
I wouldn’t have been able to write some of those descriptions of physical places without having experienced them myself. Going to Oxford as a New Yorker I got a sense of how overwhelmed she must have felt when she made the same journey.
The New York Times said, ‘Even if “Joy,” Abigail Santamaria’s life of C.S. Lewis’s wife, were a bad book, Lewis’s zealous admirers would read it, eager for another way to finger his shroud.’ What did you make of that?
I think it was an underhanded, snarky, arrogant dig. And you can quote me on that. But I do understand where it’s coming from. There’s a lot of hero worship and hagiography around CS Lewis, and that has in turn elevated Joy and the hero worship has reflected onto her.
So many of Lewis’ friends really disliked her; even called her a gold-digger. Others said she was the godly, saintly wife of St Lewis. But neither is true.
Joy (SPCK) is out now