The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis

photo of Debra Winger

Subject: Debra Winger
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcripts: Patrick Hammerlund

The segments included in this interview* was recorded in January, 2001 in New York City as part of The Magic Never Ends -- The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with Crouse Entertainment Group and WTTW-Chicago. The video, book, and compact disc are available for purchase at our company store. As an actress, Debra Winger portrayed Joy Davidman, the wife of C.S. Lewis, in the acclaimed Richard Attenborough production of Shadowlands.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

What is it about the C.S. Lewis / Joy Davidman relationship that inspired you personally?
First of all, I should say, it's always the script first. So, in my case, I actually had not read his Christian writings. Except for my son was six years old and I had just finished the series of the Chronicles of Narnia. And I wasn't really aware what the connections were. It was just a pretty big synchronicity in my life that I received the script right after that. And when I read the script it was so literate and so wonderful that you just "say yes." Then I started to understand who Joy was and the significance of that relationship, and then I began to read C.S. Lewis, Jack Lewis' writings, which just became really engrossing.

These two people were really unlikely to come together as a couple...
Well I don't think so, but I understand what you're saying, objectively. They're from different worlds, but in fact, their hearts were very similar. And I think that as in any great marriage, you don't marry someone that's just like you, you marry the compliment. I's like an alchemy. And he was opened by Joy, so to speak. … But I also think that her marriage to Jack was a significant moment of that connection as well. And for him in a strange way, even though he had an enormous body of work before he met her, his life changed.

What do you think, attracted them to each other?
Well, with all due respect to Joy, I do think she pursued him somewhat as a fan, I mean, I think that was what turned off a lot of Jack's buddies, you know. That they couldn't quite accept that there was something real after that, but you know, she felt something there. She is in South Falzberg, NY, I know what that's like, with two boys and a terrible marriage and an alcoholic husband and a yearning. And she starts reading these books and she feels a connection. So she writes and then she visits, but then there's something more and I don't believe that it continued on that level, I think that was the impetus, and who are we to say what brings people together. She felt something and was pulled towards him.

What do you think were the things that she brought into his world, how did she change his life?
In the obvious, sort of cliche way, she opened him up, opened his heart. I mean, he was in his head, he was an intellectual, he was fun loving but it was in a, sort of, repressed way. And I think she opened him up in, in the way that true love opens anyone.

How would you describe Joy Davidman to someone who knows nothing about her?
...she was born Jewish to a Lefty-socialist-communist background, I know a little bit about that. I think she was confused because she had spiritual yearnings that ironically, usually we find children brought up in households that are strong religiously, and so they have to break out and then they find it later. In her case, she had a yearning and there was nothing there, it was a very political upbringing. … She was a single mom, she was tough, she had this, sort of, incredible base to her personality, but she was able to fly off. I mean she picked up two kids and moved to London without any prospects. … You know before it was hip, popular to do that kind of thing with two boys and being a single mom. But I just related to her, overall to her spirit, fierce spirit, and her need to connect up what was going on inside of her, with what she saw in the world no matter what it took.

The word intellect always confuses me. She was bright and she had a yearning and she could read. And so, there was that. I don't know about intellect, I don't know how I would be perceived in that world. I feel for her, going into that world. I have ventured into the world of academia as well, and felt this, the scorn, the arrows. I mean, she didn't have the proper degrees, she probably didn't have language, she was a little loose. And I can just imagine what it felt like for her there, in, in Oxford and Cambridge. So I've had a feeling for her, but I can't say how she was, having never met her.

Having studied Joy and Lewis, what appeals to you personally about his work?
He has an incredibly wry wit, and I think that's the first thing for me. When I read The Screwtape Letters my jaw dropped. It was one of the first ones I picked up. I guess because things that were called the Pilgrim's Regress and The Problem of Pain, the titles were a little off-putting to me. I ended up reading everything he's ever written. I related to Joy, I believe that, probably, that a similar thing happened to her. I couldn't stop reading them. I think because of the parts of me that he was able to reach.

You know we're all made up of so many parts and, and, the yearning to be whole probably our whole lives. And you find one writer that appeals to so many parts, and I think that reflects about him as a person as well. And for me the way in was humor, and The Screwtape Letters had me laughing out loud. And then he explored myth with Till We Have Faces, that was wonderful.

How did world of Oxford influence him?
Lewis loved Oxford. He loved the spires, he loved the life in Oxford. And part of it is he loved the life of the mind, and Oxford is a wonderful place for those who love the life of the mind. Lewis was also, and this is a little more technical, Lewis was in his conception of reality, was an idealist. That is that behind reality is mind, for him that would be God's mind. And that therefore, you take the ideas seriously in a way you wouldn't otherwise. ...I think because Oxford took ideas seriously, he loved that. They didn't all take them seriously in the same way he did, but he just didn't see ideas as lacking reality, ideas have reality. And why, because God made us that way, to think and to imagine, and to translate that imagination into particular things. Whether it's music, whether it's making a piece of furniture whether it's writing a piece of literature or a poem, whether it's constructing something. So the idea is there's a reality to those things...

Let me ask you this , he's known as a Christian writer and many people come to him...
Well wait, I should clarify that, he's known as a Christian writer in Christian circles. But, many people read him and don't know that he's a Christian writer. I mean mothers who go to some big bookstore and buy the Chronicles of Narnia don't know that the writer…. So that's an interesting thing right there. … He actually is a bona fide children's writer and actually has written myth and has written attractive fiction…. Although I agree with that having visited Wheaton (College) and spoken to people who have basically based their whole intellectual career on C.S. Lewis writings. But I wouldn't say that's essentially what he is.

Could you talk about your favorite Lewis writing and why they reached you, what they touched in you?
As I said before, The Screwtape Letters, for me was the way in. I could not figure out that title. And I was curious. So I picked up that book, and you know, the same is true in my life, the way in, for me, is humor, and that did it for me. If you've ever heard John Cleese read it, that's also a treat, because he did it on tape. But, it's just such an appealing way to look at that little devil that speaks in all of our ears. And then I just dove in. I read A Grief Observed early on, which normally, if I were researching someone, I would try to read in order, but I picked up A Grief Observed because I knew specifically that I was trying to learn about his relationship with Joy. I had read her book, Smoke on the Mountain, which is a dissertation on the Ten Commandments. You could see where they come together on that. You cold hear them sitting together debating. He wrote the forward for it. A Grief Observed gives an amazing view of someone who has spent their life writing many respected Christian essays, you know, Pilgrim's Regress, The Problem of Pain … he's so well respected in that area and then to want to write an honest tale of the map of his pain and grief after her death, he had to do it under a pseudonym, which I think speaks of that problem. And he wrote very much about his struggle with God and I would say if anyone wanted to become acquainted with Jack Lewis immediately, would be to pick up the Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and A Grief Observed. Those three..

In your opinion, why does Lewis' work survive, why is it as popular as it has ever been?
Because I think that the quest is the same. The question and his quest are timeless. Basically just as a question when one reaches a certain place in one's life, which is to connect deeply spiritual feelings with the other parts, with your emotional life, with your intellectual life. To hook up this yearning with your life so that you're not constantly going from one to the other and not being able to integrate. And hopefully, one starts to feel at a certain age that it is a finite amount of time that we are at least here, and that wouldn't it be nice, however briefly, that wholeness. And I think that's the, the all of his question in all of these writings.