When best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe sits down to write a new book, she typically doesn’t have a story or a character in mind; she has an animal.
In the first book of her Lowcountry Summer series, The Summer Girl, for example, Monroe, who lives in Charleston, writes of the bond between one of the main characters, Carson Muir, and a dolphin. In 2012’s The Butterfly’s Daughter, the annual journey of the monarch butterfly to their winter home in Mexico dovetails with the journey of a young woman to return her grandmother’s ashes to her ancestral village.
And in the rare instances where an animal isn’t involved, Monroe immerses the reader in the scenery of the Lowcountry. Virtually every one of her books is set along coastal South Carolina, and her knack for rendering these details (sea breezes, alluring islands, marshlands and sand dunes) in prose is uncanny.
It’s a genre that she’s come to call “environmental fiction,” and her new book, Beach House Reunion, is no exception. The fifth in her Beach House series, the book continues Monroe’s chronicling of the Rutledge family, specifically Cara Rutledge and her path forward after experiencing tragedy in the previous volume, Beach House for Rent.
Much like the other volumes in this series, Cara’s reckoning with her family’s past and present fits together with her time as a “turtle lady,” one of a real-life group of female conservationists dedicated to preserving and protecting the loggerhead sea turtle in its natural habitat around the Isle of Palms. It’s a group that Monroe herself just so happens to be a part of.
“Each book is very personal,” Monroe says. “When I wrote the first Beach House novel, it was never designed as a series. The Lowcountry Series had a beginning, a middle and an end. But with the Beach House series, when I have something more to say about sea turtles or the coastal area of South Carolina, I like to use this family that the readers love.”
And people do love reading about the Rutledge family. The fourth book in the series debuted at No. 9 on The New York Times Best Seller list, and it was only by popular demand that Beach House Reunion exists at all.
“With Reunion, my readers spoke loud and clear that they wanted me to move forward with another Beach House book, without making them wait for the usual two or three years,” she says. “The last book had a lot of very emotional issues in it and they wanted me to move forward. So, I did, for them.”
But there was another serendipitous event that motivated Monroe to write a new novel in her series. One of the sea turtles that the ladies and their 120-strong volunteer team had caught, tagged and released over a decade ago returned home to Isle of Palms.
“We were thrilled that one of the sea turtles we logged and released from the animal hospital years ago came back,” she says. “We saw the tag and we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, this turtle has been out there for 10 or 15 years, laying eggs. It was a really a triumph. So, in Reunion, I brought that turtle back and reflected on what happened in real life.”
For Monroe, the idea of combining her passion for conservation and her ability to create compelling fiction was the best way to potentially affect change. She wants her readers to know, and love, the animals she writes about just as much as she does.
“When I first became a ‘turtle lady,’ we had a lot of serious issues we were facing,” she says, “and I thought I would write a novel that would help my readers become aware of what the situation was. Through that effort, I constructed a process. I would write a story that was fiction but weave a species into it so that the reader would become aware of and care for the species. I wanted to try to make a difference through my books. And it became so successful that I could continue. I created my own niche. I think now it’s become an expectation of my readers that they’re going to learn something about the local landscape. It’s the ‘why’ of my writing.”
And despite being a successful author with over 20 books to her name — and one Beach House novel that was made into a TV movie — Monroe says she still gets butterflies when a new one is about to come out.
“It’s a combination of excitement and nervousness,” she says. “You have this beautiful new baby out in the world, and the nervousness is just about hoping it goes well.”
What: An Afternoon with Mary Alice Monroe
An Afternoon with Mary Alice Monroe
Where: Lexington Conference Center, 111 Maiden Ln.
Lexington Conference Center, 111 Maiden Ln.
When: Sunday, May. 20, 3 p.m.
Sunday, May. 20, 3 p.m.
Price: $30 (includes copy of Beach House Reunion)
$30 (includes copy of Beach House Reunion)
This news has been published by title Environmental Fiction: How Mary Alice Monroe Found A Creative Outlet To Express Her Love For Nature
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