A chat with Mary Alice about Beach House Reunion, the Lowcountry, women, writing, and Pat Conroy.
When I found out I was going to interview Andie MacDowell for her new Hallmark movie, The Beach House, I actually had not heard of Mary Alice Monroe or her book, The Beach House. I was definitely late to the game. The Beach House is the first book in the series and her latest, Beach House Reunion, is number 5. Andie was so passionate about this movie project and about the book’s author, I knew I had to read it. I read all five books and quickly fell in love with these characters, the Lowcountry, and the sea turtles. Meeting the author had to be next. When I finally got to interview Mary Alice Monroe, I was even more inspired by her passion for the conservation of our endearing and endangered wildlife. Not only do her books have interesting characters, Mary Alice is also teaching the reader through her characters. I learned a lot about sea turtles and shorebirds and…canaries!
SL: Can you tell us about The Beach House and how you came up with the series?
MAM: I was a turtle lady on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island (South Carolina) and in the late 80’s, early 90’s, not many people were talking about the sea turtles. Actually, I never intended when I wrote The Beach House for it to be a series. Each book was written as a stand-alone and it was when I had something I wanted to say, in particular about the sea turtles, then I continued using that family because it was interesting for my readers to follow.
SL: How do you decide on what species to write about and when did you bring conservation into your novels?
MAM: We were having a lot of big issues facing (sea) turtles at the time. Most people weren’t talking about them so I just wanted to make people aware. That was my simple goal but I did it in a way that I’ve never done before. I really did create a new process where the animals tell me the story. When I begin a novel I don’t have a story, I have a species. It started with The Beach House. It was a decision. It wasn’t a coincidence. It really was, “how can I make a difference?” So that’s when I thought long and hard for a couple of years and I came across the idea that I would use the 3 or 4 main points that I learned about the species (then) add themes for the novel. By doing that it would influence characterization, plots, settings, everything and the readers would become part of my world and understand why I love the species. I wanted to bring people to (this) world so they’d fall in love.
SL: You seem to immerse yourself in the study of the animals before writing the book. If there is a favorite animal, which would it be?
MAM: I still am a turtle lady and still on the team but I can’t continue working with all the species that I’ve worked with. I worked for 6 years with dolphins for the Lowcountry series and I still donate and bring awareness to these causes but can no longer go each year to volunteer. But the loggerheads will be a constant. I think they’re my totem, my symbol and The Beach House is my favorite book. It’s the book that changed my career and how I approach novels. It made a difference in terms of setting a niche for my books to raise awareness. It’s a reader promise that my books will be accurate. I will bring them to an authentic world that I’ve been involved in and that they will learn something in addition to, primarily reading a good story. To this day, people don’t read a Mary Alice Monroe because they want to learn about an animal. They read because of the characters. It’s a story, it’s a novel, but I think it deepens and enriches the story by bringing my readers to this place. That is why I work so hard because the schedule is very hard. I do hours of research and the hallmark of my work is working with the animals. It’s time consuming but I love it. The research is that I get to be with animals.
SL: Swimming Lessons is the second book, chronologically, but Beach House Memories is actually a prequel to The Beach House. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the books in the series?
MAM: When I wrote Swimming Lessons, I was on the team that put together the first sea turtle hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston. I was there when the sea turtles were rescued. So when I wrote about the turtles in the book, (like) putting them in the kiddie pool; that actually happened at the hospital. Beach House Memories (came) 10 years after The Beach House. My daughter finally decided to read the book when she was 20. She didn’t understand why Lovie didn’t just leave her husband. In the ‘70s you did not leave your husband. There were no shelters. I always look at the parallels. That was the same year, in 1974, the northern end of the island of Isle of Palms was sold which started the destruction of the maritime forest and everything change. I realized I had a story here. I wrote Beach House Reunion because the books were still not done - the question of abuse and why Cara left in the first place. Abuse knows no socio-economic boundaries. It affects everyone. Every book in one way or another is really about perseverance and resilience and moving on. It’s what we do. That’s the human spirit at its finest. I think that’s what we always strive for. To point out our strengths and give hope to move forward. I believe that’s the hallmark of all my books both as a species and for the human spirit.
SL: One book we didn’t touch on was Beach House for Rent. The canaries played an important role in this book and I can hear yours in the background. They sound delightful.
MAM: I never really know where I’ll get my story. The animals always come into my books and I knew the canaries would come in when they needed to and sure enough they came in with Heather (a character in Swimming Lessons). For this particular book, I wondered how I can parallel the issues with the humans and animals. I was writing about the shorebirds and I wanted to get a character out on the beach. At that particular time I found myself experiencing what so many of my readers talk about and that is the phenomenon of we are becoming a world - not just a nation - of shut-ins. I had been writing so intensely for months and for someone like me to be shut in, I was getting a little stir-crazy. So I kept on adding to my canaries (laughs) (by the way, Mary Alice has 6 of them). I realized that the metaphor of the caged bird is really very much like how I was feeling and I realized that whole cage looking out (thing) brought Heather the anxiety that she felt.
WATCH: Pat Conroy
MAM on Pat Conroy:
I might have been born in Chicago but when I came home… see, I even said that… to South Carolina, I really came home. Pat Conroy, a good friend, said to me once, “You sure you weren’t born here?” I said to him, “I believe we were both born here in another life.” I think both of us found our calling in South Carolina. I love every square inch of this place. It’s such a beautiful state. It (on Pat Conroy’s death) hit all Southern writers. It hit me personally in two ways. I had spoken at his 70th birthday celebration luncheon in Beaufort where they opened up the city for him and then the next year I was speaking at his memorial. It happened so fast but it also made me realize that life really is a gift. I wish he’d written one more book. He was the heart of the Southern tribe of authors and when (his heart) stopped beating, it left a big hole. I’m inspired to reach farther and to work harder. He’s still there in our hearts. The Pat Conroy Literary Center is keeping his memory alive, which is important. I’ll never forget with Pat, he was on the first board of the South Carolina Aquarium and I’m still on the board. We had that in common, that we really loved the landscape. Other people often think of Pat Conroy and The Great Santini and the family dynamics. For me, he used that but he (also) brought people to the landscape. He showed how beautiful this was. Beach Music spoke to me, of course, because of the turtles. Interestingly, I believe The Water is Wide defines who he was. It was what made him Pat Conroy.
SL: After reading the first four books in the series, I wasn’t prepared to cry like I did when reading Beach House Reunion. It really brings the characters full circle.
MAM: That’s what I try to do with the characters. You, the reader, have an investment in these people. In my mind, they’re almost like real people. When I go back to the actual tour boat (the Eco-Tours from the books are based upon a real company, Barrier Island Eco Tours), they say, “Where you been, Mary Alice?” These are experiences I have myself, and that’s why I think they ring true because I’m there with the people (and) I bring attributes of them to the characters. I actually loved the ending, the epilogue. Women get it. Women have always held hands and moved forward together. And I felt that symbolized that for me. That’s the hope for the future… women and children. People are saying Beach House Reunion is the last book but I’m not saying that. It’s the last for a while. I just have other stories I want to tell but I do think this book does bring it full circle.
To learn more about how you can help the Loggerheads, check out the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center. To hear Mary Alice in her own words about conservation and the sea turtles, go here.