In advance of her national book-signing tour, which includes stops in Frankford, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach, bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe shares her writing inspirations, favorite literary characters, ultimate goals and much more
Only a few moments into conversation with Mary Alice Monroe, it is crystal clear that she is fully cognizant of how lucky she is. Not only is she a New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist with a great husband and life in a vintage cottage on the Isle of Palms, in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, she counts folks like actress Andie MacDowell among her friends and is anticipating the April 2018 release of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie that was just made based on her book The Beach House, which stars MacDowell, Minka Kelly and Chad Michael Murray.
Monroe’s new book is titled Beach House Reunion, the latest installment in her phenomenally successful “Beach House” series. Known as an avid environmentalist and conservationist, Monroe has written her way into a robust cottage industry (literally) that uses richly textured narrative to not just draw parallels between humans and nature but also to unite them. Monroe herself is easily as graceful and prepossessing as even the best of her southern-belle characters, which is why it is a particular treat that she will visit the Eastern Shore in May, with book-signing stops in Frankford, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach.
We sat down with Monroe in advance of her book tour to get her thoughts on Beach House Reunion, writing in general and even the planet at large, and it was time exceptionally well spent.
CSM: Please explain your process when you sit down to write a novel.
MAM: It’s probably different than a lot of people. When I sit down to write a novel, I don’t have a story; I don’t even have a story idea. Something inspires me to pick a species to focus on…
You mean like a species of animal?
Yes, like the monarch butterfly or something. Then I go do my academic research, extensively, reading about them and speaking with experts in the field. Then, I expose myself the species itself and to the people who care for them, watching what they do and getting a sense of who they are, which helps with my characterization. During this process, certain themes begin to emerge and, hopefully, I call pull what I learned about the animal and create the parallel in human terms. Then I have to make the model for it, and I just start churning… I call it projectile writing. I will write fast and hard — 12-hour days — I just keep going until I get what Anne Lamott calls “my shitty first draft.” It’s somewhere in the middle of that that I go, Ahh… that’s what the story is about! And then I go through multiple drafts. Then I apply craft, and structure and pace.
Do you write on a keyboard or on a pad?
I write on a keyboard, but each novel has those composition notebooks filled with my notes. I love those notebooks!
How much of your plot and characters’ actions and words come to you as a surprise rather than as a product of premeditation?
That’s interesting. Some authors premeditate everything their characters say and do. Other authors do what they call “jumping off a cliff,” which is when the author has really no idea where things are going when they sit down at the keyboard. I do what I call “jumping off a cliff with a parachute,” so, I know what’s going to happen in a scene, but then I buckle my seatbelt and let the characters go. If, however, they stray too far from what I intend, I’ll rein them back in… but at least I let them have their say [laughs]. I’m also aided by the amount of information I get from my dreams. I can dream entire scenes for one of my books.
You’re kidding. What a gift!
Well, thank you, but I do truly believe that we are connected to something higher, something greater out there in the universe, and I believe that everybody has the ability to such things if they are receptive to them. I do think it’s a gift, but it’s a gift we all have. So, when you do something great, remember to retain your humility, because chances are there were other things or forces at work beyond just you. When people think it’s all them, I begin to worry about them a little bit.
Are you a conservationist/environmentalist who discovered that she can write, or are you a writer who is passionate about conservation and the environment?
Oh [laughs], I am absolutely a writer first and foremost. I began as an author and got into conservation in my personal life only. Eventually, as I learned more and grew more passionate about conservation, I decided to use my writing talent to spread the word and try do some good. But I am and always will be a writer first.
Where are you from?
I am from originally Chicago but later lived in D.C. for many years; my husband was at the [National Institutes of Health], during that time when they just mowed over the landscape and made all that development, in the ’80s. When I came to Charleston [S.C.] permanently, I saw quite quickly how naive, in a way, the people were, thinking that it would always be there. And I knew differently. I lived in Florida for a while, too. My husband’s family are all from the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut-Vermont area.
And, yet, you speak kindly of them anyway!
What story does this book give you the opportunity to tell that you hadn’t explored to your satisfaction previously?
That’s a great question. I really didn’t intend to write this book, but a certain momentum arose following the previous “Beach House” book, with a lot of fan mail from the readers, asking me not to leave them hanging, plus they were going forward with the Hallmark Andie MacDowell movie, so I felt like the right thing to do was just to go with it and basically ride the wave of interest and enthusiasm that surrounded the series at that point. But when I went back and read The Beach House, to reacquaint myself with the original details of the story, I realized there was a family dysfunction there, something that I should really bring out and settle. Also — and it took five books to do it — but I felt I needed to complete my character Palmer’s story arc. And I feel really good about that.
Is there a character you have created that is most dear or precious to you?
Lovie [of the “Beach House” series].
Is there another subject that you are champing at the bit to explore?
YES! And I will! There are two, actually. One is Christmas. The other is deeply rooted in my educational background; if you do your homework, you’ll be able to figure out what it is.
Which writers are your literary heroes?
For sure: Pat Conroy, Rachael Carson, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens — and I love Rosamunde Pilcher! She can make characters so real, you’d want to watch them make toast.
Which characters from fiction resonate in your heart and mind the most powerfully?
Well, every women who read [Jane Austen’s] Pride and Prejudice wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet. I love Pip [Dickens’ Great Expectations]… Charles Dickens saved my life in the eighth grade; I was a lonely child, and he was there for me. Jane Eyre is great! Also, [Mariko] from [James Clavell’s] Shogun, I love, and definitely Lady Murasaki from The Tale of Genji. I have an Asian studies background, so that’s why. Edna Pontellier in [Kate Chopin’s] The Awakening — oh, and definitely Atticus [Finch, of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird]. These are all characters who have stayed with me through the years.
Are you satisfied with the movie version of Beach House Reunion?
I think the film is a beautiful interpretation of my book, and I’m very pleased with it. I’d really like the readers of my books to know that. I think a lot of readers set themselves up for disappointment because they go in looking for basically a visual clone of the book they loved, and that’s not only unrealistic, it’s unfair. Film is an entirely different medium, with entirely different constraints. The two shouldn’t really even be compared. I’m very satisfied with the movie, and I think “Beach House” fans should be, too.
Ultimately, what do you want to achieve with your writing?
Of course, more than anything else, I want to move people by telling good stories well. But my personal motivation is that I believe we are on the precipice of potential climate disaster, so I’m writing fast and hard to try to effect change in my own time. So when I die, if my work dies with me, but I made a difference in my own time, that’s enough for me. I would have achieved my goal.
In Reunion, Cara sees someone from her past who has left this Earth. So, have you ever seen a ghost?
Several times. I don’t really mind saying it now, though years ago I probably wouldn’t have talked about it. I’ve seen my parents, and was visited by a couple of others, which manifested in other ways, but those instances I’m not quite ready to talk about yet.
Will there be another installment to this series?
Well, the book I’m writing right now is not a “Beach House” book, but I’ll tell you that a “Beach House” character does make an appearance in the book — and that’s all I’m going to say about that [laughs coyly], but there will be another “Beach House” book.
MEET MARY ALICE:
In support of the latest release in her “Beach House” series, Mary Alice Monroe will autograph copies at the following Delaware locations:
Wednesday, May 30
5:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.
Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery
32512 Road 374
Wednesday, May 30th
6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Bethany Beach Books
99 Garfield Parkway
Thursday, May 31
12 p.m. Ticketed event with Browseabout Books
Call 302-226-2665 to register.
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