Writer's Corner

Mary Alice Monroe

May 23, 2007

(An earlier Q&A with the author)

In the past several years, Mary Alice Monroe has become an auto-buy author for me. She'd published both as Monroe and Mary Alice Kruesi before she came into my radar, but since the release of The Beach House back in 2002, I've eagerly anticipated each and every book she's published. Not that there have been many, but both The Beach House and 2005's RITA-nominated Sweetgrass sit on my keeper shelf, and are wonderful examples of the southern fiction I adore. It's not for nothing that a quote by Pat Conroy appears on the front jacket of her new hardcover release.

At RWA last summer Monroe shared that she'd written a sequel to The Beach House which would be released in the spring of 2007. She sent me an autographed hardback copy of Swimming Lessons not long ago, and I dove right in, inhaling it in one sitting. The book tells the story of a young woman named Toy who is settling into a rythm as a single mother after years of abuse by her mother and the father of her little girl. She works hard at her new career as an aquarist, and after rescuing "Big Girl", a sick sea turtle discovered by her daughter, she assumes responsibility for an entire hospital of sick turtles. Toy's life is tightly woven into the small community of "turtle ladies" who rescued her from her abusive existence in The Beach House, and each of their lives is also detailed in the new book.

Though not a romance novel, Toy meets a wonderful man in Swimming Lessons, and she fights the pull she feels for him. While she works through her insecurities, old patterns are hard to shake when her ex reappears in her life.The same things that I adore about Monroe's writing stand in full force in this new book: her focus on the natural world, her descriptive abilities (detailed but never purple), and the creation of hard-to-forget characters. And though I never fully bought into some of Toy's choices once her ex turned up, they certainly led to some dramatic and unexpected moments. I sent my first set of questions to this talented author the moment I finished her book.

Interspersed with the type of questions you've come to expect in an AAR interview are parts of the Proust Questionnaire.

--Laurie Likes Books

Swimming Lessons is a sequel to The Beach House, which was published five years ago. Did you have this book in mind when you wrote that one? If not, when did it come to you?

I never had a sequel in mind for The Beach House. I’d received many letters requesting that I write one, mostly from readers who felt attached to Cara and Brett, or who wanted to return to the beach house, if only vicariously! We’ve had carloads of people come to Isle of Palms in search of the actual beach house (and Brett…) But I’d thought I’d said everything I wanted to say regarding sea turtles in The Beach House. There was nothing new to share with my readers.

Until the sea turtle hospital was established at the South Carolina Aquarium. I became a volunteer and shadowed Kelly, the aquarium’s hospital director. I did everything from scrubbing off barnacles, algae and leeches from a turtle’s shell, cleaning tanks, chopping fish and feeding to helping release the healed loggerheads to the sea. The wise and noble turtles had lots of lessons to teach me and I knew I had a story.

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Although I adored Swimming Lessons, as a reader it’s a bit hard to get back find the rhythm for a sequel so many years after the original release. How important is that to the author in terms of providing back story but not overdoing it? The only real problem I had was with Emmi, whose reappearance almost had me running to find my copy of the original book.

I felt the characters in the original story needed sufficient time for new challenges and obstacles to arise. Toy, especially, had to reach a point in her life where she had changed her situation, her attitude, even her speech patterns, so her character would be “new” to the reader—and to me as a writer. I did not want to re-write The Beach House. I approached this novel as a stand-alone story. Each character’s history was presented to a reader who had never read the earlier novel. Yet, if she had, that knowledge would deepen her sympathy and understanding for the characters. Even Emmi… As a secondary character in both novels, her role was to round out “the turtle labdies” as a group. In the end, I enjoyed writing this book immensely. I was able to bring my readers to a new level of understanding of the world of sea turtles and those who care for them, as well as behind the scenes of a major aquarium.

Swimming Lessons was released at the same time as a children’s book you wrote for your daughter, and obviously, being a “turtle lady” and being part of that community is a part of your life. When we communicated a few days ago, I mentioned the final scene of the book, and was surprised when you mentioned that it was real. Where do you end, and where does the character of Toy begin in Swimming Lessons?

We bring our experiences and insights to our writing. It’s what gives our work voice. I was there when the aquarium released Big Girl to the sea. It was a glorious day and the Atlantic was warm and welcoming. Big Girl was supremely focused on going home. She moved steadily in her tank-like crawl straight for the sea and didn’t look back. It was an emotional moment, even bittersweet. It was time for us to let go. I was impressed by her fearlessness and courage, and turning back to look at the small crowd gathered at the shore, I saw that everyone on the beach was teary eyed and cheering, too. When I wrote that scene, I wrote from my feelings of that incredible moment. So yes, in that moment, I was Toy. By the way, all the sea turtles in the novel were patients of the turtle hospital, though naturally the time line was altered to fit the story’s needs. As a writer I bring my experiences, knowledge and sensitivities to the story.

My children’s book, Turtle Summer, was serendipity. While writing the novel, Toy (a young mother) puts together a scrapbook of her summer as a turtle lady with her young daughter. I was struck with wanting to make this journal for children everywhere. It’s a poignant and educational story, but I credit Barb’s incredible photographs and Lisa’s illustrations for bringing the journal to life for children. We laugh and call the picture book the visual aid for my novels. But in reality, we are very proud of the book.

When we first started talking about the new book, I mentioned crying like a baby reading the scene that closes Swimming Lessons, when Big Girl is released back into the ocean, even though it seemed a little sentimental. You responded that it had actually happened, that Big Girl “looked” at you before heading out into the ocean. Can you describe that? I know you did it in the book…but presumably it was about Toy and not you.

The release of a sea turtle to the sea is an emotional moment. It never fails to elicit cheers, tears and applause. There is a sense of triumph at returning an endangered sea turtle back to the gene pool, the worry at the terrible odds for survival she will face, the pride in success at her rehabilitation, and the sadness of the final farewell. If you didn’t cry at that scene I would have failed as an author. At a release everyone who witnesses it brings his or her own sentimental baggage to the beach that day. The experience speaks to each of us differently. Toy, the character, was no different. Nor were you, the reader, at that moment. Nor, for that matter, was I that balmy afternoon that we released Big Girl. I sensed the power of the emotion and knew I had to write about it.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Living under deadline.
Where would you like to live? I’m very fortunate to live exactly where I want to live—on the sweet scented shores of the lowcountry.
What is your idea of earthly happiness? Living in a world where humankind lives in harmony with the planet.
Who are your favorite heroes/heroines of fiction? I love the wise mothers who try to straighten out their sorry youth with the grace, strength and humor of a southern woman. Who can’t help but admire proud but downtrodden Ma Joad in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? She was the mainstay of her family, struggling to keep them together. In my work, I love the characters Mama June in Sweetgrass and Miss Lovie in The Beach House.
Who are your favorite heroes/heroines in real life?

My heroes are the countless men and women who work to protect and preserve our planet and wildlife. These researchers, biologists, volunteers are hardworking, idealistic, fun loving, smart, dedicated people who are making a difference. They work because they love what they are doing, not because they are making a lot of money doing it.

Also, I’m currently writing a novel about a breast cancer survivor. Clearly all cancer survivors are heroes.

One of your Proust answers intrigued me. You love the characters of Mama June in Sweetgrass and Miss Lovie in The Beach House. Both of these women were estranged from a loved one at the start of their respective books, but as events unfolded, they made changes in their lives. Can you talk about that for a moment?

A major story issue in Sweetgrass was the change that occurs between partners in a long term marriage. Even in the best of relationships, there are the good times and the bad times, and some of those bad times can be pretty awful and go on for a long time. A lot of women out there married for 30, 40, 50 plus years are nodding their heads right now. The secret to longevity is to find those times of magic and joy again. I’ve been married for 35 years (and to the same man <g>) . But in many ways, in a long term marriage a woman discovers that her husband is not the same man she married, nor is she the same woman. Because growth and change occurs. Mama June’s greatest fulfillment in the novel is her rediscovered love for her husband. It was an awakening, thus the parallel to her dreams and awakenings in the novel.

Miss Lovie’s story arc in The Beach House was completely different. She was trapped in a long term loveless marriage. She loved another, but stayed in her marriage for reasons that become clear in the novel. Both of these women have to be understood in context of the era and social culture that they lived in. Lovie’s salvation would not come from her marriage. Her journey of reconciliation was with her daughter. Yet, both women shared an understanding of commitment.

I thought the language is Swimming Lessons was wonderful, particularly the descriptive language. As a matter of fact, I’ve excerpted a page or two of it in a column I wrote earlier in the month. It features the scene where Toy readies herself to nurse Big Girl through the night. The column is about sense-ual integration; how various senses are evoked based on reading, listening to music, etc. As a writer, how much of your work is in the language as opposed to the characterization and the plotting?

My novels are all about bringing my readers into a new world, whether it is behind the scenes of an aquarium, on the beach as a turtle lady, at a remote birds of prey center, or at the rambling plantation of an old Charleston family. I use the senses to heighten the experiences for the reader. That said, characterization and plotting cannot be diminished. The reader must care about the people in the story, identify with their struggles, in order to travel with them on their journey through the novel.

The love story in Swimming Lessons is so nicely understated; what particularly struck me was that Ethan showed his love for Toy in a way that seemed real. He bought her a camera, he went away when she sent him, but then refused later on…very much the strong, silent type who showed his feelings in a way as to provide safe refuge. Particularly given Toy’s background, this was a great juxtaposition. Talk about the two men in Toy’s life, and what you find romantic in a man.

Toy’s history with men was one of abuse. In this novel, her arc was to confront her past so that she could heal and move forward. Ethan was, as you said, a safe refuge. He was the good friend and colleague first. Toy had to grow and accept her own success and status before she could move beyond the safety of friendship to the risk of a relationship with Ethan. Darryl, however, brought with him her deep rooted memories of all that she once was: weak willed and filled with self doubt and unworthiness. And more, in The Beach House, her dream was for Darryl to step up and be the father and husband to her and Little Lovie. This tug of war between the two men was more about her inner struggle between her past and her future.

It’s easier to tell you what I do not find attractive in a man…and I guess Darryl represents a lot of those traits. I cannot abide abuse against women in any shape or form and sadly, South Carolina has sorry statistics in that regard.

Your favorite musician? Yo Yo Ma in classical and Eric Clapton in contemporary.
The quality you most admire in a man…and a woman? The quality I most admire in a man and woman is humanity—this includes open mindedness, intelligence and compassion.
Your favorite virtue? Love says it all.
What do you most value in your friends? My truest friends are those I can count on through thick and thin, the ones I feel safe with, I can be silly, even downright crazy with, and they still love me—and won’t tell!
Who is your favorite hero…heroine of fiction? Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.
What is it you most dislike? Deadlines and Diets. Cannot do both at the same time.

Can you give our readers some details of your personal life?

Markus and I have been married for centuries and have three great children: Claire, Margaretta and Zack. No grandchildren yet, but I’m hopeful. I would have had lots of children except the doctor put this brood mare out to pasture. That’s why I tell my husband not to complain that I want so many animals running around. I work at home in an office in the northwest corner of my house because feng shui states it is an auspicious location. At my feet sits my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Magnolia (Maggie) and, when he visits, my son’s pug Hoff. When they deign to come by, I often have two cats sprawled out on tables or chairs: Kiwi and Mango. And I’m waiting for another cav puppy soon. So we hang out together as I work from 9 am to 5 pm at which time we march as a troop to the kitchen for food. I take breaks for walks on the beach with the dogs, to do laundry, stir the spaghetti, run to the post office and other humdrum activities.

But there are moments. Next week Turtle Season begins here on the islands and hopefully we’ll have a good year. I’ll have a blog about turtle nests on my website once the season starts. And later this month I get to help release 2 sea turtles back to the sea. It’s so glorious! Finally, I’m writing a new novel for Pocket Books that I am very excited about and due to come out in Spring ‘08.

What made you decide to pick up a pen to begin with?

I answered who my strongest influences were. What made me pick up a pen? I can’t recall exactly. I’ve always written stories or told them to my eight younger brothers and sisters when it was time for bed. I remember enjoying having to write a paper or an essay in school. But it wasn’t until I was studying Japanese History and Culture that I burned to write a novel. In retrospect, I think it was because it was the only way I could ever experience life in that period of samurai. Old friends remember that I first wanted to write an historical. I still haven’t finished that novel. But someday I hope I will.

You started out writing romance but have segued into women’s fiction. How did that happen?

I have always written what is today called women’s fiction. But that term is still debated. Some authors hate that term and I find it increasingly limiting as people try to pin it down. So I can’t say I’ve segued into anything other than what I always wrote. However, I feel my work has deepened with my determination to incorporate an awareness of the landscape into my work.

When I first interviewed you, after the release of The Beach House, we talked about southern fiction. I can’t think of another part of the country that has its own sub-genre. In particular, the Low Country is such fertile ground…for you, Anne Rivers Siddons, Dorothea Benton Frank, Pat Conroy. Why is the area so special, in both good and bad ways?

I think people like to peek into the windows of other cultures, especially those they know little about. I remember being fascinated with Joy Luck Club by Tan because we caught glimpse of the Chinese history and culture. The American west has a wealth of genre fiction. And to a lesser degree the Midwestern farm areas and the northeast. When I go to Florida, I see the bookshelves full of stories written about that locale. That said, I do love the lowcountry—its fecund smells, sensuality, wildness, and just aching beauty. And it isn’t destroyed—yet. That, coupled with the history and charm of the city of Charleston, the colorful language, and the omnipresent, tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor and a writer cannot help but be inspired.

(An earlier Q&A with the author)

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