Quick Q&A With Mary Alice Monroe

(April 23rd, 2002)

2007 interview

Earlier this year I had the chance to read an advance copy of Mary Alice Monroe's The Beach House, which will be released next month. It was the first Desert Isle Keeper for me in many, many months, and I sought her out to ask a few question about this two-hanky read. Monroe is an engaging and gracious author and the book is wonderful; I hope you'll look for it after reading this brief Q&A (and my DIK Review).

Laurie Likes Books: Your upcoming release, The Beach House, revolves around rebuilding the mother-daughter relationship. Why did you choose that as your focus?

Mary Alice Monroe: When I first came to Isle of Palms, I knew that I wanted to write a book that included the loggerhead sea turtle. Though I was relatively unfamiliar with them, except for what I had seen on nature programs like everyone else, I was fascinated. When you stop to consider that these creatures have been here for over 120 million years, it is awe inspiring. The whole nesting cycle, in particular, is rich with feminine images and metaphors. The female loggerhead will travel hundreds, thousands, of miles to the beach of her birth to lay her nest. When the time is right, the mother leaves the security of her home in the sea to struggle against the effects of gravity and the dangers from predators to follow instinct and dig her nest high up on the sand dune. She labors for hours, and while doing so, salty tears flow from her eyes. These are referred to as "turtle tears," and the metaphor drew me in. When the mother loggerhead is finished laying and camouflaging her nest, she returns to the sea, never to return to her nest.

There are so many parallels here to a woman's life and I work from theme in my novels. The eggs, labor, birth cycles clearly led me to develop a mother-daughter relationship as a primary focus in the book. The issue of abandonment - through neglect and death - seemed obvious to me as conflict. The acceptance of nature/God's infinite plan inspired the resolution.


LLB: You interwove information about the loggerhead turtle spawn/birth cycle with a story of healing for an estranged mother and daughter. How do you balance things properly so that the turtle information isn't too dry?

Mary Alice: This was a challenge. I knew that I could not bog down the pace of the novel with too much information woven in the story. So I decided that I would write factual, up-to-date information about loggerheads at the heading of each chapter, usually with some connection to the action in the chapter. This freed me to weave the loggerheads' nesting cycle more naturally into the characters' lives in the story. In this way, the readers could learn all they wanted to about the loggerheads without feeling that the story was being "interrupted" for bits of my research stuck in. The loggerheads were a vital part of the novel, in terms of both setting and theme. I had to incorporate them into the book in a vital way without being "too dry."


LLB: I wouldn't call The Beach House a romance novel, but there is a very sweet love story told in the book. Can one write women's fiction without that?

Mary Alice: There are many discussions going on now about what constitutes "women's fiction," so I can only reply for myself. Women's Fiction is Fiction. The term "women's fiction" is merely a signal, hopefully helpful, to readers that the issues and messages within the story are of particular interest to women. I'd hate to have the term imply that men wouldn't enjoy the book also.

As I see it, a key distinction between WF - or Fiction - and Romance is that in a Romance, the love story is the primary focus of the book. In WF, while there may be a wonderful love story, it is not the primary focus of the book. But relationships are. And often the most passionate one is, indeed, the love relationship. In a romance, heroes and heroines overcome obstacles with courage in order to achieve the goal of a lifelong commitment. In WF, the focus often is the heroine - or heroines - overcoming the smaller panics in life universal to us all: aging, menopause, problems in a long marriage, the loss of a great love, losing touch with one's sisters, lost dreams of youth, job and security crisis, parent/child problems, the death of a parent and the stumbling search for a fulfilling love relationship and intimacy. At the end of the book, a lifelong commitment may not be reached, nonetheless, the ending is satisfying. After all, Rhett walked out on Scarlett at the end.


LLB: Why did you decide to tackle the issue of child and spousal abuse in this book? The manner in which you presented the problems was far more muted than in many other books I've read. Was that intentional?

Mary Alice: Yes. South Carolina has a high incidence of women abuse. I felt it was a timely and important topic that I wanted to broach in a novel set in the state. However, I didn't want it to take over the novel, either. Again, it was a question of balance.


LLB: I call the sub-genre of your book Southern Fiction, and I'm a fan of it. Why is the south both a poison and a tonic?

Mary Alice: For Southerners, the South holds so many deep memories. Many Southern families have stayed put and can trace their ancestors back for generations. Ah, the stories! Not all the memories are pleasant ones, however. The South struggled through difficult, even desperate times, following the War Between the States. Yet despite these hard times, perhaps even because of them, Southerners tend to face adversity with self-deprecating, wry humor and acceptance. These qualities can give rise to memorable characters in fiction. There is also a strong connection with the land in the South. Not only the place in which one was born, but a connection to all the nature that springs from that sacred soil. These memories also include a code of behavior and a set of values that has been passed on through generations. When Lovie asked her daughter, Cara, in The Beach House, "Where are you from?" she was referring to all this. It a strong sense of identification.

The poison in my novel stemmed from the strict expectations engendered by these memories. A Southerner is expected to know who he or she is and act accordingly. A rebellious young woman, especially one who desired change rather than the status quo, would find these expectations and memories confining. I personally believe that Southern Fiction highlights universal qualities that resonate with all readers. A friend recently reminded me of what Faulkner said on receiving the Nobel prize in 1950 and I put it up by my computer. "It is his [the writer's) privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."

Mary Alice Monroe has written romance as Mary Alice Kruesi

2007 interview