Mary Alice Monroe’s bookshelves hold much more than books. Her literary accolades include the Reader’s Choice Award, South Carolina Center for the Book Award in Writing, plus many others. Monroe’s highly lauded writing touches on three pillars of Southern storytelling: a sense of place, the family, and nature. Just in time for summer comes her latest book The Lowcountry Wedding, fourth in an environmental-fiction series involving the complicated story of three sisters and their historic home on Sullivan’s Island. We poured a cool glass of lemonade, pulled out her beguiling beachy-covered books, and chatted about the two things most writers dream of—a movie deal and becoming a New York Times bestselling author.
Did you always want to be a writer? Did you have any prior jobs that contributed to your understanding of people?
>> Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what to call my wildly inventive imagination. My third grade teacher asked me if I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and I stared back at her with amazement. I didn’t know that was something I could grow up to be. But my earliest job was as a babysitter for my many siblings. One doesn’t grow up in a family of twelve without an understanding of people. I made up stories and songs at bedtime, plus we were always creating shows, plays, and musicals.
What was the first indication that you could make a living as a writer?
>> I wrote for hire as a young woman in my 20s. I wrote nonfiction mental health texts for lay people; these were my first published books. After graduate school, I created an English Language textbook series for Survival English.
My graduate degrees in Asian culture and English uniquely qualified me for this. It was not until years later that I published my first fiction novel The Long Road Home.
How much do you draw on your own background, or is everything just conceived?
>> All writers draw from their background, their ideals, and values. But truthfully, I draw much more heavily on my experiences than from my research when I write. My novels, themes, plots, characters, and metaphors are based on what I’ve learned from the animal species I build my book around. When I describe moving turtle nests or raising monarch butterflies or looking into the eyes of a wild dolphin, the emotion is authentic because the experiences are my own. The emotions are mine.
Under the Sea // Passionate about the beloved aquatic animals that frequent her stories, Mary Alice Monroe also serves on the board of the South Carolina Aquarium. Her latest novel The Lowcountry Wedding is out now, just in time for summer vacations.
Where did you grow up and live before Charleston?
>> I was born outside Chicago. Then we lived in Alabama, New York, and New Orleans before my family returned to Illinois. I followed my husband’s medical career to New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC. During the DC years, we visited Charleston and the Isle of Palms often. When my husband was offered a position at MUSC, we moved to the Isle of Palms permanently. It felt like a homecoming for me. As Pat Conroy told me, “You must have been born here in another life.”
What types of events have inspired your stories?
>> My volunteering creates scenarios for my novels. I cannot make up anything more fascinating or unbelievable than what I hear or see myself. I always say a good writer is a better listener. While volunteering, I hear stories or witness interactions with wildlife that are awe-inspiring, and I know I must include them in my book. It’s all instinct. It often feels like I was meant to be there at that moment.
Your book The Beach House will be a Hallmark Channel original TV movie starring Golden Globe nominee Andie MacDowell due out this year. Do you visualize the novels as movies when writing?
>> Never. I don’t think in terms of a script when I write. That is a different form of story construction, viewing the scene from the point of view (POV) of a director’s camera. Rather, I’m seeing the scene through the POV of my character. I am that character when I write. And, for me, I need to be in my office, in my safe space, to totally let go, at least for that first draft. My novels are very personal.