The Summer Girls by Mary Alice Monre

An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Mary Alice Monroe,
Author of The Summer Girls

Columnist Anna Roin

The Summer Girls
by Mary Alice Monroe

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The New York Times best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe strikes again. In The Summer Girls (Gallery Books, 25 June 2013), she balances a fine line between complex, long-neglected relationships and the conservation of nature – in this case the frailty of dolphins in the commercial world.

The first book in Monroe’s Lowcountry Summer Trilogy, Marietta Muir, invites her three beautiful but troubled granddaughters to spend the summer at her beach house on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. It’s been years since they shared a holiday at Sea Breeze and they’re virtually strangers when they arrive.

Carson, never in one place for too long and in and out of relationships holds secret memories of a tragedy long passed. Dora, once the Southern belle, is now going through a divorce and struggling to raise her son who has Asperger’s Syndrome. City-girl Harper, repressed by her overbearing mother, dislikes bringing attention to herself and buries her face in the Internet.

Their reunion doesn’t go as planned. As Mary Alice describes her book, “Ηeated conversations and inflammatory remarks quickly dig up old family lies and disheartening truths.”

When Carson went for a surf and was saved by a dolphin, her ability to communicate with her sisters is renewed and paves the way for love to blossom in her life. However, will she be able to face the haunting memories of her father?

The Summer Girls is another great beach read. You’ll finish it in a few days and eager to grab hold of the next book in the trilogy.

“I’m no prude, but I believe the power of a good love scene comes from the slow build up . . . “

AUTHORLINK: It’s refreshing to read an uplifting novel that deals with a significant and important theme – nature conservation – layered with the exploration of love that exists between grandmother, granddaughters, sisters, best friends, mothers, sons, and finally, lovers. In this latter category, you did not depict detailed sex scenes. Do you think more people prefer to have this area of relationships discreetly depicted in books and movies than we’re lead to believe by the media?

MONROE: What an interesting question. A few years ago, I might have answered yes. I know many of my readers prefer discretion. But with the current explosive success of sexually explicit books, I no longer make blanket statements. I can only speak for my own books. I’m no prude, but I believe the power of a good love scene comes from the slow build up of a complex, layered relationship; the rise of sexual tension, the foreplay of emotions, a glance, a gesture, a touch. Then I prefer to draw the curtain.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, it would seem the romance is more compelling that way.

In your book, the reader receives a welcoming education about dolphins that are not quite main-stream; like how important it is not to feed them in the wild and how their echolocation works. It’s also admirable that you chose to showcase how people with autism are enabled by dolphins. What in your opinion are other groups of people, or even animals that would benefit from dolphin contact as part of their therapy?

MONROE: All of us! When at the beach, don’t we all stare out at the sea hoping to catch a glimpse of that graceful arching gray body, a peek of dorsal fin? We all want to have that “Flipper” experience. But “Flipper” was one of several trained dolphins. It’s dangerous and problematic to seek that same experience with wild dolphins. Too often, people lure a dolphin to a boat or dock with fish, or, god forbid, human food. This promotes begging and leads to the legions of problems I depicted in The Summer Girls.

I say, let wild be wild. For that up-close and personal connection with dolphins there are many facilities where dolphins live in human care. These dolphins are accustomed to human contact and interact willingly and, importantly, safely. I’ll be writing more about this experience in Book 2 of the trilogy, THE SUMMER WIND.

“Dolphins remind us how vital, even critical, our need for strong family and community bonds are.”

AUTHORLINK: Looking forward to it!

We often read stories of dolphins helping humans in trouble, like when they create a circle of protection around an injured surfer to ward off a shark attack. What do you think dolphins can teach us about being in a community with one another?

MONROE: Dolphins remind us how vital, even critical, our need for strong family and community bonds are. We’re both mammals, and like us, dolphins are social, intelligent, and self aware. Dolphin mothers are very nurturing and protective. They nurse their young and keep them close for three to six years. We’re moved to see how another female in the pod, called an “auntie,” stays close to help raise the young. This inspired Carson’s history in The Summer Girls. Carson lost her mother young and Mamaw stepped in to help raise her.

Communication within the community is also critical for a dolphin’s survival against predators, in hunting, and navigating through murky waters. In The Summer Girls, the sisters rebuild bonds and support one another through dark times. They have each other’s back.

The most important lesson I learned from the dolphins is to remember to laugh! Sometimes we take our work and problems so seriously we lose sight of how beautiful life is. One only has to watch a dolphin leaping in a wave or riding the bow of a boat to witness a joy for life!

By the way, the shark incident I described in the book actually happened to my daughter while out surfing. I can’t make up anything more vivid or exciting that what happens in real life!

AUTHORLINK: How horrifying! I’m glad she got out of that situation safely. Yes, it’s true that we take our problems so seriously.

You handled the theme of Carson’s addiction to alcohol with a light touch. It wasn’t immediately apparent why her one or two glasses of wine after dinner pointed to an underlying problem. Do you think more people have a drinking problem nowadays or have the parameters of the definition been simply widened?

MONROE: Our understanding of what constitutes a “drinking problem” has widened. There are people who develop severe alcohol drinking patterns and behaviors, such as black outs and arrests, who are true alcoholics. However, there are also a large number of people who don’t meet that criteria that fall into a grey area of problem drinking. In the novel, Harper asked Carson, “Can you stop?” That’s a good question we all should ask ourselves from time to time.

AUTHORLINK: Indeed. I read in a previous interview that you rely upon your husband, Markus a psychiatrist and your sister, Marguerite a therapist, to soundboard the emotional journey of your characters for authenticity. Your sister Ruth also accompanies you on book tours. It’s heartening to read that you have such excellent family support. Was this very much the case in The Summer Girls as well, or have you now become a bit of an expert in recognizing the kinds of psychological traps within which people can put themselves?

“I love what I do; love every aspect of my job.”

MONROE: Talk about family bonds… I come from a family of ten siblings, so I guess that makes us a community! I rely on my husband and sister to help me stay current, fresh, and accurate. I enjoy the brain sparks from sharing ideas and going in new directions with my characters. But when I write, what comes out on the page is all from me.

I do a tremendous amount of research, and the writing schedule and book tours can be intense. I love what I do; love every aspect of my job. Having support allows me to keep up the energy and excitement in my work and in my mission to bring my readers closer to the natural world through my novels.

AUTHORLINK: The next book in The Lowcountry Summer trilogy, The Summer Wind, is due in June 2014. Was the trilogy mapped out in your mind or on scene cards before you wrote it?

MONROE: For The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy, I have mapped out the outline for all three books. I have to say, I love that I am able to stretch out my themes, my character arcs, and all the research I’ve done over three books. Each book will stand alone and focus on one of the sisters. Yet each book will help carry the story forward to conclusion, as any good trilogy should. Also, each book will highlight a specific concern for dolphins. I had an emotional moment working with NOAA and wild dolphins in the Charleston estuarine waters last month. Now I know how the series will end.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have any ideas of what environmental issue you would like to tackle next in the future? For instance, what do you think of the colony collapse disorder (CCD) of bees?

MONROE: Amazing that you should mention bees! That’s certainly on my radar, as are all the cross pollinators – hummingbirds and bats. First, however, I have another animal that weighs heavily on my heart. (That’s a hint.)

AUTHORLINK: Great. Do you plan to write another children’s book as adjunct to this trilogy?

MONROE: I’ve just released a children’s picture book, A Butterfly Called Hope, that was inspired by research for my novel The Butterfly’s Daughter. I have committed to writing a children’s book about a dolphin, too. I’m always excited to write for this next generation of stewards.

AUTHORLINK: What was the hardest thing about writing The Summer Girls and why?

MONROE: A cardinal rule for authors is to create a solid, satisfying ending. In hindsight, I’d have to say that creating a satisfying ending for the first book in a trilogy while leaving open doors to the continuation of the story line proved the biggest challenge.

“I’ve learned to trust my own instincts more now than as a young writer.”

AUTHORLINK: How do you think you have developed creatively as a writer from your first trilogy (The Beach House, Swimming Lessons and Beach House Memories) with this one?

MONROE: I’m more surefooted and confident as I write my pages. I’ve learned to trust my own instincts more now than as a young writer. I read my pages aloud now, too, and use my ear as an editor. I like to think that as long as I remain passionate about the subject matter and themes in my books, that passion will flow to the pages.

AUTHORLINK: Has there been any interest in a movie or TV series?

MONROE: Many of my books have been optioned for film. I have two optioned now. Hope springs eternal! My books are so visual, I like to think the right connection will be made.

“I show up at my desk every day but the hours vary . . .”

AUTHORLINK: How wonderful. Good for you.

How is your writing day structured? Do you write every day? How long does it usually take you to write a book?

MONROE: I show up at my desk every day but the hours vary depending on what stage of the book I am in. During research, I spend a lot of time in the field and doing interviews. I may not be writing pages of the book, but I am present to the work.

Then there is the business of writing – social media, book tours, speeches, PR, interviews – that takes time. I find it necessary but distracting to the writing process. Once my story “clicks” in my head, however, I don’t allow interruptions and am a very fast and focused writer. I call it “projectile writing” because I write from the gut – it’s very intuitive. The story is in my head and gushing out. During these times I write from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep.

After I get the first draft down I spend long days at the desk with subsequent drafts. I love the revision process. I have an excellent editor, Lauren McKenna, whom I trust. Again, creative ideas spark. I’d be a fool not to pay heed to her edits. We both want the book to be the very best it can be.

AUTHORLINK: Mary Alice, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and the very best for your future success.

About Mary Alice Monroe:

Mary Alice Monroe is a New York Times bestselling author who is known for her intimate portrayals of women’s lives paralleled against the human connection to the natural world. Mary Alice is involved with several environmental groups and is on the board of the South Carolina Aquarium, the Leatherback Trust, and Charleston Volunteers for Literacy. Her volunteer work with these and other groups provide the inspiration for her novels, several non-fiction titles, and children’s books such as The Summer Girls, The Beach House Memories, The Butterfly’s Daughter, Last Light over Carolina and Time is a River.

Mary Alice Monroe has served on the faculty of numerous writer’s conferences and retreats. She is a featured speaker at events, both literary and conservation. Her books have achieved several best seller lists, including the New York Times, SIBA, USA Today and are sold world wide. Her first children’s book received several awards, including the ASPCA Henry Bergh award. Monroe was awarded the SC Center for the Book Award for Fiction and the International Book Award for Green Fiction.

Anna Roins, ColumnistAbout Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked in a career in writing six years ago and moved to Greece. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles to local publications on various subjects on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, as well as, continued studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel in the Young Adult genre based in Greece. Anna is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to write interviews of best selling authors.