DOROTHEA BENTON FRANK: THE NOVELIST AT EASE

BY BILL THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPH BY HOLGER OBENAUS

CurrentsProfileVer2-Image-1

On a sun-splashed day in her new Sullivan’s Island home, Dorothea Benton Frank nibbles on a piece of cake from the Peninsula Grill, sips a cool glass of ice tea and muses on the fates that have brought her, the Bard of the Beach, to this pass, a New York Times best-selling author whose 16th novel, All the Single Ladies, debuts this summer.

Behind her, an elegant white-columned veranda frames a sweep of sea and sky. Dolphins cavort in the glittering surf a stone’s throw away, as if in celebration of this latest return of the hometown girl to the place that owns her heart.

The impending wedding of her daughter, Victoria, and the budding of a new romance for her son, William, a recent law school grad, has her in high spirits. No surprise. The Lady Dottie is almost always in high spirits, though her concerns as a writer are often as serious (domestic violence) as they are sublime (romance).

A recent inductee into the South Carolina Academy of Authors, Frank splits time between the Lowcountry and Montclair, New Jersey.

You’ve produced 16 books in 16 consecutive years. Quite a track record for consistency and sales.
The next book is always marinating in my mind even as I’m writing the current one, and I’ve already started on my 17th novel. You just get yourself up to speed and stay there. It’s all I do now. I cook and I read and I write and I travel.

All the Single Ladies is set on the Isle of Palms and involves three middle-aged women bonded by a fourth woman’s death, which prompts them to question the course of their own lives. What inspired the new book?
I think the main reason I wrote this story is that I started thinking about single parents, of which there are so many, and the fact that you only have to make a couple of mistakes and you can end up living on the streets—especially women. This book is about women whose plans did not work out the way they thought they would but are trying to make the best of it. Their lives are full of disappointments and aging parents and issues of assisted living.

Your recent books have had more meat on their bones in terms of topical and historical subjects. An evolutionary process?
I have no intention of stopping writing as long as I have things to write about. I think that what happened is that in my research I began to make discoveries about things I—and perhaps others—knew relatively little about. I wanted to bring this forward in an entertaining form. I think I owe readers something provocative to talk about, some takeaway value. I work very hard on that. It’s also satisfying for me to learn something new. My last book, The Hurricane Sisters, was about domestic violence. I wanted people to understand that domestic abusers have a profile, and what that profile is. That book actually did some good in the world. When I went on that book tour people came just out of the walls.

Why does the Lowcountry landscape exert so powerful a hold on you, in life and in fiction?
Everybody who comes here falls in love. This is a magical place, and you fall under its spell. My family has been here since the American Revolution.

But you and your husband, Peter have always traveled extensively. Is there any other place that inhabits a small corner of your heart?
I love Paris. I love Ravello on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. But I wouldn’t want to live there. I was amazed by Africa.

You started writing in 1994, went back to school to finish your undergraduate degree, then published your first novel in 2000. But you had a successful career in the garment trade in San Francisco and New York well before that.
For two years, I went to the Fashion Institute of America in Atlanta—can’t you tell?—before coming back to Charleston as a buyer for Kerrison’s department store. Then I worked in the wholesale market in junior sportswear, doing a lot of business in Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan. I had a blast traveling around the world, and I was a fast study. At 23, I thought I’d live in New York for a year or two, come home, marry some good old boy, dance the shag every Saturday night and have a pile of kids. I really did, but it didn’t work out like that.

Do you have a sense of having outdistanced the competition in your genre?
I don’t think about competition. I never have, because it doesn’t pay. It’s a big ocean out there. There is plenty of room for other writers. They’re on their journey, I’m on mine. You can’t be a bean counter looking on other people’s plates.

If you were to try your hand at any other genre of fiction, what might it be?
Historical fiction, but based on historic fact.

You savor life, and understand the nature of it, more than most. And you seem to have few, if any, regrets.
Oh, but there are still a lot of things I want to do. I think if there were regrets about a road not taken I wouldn’t let that on because it would be disrespectful to the road I did take. Writing is my savior, for sure.

Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.