STORIES, LIKE PLANES ON A RUNWAY

by BILL THOMPSON

MARY ALICE MONROE penned her first story, Willy the Wishful Whale, when she was 8 years old. Not surprisingly, it was about an animal, and it was a foretaste of what was to come.

A childhood passion for nature and its most vulnerable inhabitants has never waned.

Today, the Isle of Palms resident awaits the release of her 25th novel, The Summer of Lost and Found, to be published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, on May 11. Monroe, acclaimed for her Lowcountry-set, environmentally conscious novels, returns to the saga of the Rutledge family, whose progress readers have followed over the past 18 years.

It’s the latest installment of her popular Beach House series, the first of which was adapted for a 2018 telefilm.

The new novel is just part of a momentous spring for the suburban Chicago native, who is also the author of two books for children. She is one of seven contributors to Reunion Beach (HarperCollins, April 27), an anthology of stories by authors in memory of the late novelist and Lowcountry icon Dorothea Benton Frank.

June 15 also marks the publication of Monroe’s first book for middle-grade readers (ages 8–12), The Islanders, co-authored with Angela May and set on Dewees Island.

Monroe, who lives part of the year in the North Carolina mountains, is, among other involvements, a noted environmental volunteer. A staunch supporter of the South Carolina Aquarium, she also lends her energies and expertise to such ongoing efforts as saving endangered sea turtles along the South Carolina coast.

Q: Along the continuum from your first novel to your latest, how would you assay your growth as an artist?

Monroe: Every artist believes, even hopes, that her work evolves over time. I’ve written stories all of my life. I began studying journalism, wrote nonfiction books for hire, then moved into novels, my first love, when I was put to bed from teaching during a pregnancy. That first book sold, and I’ve not stopped writing since. As a writer, my voice has been consistent. With my work in environmental fiction, the depth and impact of my writing has grown. It has been my mission as well as vocation.

Q: How did your 2002 novel, The Beach House, mark a pivotal point in your writing?

Monroe: I decided to use the power of story to reveal to readers important environmental issues and endangered species. I never preach, but rather I use setting, plot, themes and dialogue to bring readers fully into my story world. By doing this, the readers experience for themselves the beauty and wonder of nature. And if you care, you take care.

Q: Your research-driven novels generally have strong settings in nature, but don’t they also reflect parallels between nature’s struggles and those of people?

Monroe: Yes. In The Summer of Lost and Found, the young adult characters are dealing with real-time issues, both personal and environmental. The pandemic hits them all, affecting jobs, finances and their social lives. Climate change dramatically reveals itself. I am exploring how families and individuals come together during this season of shutdowns and isolation.

Q: Do your books have in common one overriding theme?

Monroe: All my books share a personal connection with nature, that sense of awe and wonder that carries over into the personal lives of my characters.

Q: Sense of place is a cornerstone of your writing. What is so compelling to you about the Lowcountry landscape?

Monroe: I believe it provides a unique landscape for a writer. That said, I do, from time to time, move to a different location. The Summer Guests and Time Is a River are set in the North Carolina mountains I also love. And all my earlier novels are set across the globe, from the Midwest to California to London.

Q: Do you surprise yourself from time to time, either rereading an older work or writing a new book?

Monroe: All the time. I often reread an older book and am struck by a passage’s grace and feel a sense of satisfaction. But I remain humble. I believe our stories are gifts. When I write, I often feel like a conduit from my fingers on the keyboard to some greater power, a source, even a guide.

Q: From birds of prey and sea turtles to monarch butterflies and sweetgrass, your work as a volunteer and advocate has been varied. What is your focus today?

Monroe: Climate change is directly affecting the lives of all of us who live in and around Charleston. As sea levels rise, flooding has become commonplace. The frequency and severity of coastal storms, crowding of the beaches, and the blistering summer heat’s effect on sea turtle and shorebirds’ nests are all significant issues.

Q: With all your involvements, do you sometimes feel stretched a bit thin?

Monroe: My family laughs at my time management. They complain I am always working! It’s true. Yet I truly love what I do. I’ve tried for many years to have better time management and fail every time. I just show up to the work every day.

Q: You still enjoy teaching, do you not?

Monroe: After getting my BA and MA in Asian Studies, I was hired by the U.S. government to help establish an English as a Second Language program for the Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian and Hmong peoples. I loved teaching then, and at this point in my career, I feel it’s my turn to teach again through writing retreats.

Q: Will you ever run out of subjects to write about?

Monroe: Never! Because I write about species and environmental issues, I have no shortage of possible topics. For me, story ideas are like planes on a runway,
waiting to take off. *

Bill Thompson covers the arts, books and design.