Author Mary Alice Monroe loves the great outdoors 

Mother Nature

Mary Alice Monroe always has an idea for a new novel. In fact, the celebrated author says that in her mind she has an airport runway lined up with stories that have yet to be told, and as soon as one novel takes off, another lines up to take its place.

"Every author has a story to tell," she explains. "It just depends on when you realize it."

Monroe found her first tale at an early age. She chuckles at the memory of submitting countless drafts to Highlights for Kids, beginning when she was eight.

"I think I was rejected several times," she laughs.

Storytelling was a part of her childhood. As one of the eldest of nine siblings, Monroe was in charge of reading to her brothers and sisters before bedtime. Eventually, she made up her own tales to entertain the youngest in the family.

"We used to make up stories and songs, and we all got together and put on these extravagant shows. It is just how we grew up," she recants fondly. "I laugh and say the force is strong in my family."

With a father who was a concert-level pianist and a ballet-dancing mother, Monroe says she and her siblings were encouraged to use the arts as a creative outlet. Without the diversions that children today are used to — and perhaps burdened with — Monroe and her brothers and sister were forced to be more inventive when it came to fun time, a fact she now credits as one of the reasons behind her thirst for knowledge and soaring imagination.

"When we were young, we were bored," Monroe says. "Being bored would foster us to go outdoors where we were always in an imaginary world. I think that one of the reasons I write about the outdoors is because it fosters that creativity."

Although the human story is always at the forefront of her work, Monroe has incorporated her passion for the environment in her writing. "About 10 years ago, I made a decision that I would change my career. I had six books published up until that point," she says. "I was a turtle lady, and I saw that people cared. They wanted to learn more."

At that time, Monroe published The Beach House. The book not only presented a shift in the substance of Monroe's writing, but also the style. "Rather than look at archetypal themes, which is what I used to do, I looked at the loggerhead turtle," she says. "That is how I drew my themes for the story."

Monroe used the journey of the sea turtle as the diagram for her book, and strategically placed factual tidbits about the creature at the beginning of each chapter. Conscious that she was still producing a novel, Monroe carefully wove accurate details about the endangered animal into the work without inundating her readers with dry encyclopedic-type excerpts. The result landed her in the hearts of conservationists and a spot on The New York Times best-seller list.

After The Beach House, researching environmental topics became a central part of Monroe's creative process, an approach she used for novels such as Skyward, which focuses on birds of prey at a reserve in Awendaw, and Sweetgrass, based around the endangered plant. A throwback to her days as a journalist, Monroe takes her investigations very seriously. However, you will not find her hunkered down in a corner of the Charleston County Library.

"I do the work. I go out on the boats. I do rehabilitate the turtles. I did rehabilitate the birds," she claims proudly. "I get so involved not only with the research, but I listen to the people in the story world. It is not my words; it is theirs. I let the story come to me."

In her most recent novel, Last Light Over Carolina, released July 14, some readers might come away from the book feeling as if they too have felt the sting of salt spray while standing at the bow of a shrimping troller.

"I think the biggest compliment I got is from Capt. Wayne Magwood," she says. "He read the book, and I was apprehensive, but he was very helpful, and he said it was so real, it was unreal. And that was the best review, from the shrimpers themselves."

As hard as it may be to earn the stamp of approval from a veteran shrimp boat captain, that is the standard to which Monroe holds herself. However, accolades for factual correctness are not Monroe's ultimate goal for her stories. The environmental activist hopes to spark changes in her readers' behavior as a result of picking up one of her novels.

"If they walk away from my book and say, 'I'm only going to eat local, wild American shrimp,' I will be thrilled," she says.

Monroe's other novels hold similar environmental lessons. Following the publication of The Beach House, Monroe says she saw volunteerism with sea turtle rescue along the coast and donations to conservation groups increase, a truly flattering result. She says, "If people read my books, and they love the stories and feel inspired by the setting, then I've done my job."


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