- Published: 25 June 2014 25 June 2014
Mary Alice Monroe and Patti Callahan Henry are southern authors, colleagues and best of friends. They both have novels released in June: Mary Alice Monroe's The Summer Wind June 17 and Patti Callahan Henry's The Stories We Tell a week later, June 24, 2014. The two authors have often spoken together and will again June 25 at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Patti and Mary Alice talk about their books and writing.
Mary Alice Monroe: From the moment I laid eyes on you standing on my front porch with a big smile, I knew we were kindred spirits. We sat down on my sofa and didn't stop talking for hours! You were on book tour and came to the Isle of Palms for a signing. It's such a good story; care to finish it?
Patti Callahan Henry: From the moment we started talking on the phone, I knew we’d be the best of friends. But then there I was, standing on your front porch with a suitcase ready to stay the night and I thought, What if she is crazy and I’m about to enter Crazy-Land? But of course that wasn’t true. We've been friends for so long since then. We've spent hours and days talking about myth and story and writing. How would you say our friendship has influenced your writing?
Mary Alice Monroe: I'd have to say it's the soul-connecting kind of encouragement and support we give each other that has helped me dig deeper and continue working the long hours under deadline. Writing is a solitary career, yet we need to bounce ideas and discuss problems with someone we can trust. That person for me is you.
Another inspiration for my writing is the landscape itself. You and I both feel a deep connection to the lowcountry. When I read your books I resonate to your words when you describe rivers and winding creeks, moonlight and sultry nights. Why does the lowcountry speak to you?
Patti Callahan Henry: I’m not sure we can ever really say why something resonates, especially a landscape. It’s something hardwired internally that allows certain areas of the world to vibrate inside of us. The Lowcountry is one of those places for me. I feel my heartbeat. I hear my thoughts. I am equally stunned and soothed by the rivers, estuaries and marshes. We spend as much time as possible there as a family, and my daughter now goes to school in Savannah. My stories have all been set there, and my heart lives there.
Although you actually do live in the Lowcountry, you travel and give so much of your time to environmental issues and also to writers and readers, how do you find the time to do all of this and still produce a book a year?
Mary Alice Monroe: It's a challenge, for true. Yet, it's my life! You know I'm kind of a hermit when I'm home. I shut out the noise and focus to write, garden, work with animals (especially now as the sea turtle season begins). I have a lot on my plate but my passion fuels my energy. I enjoy sharing all I've learned through the power of my stories, both in written form and when I speak. But Patti, my children are all grown now. When they were younger, like yours, I didn't have as much time to devote to volunteering.
With those young kids, I know you have an active family and family struggles are featured in your new novel, The Stories We Tell. This is a rich, emotional story about marriage, discovering new truths, reconciliation and redemption. Were any of the characters based on your life? How did they influence the character’s development?
Patti Callahan Henry: Not one of the characters is based on people in my life. As usual, there might be a curious amalgam in each character but I did not fashion a single character after a loved or known person in my life. I did use some teenage actions I have witnessed or been a part of in raising three high-spirited teenagers (was that a nice way to say it?). I have not owned a letterpress and I definitely can’t write a song (or even sing one). So these characters are born of imagination and the murky world of storytelling.
On the topic of our new books, what was the spark of the idea for The Summer Wind? I know it is the second book in a trilogy about three sisters. Where did the idea begin? With the sisters or with the dolphins?
Mary Alice Monroe: With the dolphins, of course! I've gone out on the waterways with NOOA to photo ID and to capture and do medical tests on the resident dolphins. We've learned that nearly half are sick. How could I not want to get that info out there? In the past four years I've helped rehab injured dolphins and I volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. Of all the animals I've worked with--and I've been involved with a lot-- the dolphins are the most intelligent and socially aware. I'm an intuitive writer and I like to say that the animals tell me what my story is about. The dolphins taught me about the importance of communication and connection, of family and community bonds. And they reminded me to enjoy life and to laugh! These lessons inspired the themes of The Lowcountry Summer trilogy of a dysfunctional southern family on Sullivan's Island whose lives are changed by the presence of one wild dolphin and one remarkable summer.
The dolphins were my inspiration, but In The Stories We Tell, I know you had a few themes that inspired you. Can you tell me about that?
Patti Callahan Henry: I was inspired by the beauty and handmade world of letterpress and typography. In our fast-paced world where image is everything in social media and branding, where does the handcrafted, honest life fit in? I imagined a woman who valued not only the image of her life and family but also the creative life that nourished her. I saw these two worlds colliding as she struggled to keep both worlds alive in a tension of opposites. Eventually something had to unwind, which of course it did. As an ex-nurse who specialized in closed head injuries, I was also inspired by the constantly wavering life of memory and imagination. What is real? What is imagined or remembered? How accurate is our memory, especially after a head injury? These fascinating questions pulled the story along as I uncovered the answers. I’m always inspired by storytelling and the ultimate ability of creativity to heal a heart, a life and an injured brain.
Mary Alice, what is your favorite part of your new novel? What is the thing that kept your passion moving forward?
Mary Alice Monroe: Writing a trilogy has been a new experience. I have these people in my head that are fully fleshed out and over three years I am steadily moving all their lives forward toward the conclusion that will come at the end of the third novel. Although each book focuses on one woman, all the characters' stories move forward in each novel toward a final climax. I know what that ending is and I am excited to weave all the threads and tie all the knots so the readers will--hopefully--sigh with contentment on closing the final book! And... they'll learn a lot about dolphins in the process.
Patti, one of the most interesting things to me about your new book was how the heroine, Eve Morrison, owns a Printing Press company and she is printing a series of cards called "Ten Good Ideas." I just love this concept and wonder where the idea came from?
Patti Callahan Henry: The Ten Good Ideas play an interesting role in the story, originating from Eve and her sister, Willa’s childhood reimagining of the Ten Commandments. When they were young, they thought the Ten Commandments were too full of things NOT TO DO and they wanted to make a list of lovely things TO DO. Now that they are adults, they are turning this inspired list into a card line, which pushes the story forward in interesting ways.
It is through this card line that Eve learns one of her most important lessons in the search for truth—that just because something looks good doesn’t mean it is good.
SO, Mary Alice, what would you say is the most important lesson your heroine learns on her search?
Mary Alice Monroe: Easy to answer now, but in the beginning stages of the novel I couldn't get into the heroine, Dora. The Summer Wind is "her" book. Instead, however, I wrote more about Carson (who had the primary focus of The Summer Girls) and her involvement with the charming dolphin, Delphine. After all, I spent all that time with dolphins! My editor gently, firmly, reminded me that this was Dora's story and asked me to develop Dora's storyline more.
It was only later, after digging deeper, that I understood why Dora was so hard to write. She isn't glamorous or exciting. She is "every woman." A little closer to home. Dora is a southern housewife burdened with expectations, and "shoulds." She is unappreciated and feeling she never measures up to her sisters, or the standards set by her mother and society. Who can, really? Instead, as her world crumbles, she feels shame. I think a lot of readers will identify with Dora and cheer her on, as I did, when she struggled to discover her strengths and talents to feel empowered to say, "I am enough!" Once I got it, I was excited to tell her story.
Patti, your stories are always about the redeeming power of love. What keep Eve from seeing the truth and the real love in this novel?
Patti Callahan Henry: Eve wants to be good and right and true. She wants to keep her family together and love her family completely. She wants to be a good wife and a good mother. Her feelings for Max oppose all of these desires, therefore she fights and rationalizes her feelings for him. She tells herself that she cares about him only because they work so well together; it is a kind of denial that allows her to keep her life together and neat until it all begins to unravel.
Mary Alice, if you had to choose one final message for the reader to take away from this novel, what would it be?
Mary Alice Monroe: I'll let a story by Douglas Adams answer this:
Humans believe they're smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc. and all dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around. Dolphins believe they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.
And Patti, what would be the final message you’d want the reader to take away?
Patti Callahan Henry : I like the reader to choose the most important theme. I am continually stunned by the ability of readers to show me something about my work that even I don’t see. It is often in the writing that I begin to see the themes; I don’t set out to push a theme forward. Now that the novel is finished and entering the world, I can see the themes more clearly. There is our ability to see the truth when we don’t want to see it; trusting our intuition. I wrote about the struggle between family and work and the need to please others at the expense of our creative life. I wrote about love and being a mother and the powerlessness that comes with motherhood when you can’t fix something for your child. I wrote about the elusive nature of memory and imagination. The more obvious theme rests in the question, “What is infidelity?” and how do we deal with it? I think that if I had to choose the most important theme for me it would be the message about the ability of creativity to both open our eyes and also to heal our hearts.
The Stories We Tell (St. Martins Press) will be released in hardcover on June 24th, 2014. A powerful novel about The Stories We Tell and the people we trust.
The Summer Wind (Gallery Books, June 17) is the second book in The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy. Book One, The Summer Girls is available in paperback now.