Zibby is joined by bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe who has not one but three books coming out this year. Mary Alice shares how her own quarantine experience influenced the way the COVID-19 pandemic was explored in her book The Summer of Lost and Found, why her middle-grade novel, The Islanders, was written to help kids unplug, and the significance of writing a story for Reunion Beach to honor Dorothea Benton Frank.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary Alice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Mary Alice Monroe: Thank you. Oh, Zibby, I’ve been looking forward to this.

Zibby: Me too. This is so nice. You’ve already had me on your show, “Fantastic Fiction,” and all of the rest. No, “Friends & Fiction.” What am I talking about? It’s also fantastic.

Mary Alice: You’re a favorite. You know that.

Zibby: You have two new books coming out basically at the same time: an adult book summer read, The Summer of Lost and Found, which I read; and The Islanders, a middle grade which now I have to read with my kids but have not yet. First of all, congratulations on all the new releases.

Mary Alice: It’s amazing. Then I have the anthology for Dorothea Benton Frank that we wrote in memory of her.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right.

Mary Alice: I’ve never before had a book out in April and May and June. I don’t think I ever will again, so it’s phenomenon for me. It’s been a joyous ride.

Zibby: I loved Reunion Beach. I loved it. It was so beautiful.

Mary Alice: It was heartfelt.

Zibby: I felt like I got such a sense of who Dottie was, even though that’s not what I called her because I didn’t know her. I feel like now you guys have let everybody into her interior life and gave such a great portrait. I said at the time — who was I talking to about it? Oh, Adriana Trigiani. I was saying everybody should have a book like that when they pass away.

Mary Alice: I’m going to hold you to it, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m serious. Everyone should have one. It would be even better if it came out before they passed away. Maybe everyone deserves a book of tribute.

Mary Alice: So we can thank them. What was really great about it was, we were her friends. Her editor, Carrie Feron, was her friend. I know Carrie. In fact, Carrie has one of my dogs. She asked us, would we consider doing this? Of course, it was an easy yes. We wanted to find a way to say goodbye to her because she passed so unexpectedly, so quick. I didn’t think she was going to pass. I really didn’t. I thought she’d come out and it would be all back to normal. My story was the mother-child reunion, which was the story of a mother and a child who — the child was released for adoption at birth. They’ve never met each other. She’s forty years old, the girl. This is before the drive to meet each other. That’s all before because, to me, that’s the real interesting part. The only criteria was that we write about something that takes place on a beach in the Lowcountry, other than Adriana who went all the way up to heaven.

Zibby: Yeah, that was awesome.

Mary Alice: She got Pat Conroy in there, so she brought the Lowcountry with her. I think all the stories were really heartfelt. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Zibby: You should be. It was really lovely and beautiful and very well-done, a model for things to come. In terms of a model of things to come, as far as I can tell, this is the first book I’ve read where the pandemic is a part of the story and that it’s told over that timeframe. Gosh, I don’t even know how you did it that fast. It’s May of 2021 now. It starts in March of 2020. There’s an entire novel. I kept looking. I was like, how is she doing this?

Mary Alice: Thank you for recognizing that, first of all. It was, without a question, the hardest book I ever wrote because I was writing it in real time. I’m usually a writer who — my books are all set against some aspect of nature. I usually join academic research. Before I even know the book, I know the species. I work with a species. I do an academic research. I either train or rehabilitate some — depending on the animals, I work with the animals. I always like to say the animals tell me the story. I know before I begin a book, the structure. I’m a structuralist. I know characters. I know where I’m going. I know where the climax and resolution is. Honestly, this book, I dealt with the human species more than anything else. I have to admit, I knew it was risky, but I decided I was going to write the story based on what we were living through right now. I think this pandemic truly is like a wartime that we went through. It’s going to be, where were you when the Twin Towers fell? Where were you in the year 2020? How did you survive? I think all those heightened emotions and the challenges and the introspection that we all went through should be chronicled. I wanted to do it in real time so I didn’t forget, so I knew it was raw. The hard part was that I didn’t know where I was going. I was writing as I lived it. My outline went to the garbage pan pretty quick. It was so emotionally a rollercoaster for me because I had to watch what was going on around me and experience it myself and put it down through my characters. I was worried if I was going to be able to get it done towards the end. I always like to say something in my novel. I’m the old crone in the story, as it were, with that little bit of knowledge that I’m sharing with you. It was hard-won. It was really hard-won, but I think I pulled it off.

Zibby: It’s a best seller. Are you kidding? It came out on the list already.

Mary Alice: I know. I think more important than that for me as the writer, I know what I wanted to say in this novel, what I wanted to share with my readers that my characters learned, and so did I.

Zibby: What was that?

Mary Alice: It’s what Eckhart Tolle has talked about for decades, which is to live each day to the fullest. I knew that. You can embroider it on a pillow. We all know that saying, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what it meant. When I went through this year and I was watching people, myself included, the older generation fearful of their lives, taking care of people who are very sick — I lost family members. I know you did too, and going through that. In my house here where I’m living right now, this mountain house, there were four women that I sheltered in this house during that time, sort of like the Mushroom in the Rain story, the children’s book. That was my house. That’s why in the novel, Linnea brings people into the house, this beach house, because I was doing that. While I lived through that, I was watching the young people. Their lives came to a complete stop. They lost their jobs. They didn’t have dating. If you were mindful of COVID, you didn’t date. There was the whole mask issue; redirection of, what do I want to do, really? going back to school.

Throughout all that, we had the best time. What I learned was you can’t plan. I’m a planner. I like to know what’s happening tomorrow and work for it. I’ve learned to, okay, come down, take a deep breath. I’m with you right now, Zibby. I don’t know the next time I’m going to talk with you. I’m enjoying these moments. I’m saying yes to kids. My daughter wanted to take me — it was basically an intervention. To get me to exercise, she took me to a spa. “Mom, you got to start exercising.” Usually, I would’ve said, “No, no, no, I’ve got a deadline. My book’s coming out.” I said yes. What I now know is to live each day to the fullest because we get to choose how we’re going to live this day. We do have that choice. That’s all the choice we have, is right now, right here. You can sort of plan for the future, but you don’t know what’s going to happen for sure. COVID might hit tomorrow in another wave. You might have some personal issue. I’m happier. That’s a tough lesson. It’s not an easy lesson to learn, that you actually live it. That’s the difference. Knowing it intellectually and believing it with your heart and soul and doing it, that’s the difference.

Zibby: That was beautiful.

Mary Alice: Hard-won, as I said. Hard-won.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s true. I’m like you. I’m a planner. I used to have everything planned to the minute and trips booked a year out. Everything was known. I literally had to remind myself every day, look down. Anytime I looked, even tomorrow, I would get so anxious that I couldn’t even function. I was like, I’m just going to look today. What do I have today? I’ve got these books. I’m with you.

Mary Alice: That’s wise. You have to go through it, don’t you, to be able to reach that point?

Zibby: To have a time of life with so much uncertainty that the only choice is to cling to now. For anxious people or planning people, I think it actually was probably a good wake-up call on the ways to live, and not overschedule.

Mary Alice: Writing this, for me, while I was doing it, I came away with the characters — I liked where they ended up. It’s funny. There are some funny scenes in the book, the boat scene. There’s some beautiful moments, heartfelt conversations. I love the love triangle. There’s a great love triangle, which really, for me, was showing personal choice. I made this triangle. It materialized out of nowhere. For those of you who are listening, this young girl, Linnea, is in the beach house. Her old boyfriend who broke her heart is the neighbor’s son. He appears because he’s in quarantine. Quarantine is the big issue of the pandemic, that whole, is it possible I caught a disease? Anyway, he’s in quarantine. She’s, oh, my god, what’s he doing here? It stirs old emotions. She doesn’t want that. Then her old boyfriend who happens to be coming from England — Zibby, he was in the series. He is English. It worked out so beautifully that he would happen to be there and had to come back. It was like, okay, all the road signs are there. I should write this book. He came in. There’s this triangle set up that she had no intention of getting involved in. The journey for her as she juggled between, can I love two men at one time — I always like the journey to be, in the end, what do I want to do? As a young woman starting my life, what choices do I make? She had to work her way to that realization that it’s really not between two men. It’s here in her heart and here in her mind.

Zibby: I’ve told friends before who are debating between two guys, I’m like, “Usually, if you really can’t decide between two guys, chances are they’re both wrong.”

Mary Alice: Yeah, or the timing is wrong.

Zibby: That’s not a good sign.

Mary Alice: Honestly, I look at my children who are in their thirties now, I remember at twenty-six, it’s like, you’re a baby. Oh, my gosh, you have so much — at that age, everyone thinks they know, and their own experience. I’m saying, go experience. Find out what you’re good at. What’s your passion? That’s all I’ve ever taught my kids. That’s what Cara teaches Linnea. What’s good for you? It’s a good selfish. Follow that and not choose a man to save you because a man ain’t ever going to save you.

Zibby: I love when Linnea spies Jonathan — his name’s Jonathan, right? — right across the way and sees him in the window and then realizes he’s quarantining there. She does that little wave in the gravel-y driveway and then calls her colleague and is like, “I’m getting wine. Meet me in the back.” I loved that.

Mary Alice: We all know that moment when you need your girlfriends. You need your girlfriends. That’s what I liked too. I think what was heightened during the pandemic — it’s not about the pandemic. Like you said, it’s a setting. What happened was relationships were intensified. You found your safe group. Some people called them COVID groups or pods. There are names for it. COVID couples, we had a COVID couple in the book. It just intensified who you were with. It was really based on trust. You trust these people in your pod, that you can rely on them for your own safety. That’s that wartime mentality a little bit.

Zibby: I love that you highlighted the financial instability that the pandemic wrought on so many people. You did a really nice job with that. The uncertainty was not just in, hey, when are we going to make our travel plan? That’s such a ridiculous, “woe is me” problem. It wasn’t the planning. It’s like, how are we going to pay our rent? Can we bunk up together? When I depend on income based on catering, what am I going to do when all the gigs are up? When is this furlough ending?

Mary Alice: People are really in trouble.

Zibby: You gave the characters that sense. It came through very clearly and in a really compelling way.

Mary Alice: Thank you. I’m so glad you said that. When I’m in nature — you go out in the wild. I’m working with a species. You just watch. Very quiet, and you watch with eyes and ears open. I watched what was going on with my family. I had the four women in my house, one of which was a niece in her thirties who was out of a job. Still here. Just watching her refocus, redirect, not dating, and the depression that also accompanies that. Of course, you’re going to be depressed when you’re scared like that. Then I was watching my daughter who moved into my beach house in Chicago with all the kids. Best summer ever, they just have to go to school. From April to September, they were in my beach house, even the dad who could work from home remotely. He says, “Pandemic was great. I stayed on a beach for all these months.” They had a good time. I was watching the mothers, as you probably did, teach your kids. You’re substitute teachers. What do you do with your kids who can’t play with friends? That’s why I put a little girl in the book. How do you entertain? There were yet a lot of great moments. They went out in the backyard to sit and talk. This kid surfed. I love the joggling board. That’s a real thing, by the way, that surf competition. I just wanted to show that there were some really great moments through the whole time. My sisters and I and my niece up here in the mountain house, we never could’ve been together, everyone just leave their jobs and live. We were back in the nursery, working out a couple issues. We’d get up in the morning and have our coffee and sit down and look at the mountains and drink coffee and read poetry. That’s how we started our days.

Zibby: That is not how I was starting my days, let me tell you. That sounds nice.

Mary Alice: You and my daughter trying to get their kids in school with the computer or laptop. In the evenings, we came together and we talked again. I watched my daughter. They played jigsaw puzzles. They wanted to get them off the screen.

Zibby: Yes. Tell me about The Islanders and how that middle-grade novel is about your mission to get kids off screens.

Mary Alice: That really promoted it, to see that — my husband’s a child psychiatrist. He has always said, unplug your children. Two things. Unplug your children. Sit down for family dinner and have conversations. I know you wrote an essay on that too. It’s for real. We have roses and thorns. What was your rose? What was your thorn?

Zibby: We do that too, best and worst.

Mary Alice: Yes, best and worst, right. That was inspired because I always wanted to write for the middle-grade kids. I have two picture books for the very young. It was the middle-grade kids who say, I can be anything I want when I grow up. I want to be a judge and a ballerina when I grow up. Okay, you go for it. They believe it. They also know they can change the world. When they see plastic issues, when they see endangered species, doesn’t daunt them. We can fix it. That can-do enthusiasm, these are stewards of tomorrow. This is the audience I wanted to talk to. When I raised my children — my husband’s family has this huge farm in Vermont. My husband was at the NIH doing research in DC. I would say goodbye to my darling husband and take my kids and live on top of a mountain by myself with these three kids and the cousins. There was no TV and back then, no internet. We were like, I’m so bored. There’s nothing to do. You just have to let the kids be bored because boredom, I believe, and I’ve watched, is the key to opening up the imagination. It forces kids to find out what they can play. They went wild in the mountains. I’m lucky they weren’t eaten by bears. I really am. I just, bye. It was a very open mentality back then. They’d come home at the end of the day. The only thing I required is they had to bring a leaf or a plant or talk about a bird. We would find the name of it. We had big bulletin boards and drawings. They drew on the walls. I said, “If you know the name of it, you’re not afraid of it.” The wild becomes your backyard. My little girl’s first words were oxeye daisy. She could identify that wildflower.

Today, I look at what’s going on even with my grandchildren now. It’s hard to find that place that’s wild. I put these three kids — one’s an army brat whose father was injured in the war. He has to go live with his grandmother — he doesn’t want to do that — on a remote island that exists called Dewees that’s right off Isle of Palms where I live, accessible only by boat. It’s a nature sanctuary. There’s so much to save. There’s an alligator. There’s a bald eagle’s nest everywhere you look. He’s got to go to this remote island for the summer. It’s an African American boy from a wealthy family in Atlanta. That family’s there. Then there’s a girl, kind of an Hermione Granger. She’s smart. She’s lives on the island. She knows everything. These kids would not have been friends if they had been in Atlanta. They’re on this island. They are compelled to explore. They think it’s the worst summer ever. They explore. They find wildlife. They get in a little trouble. They find turtle nests. It’s the best summer ever because they’ve been unplugged. They call themselves the islanders. That’s the name they come up with. I’m inviting kids to become islanders. It can be in your own backyard, in your local forest preserve. It can be somewhere where you can be let loose to explore. That’s good for your mental health. It’s good for imagination. It is good for confidence. It also teaches kids two things. One is that this is their planet. This is there home. Don’t be afraid of wild. If you know the names, it’s your backyard. That’s why I wrote the book.

Zibby: Wow, that is a lot of output. Tell me a little more about how you get it all done. Do you sit and write all day? Do you structure time? What is your trick? How do you do it?

Mary Alice: Right now, I’m actually writing very little in terms of pounding pages because I’m on book tour. You know what that’s like. You just are going from place to place. I actually came up with a synopsis for two books that I want to write. I’m already writing them. The middle grade is a series, so I’m already writing the second in the series. That’s done. I know once the tour’s over, I’ll finish that. I’m very fast first draft. I call it projectile writing. I have it all bubbling inside, the research, the thinking, the character notes. My mind, you don’t want to live there. It’s just always going. Then when I pull it all together, I get very quiet. Then I write nonstop until I get the guts down. As Anne Lamott says, it’s a shitty first draft. I don’t worry about what it looks like, if its pacing’s right. I figure out what I want to say in that book. Then after that, I get into a very regimented lifestyle, no going out. I put on my toolbelt. That’s craft. Then I sit down and I get into a very — I love routine, what time I wake up, what time I take a walk, what time I go out. I begin editing draft after draft after draft. That finetuning. That’s why I say you can write from the seat of your pants, but you have to know how to edit. For me, I’m in the stage now where the ideas are a little frenetic. I get a little hyper. I’m excited. Then I have to bring it all in, and my body says thank you. I get into a routine. I think a writer needs some routine, don’t you?

Zibby: I agree, yes.

Mary Alice: But you can’t live like that every day. You have to go out and do the research. You have to be with the people. I have to be with the animals. I’m exploring whales right now. It’ll probably take two, three years before I know what that story’s about. I’m not writing two books at the same time. I know that I’ll spend a month working with whales here. I’ll go someplace else and work with them there. When I come back, I always say the animal will tell me what that story’s going to be. I’m not trying to write a book for either The Islander or this whole Beach House series. They are standalones. This series, you can read any book out of order, but it is twenty years in the making. I’ve been writing this series for twenty years. It’s because I know what’s right for that species. When there’s a story that takes place on my beach with sea turtles — I still am a sea turtle volunteer. I have my license. I monitor nests. I feel it’s not preaching, it’s more like setting a story world where I want to catch the interest of people who might not know they care about sea turtles or might not think they care. I’m not trying to write to people who already know a lot. I want the someone who, oh, my gosh, I loved the story. It was a great novel, but you know, wow, I learned a lot about turtles. That’s the key. If they learn that, then they can go on to libraries, bookstores, do more research, volunteer themselves. I just want to make people aware that this is a shared planet. That’s been a twenty-year mission. I’ve done this for twenty years. Zibby, I’m looking at it now and I’m ready to tie it with a bow and put it on a shelf right back then. Now I’m going to go a little rouge. It’s going to be a little more expansive, I think. I don’t know what’s coming. I’m going to find out day by day.

Zibby: See, that’s the whole time. Circling back to your main point.

Mary Alice: Going back.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Mary Alice: Write what you love. I had written five novels when I moved in 1998 to the Isle of Palms and joined the Turtle Team. The passion, I didn’t know I’d fall in love with these sea turtles so much. More importantly, I knew that they were in trouble. I thought, you know, I’m not going to change the world. I know a lot about the species. It sounds so corny, but it’s true. The power of story, being able to put people in a book and not teach them and proselytize, but have them see the characters through my eyes and get excited about it, the passion, if they feel that emotion, which is the key, then they start to care. That was The Beach House. I changed the way I wrote books. The themes all came from what I learned from the animals. I built the world around that. The story seems simple. You can call it a beach read. I don’t care what you call it. My goal was to reach that audience who didn’t — popular audience, large number of people. It worked. The first book was my first New York Times hit. More importantly, like you said, it’s important to hit The Times for your career, must do, but it’s a bigger goal. It transcends storytelling. It makes a difference. That’s ultimately the life goal, the mission, the why. I’m really excited that it’s been a success. I don’t take that for granted.

My legacy is, I hope I made a difference. It sounds corny, but I really mean it. I look at twenty years and I go, okay, I did it. Back to Lost and Found, it’s number seven in a series, but it stands alone. If one person just reads that one book and decides that they — this is less environmental than some of the others. The turtles are in there, but it’s really not as set against a species as much as the other books in the series. The humans are the species. Going forward, it’s more of the same, but I think I’m slowing down a little bit. I’ve got a body of work. Now I’m going to make a little bigger book, say a few more things in it, and explore a little bit more deeply and take my time. I don’t think it’s a better or worse novel. People say, you write a book a year. I think there’s a sense of pejorative tone of, it must not be very good. Then I always say, yes, you know who my hero is? It’s John Steinbeck who wrote his five biggest, best books in five years. Let’s just start there. You can do it if you have a passion. If you’re a young writer, have that passion. Have that passion.

Zibby: Amazing. Awesome. Mary Alice, thank you. Thank you for coming on.

Mary Alice: I talked your ear off, I’m sure.

Zibby: No, it’s great. I loved it. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to dig into more of the books. It’s just, you have so much going on. It’s amazing.

Mary Alice: I know. I enjoy it, though. I’m lucky.

Zibby: And also for helping everybody not miss the plot of life, which is the best gift of all.

Mary Alice: That was a farewell gift. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thanks for chatting.

Mary Alice: Thank you, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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