Q&A with Author Mary Alice Monroe
Mary Alice Monroe believes in the power of stories. The best-selling author writes about our connection to animals from her home on the Isle of Palms. Her latest book, “A Lowcountry Christmas,” will be released Tuesday. It tells the story of a wounded warrior and his younger brother who discover the true meaning of Christmas.
Q: You’ve said that you had an epiphany early in your career and realized you could make a difference through your stories. You are a conservationist and your books have highlighted species including sea turtles, birds of prey and butterflies. What difference do you hope to make for Wounded Warriors and service dogs by writing about them in your latest book?
A: My motive is the same for every book: to make readers aware. I became aware of the connection between Wounded Warriors and their service dogs when I was conducting research for my book “The Summer’s End” and volunteering at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. There was an opportunity for servicemen to come in and work with the dolphins and I was asked to volunteer.
One vet in particular had a service dog and I witnessed the powerful connection between service dogs and the warriors. Their courage and challenges were eye opening. There are 22 suicides of veterans with PTSD every day. Since then I learned so much about PTSD and how it impacts families. We all feel stress at Christmas, but especially families with a member struggling with PTSD. My husband is a psychiatrist and I am aware of how depression is heightened during holidays. I set my book at the holiday season with hope that it will bring awareness to the issue as well as hope to those struggling with the disorder.
I also learned that service dogs are making a huge difference where other therapies have failed. As one young vet I met said, “I love my wife but I need my dog.”
This story was one of those that had to be told. It niggled at me for years. So as soon as I finished my trilogy, my editor gave me the go-ahead to write it. My motivation for this book, as always, is to raise awareness through the power of story.
Read more of my Q&A with author Mary Alice Monroe in the Post and Courier.
Q&A with Noah’s Wife author Lindsay Starck
Q: Which of these compelling characters did you create first?
A: The first character I created was Noah’s wife. On the one hand I suppose this is unsurprising (the novel bears her name, after all), but on the other hand I believe that many readers may find other characters to be more interesting and more powerful than she is. Because I was writing a novel about a “minor character”– a woman who is not even given a name in the biblical flood story– I wanted to surround her with other “minor characters” who clearly had strong stories of their own. While writing, sometimes Mrs. McGinn felt like the protagonist; sometimes her daughter did. The idea was that a person’s status as “minor” or “major” is merely a matter of perspective. We’re all defined through our relationships to other people.
Q: So many writers “write what they know” but this entire story seems like it came from your imagination. Was any of Noah’s Wife based on your personal experiences?
A: Although the storyline was not based on personal experience (thank goodness!), the characters were pieced together from people I have known or stories I have heard. Some examples: a friend of mine did take a kind of “empathy class” in medical school, as Dr. Yu does; in certain moments, Mrs. McGinn sounds a great deal like my mother; my grandfather is not a magician, but I believe I had his grief in mind (his loneliness over the loss of my grandmother) when writing about Dr. Yu’s father. The story is not based on a real story and no character is based on a real person, but– like all fiction, I think– the novel is grounded in things that I know.
Q: Mrs. McGinn is such a powerful character. She reminds me of Olive Kitteridge. Her passion for the town and her neighbors is fierce. Tell me about the creation of this character.
A: Mrs. McGinn is fierce. She’s so strong-willed, so independent, so completely the opposite of Noah’s wife. She reminds me of Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the gossipy matriarch of Anne of Green Gables— a set of books that I read over and over again when I was young. She emerged rather forcefully (as she does everything) with very little help from me. I was sitting in a lecture hall one day and, out of the blue, a sentence came to me: “Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a weapon.” That was her first appearance. Before the lecture ended, I had penned a few more lines:
Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a weapon.
One might say that Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a musket, but if she heard this she would (respectfully) disagree. Mrs. McGinn does not believe in muskets. Her mother was a Quaker– a real Quaker, with long hair and hands that trembled– but Mrs. McGinn is not a Quaker even though she still sings the songs that her mother sang and she still eats her baked oats with cream and dark brown sugar and sometimes she still feels a light shine out through her skin from her soul.
Over the course of rewriting, I lost many of those original lines, but the concept behind them– Mrs. McGinn–remained. I think this is fairly representative of my writing process: the language comes first (the images, the rhythm of the sentences) and everything else follows.
Q: The animals add moments of comic relief. What was your favorite animal? What was involved in the writing/research process of the zoo and the animals?
A: Yes, I did want the animals to provide some moments of levity in an otherwise dark story. My favorite was actually a giraffe, whom I had to take out! (I didn’t know where to put her when the zoo flooded.) My favorite human-animal pairing is Mauro with his peacocks, since the birds ease a great deal of his anxiety and despair. My main point of reference was a trip I took to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, where the director spent the morning showing me around behind the scenes. I also sat down with two former zookeepers who told me stories that helped me imagine the relations between human and animals– how to herd an elephant, for example (with anything you can possibly find) or how to tell when a saddle-billed stork is growing angry (patches of red around his break). Still, many of these scenes in the novel are imagined. I felt comfortable straying from realism, since this is not a realist novel.
Q: Noah, Noah, Noah….I was drawn to him but also so frustrated by him! His experience with the flood seems to suggest that faith is not certain. That it is people, not necessarily religion, that will save you. Am I misinterpreting the message?
A: Poor Noah! For me, his fatal flaw is his narrow understanding of what faith means. I wanted this novel to be about faith in a very broad sense– and yes, I was most interested in the faith people place in one another. In the biblical story God destroys the world while saving the best part of it; so I was curious about the things that people were most interested in saving from destruction, if they could. Mrs. McGinn wants to save her town, Dr. Yu wants to save her father, Noah’s wife wants to save her husband, etc. “Salvation” is a key concept here, but it’s not the classically or solely religious idea of salvation. It’s something much broader, and much more human.
Q: The story of Dr. Yu and her father provides an interesting and alternate perspective to the story. What did you hope these characters would add to the story?
A: It was important to me that Noah’s wife have a counterpart (a “pairing,” if you will) that underscored the most important elements of her character. All her life, she has played a supporting role to people, and so Dr. Yu was originally written to help show this. Her father soon took on a life of his own. A central concern of the story is what it means to be defined as part of a couple, and Dr. Yu’s father offers one perspective on what happens when you lose your other half. Finally, I did want part of the story to take place outside the town to make it clear that the town is not the whole world. My characters could leave the place… but they don’t.
Spoiler alert! stop reading here if you haven’t read the book
Q: Tell me about your decision to have Noah’s wife play a central role at the conclusion of the story? And are you the sort of writer who knew how this story would end when you began writing or did the story evolve as you wrote?
A: How I struggled with the ending! I wrote and rewrote the novel time and again, each time with a different conclusion. In one version I had Noah’s wife leave town without her husband, and come back to save him along with it; in another version I had Noah leave town, while his wife insisted on remaining with the neighbors she had grown to trust and to love. Finally, I realized that the two of them had to leave together– and once I did, I saw that for Noah’s wife to grow into the protagonist I knew she could be, she had to choose to return on her own. For me one of the most thrilling aspects of writing is all the potential courses a story can take; and the greatest challenge is deciding upon one and not the other.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: Some of the best books I’ve read in the past year are Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which I know that lots of people are talking about– for good reason! They’re excellent. Currently I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, which I picked up in preparation for a trip to Egypt. It is so rich in detail and setting that I can only read a little bit at a time… as a friend of mine pointed out, it’s somewhat like nibbling on a decadent sweet.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Since I’m a graduate student by day (novelist by night), my focus right now is finishing up my dissertation. (I’m writing about the relationship between literature and gossip at the turn of the twentieth century.) But I’ve also begun drafting scenes of my second novel, which will be much more firmly grounded in place and time (the Midwest of the twenty-first century) than Noah’s Wife was. It will also be much more suspenseful!
Q: Are you going on tour? Where can we find you?
A: Yes, I’ll do a little tour when the book launches in January! I’m excited for it. I’ll start in Milwaukee, where I grew up, then I’ll go to the Center for the Book in Decatur, Georgia. After that I’ll head to a number of bookstores in North Carolina: Asheville, Chapel Hill, Greenville, Durham, and Pittsboro. Come see me!