Last Light Over Carolina
Mary Alice Monroe
A Conversation with Mary Alice Monroe
- You’ve set several of your novels in the
low country. What keeps bringing you back to the setting of your home region? South Carolina
I made a decision to use landscape and wildlife as a backdrop to my novels so that I could bring to light an endangered species while I told a story about the people who live in the community. The first was set against the nesting saga of sea turtles. I’ve explored birds, plants, fishing. In Last Light Over Carolina I’m exploring the world of shrimping. The south is rich with history, tradition, and values in a world that is becoming increasingly homogeneous. Combined with my interest in the incredibly varied ecosystems of the low country, I have a rich palette from which to create novels, over and over. I hope my novels bring awareness of our beautiful landscapes and wildlife at an intimate level and encourage people to enjoy and protect them.
- You write as though you have intimate knowledge of the shrimping community, often described as “clannish” in Last Light over Carolina. Did you grow up around shrimpers? What personal connections do you have to this way of life?
It’s my job as a writer to create an authentic story world. Shrimp boats are part of the southern landscape, culture, and heritage. But still, for most of us, we look out and see those boats on the water and wonder, what’s it like out there on that boat? What’s that life like?
I’d wanted to write that story for years but waited till the time was right. One day my friend, vice president of the SC Shrimpers Association, said to me, “Mary Alice, if you’re going to write a book about shrimpers, you better do it now while you still can.” You see, years ago I was on the opposite side of the fence from shrimpers as a turtle lady during the hearings to mandate use of the turtle excluder devices on all shrimp boat nets. (These are devices that allow sea turtles to escape the nets and save them from drowning). There were some heated words over that topic! Over the years I’ve personally witnessed the shrimpers adopt the TEDs and use them effectively. I admire them for their cooperation, and in light of the tough times they’re experiencing, I knew the time for their story was now. The highest compliment I received was from a captain of a shrimp boat who read my novel. He loved it and said, “It’s so real it’s unreal!”
- What research did you do to help you bring the town of
and its inhabitants to life? Was it difficult to penetrate a community you’ve described as insular and close-knitted? Do you generally research before you begin a new novel or does the story come first, with the factual details sprinkled in later? McClellanville
Research is organic to my novels. I always begin a novel with an exhaustive search and read every book, article, excerpt I can find on subjects connected to the story. For Last Light Over Carolina, I studied the shrimping industry, the lifestyle, the economics, the town-- anything connected to the industry as well as the personal issues my characters would go through. Next I go out and interview the people. For this book, shrimpers were closed mouthed at first. Then I met women in the industry who were more forthcoming. In time, the men spoke up when trust was established. They knew I would tell their story honestly and in a positive light. Finally, I do hands-on research. That’s the fun part for me. I find that if I volunteer and become part of the world I’m writing about, I can create an authenticity that my readers expect. I don’t walk into an interview with an agenda. I listen. I let the story come to me in its own time. As I write I also do additional research as questions come up, scenes change. Writing a novel is very fluid.
- The quiet betrayals and injuries that push Bud and
farther and farther apart seem common to any long term relationship. In fact, the depth of human truth that you portray in all your characters’ relationships is something you’ve been praised for as an author. What inspires you to explore relationships in this way? What inspired you to write Bud and Carolina ’s story? Carolina
As a wife in a 30 year plus marriage I wrote from personal experience of the transition from that first flush of love to the richer realization of commitment. Each marriage is unique. But there are universals. The story of Bud and
and their marriage is not mine. My novels are never autobiographical. That said, no author writes in a vacuum. He or she must use her personal arsenal of experiences, values, and morals. This is what gives an author “voice.” I am one of ten children. I am a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, and friend. I have a lot to draw on. Carolina
- You’ve been publishing novels about the South for over a decade. Do you feel that the region’s small towns have remained relatively constant and rooted in tradition, or are your feelings better expressed by Lizzy in the novel: that everything seems to be changing faster than it used to, and for the worst?
The south, like everywhere else, is changing. Especially along the coastline where the influx of people from the north and the rising real estate values have greatly changed not only the landscape but the make up of the communities. For Last Light, I interviewed shrimpers from all over
South Carolina, including Shem Creek, Beaufort, and . I chose the small Rockville as the setting because it is one of the few remaining shrimping villages still in existence. They are struggling to maintain their traditions and strong community ties. villageof McClellanville
Many of the people who move to the south admire the traditions and want to learn more about their new home, its landscape and traditions. They care. Like Lizzy in the novel, people sometimes fear change. As a writer of novels set in the south, my challenge is to present the rich traditions and values and the unique landscape accurately and honestly, and to raise questions about the issues facing us today.
- Do you have or have you ever owned a boat like the ones described in Last Light over Carolina? Though it may seem somewhat alien to inland readers, you’ve portrayed the intimate love affair between sea-goers and their vessels so vividly—was this difficult to do?
I love to be out on the water. But the truth is, when I go far out, I get sea sick! I can go fishing in a small boat on the creeks happily and cruise along the Intracoastal. Kayaking and canoeing are fine, too. But if I go far out on the ocean on a big fishing boat when they drop anchor, between the rocking and the diesel fuels, I’m green. I’ve done it, but thank goodness for the patch! The love affair between a captain and his boat is palpable and a joy to write about.
- You describe the Blessing of the Fleet ritual as “based on the belief that all people were called upon by God to be good to one another and responsible stewards of the earth.” (p 361). Given the importance of this ritual to the community, there seems to be a certain irony in the strained relationship between shrimpers and conservationists. Is this situation specific to McClellanville or have you found the feelings you’ve portrayed in the novel to be more universal among the shrimping and fishing communities along the coast?
If you talk to any fisherman anywhere, he or she will tell you about his or her love for the water and the environment. And it’s true. Conflict arises between those who work to protect and preserve the landscape and animals and those who make a living from that landscape. There is a mindset among some who don’t want any person or agency to regulate what an individual can do—on the land or the water. It is the duty of US Fish and Wildlife, DNR, etc. to regulate what can be caught, how much, where and when. Some of the regulations are deemed by the public as reasonable, others are not. Regardless, they are required to enforce them and catch offenders. This is an extremely complex topic with strong emotions, and the scenario isn’t unique to McClellanville, or
, by any means. It is universal for fishermen, hunters, lobstermen, crabbers, farmers, the NRA, and others anywhere in the country. As a novelist, I must present the attitudes, beliefs, and feelings of my characters in an honest and true a dialogue. South Carolina
- Your novels have been compared to those of Pat Conroy, Sue Monk Kidd, and other southern authors. Do you have a favorite southern writer, past or present? Which writers would you consider your influences or inspiration?
I am honored to be included in the ranks of two authors I greatly respect and admire and am proud to know. Pat Conroy’s great novels of the low country, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, inspired me as an author. I connect with Sue Monk Kidd’s work at a personal, spiritual level. I admire Barbara Kingsolver’s consistent attention to the natural world in her books. I also rely on classics and revisit them frequently.
Some of your earliest writing was actually for newspapers, working as a journalist. Do you think these years influenced your writing? Why or why not?
My education in writing and journalism and years writing non-fiction were certainly valuable and a solid training ground for my later work as an author of fiction. However, I think one is born a story teller. Like one is a born painter. Of course one must study and practice and hone one’s skills. But I believe the talent is a gift.
- With so many themes and relationships explored in the novel, what do you most hope readers will come away with after reading Last Light over Carolina?
Of course, I hope that my readers will close the book with a sigh of contentment that they enjoyed the novel, my characters, and setting. Then as they reflect on the story, I hope readers will come away with an appreciation for the colorful lifestyle and heritage of the American shrimpers and the struggles they are currently facing. Perhaps when they next eat at restaurants along the coast, they’ll ask for local, wild American shrimp.
I also would like to think that Bud’s realizations at the end of the book about love, forgiveness, and compassion will strike a chord and linger. Whenever an author approaches the spiritual in a novel, she must be mindful to inspire, not preach. This novel was more personal than most because I shared insights that I’d gained from a near death experience years ago.