Charleston · Interviews · Writing

An H and Five Ws with NYT Bestselling Author Mary Alice Monroe

I’m very lucky to have had the chance to meet bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe. Not only is she a talented writer, but she’s a pleasant, cheerful, upbeat person who never fails to bring a glow with her. I can understand her GLOW. She gets to live here, in Charleston, South Carolina, where it’s 70 degrees on Thanksgiving. She gets to write while sitting at a desk overlooking the ocean. And finally, she gets to WRITE about the things she loves and actually get paid to do it. So without further ado, meet Mary Alice Monroe.

Mary Alice Monroe
Author Bio: New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe found her true calling in environmental fiction when she moved to coastal South Carolina. Already a successful author, she was captivated by the beauty and fragility of her new home. Her experiences living in the midst of a habitat that was quickly changing gave her a strong and important focus for her books.

Since then, she has explored the problems of endangered sea turtles (The Beach House, Swimming Lessons, and her first children’s book, Turtle Summer), raptors (Skyward), the indigenous grass and endangered ecosystem (Sweetgrass), and the rivers and mountains of North Carolina in Time is a River.  Publishers Weekly wrote, “Monroe is in her element when describing the wonders of nature and the ways people relate to it.” In July 2009, Pocket Books released her newest novel, Last Light over Carolina, which brings alive the disappearing world of the coastal shrimping industry. 

Monroe continues to write richly textured books that delve into the complexities of the human psyche and the parallels between the land and life.  Mary Alice is an active conservationist.  She is a dedicated member of the Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island Turtle Team and serves on the Board of the South Carolina Aquarium. For information, videos, blogs and more, go to

An H and Five Ws with NYT Bestselling Author Mary Alice Monroe

1) How did you get published?
I did all of the steps that I recommend to authors hoping to get published.  First, I joined a writer’s group.  This group focused on writing techniques, critiques, and mutual support.  We also learned selling techniques: the query letter, proposal writing, manuscript preparation, and synopsis.  I attended conferences where NY agents and editors spoke, did workshops, and held meetings. This is very important.  At conferences I signed up for interviews.  There were groups with one agent and eight of us wannabes sitting at a big table.  Each of us had two minutes to pitch our stories.  It was painful.  Some stuttered, some went on too long and were cut off, and others were prepared and stood out.  Those few were the ones asked to send material.  I also did one-on-one interviews.  Again, a good pitch is critical.  I discovered that no agent or editor will buy or represent your manuscript based on these meetings.  The best you can hope for is for him or her to say, “Send the manuscript.”  Then you can immediately send the manuscript to his or her office with the note stating when you met the agent and that she requested the manuscript.  That at least gets the agent to read a page or two!

I also volunteered at conferences.  I highly recommend it.  I once volunteered to drive an agent I liked to the airport after the conference.  We talked in the car and she asked me to send the manuscript.  I did.  She bought it and that first novel was published. That novel, The Long Road Home, was published by Harper in 1995. It had a small print run and sold out, never to be seen again.  Until this November!  My first novel will be released for the first time since its original publication in November 2010! 

2) Who is your biggest literary influence?
There isn’t only one.  I studied William Blake extensively and he left his mark in everything I do.  I read Charles Dickens voraciously and believe he is the master of characterization.  James Clavell’s work shaped my concept of the noble hero and his thorough research, especially in Shogun, shaped my desire to reveal history and setting with color and verve.  Pat Conroy’s love of the southern landscape inspired me. Rosamunde Pilcher’s talent for revealing character through dialogue, and her ability to make small details show and not tell is unparalleled.  Finally, Rachel Carson’s dedication to nature and the landscape has greatly influenced my work and my motivation.

3) What is your LEAST favorite thing about being a writer?

Last Light Over Carolina, by Mary Alice Monroe
4) Where did the idea for Last Light Over Carolina come from?
I’ve always been fascinated with the sight of the shrimp boats on the horizon.  They seemed romantic, yet I was well aware of the hardships and struggles the shrimpers faced.  One day my neighbor, friend, and mentor, Clay Cable, who is also VP of the shrimper’s association, said to me, “Mary Alice, if you’re going to write that book about the shrimpers you’d better hurry up!”   I knew he was right.  The shrimpers are facing threats at many levels–the glut of inferior imported shrimp is driving down prices, the soaring price of diesel fuel is making it too expensive to take the boats out, and the high value of coastal land is causing folks to sell dock space to developers.  I realized that shrimp boats were a vanishing part of our southern landscape and heritage, as was the shrimping industry.  I wanted to tell their story while I could.

5) When have you had the most trouble completing one of your books?
Whenever I feel I don’t have enough research done, or I haven’t found the soul of  the story—that something I want to say through my story—I’m stalled.  It is a frustrating, agonizing time for me.  I dig deeper, I take long walks, I pray, I reflect.  Once the story “clicks” in my mind, I like to write fast so I can get it down.  After that, it’s a lot of hard work, but I’m happy because I’m in the zone.

6) WHY are you a WRITER?
Why do I breathe?   I’ve never not been a story teller.  As a child I made up stories and songs.  I’ve always had a vivid imagination. When I wasn’t making up stories I was reading.  I wrote my first story when I was eight.  I believe it is important for all writers to learn and polish their craft.  But the artist – a painter, a dancer, a singer, a writer – is born with the talent.

Thanks for the interview, Mary Alice! Keep up the great work!

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