Lowcountry Tales: Fishing Trip Prompts Idea for New Book
As author Mary Alice Monroe stood in the Davidson River in the North Carolina mountains early one morning, "with the steam rising like smoke from the water and butterflies so thick you had to bat them away," she looked up the river and said to herself, "This is a moment that I have to bring to my readers. This is truly living in the now."
On Thursday, July 17, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, the New York Times best-selling author of "The Beach House," "Sweetgrass," and "Turtle Summer" keeps her promise to share that experience when she presents her new novel, "Time Is a River," the story of a young breast cancer survivor who seeks refuge in a mountain cabin near Asheville where she discovers the journal of a fly-fisher of the 1920s. Critics are already praising the novel as Monroe's best book to date. It is the Women's Day, USA Today, and IndieBound (Booksense) Book Pick.
Monroe, who had joined the fly-fishing group Reel Women to "just get off the couch and into nature one more time," went fishing with breast cancer survivors who were part of a Casting for Recovery group. She calls the outing "amazing."
"I saw firsthand how transforming this experience is for women -- not just physically, but spiritually. They have faced death for so long, and at the retreat they experience the spark of life again at the end of the line. It is magical," Monroe says.
The Casting for Recovery Program, founded in 1996, is a nonprofit national organization that provides free fly-fishing retreats to survivors of breast cancer at locations around the U.S. The retreat is about medical and emotional counseling, the camaraderie of women, and connecting with nature through the sport of fly-fishing to promote mental and physical healing.
"For breast cancer patients, diagnosis and treatment are only half of the battle," says Elizabeth Irvin, a CFR participant. "The remainder is fought after treatment is completed; when reality sets in as patients try to return to a pre-cancer 'normal' life."
"Healing is never on a straight path," Monroe says. "I think that's another metaphor for casting. True healing is two steps forward, one step back. Casting is back and forth, extending the line farther and farther."
Mary Alice Monroe is no stranger to cancer. She cared for her mother during her struggle with lung cancer.
"I feel honored to have been called upon to be there for her," she says.
Monroe drew from that experience for her 2002 novel, "The Beach House."
"In the end, it was a love letter to my mother," Monroe says.
Monroe began writing when she was a girl growing up in the Chicago area. She and her nine brothers and sisters performed plays and musicals they wrote. A favorite was an animal version of "The Sound of Music."
"When my third-grade teacher told me that I was gifted and asked if I ever thought about being a writer when I grew up, her question took my breath away," says Monroe. "She had voiced my secret dream and somehow made it seem real, even plausible. I believed I really could be a writer someday."
At Northwestern University Monroe pursued nonfiction, studying journalism and writing for newspapers, but it didn't fulfill her creative needs. She left school and married Markus Kruesi in 1972.
After spending several months in Japan on their honeymoon, Monroe went back to school at Seton Hall University in New Jersey -- one of the few places she could study Japanese -- became bilingual, earned a bachelor's degree in Asian studies and Japanese, and a master's degree in education. In 1980 she wrote her first book, "Crossroads to Literacy," an English-language survival text, while helping to establish a government-funded ESL program for Hmong refugees from Laos.
In the 1990s, when Monroe was confined to her bed during her pregnancy for her third child, her husband refused to bring the television into her bedroom.
"You have a lovely brain," he told her, "and it will just rot. What have you always wanted to do you couldn't do?" "Write a book," she replied.
"That's when my husband handed me a pad and pencil and told me to write the novel," she says.
"The Long Road Home" was published in 1995.
"It was a euphoric moment, unlike any other," Monroe says.
Other novels followed. Two were romantic fantasies written under her name, Mary Alice Kruesi, which were finalists for the Romance Writers of America RITA Award. The others were written under Mary Alice Monroe.
In 1999, after her husband accepted a position in child psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, Monroe and her family moved from Chicago to the Isle of Palms where they had frequently visited for 10 years.
"I had no idea how much it would change my life," she says.
There Monroe found her place, both geographically and thematically.
"When you come from somewhere where you've seen destruction, and you come to a place that's paradise, you don't take paradise for granted. Once it's gone, it's gone," she says.
"It was a decision on my part to use environmental issues and settings -- endangered species, for example -- as metaphors to deepen the storylines of my novels. I believe that I can accomplish two goals. One is to be a storyteller and to have the Lowcountry come alive through the lives of my characters. But if I'm careful and judicious about how I use the materials, I can educate the reader in a way that's not hitting them over the head with proselytizing knowledge. Perhaps I didn't 'change' as much as discovered my own niche."
Based on her experience as a volunteer with the Island Turtle Team, Monroe wrote two novels, "The Beach House," and its sequel, "Swimming Lessons," about loggerhead sea turtles, the Island Turtle Team, the Sea Turtle Rescue Program and Sea Turtle Hospital.
Her children's book, "Turtle Summer," a companion to "Swimming Lessons," received multiple awards and was selected along with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" as the two books for Earth Day that teach young children about the environment.
She has explored the problems of rehabilitating birds of prey in her novel, "Skyward," and the loss of the Gullah culture and habitat for the indigenous grass used to make the historic baskets in "Sweetgrass."
As an author and conservationist, Monroe says, "It was probably the greatest joy of my life as an author that after I wrote 'The Beach House' thousands of dollars came forth from people all across the country to various sea turtle hospitals, sea turtle organizations, and aquariums, and people became volunteers in big numbers. I hoped I could make a difference."
For information about the Meet the Author event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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