Wild At Heart
Lowcountry-based New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe finds success in sharing observations gained from her extensive work with animals, while telling immersive stories about the people who share their world.
Mary Alice Monroe sits in her office, daydreaming. Located on a high floor in her stately Isle of Palms home, the room is her sanctuary, the only place the author will write. The air, forever permeated with the salt of the sea, is filled with the sounds of canaries competing for her attention, their songs growing increasingly louder and more complex as they perform for her familiar affirmation. Books fill every shelf, nook, and cranny, and images of local wildlife abound all around her. On her desk, a tall stack of paper takes center stage: the final pages of her most recent novel, Beach House for Rent, waiting for its final edit. A year has gone by since she began the book: a year of research, of building psychological profiles for the characters, of experiencing their pains and joys. In the last few months, she has holed herself up in this room, writing for twelve hours a day, taking breaks only to eat, sleep, and get fresh air down at the beach, determined to meet her deadline. With one last edit ahead of her, the light at the end of the tunnel is within her grasp. She is exhausted. She is dreaming. She is ready to begin the path to her next book.
“I need to get outside,” Monroe explains. “I have to get involved with animals. I don’t know what the next book is, and I’m hungry to discover it. I want to get on the road as soon as I turn in this final edit.”
As the third eldest in a family of ten children growing up in Chicago, Mary Alice Monroe was always a storyteller. She would often regale her younger siblings with naptime fairy tales and fables, and she delighted in creating plays and musicals for the children to perform together. In third grade, her teacher took note of her talents and asked if she had ever considered becoming a writer professionally when she grew up.
“I’ll never forget that feeling,” Monroe recalls. “She named it. I suddenly realized that telling stories could be a job, and I was thrilled. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to be a writer.”
Monroe went on to study Journalism at Northwestern University, where she also met her husband. Her first foray into the world of professional writing began at Encyclopedia Britannica, the powerhouse of knowledge respected the world over. At the time, they were putting together the 15th edition of the encyclopedia, a 28-volume set called Britannica 3, featuring contributions from more than 4,000 contributing authors in more than 100 countries. As the Assistant to the General Editor, Monroe worked closely with writers, editors, and experts, and the experience proved to be an invaluable opportunity, serving as an intensive course on researching, writing, editing, and meeting deadlines. Later, Monroe and her husband moved to Japan, where she learned the language and developed an affinity for the country. Back in the United States just outside of Washington, D.C., she taught English and Japanese, raised her two young children, and dreamed about the day she could write her first novel. When she became pregnant with her third child, her doctor ordered her on prone bed rest.
“It was the end of July, and the baby was born in October,” Monroe remembers. “I probably would have just watched television that whole time if it wasn’t for my husband. But he marched in there, took the television out of the bedroom, and handed me a yellow legal pad and a pencil. He said, ‘You’ve always wanted to write a novel, but you didn’t have time. Now you have time.’”
Monroe spent three months writing while lying flat on her back, and by the time the baby was born, she had written a full rough draft of her first novel. She went to the library to research how to get her book published, and there she met a young blonde woman named Nora Roberts. Roberts, today an international bestselling author, invited Monroe to join her writer’s group, and it was there that Mary Alice Monroe took her first steps into the book publishing world. She learned about critique groups, agents, and editors, and she eventually acquired her first agent by volunteering to drive her to the airport, using the experience as an opportunity to pitch her novel. It was not long before Mary Alice Monroe was finally a published author, but she was just getting started.
When her husband received a job offer to head the Child Psychiatry Department at MUSC in Charleston, the couple was thrilled. They had spent years visiting the coastal city and falling in love with its culture and charm, and they were delighted to finally move to the area. Within 24 hours of arriving, Monroe went to the Isle of Palms Turtle Team headquarters and signed on as a volunteer. Always a nature lover, Monroe was fascinated with the sea turtles, and she could not wait to learn more about them and aid in their protection. As she worked with the organization, getting her license through the Department of Natural Resources, patrolling the beach, moving nests and advocating for reduction in disorienting lights, she became aware of the public coming to the beach. With the visitors came their fascination and excitement for sea turtles and their tendency to leave hazards for the animals in their wake—bright lights on at the beach houses, trash and food left on the beach, and large holes left unfilled. Inspired, Monroe again began to write.
“I could write a nonfiction book about sea turtles and explain how our actions can positively or negatively impact them,” Monroe says. “But I realized that I could write a novel and affect greater change through story. If I can teach while entertaining, well, it’s a painless education.”
From her work with sea turtles came The Beach House, which focuses on a woman returning to the coast of her childhood, rekindling old relationships, and becoming a “Turtle Lady,” much like Monroe did upon arriving to her island. Monroe took lessons she learned from the sea turtles to form themes for the novel: the solitary nature of sea turtles is present in the main character’s unattached personality, the camouflaged nest of the sea turtles finds representation in abandonment, and the belief at the time that turtles return to the beach of their birth forms the overall plot of the character returning home. Instead of telling the reader about the plight of sea turtles in a tourist area, Monroe shows the reader through the eyes of her characters, while bridging the gap between the human species and the rest of the animal kingdom by forming connections to their experience.
Upon finishing the novel, Monroe packed boxes of books into the back of her car and drove down the Eastern Seaboard, stopping at every bookstore along the way, distributing to those without a copy and signing the copies already in stores, placing them in prominent locations. Her hard work and dedication paid off: The Beach House was the first of more than a dozen of Monroe’s novels to make the New York Times Best Sellers List. Now finishing her twenty-first novel, Monroe has mastered the art of animal advocacy through story, and she remains true to her process for each new book.
“I always have a message, and I always go species first,” Monroe explains. “I decide on a species to feature, do the research, and then I roll up my sleeves, and I find a place to volunteer. The animals tell me the story—it comes to me as I work with them. Then I build the metaphors and begin working on the human aspect of the story.”
While sea turtles are a familiar sight in Monroe’s Beach House series, many of her other books feature different species, leading to an extensive resume of volunteer and research work. For Skyward, Monroe volunteered for two years at the Birds of Prey Center in Awendaw. In her Lowcountry Summer series, she studied the local dolphin population with NOAA researchers and volunteered at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. For Butterfly’s Daughter, she raised monarchs from eggs, consulted with experts, and studied the life cycle of the butterflies, eventually travelling to Mexico to witness the majesty of their migration. She has also studied and written about shore birds, fly fishing, and the shrimping industry, and the canaries in her office make an appearance in her last book. Her work with animals never fails to provide memorable experiences, like the time she spent rehabbing a female eagle at the Birds of Prey Center in Awendaw. After Monroe worked with the eagle at the center every week for seven months, the bird was released. Two weeks later, her neighbor called her to go look on her roof. There, 25 miles away from the only place Monroe had seen her, was her eagle, familiar band shining in the sun.
“I can’t explain it,” Monroe says. “How she found me, I just can’t explain it. I am constantly in awe of the power of nature. I do not understand it, but I accept it and believe it.”
With a reverence for nature and the animals that share our delicate ecosystems, Mary Alice Monroe is honest and attuned to her mission of writing entertaining, multi-layered, emotional stories while sharing her knowledge and research on various species. Encouraging her readers to choose a cause, be the heroes of their own stories, and act, Monroe is an inspiring beacon of hope for the many lives she touches.
By Jana Riley