You’ve set several of your novels in the South Carolina low country. What keeps bringing you back to the setting of your home region?
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 McClellanville 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?
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 Carolina 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?
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 Carolina 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.
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 Rockville. I chose the small village of McClellanville 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.
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 South Carolina, 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.
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.
Q. The story opens with an Aztec myth. What is its importance in the novel?
A: I interwove Aztec myths in this novel to help create that mystical sense needed for the final scene at the sanctuaries. It is also an important cue to set the tone of the power of storytelling as a means of transferring information from one generation to the other. Abuela told stories to her daughter, Mariposa, and her granddaughter, Luz, not only to soothe the child, but to teach moral lessons and the Mexican culture. This particular myth was chosen because I wanted to ask the story question, “Will you bring light to the world?” This lies deep in the heart of Luz’s journey as she brings light and change to so many people. Her name, Luz, was chosen because it means light.
Q. Your novels are known for being set against a backdrop of an important environmental issue. Why butterflies this time?
A: I’d wanted to write a novel set against butterflies for years. Who doesn’t love butterflies? As I began researching butterflies, however, the monarch stood out among all of them. It’s the only butterfly—the only insect—that migrates like a bird or a whale! Every fall this brave, fragile creature travels thousands of miles across the country, joining millions of others, to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico. It is a sacred journey of instinct and courage. Then in the spring, they journey north again. Long live the king!
Q. You do extensive interviews and hands-on research as part of your writing process for each book. What experiences seemed to be the most powerful and pivotal to your story development for this book?
A: Certainly the most remarkable experience was my journey to the monarch overwintering sanctuaries in Michoacán, Mexico. I traveled with Monarchs Across Georgia, a wonderful group. I learned not only a great deal about monarchs, but about the problems Mexico is having protecting the sanctuaries. Like Luz and Mariposa, we rode skinny horses some 9,000 feet high to reach the butterflies. When the sun broke from a cloud I witnessed millions of monarch butterflies burst into the air like orange confetti. The sky was filled with winged joy. The experience was spiritual and what I imagined heaven must be like. All the ideas I had for the novel came together and I knew I had to bring my readers to that moment.
Later, I raised monarchs from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Caterpillars are eating machines. That’s all they do, eat and poop. (It is called frass). It was only in observing the caterpillar’s brave journey to become the chrysalis that I fully appreciated the power of metamorphosis. The lowly caterpillar faces the darkness to completely transform. It twists and writhes as it changes to chrysalis. It begged the question “What is courage” in my novel. When a butterfly was due to emerge, I got up at dawn and waited and watched. Blink and you’ll miss it! I never tired of it. Never will. I learned patience and consistency as the theme of transformation became paramount in the novel.
Q: Can you talk about Mariposa? In the novel, this character was going through the most powerful and painful transformation. Many of the characters in The Butterfly’s Daughter go through a metamorphosis, or change, as well.
A: While raising monarchs, Mariposa came alive in mind—I realized she wasn’t dead! It was a complete surprise to me, but also very exciting. It gave me a whole new dimension for the novel. Mariposa was like the butterfly she was named after—beautiful but flighty. Her driving force was drugs (similar to the caterpillar’s eating) and it led her to ruin. By the time the story takes place, she’s a recovering addict. Her phone call home was the instigating incident. Mariposa’s journey to forgiveness involves a transformation that is ongoing at the story’s end. To say she is changed would have been unrealistic for a recovering addict. It is her daily struggle and conviction that is inspiring.
I wanted each of the women (the “goddesses”) to transform as a result of this journey. Luz went from a child without roots or dreams to woman with family and possibilities; Margaret from someone locked up and “beige” to open minded and colorful; and Ophelia from an abused, insecure pregnant woman to a fierce, committed mother. It’s easy to understand why the butterfly is a powerful symbol of transformation in many religions and cultures around the world.
Q. The Mexican culture comes alive in this novel as young Luz seeks her roots in Mexico. How did this theme come about?
A: Once I decided that the major theme of the novel would be based on the monarch’s journey across borders to Mexico, I was set free with possibilities! I created Luz Avila to carry the story. She is a young woman of Mexican/German descent in a predominately German city. Raised by her Mexican grandmother, Abuela, she is typical of many first generation ethnic children who do not want to be defined by their parents’ culture, but rather, to be American. When Abuela dies, Luz is alone. As she journeys to Mexico she seeks clues about the mother she never knew, as well as connections not only to family, but to her culture. It was a great opportunity for me to present the beautiful Mexican traditions, food, culture and holidays and without the politics. I hope the novel encourages the celebration of our cultural diversity.
Q. Luz Avila learns how to tag butterflies when she meets Billy McCall at a cluster of trees where monarchs were roosting for the night. How did you learn about the details of tagging?
A: We tag butterflies each fall as they migrate to Mexico in order to learn more about them so we can protect the species. The Monarch Watch group (www.monarchwatch.com) leads this effort. I was fortunate to meet Billy McCord, a local butterfly expert. He took me out to FollyBeach and taught me how to capture the monarchs as they roosted and tag. He also helped me appreciate how important these indigenous way stations are for migrating butterflies and birds. Now I tag my monarchs and those that migrate through Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, SC.
Q. Many of your novels have been based on Southern landscape and culture. What compelled you to take a break from the norm and write about the Mexican culture and the Midwest?
A: I didn’t take a break. Rather, when I set the stage for a novel I have to determine how to best bring my readers to the story world. For The Butterfly’s Daughter, I wanted to mirror the monarch butterfly’s migration—it had to be a road trip! So I began in the north, Milwaukee, and the girls traveled the same direct route a monarch would--across the Midwest, through Texas (a fine southern state!) all the way to Mexico. So in fact, I went farther south than in any previous book.
Q. There are several conversations about the symbolism of monarchs and the afterlife, and a few characters experience the comforting presence of a deceased loved one during a monarch sighting. Have you had your own similar experience?
A: Yes! I was amazed to discover how many people shared that they’d had a personal connection with a butterfly after a loved one died. Perhaps at the funeral, or later when they thought of the person, a butterfly appeared. My father- in -law passed away during the writing of this book. My son and I ceremoniously released three butterflies I had raised in his honor. Two flew promptly away, as they all want to do. But one butterfly lingered for a long time, alighting on my arm and my son for a long time. He seemed reluctant to leave. I was astonished. It was just as I’d described it in my novel! I released many butterflies that summer but this was the only time one lingered so long. It was memorable and poignant. I believe we have connections with nature that we simply do not understand.
Q. On page 226, the character Stacie says to Luz and Margaret, “You might not know where you’re going, but in the end, you get to where you’re supposed to be.” Did you know where you were going with The Butterfly’s Daughter from the very beginning?
A: I have to share with you where that quote came from. I’m part of a group of women who all share the same birthday! We call ourselves The GEMs because we’re all Gemini’s. During one birthday while I was writing the book, we shared stories of road trips taken. Some were hilarious! Susan told me about a wild and colorful woman who shouted out the above quote and when I heard it I knew I had to use it. I loved it so much I based my character Stacie on this real woman. Often when writing a novel, the author can’t make up anything as good as the truth.
As for whether I knew where I was going with the book from the start, the answer is no. I knew butterflies would be the backdrop for the story. I had a lot of possibilities, but it wasn’t until I fully understood the majesty of the monarch’s migration, and visited the monarch sanctuaries and witnessed the magic there, that I committed to the monarch. Writing a novel is much like Stacie’s advice. We might have a lot of ideas, characters, and themes in the beginning of a novel, but it’s a crazy journey and in the end you get to where you’re supposed to be.
Q. Mariposa and Sam have a conversation about the genetic memory of monarchs, and it is compared to the mother-daughter connection of Mariposa and Luz. What personally intrigues you about the concept?
A: Consider the monarch. Unlike the bird or whale who makes the round trip migration, for the monarch it is the 4th generation monarch that returns! Isn’t that incredible? Science is discovering how much information is transferred genetically. On a personal level, don’t we all love to look at our children and say, “Claire has Nana’s nose.” Or we note how one family is good in science, or music. Imagine if you didn’t know your family that shared DNA, wouldn’t you be curious? The basic cell mitosis, known as the mother-daughter cell, was a perfect analogy for Luz’s journey.
Q. As an author with a conservationist’s heart, what do you hope readers take away from The Butterfly’s Daughter?
A: Simply put, the monarchs are in trouble. In 2009 winter storms devastated
the population, some 50-70 %. Most people don’t understand how critical the milkweed plant is to the monarchs’ survival. The milkweed is the monarch host plant, which means it is the only plant the female monarch will lay her eggs on, and it is the sole food the caterpillars eat. Milkweed used to thrive in the Great Plains states, but with development and the spread of insecticides, fields of milkweed and nectar plants are disappearing.
I hope my readers will all plant milkweed and nectar flowers in their back yards and flower boxes. AND DO NOT SPRAY INSECTICIDES! Not everyone can rescue sea turtles or birds of prey. But everyone can make a difference with the butterflies!
Q. And what do you hope readers take away at a personal level?
A: I hope we all appreciate the power of transformation that lies within us all.