Dorothea Benton Frank is the Bard of the Beach, attuned to wave and sky and the innermost thoughts of all the lively, shy and wistful souls who tread its sands.
If you go
What: Blue Bicycle Books hosts Dorothea Benton Frank for its second author luncheon of 2012. Tickets include lunch, a talk and signed copy of “Porch Lights.” Some proceeds benefit Charleston Volunteers for Literacy.When: 11:30 a.m. FridayWhere: Halls Chophouse, 434 King St.Price: $60More Info: 722-2666 or www.bluebicyclebooks.com
Set on her native Sullivan’s Island, Frank’s latest novel, “Porch Lights,” combs the coast for another tale of love and loss, parents and children, mysteries and mirth. But the added heft that came with her previous work, “Folly Beach,” is a trend, not an aberration.
“I think the last book was kind of a turning point for me,” says Frank, who divides her time between the Lowcountry and Montclair, N.J. “I can sit down and write stories about men and women in great detail, all day long, and it’s fun.
“But I began to have a sense, as a reader, that when I read a novel, I want more. I want to learn something from a book. I like to be entertained, of course, and I’m not trying to write historical fiction, but I want to give readers more to talk about after they’ve read my book.”
Frank says that some readers felt “Folly Beach’s” narrative style was “too complicated,” but the author insists she tries to keep a “very tight ensemble” of characters.
“Everybody had a reason to be there.”
Where “Folly Beach” was lent resonance by the legacies of Charleston Renaissance figures Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, the evocatively titled “Porch Lights” — suggestive of soft breezes and indigo nights — serves up that gloomy old Sullivan’s Island literary godling, Edgar Allan Poe.
But the Heywards are a hard act to follow.
Poe on the Porch
“I didn’t really know how well ‘Folly Beach’ would be received and how well the Heywards were known outside of the region,” says Frank, already at work on her 14th novel, cheekily titled “The Summer of Their Discontent.” “But when I discovered that Dorothy actually adapted ‘Porgy’ for the stage and not her husband, I figured if I hadn’t known this, then a lot of other people didn’t either.
“In the same way, Poe has always been thought of as a deeply weird little man — and he was — but his whole life was riddled with death and poverty and loss. He never earned more than $6,000 his entire career.”
Frank says she always has thought of Poe as an interesting character, and wanted to learn more. She credits Citadel professor Jim Hutchisson’s book “Poe” — “riveting,” Frank says — for opening a number of windows into the writer’s life.
But the master of the macabre is a background player in the contemporary story illuminated in “Porch Lights.”
“The Southern predilection for storytelling is second only to our focus on family,” says Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina Poet Laureate. “Dottie Frank’s success is likely found in her combination of these two things. But her secret is the humor that infuses her fiction in unforgettable ways.
“Each book is a kind of love letter to the South Carolina Lowcountry.”
Tragedy and balm
The story revolves around the McMullen family in the wake of tragedy.
When New York firefighter Jimmy McMullen loses his life in the line of duty, the lives of his wife, Jackie, and their 10-year-old son, Charlie, are shattered. An outgoing boy with a curious mind, Charlie retreats within himself.
All Jackie can think to do is return to the embrace of family and her childhood home on Sullivan’s Island. There to welcome them is Annie Britt, the family matriarch, excited by the prospect even though relations between her and her daughter have grown less than cordial.
Enter Britt’s estranged husband Buster, the former’s best chum Deb, and Steven Plofker (the widower next door), not to mention the legends of Poe and Blackbeard the pirate, and you have the makings of one memorable summer.
“I have a wonderful relationship with my children,” says Frank, “but I wondered what would it be like for mothers who don’t have a great relationship with their kids. How awful would that be? This is what has happened with Annie and Jackie.
“One of the ways that women love is by cleaning the house or cooking for you. They do all these things to show that they love you. Annie is always nesting, but her daughter finds the whole thing intrusive and insulting. It takes time.”
The story is told in the alternating voices of mother and daughter, still in Frank’s preferred first person, which she likes for its immediacy.
“It’s a more interesting way to show how people don’t really understand each other, though they eventually do. This tragic loss of Jackie’s husband is what draws them all together, but it’s a struggle; I don’t always like these tidy endings.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.Ben