Mary Alice Monroe believes in the power of stories. The best-selling author writes about our connection to animals from her home on the Isle of Palms. Her latest book, “A Lowcountry Christmas,” will be released Tuesday. It tells the story of a wounded warrior and his younger brother who discover the true meaning of Christmas.
Q: You’ve said that you had an epiphany early in your career and realized you could make a difference through your stories. You are a conservationist and your books have highlighted species including sea turtles, birds of prey and butterflies. What difference do you hope to make for Wounded Warriors and service dogs by writing about them in your latest book?
A: My motive is the same for every book: to make readers aware. I became aware of the connection between Wounded Warriors and their service dogs when I was conducting research for my book "The Summer’s End" and volunteering at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. There was an opportunity for servicemen to come in and work with the dolphins and I was asked to volunteer.
One vet in particular had a service dog and I witnessed the powerful connection between service dogs and the warriors. Their courage and challenges were eye opening. There are 22 suicides of veterans with PTSD every day. Since then I learned so much about PTSD and how it impacts families. We all feel stress at Christmas, but especially families with a member struggling with PTSD. My husband is a psychiatrist and I am aware of how depression is heightened during holidays. I set my book at the holiday season with hope that it will bring awareness to the issue as well as hope to those struggling with the disorder.
I also learned that service dogs are making a huge difference where other therapies have failed. As one young vet I met said, “I love my wife but I need my dog.”
This story was one of those that had to be told. It niggled at me for years. So as soon as I finished my trilogy, my editor gave me the go-ahead to write it. My motivation for this book, as always, is to raise awareness through the power of story.
Q: You ask a question at the beginning of each book. What question did you ask in "A Lowcountry Christmas"?
A: I asked how can I reveal the way that PTSD affects all members of the family? I wrote the story from different points of view: the serviceman with PTSD, the young brother and the mother. Their journey is to discover that understanding of each other, forgiveness, rebirth and, most of all, love are the cornerstones of Christmas.
Q: Each chapter begins with a quote about Christmas from "A Christmas Carol." Why did you want to include this classic in your story? How do these quotes shape the structure of the book?
A: I am a great fan of Charles Dickens. His message in "A Christmas Carol" is timeless. The book shows us that redemption is available for all of us, even the most miserly if we have faith. This message is as true today as it was then.
In "A Lowcountry Christmas," Taylor feels like a scrooge and carries the book as a talisman. As a vet suffering with PTSD, "A Christmas Carol" helped him believe that redemption was possible.
Q: Your narrators are typically women. Why the shift and was it difficult to tell the story from a male point of view?
A: Two of my previous books, "Last Light Over Carolina" and "Skyward" are written from a male point of view, but you’re right, most of the time I write from a female perspective. I appreciate the difference in language and when I was interviewing the servicemen, I understood their heart.
I also loved writing from young Miller’s point of view. His 10-year-old voice was so refreshing and I found it easy to write. I switched perspectives to reveal how they were all affected by Taylor’s PTSD. The father represents a whole cadre of men who think “just get over it” when it comes to personal challenges.
Q: Your output these days seems to be rivaling Joyce Carol Oates. In the last year you’ve written "A Lowcountry Wedding" and now "A Lowcountry Christmas." You also have a very busy book tour, spoke at the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort last week, and are launching your book on Oct. 25 through Blue Bicycle Books at High Cotton. What are you working on next and how do you maintain this pace?
A: My inspiration always comes from nature. I have no shortage of story ideas. I write fast because I fear I don’t have enough time to say all I hope to.
After 20 years of writing, I’m seeing that my stories are indeed making readers aware of environmental issues. My readers care. My hope is that they become heroes in their own stories. A hero acts. That’s what propels me to keep going at this pace. And, my work is my pleasure. I truly love what I do.
After the book tour for "A Lowcountry Christmas," I’m going to spend some serious research time working on my next book. I have two ideas and I have to process which one I’ll follow, which one I will spend years of work on. Once I commit and say yes, my research, both academic and my hands-on volunteering, opens up new arenas of possibility.
For example, if I’d said no when they asked me to volunteer with the Wounded Warriors at the Dolphin Research Center, I would have missed out on the powerful experience and the inspiration for this book. Saying yes to life is my personal motto and it has opened windows for inspiration, creativity and joy.