New York Times best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe. Contributed photo.
As is her modus operandi, New York Times best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe spent years researching the plight of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin before featuring them in her newest endeavor, the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy. The second book in the series — "The Summer Wind" — will be released on June 17 by Gallery Books, and Monroe will return to Kingsport for a book tour fund-raising event on June 23.
It's Monroe's tradition that an animal species is mixed among the cast of characters in her novels. This gives her the chance to weave human relationships with factual events in nature, and to educate readers. Her environmental fiction has featured monarch butterflies, the shrimping industry, birds of prey and loggerhead turtles.
It's the species that comes before the human relationships in her stories.
"It takes me a long time to work with a species because the way what I work, my whole novel, story and plot characterization are inspired by my research. It's species first. I'm an intuitive writer," she said. "I began working first with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] here in Charleston, and we started out finding out what were the issues or threats facing the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins today. I had always known I wanted to write a book around dolphins and wanted it to be meaningful, not Flipper."
Monroe, the author of 16 novels and two children's books, uses the plight of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin as the undercurrent in her Lowcountry Summer Trilogy, with the perilous life of one wild dolphin as the trilogy's keystone. In book one, "The Summer Girls," Monroe introduced readers to the complex relationships among three estranged half-sisters who return to the family's historic home on Sullivan's Island, S.C., before it is sold and their grandmother moves to a retirement community.
In "The Summer Wind," Monroe draws readers back to the unspoiled beauty of Sullivan's Island for the second installment in an emotional trilogy about sisterhood, second chances and lifelong bonds. "The Summer's End," set for release in 2015, will conclude the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy.
The first step in her research was learning that between 48 percent and 52 percent of the wild dolphins in South Carolina and Florida are sick.
"Those dolphins do not migrate. They live here year-round. They stay in the waters year-round and are residents. In Charleston, nearly half of all resident dolphins were sick through contaminations in the water. In Florida, more than half. This was an alarm. This is a sentinel species," she said.
Monroe said the morbillivirus that killed a record number of dolphins along the mid-Atlantic coast last summer is spreading southward as dolphins migrate down the coast. This measles-like virus killed 1,000 dolphins in 2013 from New York to Florida. More than 10,000 dolphins are thought to roam the Southeast, and the numbers in South Carolina and Georgia are estimated between 6,000 and 7,000. Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent the infection spreading or prevent animals that get infected from having severe clinical disease.
Marine mammal scientists from NOAA, the Florida Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and nationwide are studying dolphins in Florida and South Carolina looking for signs of emerging diseases and heavy chemical body burdens that may be making the dolphins sick. Scientists will also test for diseases more common to people, but becoming more prominent in dolphins.
That was the first step. I got the alarm. Then I went out with Dr. Pat Fair [of NOAA], who's been my mentor for four years and who is my friend now. We went out to photograph dolphins," she said.
On a floating "doctor's clinic," Monroe helped while researchers ran a battery of medical tests on dolphins. She learned that dolphins can be identified by the notches and markings on the tips of their dorsal fins.
"This last year, we did the capture, which was an amazing experience and I'll talk about that when I speak to you in Kingsport," she said. "Then, three years ago, I started going to the Dolphin Research Center [in Grassy Key, Fla.]. That was the next step. I wanted to answer the question, 'Should dolphins be in captivity of any kind?'"
The Dolphin Research Center is a 90,000-square-foot series of saltwater lagoons carved out of the shoreline and home to a family of bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. As a volunteer there, Monroe works with dolphin programs designed for special needs children and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Monroe said she wrote the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy based on what she learned from the dolphins.
"Number one, dolphins excel at communication through clicks and whistles and echolocation. Number two, family and community bonds. The sense of community is very strong with dolphins. They have hunting strategies and mating strategies. They have very tight communities. Number three, this is more difficult to describe, but they remind us to laugh. ...
"I created this trilogy of a family ... a family that has very poor communications. They're living separate lives. The grandmother calls the girls home. Each novel focuses on one woman, but all the characters continue through all three novels," she said. "I hope to address the issues of communication, connection and family bonds and finally to remember to laugh in our lives, to have joy every day. I really hope this trilogy is educational about the dolphins, but inspires women in particular to connect with others, to live life fully and to understand that they are worthy at this very moment of love."
Currently, Monroe is finishing up "The Summer's End."
"When I wrote the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy, I designed it to be a trilogy because of the three sisters, but I also knew there was so much I wanted to say about the dolphins," she said.
Each book has a theme — communication in book one, healing in book two, and release in the last installment.
Monroe is also working on "A Lowcountry Christmas," due out Christmas 2016. The story is based on her work with the Wounded Warrior Project and will focus on service dogs.
"It's connected because a character you're going to meet in 'The Summer Wind' and 'The Summer's End' is a wounded warrior. His character was so inspiring to me I'm going to tell his story in 'A Lowcountry Christmas,'" she said.
In addition, Monroe is working on a book to be released in the summer of 2016 — which she declines to name at this point, but says it will either be a Lowcountry book or a Beach House book.
It's been two years since Monroe was last in Kingsport promoting "Beach House Memories," the second book in her Beach House trilogy.
Monroe's appearance in Kingsport, called "Monroe at the Mansion," is a fund-raiser for the Literacy Council of Kingsport, a ProLiteracy Worldwide affiliate and a member agency of the United Way of Greater Kingsport. The fund-raiser, a ladies' literacy coffee, will be held at Allandale Mansion at 9:30 a.m., June 23.
"Monroe at the Mansion" is sponsored by Citizens Bank and Seasons for Women, a member of the Holston Medical Group family. Advanced registration is required and tickets are limited. Tickets, which include a copy of "The Summer Wind," are $45. An event-only ticket is $35. For tickets or more information, call 392-4643. To register online, visit www.literacycouncilofkingsport.org or www.maryalicemonroe.com