It was a tender moment on book tour when a reader came up and nervously asked if I would sign her old book--a copy of the original THE BEACH HOUSE. Remember the paperback with the team picture on the back? I smiled to see it again. I don’t have a copy! She told me she’d never part with it. That’s high praise from a reader and it gave me pause.
It’s been ten years since THE BEACH HOUSE was released. Ten years! It still staggers me how fast the years have flown by. This book marked a pivotal change not only in the way I research and write novels and in my career, but in my life as well. I didn’t know that my interest in sea turtles would become a life long passion.
I moved full time to the Isle of Palms in 1999 after years of visits. The first thing I did was join the Island Turtle Team because I wanted to write a novel that included turtles. My sister, Marguerite (who I dedicated BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES to) lived in
Florida and told me how a loggerhead had come ashore outside her house to lay her nest. Marguerite is a painter and she described in vivid words how tears flowed down the loggerhead’s face as she laid her eggs. I shivered when I heard this, resonating to the metaphor of one female creature connecting with another during birth. Now I know that the tears are, in fact, a salt water cleansing of the eye. But that’s not the inspiration for a book! I intuitively felt so much more.
This book began a process of novel preparation that I continue to this day. I first do an academic approach, studying and reading and interviewing experts. Next I volunteer. This is critical to the process. Only by rolling up my sleeves do I connect intimately with the story world—the animals, the setting, and the people who inhabit the world. As a licensed “turtle lady” on Isle of Palms, I developed a passion for this ancient mariner and created characters who shared this passion with my readers. Holding my breath, I handed this "book of the heart" in to my publisher.
THE BEACH HOUSE was my first NY Times hit and green-lit my ability to continue writing stories set against an endangered species or landscape issue. It was an important hallmark for me. I wrote books set against birds of prey and sweetgrass, and more. Rolling up my sleeves and doing volunteer work myself provides my inspiration. After five years, I returned to sea turtles when the SC Aquarium began its sea turtle hospital. Exciting! Again I dove in and began rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles under the guidance of director Kelly Thorvalson. This book, SWIMMING LESSONS, was the sequel to THE BEACH HOUSE and continued the stories of Toy Sooner, Cara Rutledge and Brett Beauchamps in a new arena of turtle care.
Fast forward five more years and my daughter read THE BEACH HOUSE and said she didn’t know why the character Lovie didn’t just leave her abusive husband. I stared at her and realized, stunned, that she had no clue how different the lives of women in 1974 were from today. A married woman living south of
Broad Street in in that era could not divorce her husband without a huge scandal that affected not only her, but her children and extended family. She would be ostracized and could possibly lose her children. And where would this abused woman go? There were no shelters. I knew it was time for me to revisit this story and bring to light the issue of spousal abuse—one that continues to be a hot button today and crosses all economic and class lines. And what better way to do so than with the story of one of my most beloved characters, Olivia “Lovie” Rutledge. With her, I could also bring to life the relaxed, quiet life on the island back in the day when the northern tip of the island was still a wild maritime forest, back when the kids were all Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers, back before DNR organized turtle teams. Back when a woman’s path was laid out before her. Charleston, SC
So I wrote the third book in this series. On reflection, I realized that when I wrote THE BEACH HOUSE, I had identified with Cara Rutledge, the daughter returning home after a long absence to reconcile with her mother and to minister to her health. Cara, like me, was learning how to become a “turtle lady.” While writing the sequel SWIMMING LESSONS I identified with Toy Sooner, the young woman who was forging a new life and beginning to rehabilitate sea turtles.
While writing BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES, I identified with Lovie Rutledge, a woman of a certain age looking back on her life. Her children were grown and she could contemplate the decisions she’d made with the equanimity of maturity and the grace of acceptance. I could not have written this book ten years ago. In the thirteen years I’ve been a “turtle lady,” the sea turtles have taught me many lessons, and in this novel I had the opportunity, through Lovie, to share them with my readers. It's a story of a woman's hard won validation and self respect.
While on book tour I was surprised how many fans didn't realize that BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES is the prequel to THE BEACH HOUSE. I’ve been asked many times which book of the trilogy to read first. My answer is that each book stands alone. However, THE BEACH HOUSE and BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES are intimately connected because in the former, Lovie tells Cara briefly of the summer that changed her life. BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES is the story of that fateful summer. So I would recommend that the reader read THE BEACH HOUSE first, followed by BEACH HOUSE MEMORIES, then move to SWIMMING LESSONS. However, if that’s not the way you are reading it, that’s good, too.
Will there be another book in this series? I’m not sure. I am still a "turtle lady." And in SWIMMING LESSONS, the beach house was available for rent. Hmmm…