Meet Best-Selling Authors at the Bluffton Book Festival

Our rich, languid mode of life in the Lowcountry has inspired authors for generations.

Rustling breezes, rattling fronds, popping creeks, heavy purple thunderheads lined with gold, the round red sun-ball of a summer morning that bodes a dog-day’s heat—there is much here to nurture the poetic imagination. Pat Conroy is perhaps the most recognizable name, but scores of other writers have put pen to paper in hopes of capturing the delight bordering on intoxication that is felt in the Lowcountry.

This tradition will be celebrated at the 2017 Bluffton Book Festival in Old Town, November 16-18, raising funds and awareness for the Beaufort County Literacy Center. Readers will have the chance to meet local and regional authors such as New York Times best-selling novelists Mary Kay Andrews, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe.

Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews, best known for her popular beach novels, has written “The Beach House Cookbook” as a culinary companion volume.

“This is carefree, barefoot living at its best,” said the Florida native, who now lives in Atlanta but cherishes time spent with her family at their vacation home on Tybee Island, Georgia. “It’s about being outdoors with family and friends, and taking a much slower pace. In Atlanta, we go 90 mph in a 70 mph zone. But when I come to the coast, we take time to smell the sea breeze. It puts you back in touch with the rhythms of nature.”

“The Beach House Cookbook” reflects those tastes with simple, easy-to-prepare dishes that showcase the freshness of coastal bounties. The idea is that you don’t have to have a beach house to eat like you do. There are old family recipes, such as her grandmother’s deviled eggs and her mother’s carrot cake; fish tacos and shrimp ‘n’ grits that improve on the efforts of her husband and son, both of whom are fishermen; and recipes inspired by her travels, such as frozen key lime pops and Hawaiian ceviche. Mary Kay’s casual, local dining approach with a Southern twist will be much appreciated in Bluffton, a town she loves for its quaintness and its farmers market.

Patti Callahan Henry, author of 12 novels including “Between the Tides” and “Driftwood Summer,” divides her time between Birmingham and Palmetto Bluff.

“We have been coming to Bluffton for 30 years,” she says, “so I have watched the town grow up right alongside my children. My boys know the waterways better than they know the roads. They are Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer out here. It’s just a beautiful, natural lifestyle.”

In Patti’s latest release, “The Bookshop at Water’s End,” two struggling women return to the tidal river home where they spent summers together in their youth. Now with children of their own, they are drawn into the tangled web of the past, abetted by a local bookshop owner who remembers them as children and may hold secrets that have haunted them since. The idea of revisiting history by returning to its physical location is, according to Patti, an “emotional truth” inspired by a recent visit to her family’s vacation home on Cape Cod that unlocked a flood of memories. But ultimately, Patti says, “This book is about finding your way as a woman—outside expectations, the past and what others want you to be.”

Mary Alice Monroe

As a keynote speaker at this year’s Bluffton Book Festival, Patti will be joined by her close friend and colleague Mary Alice Monroe. A New York Times best-selling novelist, Mary Alice has just released “Beach House for Rent,” culminating the popular Beach House series that has allowed readers to follow the lives of her characters for a decade.

Mary Alice is known for educating and inspiring readers to protect species such as sea turtles and monarch butterflies, and her latest effort takes up the cause of migrating shorebirds. This is particularly relevant here in Bluffton, as our estuaries provide habitat for resident populations, as well as feeding grounds and way stations for migrant birds journeying from as far away as the Arctic. According to Mary Alice, a 70 percent drop in shorebird populations since the 1970s—due to factors like climate change and habitat loss—is a serious concern.

“I think you have a lot to protect here in Bluffton,” she said, emphasizing the need for smart growth, habitat conservation and keeping plastics, such as fishing line and grocery sacks, out of the water. But perhaps the most important message conveyed in her new book is the most basic: don’t let dogs chase shorebirds or run through the dunes, as this wastes migrating birds’ energy and scares resident birds off hidden nests, leaving the eggs dangerously exposed. Empowering readers to make such simple changes, which nevertheless have far-reaching impact, is the mission Mary Alice undertakes with each new novel.

“My books are calls-to-action,” she explains. “I have complete faith that when readers understand, they care. If I can catch them through the power of story, they will feel the same passion as my characters do; they will want to learn more and make a difference. That’s what I love about my readers!”

Mary Alice has found a niche weaving together the psychological realms of her characters with the plights of threatened species, ultimately reconciling them to portray the healing power of nature in a world where we are increasingly alienated as “shut-ins” by our modern lifestyle. In “Beach House for Rent,” the self-confinement of protagonists suffering from anxiety and grief is juxtaposed with the powerful metaphor for freedom expressed by the shorebirds.

Underlying the plot, however, is the strength of Mary Alice’s own true knowledge and experience. Once she has the concept for a new book, she does thorough academic research and hands-on volunteer work, most recently with the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, South Carolina. “When I write about a character rescuing a pelican on the beach, and how she feels, I’ve done it!” said Mary Alice. “I’ve lived what my characters live.”

This highly successful and passionate author looks forward to returning to Bluffton for the 2017 Bluffton Book Festival. She will speak about her work, as well as the particular environmental issues facing Bluffton and what we can all do to help.

“My mission is to get people excited about making a difference, even in their own backyards,” she explained. “Pick one thing, and do what you can for it, just by taking care of your own personal choices. If I can encourage readers to do just that much, that is enough.”

To learn more about the 2017 Bluffton Book Festival schedule, please visit blufftonbookfestival.com.

By Michele Roldán-Shaw