New York Times best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe told Brenau University students Monday, Oct. 21, that as writers they may work in solitary, but to be successful they must “open the window and let the story come in.”
Best known for novels and nonfiction works that deal with environmental themes, Monroe wrote The Butterfly’s Daughter, a novel set against the backdrop of the phenomenal annual migration of monarch butterflies over thousands of miles from Canada and the United States into Mexico. The book, which won the International Book Award for Green Fiction in 2011, is the “common reader” required for all first-year students at the Brenau Women’s College.
“You are young caterpillars,” she told the students. “College is a chrysalis. College is not the real world. You are safe here. As freshman, you must shed your skins. No other time in your life can you pursue knowledge because you can. When you graduate, that is your metamorphosis. To fly. Open it up. Let it all happen to you. I challenge you to ask what is it you will leave behind. Will you light the world?”
After meeting with the students, Monroe appeared at an evening reading in Pearce Auditorium that was open to the public. That continued the tradition at Brenau of bringing internationally acclaimed authors to campus for enrichment of both students and the community.
The roster of previous speakers includes Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and other novels set in his native Afghanistan, and Atlanta-based novelist Kathryn Stockett, whose first novel, The Help, set in early 1960s Mississippi, topped The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year before its production into an Oscar-winning motion picture, was chosen as the required “common reader” for all Brenau Women’s College first year students.
Ken Frank, the chair of Brenau Department of Humanities who oversees the common reader program, said that exposing students to such writers provides insight into how they generate extraordinary ideas from sometimes mundane occurrences in their lives as well as the processes and disciplines they use for developing those ideas.
Monroe, he said, works with the hope that “readers come to appreciate the power of transformation that lies within us all.”
The South Carolina-based Monroe told the Brenau students that every time she writes a book, she gets to learn about something new. The inspiration comes from the animal or the environmental issue threatened or in danger.
The author said she did extensive research about the monarch butterflies, the only bug that migrates seasonally for thousands of miles. However, it was not the bright orange and black butterfly that piqued her artistic curiosity but the “brave caterpillar that goes into a dark place to transform.”
“It is utter and complete,” she said. “It is no wonder that religions around the world use the chrysalis and transformation as symbolism.”
Monroe’s most recent novel is The Summer Girls, book one of The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy and will be followed by The Summer Wind set for nationwide release in June 2014. The third and final book is expected in 2015. All told she has written 14 books for adults and children.
Although she said she began The Butterfly’s Daughter with heavy-duty – but relatively tame – academic research, she recounted that part of her preparation for writing the story was an intense horseback trek into the mountains of Mexico. However, the journey along a narrow path with horse and people breathing volcanic dust paid off with a splendid view:
“We get to the misty top,” she recalled, “and as far as you can see are butterflies, shoulder to shoulder, wing to wing for warmth. The sun breaks through a cloud and they just explode. Flying. Dancing. A spiritual moment. Those moments come to me for every book. The whole novel brings you to that moment. That’s the process.”
The novel is about four very different women who embark on a transformational journey that follows the migrating monarchs across the United States to Mexico. It is a story, the author said, that re-enforces a truth that life is more about the journey than the destination.
“Anytime you travel outside your comfort zone,” she said, “you embrace the difference and realize more that you are all alike.”