For the past four years, Mary Alice Monroe has lived her life alongside the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. The best-selling author volunteered at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Charleston. She helped researchers identify dolphins and facilitate a program that allowed children with special needs to interact with the animals. She saw their intelligence, their family bonds -- but she also saw how they're hurting.
Her latest novel, "The Summer Girls," reflects her recent time with dolphins. The story is about three sisters reunited by their grandmother. But an undercurrent runs through the novel about the plight of the dolphin.
"The goal is to celebrate our relationship with the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin but to also help readers understand some of the issues facing the dolphin," she said.
The author will speak a book launch event at noon June 25 at the Moss Creek Clubhouse.
Like many of her novels, "Summer Girls" takes place in the Lowcountry, focusing on strong yet complex female characters. Themes of an environmental awareness also exist in much of her pervious work. The sea turtle had a role in "The Beach House" and "Swimming Lessons," for example.
Her experiences with dolphins not only inspired her to write "Summer Girls" but a whole trilogy. The sister characters, who have become estranged, are brought back together by their "Mamaw" in a last ditch effort to revive family bonds. Each novel with focus on a different sister.
"My books are set against a type of species, and I use that as inspiration," she said. "It enriches the story. But the characters are the heart of the book."
Inspiration came when she watched dolphins interact. During her time volunteering, she saw their strong family bonds, the ways they communicate. From there, she built a story using the parallels between dolphin and human.
A major point she makes in the novel is about the feeding of dolphins. Many people, when first encountering a dolphin, give it people food. But nibble after nibble of the wrong kind of food ultimately harms the dolphin.
"It's a serious problem that the public largely doesn't understand," she said. "Our instinct is to have that up-close-and-personal connection with the animal. But (feeding) is the wrong way to do it."
Bringing these issues to light is a challenge in itself. It requires a balance when writing, so the story doesn't get heavy handed. What kept her grounded was a focus on the characters.
"I don't want to preach," she said. "I'm a storyteller."