Bluffton author's connection to May River reflected in debut novel

Ellen Malphrus
Ellen Malphrus

Ellen Malphrus stands at the end of a dock overlooking the May River in Bluffton.

"If the weather is right, I work on the deck mostly," says the 56-year-old writer and University of South Carolina associate professor. "I prefer to be outside all the time if I can."

Talk turns to the recent deluge and how it's affected the tides around Heyward Cove, the place Malphrus calls home.

"... We've had really, really high waters and not just the tides," she says looking upriver toward the Oyster Factory. 

For Malphrus -- a writer of fiction, essays and poetry -- it's this connection to the land, and to rivers in particular, that runs like a strong current through her own life as well as her debut novel "Untying the Moon" due out this month.

"It affects everything in my life," she says. "And most definitely my writing life."

Like the novel's protagonist -- Bailey Martin, a free-spirited adventurer -- Malphrus has also traveled extensively. And, like Martin, she's a child of the Lowcountry and has a thing for Buick Skylarks and the natural world. 

But that's where the similarities end. Malphrus will tell you that herself.

"The particulars of her life aren't the particulars of mine," she says.

Born and raised in Ridgeland near the Okatee River, Malphrus moved to Bluffton in 1988 and soon fell in love with the May River and a small, two-bedroom "river shack," as she calls it, perched atop the bluff.

That move, she says, set her on a course for getting her Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of South Carolina under the tutelage of poet and novelist James Dickey, who would become her mentor and thesis director.

She went on to receive her Ph.D. in English, began teaching literature at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, and eventually began writing "Untying the Moon" -- the idea for which came after a camping trip on a nearby island.

It was on that trip, Malphrus says, that she spotted, deep in the night, a dolphin half submerged and gently expelling air as it floated in the water in a trance-like sleep. It was a transformative moment, she says, not just for her career but for her life as well.

"For me I felt something more than just seeing it," she says. "I felt like I was being called to something."

But how to use the strange scene was the question, she says.

That moment would later become the pivotal scene in "Untying the Moon" which takes readers from Manhattan down the Eastern Seaboard to the Carolina coast, on to the Alaskan wilderness and back again. 

At the center of the book is a woman who is restless and uncomfortable in her own skin, drawn to "dangerous people and dangerous places," Malphrus says.

"She has a knack for attracting trouble," she says.

But without the "gentle nudging" of longtime friend, Pat Conroy, Malphrus may not have ever finished the book which she wrote in "fits and starts" over a period of about five years, she says.

Conroy had stayed in touch and showed interest in Malphrus' writing over the years. After launching his own imprint, Story River Books in 2013, Conroy's "gentle nudging" turned to "nagging" Malphrus says with a laugh.

"He would call me at home and say, 'Malphrus, when are you going to finish that manuscript.'"

And after a long summer spent holing up in a one-room cabin in Montana, Malphrus finally did finish the book, working in the "sleeping" dolphin that had first called to her all those years ago.

Today, Malphrus says, she is excited about the book's publication and its forthcoming launch at the Heyward House. But, like the wandering Martin, Malphrus isn't one to sit still for long.

In fact, she's already started a new novel with "new people" set in and around the fictional Jericho River she introduced in "Untying the Moon."

"I don't know where else that book will go," she says looking out over Heyward Cove. "But yeah, they're back there, in the back of my mind, even when I'm busy with everything else. They're back there."

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