Jun 20 2012

A southern sit-down with Dorothea Benton Frank

By Lori McGee

Dorothea Benton Frank

I had the pleasure of chatting with Dorothea Benton Frank at her home on Sullivan’s Island to talk about her life, the Lowcountry, her crazy sense of humor, and what inspires her. Dorothea just released her thirteenth bestseller, Porch Lights, which hit stores on June 12. Dorothea is a brilliant writer who is surprisingly humble about her work and success. She loves her fans and that is what keeps her inspired and happy everyday of her hectic life.

LM: Your stories make me want to lean more about history in the Lowcountry. Is that something you intend to do when you sit down to write?

DBF: We take everything for granted. It wasn’t necessary for us to know and learn growing up. I love the concept of being a life long learner. That is what I am doing with my writing from here on in; I want to give my readers more than just a story. Like the history of Edgar Alan Poe, who is weaved throughout Porch Lights. Nobody cared about him when he was alive, but now 150 years after his death everyone wants to claim him. His story is fascinating.

LM: You were born and raised on Sullivan’s Island. What has changed the most since your childhood?

DBF: There are too many laws and rules, but there are a lot more people here now so maybe they need the additional laws. It’s a less forgiving town government than it used to be.

LM: What’s your favorite thing to do when you are here?

DBF: Walk on the beach, of course.

LM: You live here and also in New York. Your tour schedule brings you to Charleston several times and all over the country through the summer. What do you do to unwind; find your “peace” and “calmness”?

DBF: I come here to Sullivan’s Island. I live here four months out of the year and the remaining eight months I live in New Jersey. My husband’s business is based there. I just come here, that’s all I need. I don’t need some big old fancy home in the south of France. I just like to “be.” When I’m here you will find me sitting on my porch. I love to sit on my porch at night by myself. Be quiet. I am not a party animal; I don’t like talking on the phone. I like to dine around the island. I had a piece of salmon the other night at Atlanticville that was as good as I have had anywhere in the world. I had some sushi at Station 22 that was fabulous. They have these Japanese guys bring all their equipment and prepares the fish right there. It was amazing. I love High Thyme, and Kenny the owner is a hoot and a half. He is awfully nice to me. Café Medley is a favorite of mine and the owner Michelle is adorable.

LM: When I arrived here at your home and walked up the steps, I really felt I was coming home to see my long-lost best friend. So many of your readers feel that way about you. You make us laugh and forget about our everyday troubles.

DBF: That’s the only way to be. If you don’t have a sense of humor you will die. You will just cry yourself through every day of the rest of your life.

LM: What is your process for writing one of your amazing southern tales?

DBF: I do research for about three months and I have about six months to write it, then it goes to my editor. Then the book goes to the copy editor, or as we call them, the “punctuation police.” For instance, if there is a character that says “holy moley,” you can’t have another character say holy moley. If you have Uncle John with a flu in chapter two, you need to ask him how he’s feeling in chapter three. Mainly they focus on punctuation and grammar. From there it goes into production so if I turn it in on April 4 it will be in production by April 20.

There are so many books I would have liked to been able to add more to. In Porch Lights, I would have written a scene where the daughter weeps with her mother. The daughter Jackie never wants her mother, Annie, to see her sweat. I would have liked to just slap the daughter and tell her to take a deep breath. And tell her mother Annie to quit worrying so much, but that’s how Annie loves. Like in the book Five Languages of Love, Annie loves by cleaning your house, fussing around, buying you treats, and pampering you, and it drives her daughter insane. That’s the whole thing with Annie. Jackie doesn’t like her mother any more. She’s too much, she can’t take it here. Then she sees her mother is lonely and that kills her. She never thought of her mother as a loving human being that might be lonely.

There is another aspect in the book about Annie and her best friend Deb that applies to people in the lowcountry and it’s about “knowing.” When you are here you know in your gut when something is happening. I think it’s that your mind relaxes enough so that you become a little more intuitive, you become sympathetic with your fellow man, and you feel more for other people.

LM: What inspires you to be so funny?

DBF: I’m the youngest of five children. If you want to get heard, you better be clever.

LM: What is on your bedside table?

DBF: The Possibility of You by Pam Redmond, and I’m reading Adriana Trigiani’s book The Shoemaker’s Wife, and Meg Wolitzer’s book The Ten Year Nap.

LM: So have you started on your next book and will it be a lowcountry tale?

DBF: Yes, and of course! It’s about a woman from Atlanta. I’m not sure what made me think of this but one day I stood up and said why in the world would a woman with a brain in her head have a full time career, give birth to children, take care of the children, run the house, and do everything? Why do it? When the husband comes in from work and asks what’s for dinner and says, “I’m so tired, don’t torture me, blah blah blah,” and your kids are asking for $20 and for your to drive them to the mall…who in their right mind really wants this job? So that is what my new book is about. It’s contrasting the life of this woman from Atlanta who ends up living in Josephine Pinckney’s house in downtown Charleston as Josephine Pinckney, who by the way never married. So maybe she knows something we don’t. Although she did die alone and she died lonely. So who has it better? Where is the balance? What have we done to ourselves with this women’s lib? It’s too much. So this next book is about is it worth it.

LM: When can we expect your new book?

DBF: By the second week in next June. They just keep cranking them out of me.

When I started reading Porch Lights I had difficulty putting it down. It’s set right here on Sullivan’s Island, and contains all the magic and beauty that goes along with that. It’s a tale of a southern family spanning three generations that will make you laugh, cry, and leave you wanting more…and we always do! To learn more about Dorothea Benton Frank, her tour schedule, and her books, visit www.dotfrank.com.  

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