By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Contributing Editor
In anticipation of the release of her 20th novel, Queen Bee, this month, Sullivan’s Islander and New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank invited a hundred or so of her biggest fans to explore her hometown. The influx was part of the Dorothea Benton Frank Fan Fest, an intimate festival for a limited number of fans to get to know their favorite author, her favorite haunts, and the inspirations behind many of her novels.
Events part of the multi-day festival included a cocktail reception with Dottie at The Mills House, a Tommy Dew’s Walking History Tour of Charleston, a Carolina Queen Jazz Cruise, a Savannah Bee Company Honey Tasting & Bee Hive exhibit, and a Sunday morning Bloodies & Biscuits Brunch, hosted by downtown jeweler Croghan’s Jewel Box.
The biggest highlight for attendees however, was the backyard lunch hosted by Dottie in her historic Sullivan’s Island home. The lunch was a true family-affair, catered by her son-in-law, Carmine Paluso, a chef at Wild Olive, and featuring special appearances by her daughter, Victoria, husband, Peter, and baby grandson, Teddy.
The Island Eye News was invited along to this exclusive soiree on a sumptuous Lowcountry Sunday. Guests arriving bedecked in Queen Bee paraphernalia (necklaces, sunglasses, and even one set of bee-themed toenails) were greeted with Queen Bee cocktails, whipped up by the author herself as she welcomed fans into her Sullivan’s Island beach home.
“She just makes us feel like family,” said Fan Fest attendee Deborah Oertell, who had travelled here with her husband and her daughter, Whitney, for their second Dottie Fan Fest. “He was the one who wanted to come back,” Deborah said of her husband’s presence. “He said it was the best thing ever.”
As he approaches, serving us cocktails in his Masters’ golf hat, he stands out as one of maybe four men in the crowd of over 150 women. Women are traditionally Dottie’s audience, and generally those over a certain age. “I just love how she writes older women,” says Diane Ramey, a librarian from Sandwich, MA. “Well I am one!” she says, succinctly explaining Dottie’s appeal to her core group of fans.
Frank’s novels expertly capture the highs and lows, joys and despairs of the lives of regular women. She takes what may seem mundane and everyday and turns it into a bitting, witty take on human nature and the lives we all live. While older women love her novels, they’re not her only demographic – and with Apple Books this week lauding Queen Bee as one of its “Best Books of May” – you’re sure to find many Dottie novels poolside and beachside this summer.
As the guests lined up for lunch, excited to enjoy some of the best chicken salad ever made, Dottie walked around welcoming people and chatting, with her grandson Teddy on her hip. Then someone let slip that Dottie is finally coming home to Sullivan’s Island … for good.
Island Eye News went straight to the source, Dottie’s husband, Peter Frank, for the scoop. He confirmed that yes, they are finally making a permanent move back to South Carolina from New Jersey, something Dottie has been hankering after for many years. One hold-up had been plans for restoring the beach house, which due to its historic nature had been somewhat complicated (“Someone thinks some soldier might have slept here one night in the civil war and now its ‘historic’,” quips Dottie). With approval from Town Council firmly in hand, they will start work in July. “We’re restoring the home, lifting it up, and moving it back [away from an encroaching harbor],” Peter Frank said. “We’re also raising the roof but keeping the main structure intact.”
Just then Dottie’s voice rings out across the ladies who were lunching. “In about 5 minutes we’re going to fire on Fort Sumter!” And true to form, a small cannon was rolled out and shots fired across the harbor.
“We thought you were joking!” said Pat Viser, visiting with her mother Marty, from Charlotte, N.C. “No one would ever think this family was boring,” countered Dottie with a wink.
Kathy Gordon, director of Brand Development at HarperCollins and organizer of both Fan Fests (the first was held in 2014), says that this really is a unique event in the publishing industry.
“It’s so wonderful that the author is willing to do something like this and has the need to be with her fans,” Gordon says. “Dottie likes to connect to her fans, and lay eyes on the people who have been her fans for so long,” she says. “This is a whole other level to a book signing or an author talk. It’s experiential marketing. Giving you something that’s much more valuable to you.”
The first Fan Fest was held five years ago, and this one launched last December with an eye to being a great Christmas present or Mother’s Day gift for a huge Dottie fan. “People want to be together and an event like this is a natural draw,” says Gordon. “The special sauce is it takes the right author and a critical mass of books.”
Fan Fest wrapped up with a visit to Fort Moultrie and a pool party and BBQ at Wild Dunes Resort. The only hint of disappointment from the thrilled fans we met during the event was that they didn’t get to see the new book. Anticipation is high for the launch of Dottie’s 20th novel, Queen Bee, which is set entirely on Sullivan’s Island and publishes May 28.