I have long been a big fan of Mary Alice Monroe. Her novels delight with strong women, unique characters, and so much about nature. We are so lucky to get to know her through this in- depth interview. So, without further ado, here she is.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
“I’d wanted to write a novel set against butterflies for years. Who doesn’t love butterflies? As I began researching butterflies, however, the monarch stood out among all of them. It’s the only butterfly—the only insect—that migrates like a bird or a whale! Every fall this brave, fragile creature travels thousands of miles across the country, joining millions of others, to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico. It is a sacred journey of instinct and courage. Then in the spring, they journey north again. Long live the king! Once I journeyed to the overwintering grounds high in the mountains of Mexico and saw millions of monarchs –the decision was sealed.”
Have you based any of your unique characters on real people?
“I dive into my story world as I do research and meet the people who live in the jobs I describe. So I am often inspired by the people I meet to create characters to help flesh out an authentic character. Billy McCall is inspired by the great Bill Calvert of Monarch Watch and Billy McCord of SC DNR who taught me how to tag migrating monarchs. During one birthday while I was writing the book, my birthday pals and I shared stories of road trips taken. Some were hilarious! Susan told me about a wild and colorful woman she nicknamed “Hollywood” who shouted out , “You might not know where you’re going, but in the end, you get to where you’re supposed to be.” I knew I had to use it! I loved it so much I based my character Stacie on this real woman. Often when writing a novel, the author can’t make up anything as good as the truth.”
Did you spend time in Mexico, researching? If so, could you tell us about it?
“Certainly the most remarkable experience of my research was my journey to the monarch overwintering sanctuaries in Michoacán, Mexico. I traveled with Monarchs Across Georgia, a wonderful group. I learned not only a great deal about monarchs, but about the problems Mexico is having protecting the sanctuaries from illegal logging. Like Luz and Mariposa, we rode skinny horses some 9,000 feet high to reach the butterflies. When the sun broke from a cloud I witnessed millions of monarch butterflies burst into the air like orange confetti. The sky was filled with winged joy. The experience was spiritual and what I imagined heaven must be like. All the ideas I had for the novel came together and I knew I had to bring my readers to that moment.”
You have so nailed the characteristics of the addictive personality with Mariposa, making her character embraceable even with all her flaws. How did you do your research for this part of the story?
“Thank you! Mariposa wasn’t a character when I began writing the book. At some point early in the process I felt something was missing. I talked to butterfly expert, Linda Love, who became a mentor in my journey. She taught me how to raise monarchs, finding the eggs on milkweed plants in the garden, then bringing them into old aquariums outfitted with screen and lots of fresh milkweed. While raising monarchs, watching over and over the trials of transformation, the character Mariposa came alive in mind—I realized she wasn’t dead! It was a complete surprise to me, and very exciting. It gave me a whole new dimension for the novel and spurred me on with new energy. The name Mariposa means butterfly and like one, she was beautiful but flighty. Her driving force was drugs (similar to the caterpillar’s eating) and it led her to ruin. By the time the story takes place, she’s a recovering addict. Her phone call home was the instigating incident that sparked the road trip. Mariposa’s journey to forgiveness involves a transformation that is ongoing at the story’s end. To say she was healed would have been unrealistic for a recovering addict. It is her daily struggle and conviction that is inspiring.”
And the amazing Aztec myths. They are fascinating. You have woven the story with them and it works. How did you do this?
“I interwove Aztec myths in this novel to help create the mystical aura needed for the final scene at the sanctuaries. It is also an important cue to set the tone of the power of storytelling as a means of transferring information from one generation to the other. The grandmother, Abuela, told stories to her daughter, Mariposa, and her granddaughter, Luz, not only to soothe the child, but to teach moral lessons and the Mexican culture. This particular myth was chosen because I wanted to ask the story question, “Will you bring light to the world?” This lies deep in the heart of Luz’s journey as she brings light and change to so many people. Her name, Luz, was chosen because it means light.”
Lastly, I’d love to know how you became a writer.
“I can’t recall a time I didn’t write or tell stories. As a child I believed in elves and fairies and my sisters and I were always making up stories based on the hulled out bases of trees, fairy rings, and more we discovered. What imaginations we had! As I grew older I made up stories to tell my 9 younger siblings at bedtime, we wrote musicals and plays. By the time I was ready for college I focused on a career in journalism. It wasn’t as satisfying and I detoured to study Japanese culture and language. Many years later I was put to bed with a pregnancy for months. I was feeling quite sorry for myself. My mother in law came to help me with my two little children. It was a time I had to relinquish control of my home, my job, everything. Then, as the saying goes, God opened a window. I began writing the novel I had in my mind. I wrote and wrote. I like to say I gave birth to a baby and a book. That novel was later published and that baby is now 24 years old!
My inspiration for novels comes from nature. I find I can add authenticity and depth to my characters, plots, themes and dialogue through this method as well as bring my readers an awareness of some threatened species. For example, for The Butterfly’s Daughter I mirrored the awe inspiring migration of monarchs by creating a road trip that followed the journey across the USA to Mexico. I used the theme of metamorphosis for Luz, Mariposa, and all the women on the journey. The Aztec myths coincide beautifully with the culture of Day of the Dead, Abuela’s passing, the myths that surround monarchs, and the religious holiday of All Souls Day. It all dovetails! As a writer, I find this exciting and challenging. This niche I’ve created for my work feels right and gives my voice wings.”
Thanks so much for sharing! I can’t wait to see your lovely novel,”The Butterfly’s Daughter” on my tables May 3.
My review will appear in print and online in the Community section of The Naples Daily News soon.