A Conversation with Dorothea Benton Frank

The Queen of Sassy Southern Fiction

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of Debbie Zammit & William Morrow.

My first book, “Sullivans Island” will always be my favorite in some ways because it’s the one that let me know that it was possible to have a writing career and I had so much passion in me to write that story because it’s about my place on the planet.
— Dorothea Benton Frank

Dorothea Benton Frank is a “New York Times” bestselling author, public speaker and a nonprofit fundraiser. Frank and her four siblings were born and raised on Sullivans Island, South Carolina.

Her interest in retail took her to Atlanta, GA where she graduated from The Fashion Institute of America in 1972. She returned to Charleston, SC in 1973. Later she moved to New York City. In 1983 she married Peter Richard Frank and moved to Montclair, NJ. The Franks have two children: Victoria Hanna Frank and William Richard Frank.

Her first novel, “Sullivans Island,” debuted on the “New York Times” list at number nine and went back to press over twenty-five times, has well over one million copies in print and may be found in ten foreign languages. Her subsequent novels “Plantation,” “Isle of Palms,” “Shem Creek,” “Pawleys Island,” “Full of Grace,” “Bulls Island,” “The Christmas Pearl” and “Land of Mango Sunsets”, “Lowcountry Summer,” “Return to Sullivans Island,” “Folly Beach,” “Porch Lights,” and “The Last Original Wife,” were all “New York Times” bestsellers.

Ms. Frank is an avid cook, enjoys fly fishing, reading and travel and is a frequent speaker on the creative process for students of all ages. She divides her time between the Lowcountry of South Carolina and New Jersey.

Several years ago I met Dorothea Benton Frank at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing her shortly after her new book—“All Summer Long”—had been released.

VIP: How important is the title of a book, and how much input do you have in the final choice of the book title? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the book title?
Dorothea Benton Frank:
I usually submit a list of 15-20 titles. Then I get feedback from the Sales Department, the editor and the Publicity Department. It becomes a group decision. They like something very commercial and I like something specific to the story. The title of my new book refers to the fact that the story line of my latest book takes place all summer long. It starts in June and ends after Labor Day.

VIP: Do you have any input on the cover of your book?
I normally hate my covers! It is usually a figurative cover of a woman who does not exist within the context of my story. I think that diminishes the values of the work because they make you think here’s a dumb beach book. And it’s not…. But it’s the nature of the business.

VIP: Of your many books, do you have a favorite? I love them all, especially “Plantation” and I found “The Christmas Pearl” enchanting.
My first book—“Sullivans Island”— will always be my favorite in some ways because it’s the one that let me know that it was possible to have a writing career, and I had so much passion in me to write that story because it’s about my place on the planet. (My daughter, Victoria Frank, is writing her first novel, which will be out in 2-3 years.)

VIP: Do you envision any of your books becoming made-for-TV movies or big screen movies? Has that been discussed?
I’d love it if it happened. “The Christmas Pearl” starring Viola Davis may be optioned. But that’s not a definite. Discussion of that has gone on since last October. The wheels in Hollywood move very slowly.

My first book—“Sullivans Island”— was published in 2000. It you were to produce it today the way I wrote it, it would be something of a period piece. That would be a wonderful movie because it talks about baby boomer women who grew up in a world that was really changing. The air was cleaner and the water was cleaner.”

Today my daughter, who is 30, takes a lot of these things for granted. They have no idea how we fought and persevered for even a reasonable paycheck. “Sullivans Island” would make a very interesting movie.

My new book—“All Summer Long”— is about long term marriage and letting yourself love somebody and letting yourself be loved. “The Last Original Wife” would make a hilarious movie. It is about people who have been married too dad gummed long.

VIP: What is so enchanting about Sullivans Island and the Lowcountry? You were born there and now you divide your time between there and New Jersey, which are two very different locales. Tell me about Sullivans Island and tell me about the must see and do places there.
Sullivans Island (pop: 2000) is historic. One of the most important battles of the American Revolution was fought there on June 21, 1776. It turned the whole tide. Author Edgar Allen Poe lived there. He was a supply officer for Fort Moultrie, which visitors must see as well as the Breach Inlet. Walk the beach and think about the history of the place. Sullivans Island is blood soaked. Our ancestors died there. This island was also one of the main entry points for slaves who came into America. So it is very haunted.

VIP: Is your house haunted?
Oh, yes, My house is very haunted.

VIP: What are some of your favorite restaurants and inns on Sullivans Island?
Dunleavy’s Pub has the best hamburgers. The Obstinate Daughter is an upscale but casual restaurant. (South Carolina was known as The Obstinate Daughter during the American Revolution because they wouldn’t give up the fight.)

There are no inns on Sullivans Island. I would recommend Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms or rent a condo or stay at Charleston Place in Charleston, which is beautiful and has room service. Their restaurant is fantastic. There are little B&Bs everywhere. It’s not hard to find space to stay in Charleston.

VIP: What sets the Lowcountry apart from other regions of our country?
It refers to a specific area from the Ogeechie River in North Florida and travels up to Georgetown, SC. The water is part salt water and part brackish. They used this river to irrigate rice fields 200 years ago. Perhaps that is where the term Geechie comes from.

VIP: Have you spent much time in the area of Gullah traditions?
Oh yes. I was raised by someone who spoke Gullah. They grew cotton and rice all along the Ashley River.

…She has staked out the Lowcountry of South Carolina
as her personal literary property.
— Pat Conroy, author of “South of Broad”

VIP: You and the late Pat Conroy were close friends, weren’t you? What will you miss most about Pat and your friendship?
Yes, we were close friends. The thing about Pat and me is that we saw the world very much the same way on a lot of matters. I loved everything he did.

VIP: Who are some of your favorite writers? Do you favor Southern writers?
I just finished Anne Tyler’s new book “A Spool of Blue Thread,” and I just read Anna Quindlen’s new book called “Miller Valley, “ which I love very much. Anne Padgett is a good writer.

VIP: What Southern writer influenced you the most and why and how?
It wasn’t one (writer). It was probably a combination of Pat Conroy and Josephine Humphreys, who hasn’t published anything in a while. For my money she is the Isabel Allende of the Lowcountry.

VIP: In each of your books there is a message that explores the most deeply felt moments of your life. Yet you write about those moments with wry humor and heart as if you have been there or know someone who has been there.
I read 2-3 novels a year. I read the newspaper and “The New York Times” from cover to cover and “Garden&Gun” magazine.

VIP: Do you have a schedule for writing every day?
After I make breakfast and read “The New York Times” from cover to cover; “The Star Ledger,” our local newspaper; and “The Post and Courier” of Charleston, I go into my home office and write until I figure I’m done, usually 5-6 hours. I review what I’ve written the last few days and then I get my head back and I don’t move from my desk. I do not have music playing and I don’t answer the telephone and I don’t talk to anybody.

VIP: Do you plan to continue writing about Sullivans Island, or do you envision future books being set in other locales?
My new book—“All Summer Long”— begins in New York City and then goes to Southern Spain and it goes to Necker Island in the Caribbean. Then Nantucket, back to New York City and then back to Sullivans Island. I’ve written 17 books. Do people buy my books because of the geography or because of the story? I like to think it’s because of the story.

VIP: What advice do you offer to aspiring writers? Do you prepare outlines before you begin writing?
Absolutely. It’s not rigid. First I write an overview. I want to think about what I want to talk about. What’s the point of this story? What kind of character should tell this story? Where should it take place?

As for the plot, I would advise an aspiring writer to take the novel they love the most and take the thing apart. How many characters a re there? How many chapters? Is it first or third person? How long are the chapters? How long does it take to meet all of the characters? How does the action take place (usually it’s about 70 or 75 percent into the book and then you take the last 75 pages to wind up the book).

You also have to decide if you are being too serious or somber. Don’t be vulgar. It depends upon the audience that you want to reach. That has to be decided on the front end.

Note: On Frank’s website is A Simple Guide for Students and Teachers, which discusses having a theme, tools, time and space, outlines, first drafts, self editing and agents and publishers.

VIP: Who is your audience?
Mostly women—not really a certain age. I have a lot of mother/daughter stuff that goes on so mothers read these with their daughters.

VIP: If you could offer one suggestion to an aspiring writer what would it be?
Write every day.

VIP: Did you take creative writing classes?

VIP: Was it helpful?
Apparently! (She said laughingly.)

VIP: What do you enjoy most about writing? What is your least favorite aspect of writing? Do you enjoy the research?
The most enjoyable aspect of writing is thinking up a book, which is a blast and being finished with a story is a thrill. To see it in print is a thrill. But all that other stuff in between is hard work. It’s very hard work!

VIP: What are your hobbies?
I cook. I cook Lowcountry food, but I also prepare whatever is fresh in the market. Last night I made ratatouille, veal piccata and eggplant.

VIP: What are your favorite travel destinations? Are most in the South?
Charleston always. I’d rather be in Charleston than anywhere else in the world because it’s home. It’s where the world feels good under my feet. I also love Italy, Spain and France.

VIP: Do you have a bucket list?
No, no bucket list. I have no intention of dying.

VIP: What’s next on your drawing board?
I have already started my next book. It’s called “Same Beach Next Year” about two couples and their children and how they interact with each other. It is set on the Isle of Palms. Watch for it around the first Tuesday in June of 2017. That’s my pub date every year.

Dottie Frank’s books have the fizz of a gin and tonic, the hilarity of a night out at comedy club, and the warmth of a South Carolina sun. Dip in, dive in, but no matter how you go, you’ll love her.
— Adriana Trigiani