The Island Setting and the Spell of the Low Country
The natural world of the marsh, tidal creeks, egrets and ocean play a central role in The Mermaid Chair. For one thing, the island setting suggests the importance of Jessies self-containment. At the end of the novel, she says that the mermaids brought her home to the island submerged so long in herself.
I also wanted the setting to celebrate the sensuality and aliveness of the earth. At a certain point in the novel, Jessie engages in what she refers to as a kind of affair with myself and with the island. She begins daily, private visitations to a tiny marsh island where she dances till she is breathless, lies among the grasses drinking in the sights and smells, and swims nude in the creek. She pats marsh mud onto her body, clothing herself in a new identity- the sensual, instinctive side of herself. It seems to me that communion with the natural world and discovering a certain holiness and aliveness in it, is often part of womens homecomings to themselves.
Living on a salt marsh in South Carolina, I was able to look up from my computer and see the tides moving in and out and the egrets and herons lighting in the grasses. I typically started my writing day by walking out on our dock with my black lab, Lily, trying to take in not just the sights, but the smells and the sounds. One late fall morning in a thick fog, I heard a dolphin passing, that distinct spewing of air they create and on another unforgettable morning, I peered over the side to find myself staring at an eight foot alligator, a sight that knocked my dulled awareness wide open and more or less shocked me back into what it means to be awake in an astonishing and mysterious world. Of course, I had to rush back inside and write something about alligators into the novel.
Much of my inspiration for Egret Island (a fictional place) came from a visit I made to Bull Island, a pristine South Carolina barrier island. Because Bull Island is uninhabited, it became something of a blank slate on which I could create. Riding over on the pontoon ferry, I snapped photographs of a rare flock of white pelican, the trees along the marsh creeks filled with roosting egrets, as well as large alligator drags that crisscrossed the walking trails. All of these things turned up in the novel. I tried to capture the place in my journal, even sketching the contorted driftwood sculptures on the beach. As I walked one end of the island to the other, I tried to imagine it with the little village of shops, the houses perched on pilings, the monastery, the rookery, the slave cemetery. I drew a map of the island so I would know where everything was– how far Kats house was from Nelles, the location of the Star of the Sea Chapel, all the buildings on the abbey grounds. It all became quite real to me.
Its clear, I suppose, that my own sense of place in the South deeply influences my writing. In some ways it is my best muse, evoking a constant stream of stories and weaving a spell over me I never seem able to recover from.