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Interview: May 21, 2015

It wouldn’t be summer without an exciting new book from the “Queen of the Summer Beach Read” herself, Mary Kay Andrews. Her latest, aptly titled BEACH TOWN, does not disappoint. When movie location scout Greer Hennessy zeroes in on a sleepy Florida panhandle town, its mayor and born-again environmentalist Eben Thibadeaux will do whatever he can to protect it --- if he can resist his growing attraction to Greer. In this interview, Mary Kay talks to The Book Report Network's Amie Taylor about the book, including insights into the setting, the characters and --- her favorite part of all --- her protagonists’ “meet cute.” She also shares what she’s working on next, which readers can expect to see --- you guessed it! --- next summer.

The Book Report Network: BEACH TOWN is set in Cypress Key, which is a fictional Florida town that's down on its luck. Did you model Cypress Key after a real town, or is it a location that sprang solely from your imagination?

Mary Kay Andrews: A little of both. I went searching for a town like the one in my imagination, and the closest thing I found was Cedar Key, Florida, a quiet, charming fishing village on the Florida Gulf Coast. Cypress Key is not precisely Cedar Key --- but it was inspired by the real place.

TBRN: I loved the first encounter Greer Hennessy had with Eben Thibadeaux. Greer comes across as the typical spoiled California girl who is out of her element. What made you decide to show her in this light when she met Eb?

MKA: Greer can definitely be prickly --- and so can Eb. I wanted to show Greer at her cranky worst, and Eb at his passive, “slow” Southern best, to contrast their personalities. My agent calls this the “meet cute,” and it’s one of my favorite things to write in a romantic comedy.

TBRN: In reality, Greer turns out to be a down-to-earth gal who knows how to get her job done no matter what it takes. How did she turn out to be so capable when she has spent her life surrounded by flighty Hollywood types?

MKA: Greer was raised by a couple of strong single women, so she had to figure out early how to get things done. She’s resourceful when she has to be, wily and downright deceptive when the need arises.

TBRN: Eb is a great character who is completely invested in Cypress Key. How did he come to wear so many hats when it came to running the town? Is this something you have seen in small towns?

MKA: In my years as a journalist covering stories all over the South, I saw lots of examples of small town dynamics --- where just a handful of people step up to get the jobs done in their communities. I think that’s the way of the world --- those who can, do.

TBRN: At first glance, it seems that Greer's only concern is finding a location for the filming of the movie Beach Town. In reality, she is dealing with a whole lot more, including the loss of her mother and making a decision as to whether or not to get to know her estranged father. What made you decide to give Greer so many challenges to face?

MKA: Greer needed some kind of catalyst to effect change in her emotional life and rock her out of her comfort zone. To do that, I decided to bring her long-absent father back into the picture.

TBRN: All of the residents of Cypress Key are memorable and lovable. How did you create such an amazing cast of supporting characters to enhance the novel?

MKA: Once I figure out the physical world my lead characters inhabit, it seems as though the supporting crew shows up in my imagination to provide the juice for the story. I knew Eb’s aunt and his niece would be an important part of his ties to the community.

TBRN: You really brought Florida to life for me. I know you are a Florida native. Do you get back there often? And was part of this book written there?

MKA: I grew up on the Gulf Coast, in St. Petersburg, and get back home as often as I can --- especially in the winter, when I long for that Florida sunshine. I spent a couple weeks “embedded” in Cedar Key, first staying in a much smaller version of a motel like The Silver Sands, and then in a tiny rented cottage, writing and soaking up the atmosphere.

TBRN: The Silver Sands Motel brought back my childhood memories of Florida vacations. Did you ever stay in similar accommodations yourself?

MKA: I grew up vacationing in mom-and-pop motels like The Silver Sands --- the ones with tiny pools and saggy mattresses and mismatched furniture. I have a real affection for this “old school” pre-Disney Florida of my youth --- which, amazingly, still exists, if you know where to look.

TBRN: Your novels are frequently set in the South and show a real love for the region and its people. What are some of the things that make the South so special to you?

MKA: Southerners have such a deeply rooted connection to the land and family. I always write about women who are seeking some version of home --- whether that’s a physical place, or just an emotional touchstone. Maybe it has to do with the fact that so many Southerners were dispossessed after the Civil War. Besides, I’ve never lived any place outside the South. It’s what I know.

TBRN: What is your planning and writing process when you begin a new novel?

MKA: I start with a character in conflict --- a woman whose comfortable life has been turned upside down. Then I put her in hot water, to see just what she’s made of. I want a setting that feels real --- a three-dimensional world my readers will move into for the length of the story. And then I start trying to figure out how she can save herself --- and create her own happy ending.

TBRN: Do you ever reward yourself for finishing a book? If so, how?

MKA: I have my little rituals, for sure. I toast myself with my favorite treats --- Wink grapefruit soda, which I can only find in Harris Teeter supermarkets in North Carolina, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

TBRN: Do you find yourself missing your characters once you've completed a book?

MKA: Truthfully? After a year or more of living in the world of my manuscript, I don’t really miss the characters most of the time. I’m on to the next set of characters and the next story.

TBRN: Can you share with us what you have in the works now and when we can look forward to the completed project?

MKA: Next year’s book is set on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. I can’t say much more than that --- but look for it next summer.