Carrying on, and writing young: Montclair’s Dorothea Benton Frank on her new book
Dorothea Benton Frank
Discusses “Same Beach, Next Year,” book tour, life events,
Wednesday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.
54 Fairfield St.
By Gwen Orel
Dorothea Benton Frank, known as Dottie, has a five dollar bill for you.
The best-selling author is not above a little incentive (“bribe” is such an ugly word) to get readers to come to her appearance at Watchung Booksellers next week to talk about her newest novel, “Same Beach, Next Year.”
Offering an incentive is a trick Frank learned when she was teaching CCD (Confraternity of Christine Doctrine) at Immaculate Conception in Montclair, and the children just wouldn’t memorize prayers.
“I tried every way. I tried,” Frank said. Finally she wrote the prayers on the blackboard and told the children she would give $1 for every one they could say correctly.
“Inflation being what it is...” the author said with a laugh.
She spoke from her home in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, where she had gone to check hurricane damage. The property had received 18 inches of water, salt water that would kill the yard, leaving muck and mosquitos, and ruining a fence, but “what are you going to do?” Frank said. The damage is nothing compared to what happened in Florida: “We carry on.”
“We carry on” is a motto for many of the best-selling author’s characters as well.
In “Same Beach, Next Year,” Frank’s 18th novel, published in May, two couples form a friendship, at times uneasy, that spans more than 20 years.
Eliza isn’t thrilled when her husband, Adam, meets up with his high school flame, Eve, at the condo where they are spending summer vacation. But as Adam, Eliza, Eve and her husband, Carl, meet up each year, relationships meander, marriages transform, and friends change into something like family.
As always, the details of Frank’s Lowcountry are summery and seductive: cocktails, swimsuits, fishing, and food (Eliza is a gourmet chef).
SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING OLD
A chunk of the new book takes place in Corfu.
Frank has not been there, though she has been to Greece. “I often write about things I want to learn about,” she said. “I wanted a small beach town. In some ways it’s like Sullivan’s Island. Everybody knows everybody.”
The character Eliza is the child of a Greek immigrant.
In this book, as she has for a while (she thinks 10 years), Frank named characters after real people who’ve donated money to a charity. She once worked as a volunteer fundraiser, and the new book’s characters are named for people who supported Abby’s Friends, a nonprofit that works to end Type 1 diabetes, and Frank’s alma mater, Christ our King-Stella Maris Grammar School.
Most of the time, the named characters are nice, but every now and then she likes to play with opposites: a retired librarian’s name was represented by a young nanny carrying on with the father in a family. “If I make ’em bad, I make ’em really bad,” Frank said.
But while she loves to hear from readers, she doesn’t work in a writer’s group, and won’t show her manuscript even to her editor before it’s done.
“Writers don’t really help one another,” she said, before offering an anecdote suggesting the opposite.
Some years ago, she was having breakfast at Toast with Montclair author Christina Baker Kline. “She asked me the secret of big distribution. It was before ‘Orphan Train’ came out.’
“I said, you’ve got to write a book everybody wants to read. She told me the story of ‘Orphan Train.’ I began laughing. This is going be huge! She was telling a story that had never been told before. It’s what we all should be trying to do. It’s how I find stories too.”
When she describes a new book to an editor and the editor interrupts her with “oh God, I love that,” in the middle of a sentence, Frank knows “That’s where the story should start. That’s what it’s about. When the editor’s eyes light up.”
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING YOUNG
When “Same Beach, Next Year” begins, the main characters are in their 30s. When it ends, they are nearly 60. This is the first book where the narrative covers so much time.
The characters are young at the beginning on purpose, Frank said.
“We never really change. My daughter just had a baby. I’m a grandmother.”And inside, she feels 37. “The worst thing this society does is take everybody over 50 and usher them to the side, especially women,” Frank said.
“I like to write about women who are older and still very viable."
Adam, Eliza, Eve and Carl “still fool with each other and tease each other and carry on like teenagers. It’s kind of wonderful.”
Frank began writing to earn money after her mother’s death.
Writing a book to make money? “I was not even smart enough to know you’re not supposed to do that,” she said with a laugh.
She didn’t grow up in a writing family, but she always knew she could tell stories: “Being an Irish brat from the Island, I was a natural-born liar.” Her first novel was published in the late 1990s.
She likes to write about “the power of place. When you’re from a place where you have time to think you become connected to that place. I’m very connected to the Southeast.”
The night sky there, she said, is unbelievable. There is no ambient light across the water, and “you cannot believe what you see. The whole swirl of the Milky Way.
“When I’m here, I can see myself on the beach, with my cousins, and hear the ocean roaring in my ears.”
Excerpt: ‘Same Beach, Next Year’
by Dorothea Benton Frank
Ted, my father-in-law, whose arms were filled with wrapped presents, was not alone. He was with a woman, a very large woman, who had to be at least ten years older than him if not twenty. She was towering over a grinning Ted, wearing a black mink coat to the ground, high heels that could produce altitude sickness, and enough makeup to scare the hell out of Estée Lauder. Somehow, weirdly, it all worked on her just fine. But the boys had never seen the likes of such a glamazon, so they looked at each other and dropped their jaws dramatically.
“Holy crap!” Max said.
“Double crap!” Luke said.
Adam quickly covered Max’s mouth with his hand while extending his other one to his father to take the packages.
“Dad! Merry Christmas!” Adam said. “Hi!” he said to the aged-out exotic dancer from a gentleman’s club somewhere in the sticks. “I’m Adam.”
“Hey! Merry Christmas, y’all!” she said in a smoky voice that suggested a lifetime of dedication to tobacco products.
I quickly added another setting to the table.
“Are you a movie star?” Luke asked with eyes as large as dinner plates.
“No, darling,” said the guest politely. “But I seem like one, don’t I?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Luke said, completely entranced.
Things were suddenly confusing due to the dizzying effect of the guest’s red dress trimmed in red sequins. Adam, who appeared to be temporarily catatonic, could no doubt see himself reflected in the heavy gloss of her ginormous red lips.
I knew I had to swing into action and transform this very startling moment into just another day at the Stanley house, or else old Hot Lips was going to feel very bad about crashing with Pop. But all I could think, in 100 percent agreement with my boys, was holy whopping shit! For what it was worth, it was obvious to me that Pop was in high spirits and that Pop’s guest had not grown the hair she was wearing.
What the hell, Ted? I thought. What the hell are you up to?
“Y’all? Say hello to Miss Clarabeth!” Ted said, grinning from ear to ear like a schoolboy.
Hellooooo, Miss Clarabeth! Adam and I thought simultaneously, looking at each other, hardly able to maintain a straight face.
“Hello!” I said, adding, “Merry Christmas!”
Clarabeth said, “Thank you! Merry Christmas to y’all too! I love your wreath! It’s fabulous! Gump’s?”
Gump’s? In San Francisco? Was she kidding?