As a New York Times best-selling author who pounds out novel after novel — and makes it look easy — you'd think it wouldn't take much to give Dorothea Benton Frank inspiration for a new story. It almost seems as though she's one of those anomalies who could merely glance at something for a split second and — bam — an entire novel would pop up in her head, and by year's end we'd all be reading it while relaxing at the beach. But it turns out Frank is a little more like the rest of us than we thought. Rather than R.L. Stine-ing it up, Frank spends months researching her novels before actually writing them. And when it comes to the inspiration behind her new novel Folly Beach, which hits bookstores June 14, Frank says, "It's a little bit of a story."
Frank received a copy of Josephine Pinckney's novel Three O'Clock Dinner as a gift from NPR's Walter Edgar and was impressed by the fact that it sold more than a million copies in the 1950s. "For them to get that many books out the door back then was a lot, especially since it was a regional novel," Frank says. She decided to learn more about Pinckney, discovered that she was friends with DuBose Heyward — who, of course, co-wrote the opera Porgy and Bess — and began researching the two at the South Carolina Historical Society. "Whenever I wasn't on tour, I was at the Historical Society reading," she says.
It was then that Frank was first exposed to the Charleston literary renaissance, which took place between 1921 and 1935. "I missed the whole freaking renaissance!" Frank says. She also discovered that Pinckney and Heyward formed a poetry society during that time and were soon invited to attend the MacDowell Colony — one of the country's oldest artist colonies — in New Hampshire in 1922, where Heyward met his future wife, Dorothy. "This was the greatest love story to ever come out of Charleston, I'm not kidding," she says. And suddenly, after devoting months to researching Pinckney, Frank changed the course of the novel, instead deciding to focus on the life of Dorothy Heyward. Thus, Folly Beach was born.
The novel centers on modern-day protagonist Cate Cooper, who returns to the Lowcountry after the untimely death of her husband. "Cate is someone who wanted a life in the theater, just like Dorothy Heyward," Frank says. Instead, Cate fell in love and gave up her career, also like Heyward did, but unlike Heyward, her husband turned out to be a complete scoundrel who left his family with a mountain of debt. "Suddenly, Cate finds herself completely wiped out — everything right down to the picture frames in her house are repossessed."
And so she heads south, where she moves in with her eccentric elderly aunt Daisy, who manages a number of properties. Eventually, Cate moves to the Porgy House, the residence where Heyward wrote Porgy and Bess, which just so happens to be under Daisy's management. "I wanted this character to have a number of things in common with Dorothy Heyward, so she would go to the historical society and discover things about Dorothy," Frank says. So even though Cate does find love again (and with a nice guy this time), the novel focuses on her discovery of Heyward's life and work, and follows her as she too becomes a playwright. "I think the most important thing is that we get a fresh point of view and opinion on who Dorothy Heyward was," Frank says. "And you'll learn a hell of a lot about the Charleston renaissance, which is really fun to know."