Fun fact: Dorothea Benton Frank does not have a Southern accent. When we spoke with the queen of Southern chick lit, she was having lunch at Boulevard Diner, and we expected a drawl as sweet as jasmine, as she might put it. But alas, her tone is more New Jersey, where she lives eight months out of the year, than her native Lowcountry.
But regardless of her accent, it's clear that her heart is in the Lowcountry. She lives on Sullivan's Island four months out of the year and plans to move there full-time once her husband retires. Besides that, she's built an empire on novels based in the area — from Isle of Palms to Sullivan's Island to Shem Creek. Local fans enjoy the references to familiar places, while those from off appreciate the insider view into this enviable area.
"I have this theory that I think everybody secretly wants to be Southern, because being Southern is authentic," Frank says.
Frank's newest book Lowcountry Summer hit stores June 15. It's a sequel to her second novel Plantation, which followed Caroline Wimbley Levine, who returns to the Lowcountry from Manhattan to check on her eccentric mother, Miss Lavinia. Once there, she's forced to come to terms with her family's history and her failing marriage.
"[Plantation] was sort of the universal favorite out of all of my books," Frank explains. "I like the characters in this story, and I wanted to see what they were doing, and to do that you have to go in there and write about them, dig it up. I reread Plantation, and thought, yeah, there's still a story there.
"It's a story about people who have money and people who don't, so there's a big class struggle," she continues. "The truth of that story is that you can be a redneck from the wrong side of the tracks and still be a person of substance who deserves a hell of a lot of respect. You can also have an awful lot of money and a lot of social position and class or polish or whatever you want to call it, but that doesn't necessarily make you a nice person. It's that interesting push-pull. And it's about jealousy and weakness and Gullah magic. It's about the Lowcountry."
Lowcountry Summer returns to Tall Pines Plantation with Caroline, who takes over the family home now that her mother is gone. Old pains and scandals rear their heads, and a new generation surfaces. Frank already has tentative plans to write a third book about the characters in the future.
As to why she continues to revisit the Lowcountry in her novels, her reasons are simple: "I'm from here. My family has been in Charleston for over 300 years. I have a lot of family here. You know, if I write about Charleston, I come here to do book signings and so forth. If I write about Montana, I have to go to Montana ... and I'd rather come here."
When asked to choose her favorite book, she hesitates.
"Probably Sullivan's Island, because it was my first book," she says. "It's like your oldest child, that experience of having a baby for the first time. But I always love the one I'm working on at the moment. You really have to get your heart started for the story, or you can't produce anything worth reading."
Although we like to imagine her typing away in a beach house overlooking the sea, life as a bestselling author is hard work.
"I have a year. That's all my publisher gives me," Frank says. "Basically write a book, go on the road, sell the book, and get home and write another book. That's basically my life."
Her next book is based on Folly Beach. "I've been working on it for about three years," she says. "It has a lot to do with Dorothy and DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin. They're in their house that the Heywards lived in on Folly, and Dorothy is convinced that the house is haunted, but what she doesn't realize is that it's haunted by a woman from this day and time. We'll see how it all plays out. I'm just in the beginning stages of it."
But as hectic as her life is, she has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"I like what I do," she says. "I like to tell stories. I like to entertain people — it's an important part of our society. People find themselves in stories; they discover common ground with other people who like the same story. I think that stories are very important. It's not an easy experience, but at the end it's very satisfying for me."