Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Q&A with Mary Kathleen Mehuron




Mary Kathleen Mehuron is the author of the new novel The Belonger. Her other books include the novel The Opposite of Never. An educator and newspaper columnist, she lives on Grand Turk Island and in Vermont.


Q: What inspired you to write The Belonger, and how did you create your character Holly?


A: Envisioning The Belonger was a multistep process that took eight years. The first moment of inspiration came as I was stepping off a tiny puddle jumper plane onto Grand Turk Island. My sons and I were immediately entranced. We came back to the island repeatedly and fell more and more in love with the culture and people.


Then I met a dashing man, somewhere between Ernest Hemingway and a musician from the old band The Beach Boys, who made a glib comment, “You must forgive me, my only defense is that I’m descended from pirates.” A bell went off in my brain with a ding sound. I thought, “What a good character that would make.”


My protagonist, Holly Walker, came from meeting many formidable women on Grand Turk. You can’t throw a rock there without hitting a gorgeous woman who is also intelligent and strong. I’m not sure how the island draws them, but it does.


And then came Hurricane Irma, which was an extremely powerful Atlantic storm that caused major destruction in September of 2017. Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the Northeastern Caribbean Islands. The eye went right over our little family home down there.


I wanted to deal with the insurance company and told my family that I was going to Grand Turk. Nothing could stop me. But since there was no communication at all with the outside world, my sons wouldn’t allow it.


Such a strange thing. For the first time in their lives they were telling me what to do instead of the other way around. My eldest, Bruce, and youngest, Thomas, took charge and gathered survival equipment up and went into that state of emergency.


Little did they know that once they made it in, they would be stuck because another hurricane was on the way. Hurricane Maria was also a Category 5 hurricane that destroyed anything that Irma had not. For days I didn’t know whether my sons and friends were alive. It’s this experience and the stories told afterwards that set this novel in motion.

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: When we first went to Grand Turk there was a line at Customs just for locals. It had a sign that said, “Belongers.” Belonger status is a legal classification which I have discovered is associated with British Overseas Territories. It refers to people who have close ties to a specific territory, normally by birth or ancestry. Collins dictionary defines the word, “In general, to be born with Belonger status a person must be born in a territory to a parent who holds Belonger status.”


But I found myself often reflecting on the term, wondering what it meant to belong. To where? To whom? I’ve been blown like the wind in my life, this place and that, and think often about the places I now belong to. Vermont, Grand Turk Island, and Savannah. I thought about what it takes to grow those roots.


Q: As you’ve noted, the novel is set on a Caribbean island--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Very important. My settings are their own characters because I am in tune with the multisensory rhythms of nature. Just one example: When the sun rises in summer and starts to warm plant life, a scent spreads through the air. In Vermont it’s floral and pine. On Grand Turk desert plant life mixed with salt from the crashing ocean waves.


And Savannah? Well, that depends on how high the waters of the coastal rivers are and the humidity level that day. Whenever we are there flowers are blooming. Camellia trees, Dogwoods, Magnolias, Azaleas. So it’s an herbal scent mixed with the flowers.


Many variables are present in any real setting. But you have to pay attention. I’m always thinking about that as I write about them.  


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew that my character, Holly Walker, would give up her life in Vermont to come to Grand Turk Island to be near her only son, Byron. Because his father is a Belonger, Byron is as well. She hopes against hope that the islanders will come to accept her too. But when a monster hurricane hits Cockburn Town, she becomes a reluctant hero, and many come to admire her. It is the first time in her life that she feels fully accepted. This I knew from the beginning.


Did I make many changes along the way? Yes. It took years. I had to discover all the twists and turns across time. I do more planning now than when I started writing but I’m still big on inspiration.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: On the same day I am launching The Belonger, I will launch a nonfiction book called Take Me Back: An Anecdotal History of the Mad River Valley. It is part of my Take Me Back project, which began as a few newspaper articles, grew into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and now a book to use for fundraising. One hundred percent of the profits will go to organizations that want to showcase our Valley History. My fourth novel, S.Beach Drag, should be out in August.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I don’t know if  you should know these things but:


I strongly believe that if life is a three-act play I want to work hard to make sure that the third is a grand finale.


And the older I get the less I care about “what people will think.”


Also, it has been pointed out that if I get the chance I will always get up and sing with the band.


Though history was my worst subject in school, local history is my passion now. Between those projects and writing novels, my days are pretty full.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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