It’s the season for small-town scandals and big-time secrets in Mary Kay Andrews’ latest beach read.
It wouldn’t be time for summer reading without the latest Mary Kay Andrews beach read. Even though she was stuck in Atlanta during the quarantine waiting for her book release this week, Andrews is ready to hit the beach in Tybee Island, where her beach houses with names from two of her novels are located.
This book is one of the most personal for the Georgia writer and brings her career full circle in a way. Hello, Summer’s main character is journalist Conley Hawkins, who returns home to Florida from her Atlanta Journal-Constitution job to work at her family’s newspaper The Silver Bay Beacon. Andrews went to journalism school at the University of Georgia, and her first job out of college was at the Savannah Morning News.
“I covered a little bit of everything, hospital board meetings, cow milking contests at the county fair and beauty pageants,” she recalls. More than 40 years later, Andrews can still hear the sound of the building rumbling when the presses rolled.
“If you love journalism ,and I still do, I don’t think you ever get over the sensation of making the news, and you can feel it under your feet,” she says. “When a big story broke, bells would ring and somebody would go into the wire room and rip out the copy coming off of the machine.”
Her character Conley loves the thrill of chasing a good story. She’s bored working for her small town paper and editing the local gossip column, “Hello, Summer,” until she stumbles upon a scandal involving the death of a local congressman. She decides to stick around Silver Bay and make some waves digging into the story.
Andrews says she was more of a features writer, stringing for the AJC and New York Times, but always had the urge to cover breaking news. That led to her writing mystery novels in secret while taking care of two young children at home.
“I wrote a mystery set at a fictional newspaper in Savannah,” she says. “It didn’t sell, but I got encouraging rejection letters, so I started writing another novel.” Her big break came when she attended a writers’ workshop at Antioch College in Ohio. Sue Grafton was teaching mystery writing and Andrews paid an extra $50 to get a manuscript conference with her. Grafton gave her some good feedback on her first novel but told her that Every Crooked Nanny, which would become Andrews’ first published novel in 1992, was the book that would sell.
Conley takes her writing just as seriously. She continues to investigate the mysterious death of U.S. Rep. Symmes Robinette despite pushback from his family and law enforcement. She also helps take her family’s newspaper into the digital age and grow subscribers to keep the paper afloat. Her sister, Grayson, isn’t so sure of the changes Conley wants to make, but her grandmother supports her career wholeheartedly.
Andrews says it breaks her heart to see newspapers both big and small struggle to stay in business. She has digital subscriptions to the AJC, NYT, Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times. “I bought a t-shirt online that says, ‘America Needs Journalism,’” she says. “Print journalism was cratering while I was writing it [Hello, Summer], and that was one of the reasons to look at it.”
Conley’s relationship with her grandmother gives this story a softer side, but Lorraine is no old biddy. She continues to keep Conley and her sister in line, while also worrying about their love lives and mixing up her signature cocktail, The Sunsetter (pink grapefruit juice, vodka, club soda and lime), each evening. Andrews says her own feisty grandmother managed a beauty shop in St. Petersburg, Florida, until her late ‘60s. Now, the author is a grandmother herself.
“My grandkids live just around the corner, and they call me ‘Kiki’ and are in and out all day every day,” she says.
Andrews prefers a cold glass Chardonnay or Rose to a cocktail, but says she’s a sunset fanatic, although the sunsets on Tybee aren’t quite as spectacular as those on the Gulf Coast.
She also knows a thing or two about designing beach houses—she has two of them named The Breeze Inn and Ebbtide on Tybee—so it’s no wonder that her descriptions of The Dunes in Hello, Summer depict a “rambling old wood-frame house that had been the family’s summer home for the past sixty years.”
“I like a ramshackle beach house,” she admits. She and her husband restored both of her houses on Tybee, but “we’ve tried real hard to keep an authentic sense of a not fancy beach house,” she says. “Wooden floors, walls, kitchens you can cook in and outdoor spaces. I like the sound of a screen door slamming and the sensation of a ceiling fan blowing a breeze.”
The Dunes has seen better days and needs air conditioning and rewiring, but it’s where Lorraine spends the summers and where Conley comes home to after chasing her story each day. It’s also where she and her childhood friend turned love interest Sean Kelly go for long walks on the beach and enjoy sunset drinks.
Hello, Summer may just be the book we all need right now as plans for summer vacations are in flux. Andrews says her editor requested the title, but the book’s columnist, Rowena Meigs, was inspired by a memorable AJC columnist. Andrews sat beside her when she first joined the features department in 1983. “The paper’s longtime society columnist was at that time in her ‘70s, and she was a Southern lady. She knew everybody in town, and she didn’t always get her facts straight.”
Other characters like the local “man in black” radio deejay were inspired by people she worked with in the past, and the Symmes Robinette plot was based on an obituary she read in her hometown paper.
Fact is always stranger than fiction and, as any good journalist knows, you never know where your next story will come from. Mary Kay Andrews invites readers to pick up a copy of Hello, Summer for a much-needed escape.
In bookstores and online now, Hello, Summer will be one of the featured titles on our Summer Reading List (available before Memorial Day)., along with plenty of other beach reads.