Beth Webb Hart deliberately writes her characters into situations that she isn’t sure even she could work her way out of.
Oh, she knows the ending will be happy – that’s the formula her readers depend on in Southern women’s fiction – but it’s the getting there that’s the tough part.
“All of my books are set in the Lowcountry (because) I want a strong sense of place,” says Hart, a Pawleys Island native who lives in Charleston. But the plots of her seven books have varied. In “Moon Over Edisto,” the central theme is forgiveness.
To focus her writing, Hart asked herself two questions before she began:
• “What would be the most difficult thing to forgive someone for?”
• And, “what would forgiveness be like, if you could get to that point?”
Her answer to Question 1: stealing your best friend’s father away from his happy family.
The answer to Question 2 takes 320 pages to reveal.
“We all love the conflicts … those moments when the characters meet head on,” Hart says of novels such as hers. “But it’s just the journey – how they get through it” that’s the real story, the thing that pulls Hart into her own books.
“There’s always that question of, could I do the same?”
She isn’t sure, but she does know that writing is “the one place in my life where I have control – where I can make people do what I want them to do.” She laughs.
In “Moon Over Edisto,” the main character, Julia, has a successful, if not fully satisfying, life in New York after leaving her native Edisto Island. She is in her 30s and has a some-years-older cosmopolitan boyfriend who may or may not be the man she wants to marry.
One day, Julia returns to her Manhattan apartment to find her former best friend, Marney, waiting outside. Marney is the last person Julia wants to see: Her college roommate, Marney took advantage of Julia’s kindness in order to steal away Julia’s father. The two best friends no longer speak.
But Marney needs Julia now. She’s recently widowed and deathly sick, and someone must care for her three children on Edisto Island – Julia’s half-siblings and reminders of the betrayal Marney and Julia’s father shared. The novel asks: Should innocent children be made to pay for the sins of their parents?
Initially, Julia turns Marney away. Of course, readers know she will change her mind – and she does, grudgingly. Will it be as easy to win over Julia’s sister, Meg – now insistently “Margaret” – or even possible to persuade Julia and Margaret’s mother, Mary Ellen, to let rather large bygones be bygones?
And what will Julia discover about herself with the help of the compassionate – and handsome – Jed, a neighbor on Edisto Island?
Hart’s own Christian faith informs the plot, but Hart says she didn’t want to be too heavy handed.
“There are some ‘Christian books’ that hit you over the head with a 2-by-4,” she says, “but that’s not what I want my books to be. I wouldn’t want anyone to turn away from a book because it was (perceived to be) propaganda.”
Hart spent her childhood on Pawleys Island, making up stories to pass the time when playmates were scarce. She gave up storytelling for a time, until a high school teacher encouraged her to write – whereupon she applied for, and was accepted to, a high school for the arts in Greenville.
She attended college in Virginia, lived in New York and married a man who would become a college professor in Charleston. She doesn’t write full time – it doesn’t pay enough of the bills yet – so teaches writing herself.
“I love quirky, strange Southern characters,” she says of her return home and to writing about a place she loves. “The South is … still a rich, interesting place.”