July 1, 2008

Casting for Deeper Meaning

By Craig Wilson

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Mary Alice Monroe is standing thigh-deep in the Dry River, which is anything but.

The previous night's rain has swollen the stream that runs through Riven Rock Park outside of town here. It's not the best conditions for fly-fishing. Her guide has already told her that fishing today is going to be a "real challenge." In fact, Monroe just caught her line in a tree.

"Now I know how Mia felt!" she yells over the roar of the rushing water. "This is more common than you might think."

Mia is the main character in Monroe's new novel, Time Is a River (Pocket Books, $25), the tale of a 38-year-old breast cancer survivor who, after finding her husband in bed with another woman, heads to the mountains of North Carolina to find herself. Little does she know she'll also find herself knee-deep in water, fly-fishing.

"The story is about survival," Monroe says. "She's been betrayed by her husband and her body. She stopped living. The story is about transformation."

The novel is not autobiographical, Monroe says, although she joined a Casting for Recovery group (www.castingforrecovery.org) and went fishing with breast cancer survivors. She calls the outing "amazing."

Did she catch anything then? No, she says, and that isn't the point.

"It's all about paying attention to details. When you pay attention, you're in the moment, and survival is about living in the present."

That's what Monroe is doing today. She lives in South Carolina's Lowcountry, but with her fishing guide, Starr Nolan, she has traveled north to "experience" a new river.

Monroe says she is taken with the spiritual and intellectual aspect of fly-fishing, just as her character Mia is.

"You'll experience it today," Monroe says to a fly-fishing novice. "You'll feel life. You'll study the fish, what they're doing. It's what brings you back every time, trying to figure it all out. It's all about doing the dance with the fish."

Monroe, who has written 10 novels, says she often creates stories with nature as the theme, in hopes her readers will connect emotionally, just as she is connecting with the river this morning. (Her best-selling The Beach House dealt with saving sea turtles.)

River, like Monroe's previous works, is populated with strong women. The late Kate Watkins, for one, whose diary Mia finds. The fictional Kate was an expert fly-fisherwoman and original owner of the mountain cabin where Mia is living.

"Kate's voice just came out of me she was so strong," says Monroe, a fiftysomething mother of three and a first-time grandmother who took up fly-fishing as research for the book.

And if Monroe isn't quite up to Kate Watkins' fly-fishing standards yet -- she never does snag a fish this morning -- she's philosophical.

"It's not about catching a fish," she says. "It's about being out on the river. You don't rush it." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>