The holidays offer ample opportunity to curl up with your Service Dog and catch up on some reading. One of the books on our reading list this year is A Lowcountry Christmas by New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe. This Christmas novel features Service Dogs, a Veteran with PTSD, a family in need of help, and tons of feel-good moments perfect for the season. Learn more about A Lowcountry Christmas during our interview with Mary Alice Monroe.
A Lowcountry Christmas Service Dog Book Overview
From the inside of the book’s cover jacket:
As far as ten-year-old Miller McClellan is concerned, it’s the worst Christmas ever. His father’s shrimp boat is docked, his mother is working two jobs, and with finances strained, Miller is told they can’t afford the dog he desperately wants. “Your brother’s return from war is our family’s gift,” his parents tell him. But when Taylor returns with PTSD, family strains darken the holidays.
Heartbreak and financial stress threaten to destroy the spirit of the season until the miraculous gift of a service dog leads Taylor, his family, and their community on a healing journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas.
Interview With A Lowcountry Christmas Author, Mary Alice Monroe
AP: What inspired you to write a novel centered around Service Dogs?
M: When I was volunteering at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida I worked with Wounded Vets. One of them had a Service Dog. He told me how much the dog meant to him and how it woke him from his nightmares. “I love my wife, but I need my dog.” You can bet that line got into the book! One day his Service Dog, a black Lab, walked up to the edge of the dock while a curious dolphin kept bobbing up to look at him. The dog walked closer and closer and finally, they touched each other! It was a tender moment. As a result of that fond memory, I tried to emphasize the bond between a Service Dog and Veteran.
AP: What has been your experience with Service Dogs? You mentioned Pets for Vets in the book. Is that an organization you have been involved with? What is unique about their approach in terms of partnering veterans with Service Dogs?
M: As I wrote above, I worked with Service Dogs through the Wounded Warrior program. In South Carolina, I researched Service Dog programs in my area and discovered Pets for Vets. I called and was connected to Clarissa Black, the founder of the national program. She was so very helpful and guided me for accuracy as I wrote the novel A Lowcountry Christmas. The reason I chose Pets For Vets is that they select dogs that were rescued from shelters, train them and then home them to the Veteran.
It is a complicated process. First, they interview the Veteran exhaustively. Next, they have to find not just any dog, but the RIGHT dog for that Vet. It’s not easy to find the right dog. Potential candidate dogs are selected from shelters and given rigorous temperament and behavior tests before they qualify for training. After selection, the dog goes through over 100 hours of training. It is a long process.
Once the dog is ready, the trainer will bring the dog to the owner. I love how they present the dog. They blindfold the Vet and allow the dog to approach the person. When the Vet takes off her blindfold she is looking at HER dog. Clarissa tells me the bond is palpable. I think this process of finding shelter dogs and retraining them is a WIN-WIN scenario.
AP: Were the characters in this story inspired by people you know in real life? Was the storyline inspired by something you’ve experienced, seen or heard?
M: For A Lowcountry Christmas, the characters came from my Lowcountry Summer series: The Summer Girls, The Summer Wind, The Summer’s End and A Lowcountry Christmas. The men in the Wounded Warrior project I volunteered for inspired the character of the Veteran, Taylor. My son, Zack, is a Marine, and that added a lot of my personal emotion to the story!
AP: With all the different types of Service Dogs out there, what made you choose to write specifically about a Service Dog for PTSD? Why do you think Service Dogs are so helpful for those with PTSD?
M: While we are still waiting for research to confirm, anecdotal evidence is clear: Service Dogs save lives!
AP: The bond between Miller and Thor is so heartwarming. Do you think that Service Dogs also make a difference for family members as well?
M: What most people do not realize is that when a serviceman returns home with PTSD, the illness doesn’t just happen to the Vet. It happens to the whole family. Beyond that, the stress and strain — especially at Christmas — often breaks families apart. Ask the wife/husband of a Vet, and they will tell you how the Service Dog coming into their lives changed their home for the better. I hope I showed that in the novel.
AP: What do you think is so special about the bond between animal and their companions?
M: All of us who have pets—I have many—feel we share a bond with them. Yet the bond between a Service Dog and his owner goes beyond what we experience. There is a need-based dependency and devotion there, a trust that the other has his back. A Vet takes his/her dog everywhere they go. She needs the dog at her side, or she wouldn’t go out. At least not in the early days of recovering.
AP: Was there a reason you chose to set this book during the Christmas season?
M: Absolutely. Christmas is the time everyone is supposed to be happy. Especially the mother, she feels a sense of responsibility to make her family happy, to decorate the house, bake, cook, etc. So imagine how Jenny felt when her son came home with PTSD. He was NOT happy. He was anything but! His behavior brought a pall all over the house. And Miller was not happy that his brother was his gift! What ten year old would be? Plus, his brother received the dog Miller wanted! Put this all together and you have a pretty miserable household. Cue the rescue dog!
AP: Why do you think writing about issues like PTSD and Service Dogs is so valuable in the fictional form?
M: Writing about any form of mental health issue brings light to the subject and education through awareness. Most importantly, in novel form, the topic presents honestly and without shame.
AP: How did you feel when you found out that you won the Southern Book Prize for this book?
M: I was first stunned, then chest-bursting proud. It is a great honor, but to win it for this Christmas book that I knew in my heart was special, something in my mind clicked that sounded like gratitude. The book came to me quickly like an answer to a prayer.
AP: Do you plan on writing any other books about Service Dogs?
M: I do plan to write more in the Lowcountry Series, so definitely yes. Additionally, I’m also thinking about a children’s book with Service Dogs.
AP: If A Lowcountry Christmas was going to be made into a movie, who would your dream cast be?
M: I already know the answer to one! When I wrote the book I saw Andie MacDowell as Jenny, the mother, and she has agreed to play the part! Channing Tatum would be my first choice for Taylor. For the father? Maybe Will Patton. He lives on Sullivan’s Island and knows shrimpers. Miller would be key, right? I think Jacob Tremblay has the talent to play Miller.
AP: Do you have anything else that you think would be interesting to know? Any other thoughts?
M: There are more wounded Vets that need Service Dogs than there are dogs for them. It takes a long time and thousands of dollars to provide one dog. Please donate to your local service dog group, or Pets for Vets, or Pets4GIs. If you know someone who needs a dog or has received a dog, give the donation in his or her name. Pass it forward! Merry Christmas!
Thank you so much to Mary Alice Monroe for taking the time to speak to us about this truly terrific book. For more information about Mary Alice Monroe and her books please visit her website. Happy reading!