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Talking Location with Heather Frese – The Outer Banks, NORTH CAROLINA

3rd April 2024

Heather FreseTalkingLocationWith … Heather Frese, author of The Saddest Girl on the Beach – The Outer Banks of North Carolina

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are practically a case study in the complexity a location can provide as a fictional setting. This golden strand of barrier islands stretches from the base of southern Virginia for more than 200 miles out into North Carolina’s Atlantic Ocean, arched and elegant, both fragile and resilient, steeped in story, and existing in a constant state of ecological change.

Barrier islands are continuously in motion. Inlets open and close, shoals drift, and houses that were built a half-mile from the ocean are now falling into the sea. When I decided to set my novel, The Saddest Girl on the Beach, on Hatteras Island, I knew that my characters would be navigating their grief and fears, their loves and losses, on quite literal shifting sands.

The Saddest Girl on the Beach is a coming-of-age story whose narrator, Charlotte, leaves her Midwestern hometown to grieve her father’s death at an inn on the Outer Banks owned by her best friend’s parents. I chose the setting for many reasons – the natural beauty, the isolation, the historical drama, the complex relationship between tourist and local, but mostly for the sense that the visible changeability of the island reflected my narrator’s unsettled mindset.

Like Charlotte, I grew up in a Rockwell-esque small town in Ohio, my childhood nestled in the stability of gently rolling green hills. Every July, my parents would crank up our pop-up tent camper and we’d pack for our trip to the beach. We filled the bench-seats with books; my memories of Hatteras are intertwined with reading and stories.

Heather Frese

The drive took about fourteen hours, and my dad was a fan of the put the hammer down road trip strategy, so I had a lot of time to daydream, making up stories about living on Hatteras, as the scenery changed from hills to mountains to Piedmont to marsh to, finally, the dunes and ridges and wide-open swaths of diamond-spangled water coursing under the arched bridges of the Outer Banks.

During my two weeks in that pop-up tent camper on Hatteras Island, I inhaled the history and stories of the area. From the Lost Colony to the pirate Blackbeard, to World War II’s Torpedo Junction, daring sea rescues and repeated, massively destructive hurricanes, the Outer Banks are full of drama. At my favorite bookstore, Buxton Village Books, I’d stock up on books about maritime history, lighthouse keeping, sea rescues, and the Elizabethan brogue to take back to Ohio. The rhythms of the area’s stories sunk in deep, and as I started to write seriously, I set my fiction on Hatteras.

As a non-resident but frequent visitor, I was aware of the sometimes-intricate relationship between tourists who wing in for a beach vacation and the families who have called the island home for generations. My narrator’s outsider status, though she feels compellingly tied to the history of the area, becomes a plot point, and plays into Charlotte’s relationship with her best friend, Evie, a Hatteras local.

Heather Frese

Photo: OuterBanks.com

As far as writing descriptions of Hatteras, the stunning physical world of waving sea oats, salty breezes, and crashing waves made it almost too easy; I had to learn to pare back. Yet the more I wrote and revised the setting, the more I realized how rich it was not only in natural beauty but also in metaphor.

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the tallest in America, practically hands us symbolism for protection, safety, and stability. But in 1999, it had to be moved to save it from falling into the encroaching ocean. How can you just move something like that, I wondered and worried.

And then, as I wrote my grieving narrator, this conflated with something similar – how could Charlotte’s dad, her stable, much-loved dad, just not be there anymore? But the lighthouse moved, and Charlotte’s dad died. Her journey through this grief would take place on an island where even the most beloved beacon in the country didn’t stay put.

Cape Hatteras as a fictional setting also makes visible the metaphorical broader griefs of climate change. When you can see the effects of strengthening storms and rising waters on the place you love, the place that will be one of the first to submerge as oceans rise, characters’ griefs can intertwine with the losses we’ll collectively bear as our world changes.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina, with its rich natural beauty, compelling human dynamics, deep history, legends and lore, is an astonishingly ripe location for fiction, one that I’m compelled to continue to explore.

 My books couldn’t be set anywhere else.

Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize, and The Saddest Girl on the Beach. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. A native Ohioan, she currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Connect with Heather via her website heatherfrese.com and Twitter @heatherkfrese 

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