First Novel from Southern Writer and USCB Professor Ellen Malphrus Makes its Debut in the Fall


November, 2015

Untying the Moon Book Cover ImageBLUFFTON, S.C. – The debut novel from Southern storyteller and University of South Carolina Beaufort Professor Ellen Malphrus has been released by Story River Books, the fiction imprint of the University of South Carolina Press.

Dr. Malphrus, who earned an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from USC, is an Associate Professor of English in the Department of English and Theatre at USCB. She studied under National Book Award winner James Dickey, the American writer best known for his novel Deliverance, which was turned into a major motion picture. Dickey, her mentor and graduate director for her M.F.A. at the University of South Carolina, was US Poet Laureate and is considered to be one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. She earned her Ph.D. in 20th Century American Literature with an emphasis on Southern Literature.

Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications: Southern Literary Journal, Review of Contemporary Fiction, the anthology Essence of Beaufort and the Lowcountry, William & Mary Review, Haight Ashbury Review, Georgia Poetry Review and more. 

Her book, Untying the Moon, has been a long time in the works. “Parts of what became this book, I worked on in grad school as an M.F.A. student years ago,” she says. Over time, she changed the focus from a male to a female protagonist and incorporated some similarities between herself and Bailey Martin, a marine biologist, artist and free-spirited adventurer who keeps moving on a restless quest for self-discovery.  

But it was a transformative experience while camping along a saltwater river that was a catalyst for the book. “Years ago, I was out camping on a barrier island and I woke in the night to this sound—a quiet sound. I had no idea what I was hearing, but I got up and I heard it again. It turned out to be a dolphin floating on the river.”

Dolphins don’t have involuntary breathing, so they don’t sleep as we do. Instead, they take deep naps and sometimes float on the water. “This dolphin was floating on the tide and the sound was the whoosh,” she says. “I looked into the dolphin’s eye and, for me, it was an amazing moment. The feel of that, the peace of that moment, the completeness of that moment, was something that the whole story grew out from.”

That significant moment gave way to a series of questions. “I said, okay, here’s this woman and here’s this dolphin. Who is the woman? How did that scene come to be? What happens to her after that? What happened to her before that? What does she want?”

The book took years to complete; there were fits and starts, due primarily to her own wanderlust and to the demands imposed by teaching creative writing and other courses to four classes of undergraduates at USCB. “It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 when Pat Conroy, who had been gently nudging me to finish the manuscript, finally just started pushing—‘Get the damn thing done, Malphrus!’” And so she did.

She divided her writing time between her home in Bluffton and a cabin in the Madison Mountains of Montana. The cabin, southwest of Bozeman some 70 miles from Yellowstone National Park, has no electricity or running water. When she and her husband, Andy Fishkind, returned from Spain that summer, they flew out to the cabin. He stayed for a week, then returned to the Lowcountry, leaving her to devote all of her time to writing.

“I was able to have those much-needed days of saturation, where I literally lived the thing. I would write for 10, 12, 14 hours a day. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. In the middle of nowhere in Montana, seeing no one, I was able to live with these characters. And that was an amazing period of output.”

The characters came to life first on legal pads filled with longhand, then moved to a word processor powered by a 12-volt battery in the Montana cabin or standard electricity in Bluffton. For inspiration, she drew on the storytelling traditions of Native American writers as well as the Gullah-Geechee folklore of her Lowcountry homeland. The story moves in a circular fashion. “It doesn’t begin at the beginning and then this happens and that happens and this happens…it moves in a more circular way,” she says.

Now that Untying the Moon has been published, Malphrus is at work on her next novel, also set in and around the Jericho River, known to us as the May River, and the town of Kirk’s Bluff, the original name of Bluffton. “I keep getting drawn back to the water,” she says.

Pat Conroy praised the novel in the book’s foreword. “Bailey Martin is a magnificent creation… (Her) story begins and ends on the same river. It forms a perfect coda, a connection of a thousand dots in the circle, and it completes the restless journey of Bailey as though in fulfillment of a great prophesy—thunderstruck and dolphin-haunted and a significant work of art.”

Located in the heart of the Carolina Sea Islands, the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) is a baccalaureate member of the USC system, serving the southeast coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Since 2002, USCB has tripled its academic degree programs, doubled its FTE enrollment, opened its first on-campus housing (now serving more than 750), joined the NAIA Sun Conference, and fielded conference and national award-winning Sand Shark athletes in nine sports. The university’s two campuses serve a diverse student body of 1,980 students. The Hilton Head Gateway campus in Bluffton, SC, offers cutting-edge Computational Science and Nursing laboratories, and a broad range of academic degree programs. It is home to Sand Shark athletics. The Historic Beaufort campus, located on Beaufort’s downtown waterfront, houses an innovative baccalaureate Studio Art program in close proximity to Beaufort’s many art galleries. Students enjoy opportunities on Hilton Head Island, including the USCB Center for Event Management and a Coastal Ecology research partnership with Vagabond Cruise. USCB serves 1,500 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) members, who participate in more than 1 million course hours annually, placing OLLI at USCB in the top 10 in the country. The University of South Carolina Beaufort offers students an exceptional place to learn and live in an environment focused on growth, preservation and opportunity.

For more information on Untying the Moon, visit www.ellenmalphrus.com or contact ellen@ellenmalphrus.com.

For more information on the University of South Carolina Beaufort and its academic programs, contact Lynn McGee, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Advancement and External Affairs, at 843-208-8240 or lmcgee@uscb.edu.

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Sidebar

Writing Advice from a Published Author

If you want to write, says Ellen Malphrus, Ph.D., author of short fiction, poetry, and a recently published first novel, then follow these four simple steps.

First, read. “If you want to be a writer, then read,” she says. “Number two, get out there and experience life. Get out from behind your screen and go explore what life is all about. Then come back and write about it. Now here comes the tricky part. It’s not going to come in a blaze of inspiration. It’s going to come out of diligence and persistence, and most of us who are creative types don’t like discipline. You have to get past that; you have to tell yourself to sit down and write. Preferably every day. And, like everything else, the more you do it, the better you get.”

So, sitting down and writing is step number three. And step number four? Read. “Number one and number four are the same. You want to write? Read. Read now as a writer, not just as a reader. What is Faulkner doing there? Why does that work so well? Why does To Kill a Mockingbird still hold our attention? How has Harper Lee been able to manipulate the reader? What’s happening with sentence structure? What’s happening with character development?”

Dr. Malphrus’s advice follows not so closely on the heels of that offered by Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, poet and essayist. It was Johnson who said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” He was right.

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Sidebar
Pat Conroy at 70
A major event occupying Dr. Ellen Malphrus’s time these days is Pat Conroy at 70, “a three-day literary festival celebrating South Carolina’s Prince of Titles.” It’s scheduled for Oct. 29, 30 and 31 at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts. The series of events will include a screening of The Great Santini, based on Conroy’s book, panel discussions, multiple book signings, lunches with authors, a Conroy family roundtable, a tour of Daufuskie Island, and more.

In addition to serving as co-chair of the celebration, Dr. Malphrus will present a scholarly paper, participate in an author panel and moderate several others. She will introduce a poetry reading and then, as the celebration winds down, she will take part in a Story River Books panel discussion with fellow authors Pam Durban and John Lane.

Dr. Malphrus and Pat Conroy were acquaintances, but they didn’t really become friends until several years ago when they ran into each other in Maine. Her husband was attending a wooden boat school and she had journeyed north to birdwatch.

“I was on my way to Canada to see puffins and I stopped in Blue Hill to get film,” she says. “That’s when I ran into Pat and Cassandra King and found out we were basically neighbors. That summer the four of us spent time together and, when it was time to come home, we loaded up the dory from the wooden boat school class and drove to Carolina with it on the roof.  Pat and Sandra sent us off with a big beautiful picnic and we’ve been buddies ever since.”

For more information on the three-day celebration, go to patconroy@70.com.