Dawn Major interviews Mary Ellen Thompson

Dawn Major

Introduction: When Associate Editor, Dawn Major, heard that Robert Gwaltney, author of The Cicada Tree, had been selected as the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s writer in residency, she asked him to write about his experience. Gwaltney wrote a sublime piece called “Lick the Sherbet Sky,” where he kept alluding to an individual by the name of Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen with the auburn, who kept reminding Gwaltney to watch the sunset, to absorb the healing powers of the salt marsh. Later, in corresponding with Mary Ellen herself about a possible interview, she mentioned to Major that she was heading out to watch her favorite sport—bull riding. Who is this Mary Ellen character who sounds like a Leonard Cohen song?

Mary Ellen Thompson

Mary Ellen Thompson is a prolific journalist and the former feature writer for Beaufort Lifestyle where she interviewed over one hundred and fifty locals, including the one and only Pat Conroy. That interview was included in A Low Country Heart, Conroy’s book on writing. In 2020 Thompson began offering her guest cottage, MarshSong, as the Pat Conroy’s Literary Center’s writers in residency space. Writers at whatever stage of their career may spend one week doing what they desire more than anything—write. MarshSong, named for the “melody the marsh mud plays at low tide,” seems a magical place, made even more enchanted by the prospect of having a week dedicated, less the everyday intrusions, to focus on your work—all in a setting imbued with natural beauty. Pure divinity.

DM: You’ve been hosting writers at your guest house since 2020. What made you decide to open your cottage up as a writer’s residency?

MET: I loved The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, so when Kim Michelle Richardson came to town, I went to a Pat Conroy Literary Center event where she spoke. She mentioned that she had started Shy Rabbit as a writer’s retreat after the success of her book as a way to pay it forward to other writers. On the spot I thought to myself, I have the perfect place and can do that too! When the event was finished, I hurried over to speak to Kathy Conroy Harvey and told her what I wanted to do and from there, Kathy, Cassandra King Conroy, and Jonathan Haupt helped me make it happen.

DM: Without revealing any names (unless the author is agreeable) or sharing scandalous secrets that may go viral, can you share a humorous story about an author who has stayed at the cottage, or that you have interviewed in the past?

MET: (Ssshh! You know who you are, and I know we pinkie-swore to each other we would never tell! Forgive me.) An author and I were going to a literary event that someone was having in one of the many homes turned into inns, downtown in Beaufort. Somehow, we had the address backwards in our minds and when we thought we had arrived at the house, we walked up the big staircase to the porch and knocked on the storm door. The inside door was wide open. Since there was an historical plaque on the house, a big flag next to the door, and lots of chairs on the porch, it seemed a likely place. We opened the storm door, called out to no response, and decided that the party must be in the formal garden at the back of the house. So, we walked down the hallway, past the living room, past the dining room, into the kitchen where there was absolutely no evidence of entertaining going on. We looked at each other and said “Oops!” So, we skedaddled back down the hallway, out the door, down the steps, and were walking down the sidewalk when the people who lived there were walking across their yard toward the house. When they passed by us, we smiled and kept on going until we practically fell down laughing. We were mortified that we had just completely walked through the first floor of someone’s private home.

From Left to Right: Mike McFee (party host), Kathy Conroy Harvey, Robert Gwaltney, Cassandra King Conroy, and Mary Ellen Thompson

DM: Since I started reviewing books and interviewing the author of that book, I feel like I gain as much as I give. What have you learned by interviewing authors and/or from inviting authors to stay at MarshSong to write twice per year?

MET: Oh my gosh, Dawn, that’s a big question. One thing I have learned is that no matter how well known the author is, everyone still has doubts about his/her stories at some point. I think those doubts are what cripple many would-be-authors because they don’t know how to power past them and their manuscripts stay locked in computers, on pages in the bottom drawer, or worse yet, still in the writer’s mind.

DM: St. Helena Island looks enchanting, the idyllic setting to inspire the muse. Would you please share some of the history and culture of the island and its residents?

MarshSong sunset

MET: St. Helena Island is best known for its Sea Island cotton plantations which brought the Gullah people to this area. Today, St. Helena is the epicenter for the Gullah culture. The Penn School, which was the first school for freed slaves, was started on St. Helena, actually right on the plantation where my property is. Now known as The Penn Center, it is still very active. Surprisingly, much of St. Helena is agricultural with the two major crops being tomatoes and watermelons. As an island, it has been famous for moonshining, drug drops, and root doctors, the most famous of which, Dr. Buzzard, lived right down my street. His family is still here. Before all of that, there is evidence of Indians and shell mounds, and it’s not difficult to find very old shards of pottery. We have all manner of beautiful birds, tons of Spanish Moss, angel oak trees, canopy roads, oyster beds, and pluff mud.

DM: What’s a piece of advice you’d give new writers you wish you were told when you first started out?

MET: Don’t look for time to write, make time to write. Jump in feet first. The first time I was published was many years ago when there was some political unrest and people were, as always, polarized. I sent an email to Margaret Evans at Lowcountry Weekly and said maybe it was time for a little more grace in the world and she should publish an etiquette column. She asked if I wanted to write it, and for the next ten years I wrote Calling Card by L. A. Plume. It was great fun.

DM: Mary Ellen, I cannot wait to meet you in person one day. Thank you for supporting authors with such a generous opportunity.

MET: Dawn, likewise. Come visit MarshSong; we will trade stories from sundown until sunrise.


  1. Such a pleasure to get to know Mary Ellen!

  2. As an author who was lucky enough to be selected for the Pat Conroy residency, I can testify that Mary Ellen is as fun, kind, lively, and generous as your article portrays her! She is a wonderful host and so supportive of the writers who stay in her charming cottage.

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