, Newburyport, MA

April 10, 2014

Familiar territory

Rowley author's new novel is set on Plum Island


---- — A Newburyport father’s dying request to his daughters exposes a haunting secret that he wants them to resolve, sending them on a quest that changes their lives forever.

Set meticulously in Greater Newburyport, “Beach Plum Island” is Holly Robinson’s third novel and tells of siblings rediscovering themselves and each other as they solve the mystery their father reveals.

Although his death creates a devastating void in the existences of each of his three daughters from both of his marriages, the journey he sets them on provides the foundation upon which they build a new blended, extended family.

As in Robinson’s last novel, “The Wishing Hill,” “Beach Plum Island” takes readers down familiar streets, over the region’s sandy beaches and into its local waters.

The only geographic inaccuracy is the name of the island from which the novel gets its title. Although obviously set on Plum Island, the book became “Beach Plum Island,” through no fault of its author.

It was Robinson’s editors at the Penguin Group publishers who insisted on the change to “Beach Plum Island.” They didn’t want Robinson’s book confused with Nelson DeMille’s 1997 novel “Plum Island,” which is set on Plum Island, N.Y.

“I fought for the title to be ‘Plum Island,’” said Robinson, who lives in Rowley. “When they said that was out, I provided them a list of 20 other possible titles. But they wanted ‘Beach Plum Island’ because in the novel I refer to the beach plums that grow there.

“When you work with a publisher, you really give up some control,” she said. “Publishers have control of the cover art and the title.”

The 58-year-old wife and mother has brought her work to the public in two ways. After writing seven books that publishers rejected, she self-published her first novel, “Sleeping Tigers,” through CreateSpace, and it did well. Her last two novels and her memoir, “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter,” however, were published by divisions of Penguin Random House.

With a book deal for two more novels in hand, Robinson is firmly ensconced in the literary community. She admits that she writes wherever she is when the muse speaks, but mostly in the book-packed office she shares with her husband, Dan, in the barn beside the old Colonial they’ve renovated together.

The mother of a blended family of five children, Robinson uses “Beach Plum Island” to explore the conflicts that can surface between brothers and sisters, half-sisters and half-brothers, and stepsiblings when divorces rip families apart and remarriages attempt to weave them into a new fabric.

In the novel, Robinson uses the fragile nature of Plum Island as an analogy to exemplify what her main character, Ava Barrett, and her siblings go through as they seek the truth behind their father’s dying revelation.

“Everything Ava thought she was is slowly eroding away,” Robinson said, “and I wanted (readers) to compare that to barrier islands that protect places on the mainland and keep them in place, as they themselves slowly wash away.”

Robinson often uses the fiction she write to highlight social issues that concern her. Adoption has a prominent place in the plot of “Beach Plum Island,” as does the danger that alcohol poses to today’s fast-paced career women. And she has yet to tire of exploring the dynamics within families.

From scientist to writer to novelist

Although she has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Clark University, Robinson has poured most of her energy since graduation into becoming a writer. Her passion for the literary arts surprised even her, leading to a master’s in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I started out going for a biology degree with the intent of going to medical school to become a doctor,” Robinson said. “Then senior year at Clark, I had to fill one elective to graduate. I took a course in creative writing, and my goose was cooked. I found I could sit and write fiction for seven hours straight, and it felt like seven minutes.”

Postponing medical school to “write for a little while,” Robinson would ricochet through the years getting jobs that used her science and mathematics expertise to pay the bills while she chased her dream of becoming an author.

She paid her dues. She screened short stories for publications, taught and eventually found success as a journalist, her work published in magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens. She also anonymously loans out her talents, helping others tell their tales.

“I’m a ghost writer,” Robinson said. “Two or three times a year, I work with celebrities who are writing their memoirs.”

A vociferous reader, Robinson moved to the region because it has two of her favorite bookstores, which are now carrying her books. She will celebrate the launch of “Beach Plum Island” with a reading tomorrow night at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport and is also part of this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival on April 25-26.

If you go

What: Holly Robinson reads from and discusses “Beach Plum Island”

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Where: Jabberwocky Bookshop, The Tannery Marketplace, 50 Water St., Newburyport

How much: Free

More information: 978-465-9359 or