Camille Taylor is an ambitious, highly driven attorney in Washington D.C. But when her husband dies unexpectedly, her world and everything she’s worked for is rocked to its foundations.
As she tries to pick up the pieces, Camille packs up her daughter and returns to Fairhope, Alabama, to stay with her parents. The town, which once felt so small to the aspirational woman, engulfs the grieving wife in a familiar, humid hug. As she watches her daughter Willa encounter the magic of a summer on Mobile Bay, Camille finds herself rediscovering what’s most important.
The health of the Mobile Bay ecosystem falls into this category. Runoff from an abandoned development site is polluting the water, and a local fisherman, Mack Phillips, has brought a suit against the site’s owners — Camille’s father among them. As she lends her legal expertise to her father’s defense, Camille wonders if she’s landed on the right side of the fight. Meanwhile, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Mack’s ideals and fearless resolve.
Like the protagonist of her novel, Audrey Ingram, a native daughter of Alabama, worked as a lawyer in D.C. for 15 years. In a conversation with MB, Ingram describes her own journey to “The River Runs South.”
This book is many things — a story of loss, of healing, of self-discovery — but it’s also a love letter to Fairhope. Tell us about your connection to the town.
I was 8 when we started spending summers and long weekends in Fairhope. It was a four-hour drive from our home in Birmingham, and my family spent as much time as possible by the Bay. My happiest childhood memories are in Fairhope. Nowadays, my mother is a full-time resident, so I’m lucky enough to visit frequently.
Like Camille, the story’s main character, you worked as an attorney in D.C. for several years. Can you tell us about your transition from practicing law to writing fiction?
I always wanted to write, but with a legal career and three children, I didn’t think it was a dream within possibility. Cue the pandemic. Like many families with young children, we struggled and ultimately pivoted. I paused my legal career while I stayed at home with our children and found myself stealing moments to write this story.
Much of this book was written in the early-morning hours before my children woke or in between nap times that were always too short. At a time of personal and global upheaval, writing this book was a complete joy, bringing hope into a confusing time.
How long did the idea for this book bounce around in your head?
I had a sense of the main character and a few thousand words that sat on my computer for years. But it wasn’t until 2020, when we were all locked inside and I missed my family in Alabama, that this story of returning home came together. When it became clear that our annual summer vacation wasn’t going to happen, I spent those hot months daydreaming about Fairhope and writing a story about the place I yearned to be.
It took another year to edit and polish the book, and then a few more months before I signed with a literary agent and eventually signed a publishing deal. Legal work is fast-paced and urgent. I’m still adjusting to the slower pace of publishing, understanding that it can take years to get a book in readers’ hands, but it’s been a welcome change.
When tragedy strikes Camille’s life, she ends up back at her parents’ home in Fairhope. What was it about this dynamic—the homecoming — that made the story come alive for you?
Alabama’s coast is the most ecologically diverse place in our country. Yet, it is often overlooked and underappreciated. I knew I wanted to write a story highlighting this unique place.
Around the same time, I noticed a surge of burnout among working mothers, an
issue I personally experienced as I struggled to balance motherhood with my legal career. I began to imagine a story of an
already overworked mother who tragically lost her husband and had to find a way to manage on her own.
As I started writing, I saw parallels between these two ideas. Our time, our energy, and our environment are precious resources that are constantly depleted. For Camille, coming home is a stripping away of everything unnecessary about her adult life, forcing her to start over, rebuilding a life based around only those things that are the most important.
So much of this book centers around the parental joy of introducing a child to the delights of one’s own childhood. Have your children taken to all things Alabama as enthusiastically as Camille’s daughter Willa?
My children are mesmerized by lower Alabama, as they should be. Whenever we visit, there’s a steady supply of fried shrimp, swims in the Gulf and Bay and usually a few trips down the slide at the Grand Hotel. I’m the luckiest that I get to fall in love with my childhood home time and again as my children experience it for the first time.
Your story is chock-full of references that locals will love, from Billy’s Seafood to Page & Palette. Was it fun to play with Fairhope as the backdrop to your debut novel?
I have the best memories of childhood summers spent in Fairhope, riding bikes through Downtown, spending the day in bathing suits, eating so much delicious food. The references in the book are
fictional recreations of my childhood
experiences, but the magic of Fairhope is that many of these businesses are still thriving. Even though it’s an impossible task, I tried to capture a sliver of how much this town means to my family.
At first, Camille rolls her eyes at her mother Marion’s insistence on tradition — intricate table settings, prim play dresses for Camille’s daughter — but she slowly begins to understand it. Where do you think you fall on the Camille-Marion scale?
I find myself jumping all over the Camille-Marion scale. Both characters were easy to write because I find the inherent tension between tradition and progress so relatable, especially as a Southerner.
This book isn’t solely about the preservation of traditions; it’s also about the preservation of Fairhope’s natural environment. Do you find that people outside of Mobile and Baldwin counties are surprised to learn that lower Alabama is such an ecological gem?
Yes. And I’ll admit that I was unaware until a few years ago. It’s such a special, unique environment and my hope is that as more people become aware, more will be done to safeguard this treasure. I’m grateful for journalists like Ben Raines and groups like Mobile Baykeeper for all they have done to inform the public and protect the health of these waters.
Camille has a mean shrimp boil recipe with a secret ingredient — is this, too, borrowed from the life of the author?
Oh yes. Our family loves shrimp boils and I’m constantly tweaking our recipe. Truthfully, the secret ingredient in Camille’s shrimp boils — green olives — was borrowed from a back issue of Southern Living, but I’ve occasionally tried to claim it as my own.
When you visit Fairhope next, what’s your first stop?
My ideal arrival itinerary is stopping at Sandra’s for chicken salad, picking up cheese board supplies from Andree’s and then parking myself on the pier (preferably with a cold drink in my hand) as I watch the sun slip into the water. mb
Excerpted from “The River Runs South”
Camille plucked a few of the small flowers and held them in her hand. She carefully showed Willa how to pull the flower apart and suck the sweet nectar.
Honeysuckle was the perfume of Camille’s childhood. It was everywhere in the town of Fairhope, tangling the playground fences, lining the bay bluffs, bordering the edges of the woods. Camille would come home from a day of exploring the bay, covered in sand and dirt, with the taste of honeysuckle lingering on her tongue.
She watched her daughter tasting the honeysuckle for the first time, the hidden treat in the weeds, and was transported back to her youth, to those carefree times before death had consumed her thoughts.
Willa reached for another bloom and pulled her hand back quickly. Camille looked down and saw the scratch on her daughter’s hand.
Camille gave her a kiss and explained, “The brambles and the honeysuckle grow together. Most other plants couldn’t stand up to them, but not the honeysuckle. It always pushes forward. It’s strong, even though it doesn’t look it.”
Camille watched as Willa continued to hunt for blossoms, being more careful to pull the flowers out without scraping her hand on the brambles. Camille joined her until they had both sucked dozens of flowers. They held hands as they walked toward the house.
Camille leaned in and whispered, “We have to be careful not to track muddy feet on Nana’s floor or she’ll fuss.”
Willa looked up at her mother. “Well, she’s probably going to do lots of fussing while we’re here.” Camille couldn’t help but laugh again, for the second time, thinking that maybe, with Willa on her team, this wasn’t such a mistake after all.