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The Beach Bum Behind the Pseudonym?

At first, I felt a little lost amongst the fancy flipflops and Lily Pulitzer sundresses.

My usual Tybee Island uniform is a frayed pair of board shorts left over from my husband’s teenage years and a striped bikini top I snuck out of someone else’s Goodwill bag, allowing maximum sun soakage and ease of waveplay.

Mostly, this is alllll good anywhere on Tybee, a place where just tucking in your shirt makes you seem overdressed.

But New York Times bestselling author and chick–lit superstar Mary Kay Andrews was on the island to sign copies of her new book, Spring Fever, and as the cozy rooms of antiques–and–curio shop Seaside Sisters filled with nicely–dressed ladies sporting tans and pedicured toes, it occurred to me I could have maybe cleaned up a little. Or at least put on a bra.

I tried to find a fly’s spot near a wall to observe, but Seaside Sisters’ friendly owner Susan Kelleher plunked me down on a sea green telephone chair from the ‘50s, two feet away from Ms. MKA herself.  “Make yourself at home!” she commanded as she rushed off to oversee book sales.

One by one, polished women of all ages approached the signing table, clutching copies of the new hardcover as well as worn paperbacks bearing the titles of older MKA novels, including Savannah Breeze, which features our offbeat little island. Though they seemed to share a certain affinity for floral patterned Vera Bradley purses, fans revealed themselves to be from all over: Ohio, California and even Canada, many confessing a little breathlessly, “I came to Tybee because of your books.”

One middle–aged lady sheepishly apologized when a small sprinkling of the beach fell on the table when she handed over her book to be signed.

“They’re beach reads,” chuckled Andrews. “You’re supposed to have sand in the pages.”

Though her new book debuted at #5 on the bestseller list, there’s something distinctly unpretentious—and therefore Tybee–esque—about Mary Kay Andrews. She laughs loudly and often, and doesn’t try to hide that she’s really Kathy Hogan Trochek, a former Georgia newspaper reporter with a weakness for garage sales. (The pseudonym is a mash–up of her kids’ names; she shrugs when asked how to address her. “I answer to anything.”)

It’s this same comfy camaraderie that’s driven her success. I tend to dismiss “chick lit” as a contrived gender–directed marketing tool and therefore to be avoided at all costs, much like pinchy high heels and Spanx. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed MKA’s Savannah series—recognizing local spots is always exciting, and she skewers Southern weirdness as if she keeps a bayonet next to her laptop.

Anyway, hers are not cheesy romance novels, she assures me a few days after the book signing, when I get the chance to chat with her in Kelleher’s perfectly shabby chic living room. Hell–to–the–NO on shirtless dudes with long flowing hair on the covers: The most important relationships in these stories are between friends.

“My protagonists are women who reinvent their lives,” says Mary Kay/Kathy, sipping a sparkling water. “There might be a romantic angle, but it’s not so much about whether she gets the guy, but does she get the life she wants?”

We talk about how she’s invented the life she wants: Quitting journalism 20 years ago to write fiction so she could be home with her kids, holing up at the beach to write a book a year and feeling a whole new level of success after shedding 55 pounds. Mostly we marvel how Tybee has changed since she first saw it as a newlywed in 1976.

“Tybee was very rundown at the time. St. Petersburg, where I grew up, sand sparkling, turquoise water, that was my idea of a beach,” she laughs, crossing her pretty green flipflops.

“But the more I was here, the more I liked it. It’s not Hilton Head or St. Simon’s Island, but it has this funky, laid–back vibe. It’s Everyman’s Beach.”

She bought a cottage soon after her husband’s career took the family to Atlanta, and fixed it up with antiques and a fresh coat of paint, not unlike one of her characters. (She admits being addicted to “house porn,” those gorgeous interior design magazines feauturing pretty, uncluttered houses.)

“I think whatever beach you grow up on is the beach that’s most beautiful to you,” sighs the author who could probably sun on the French Riviera if she wanted, yet escapes here every chance she gets. “But there’s something to be said for location. It’s only four hours door to door.”

She, along with her cadre of Tybee girlfriends including Kelleher and Mermaid Cottages owner Diane Kaufman, have watched the island evolve into much more than “a drinking village with a fishing problem.” It wasn’t too many years ago that a disgusting snake of beer cans and dirty diapers used to sit on the shoreline every afternoon to be taken out with the tide. Now, beach sweeps and “leave only your footprints” campaigns help remind Everyman (and woman and child) to pack out their trash. And though drinking remains a popular pastime (the new Wet Willie’s is always busy), more restaurants have popped up where you actually have to wear shoes.

In the last year, in fact, it’s gotten practically classy around here: Social’s gossamer white curtains and blood–orange sangrias, wheatgrass shots at health food stop Good Vibrations, natural bath products made right on site at Salt, and free–trade coffee and gluten–free goodies at Jitterbug Bakery all reflect a cleaner, healthier, kinder Tybee.

Perhaps this reinvented image will make in an appearance in a future novel; Mary Kay Andrews does have a contract for a fourth installment in the Savannah Breeze series.

For the moment, however, it’s just Kathy Trochek, sitting on a lovely white couch looking out into the mouth of Lazaretto Creek. Even though the water might be cloudy and that damn Geico plane buzzes far too often and there’s still plenty of garbage to pick up when the tide goes out, we agree that it’s always a good day to be at the beach.

I look down at my ugly old board shorts, still dusted with dried salt from the morning’s paddle session. I hope no matter how tony Tybee gets, it’ll still be Tybee, after all.