icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

 Born to Write
 A Blog by Author Amy Hill Hearth

The Importance of Trying Something New

My latest book, released earlier this year, is a historical thriller. This means I've now published oral histories, an illustrated children's book, a middle-grade nonfiction book, two novels set in Florida in the early 1960s - and a historical novel/thriller set in 1916 about a rogue shark that upended the Jersey Shore.


I was scared to write a thriller. I was scared to write about a great white shark. But I did it anyway.


The pacing is different in a thriller. The book has to move forward with the speed of light. There were other challenges as well. 


Why did I do it? Because I wanted to write in a way that was new to me. I wanted to remember what it was like to try something for the first time.  


I've never been content with staying in my lane, so to speak. As a newspaper reporter early in my career, my favorite beat was general assignment. When you tell people that you were a general assignment reporter, they don't really get it. For some reason, they think it sounds boring or routine. It is the opposite, however. You have to be able to cover any story at a moment's notice. You might be sent to a board meeting of a public hospital or to a press conference given by a city police chief. You might be dispatched to cover a court case, perhaps filling in for a reporter who had been following the case for weeks or even months. You have to land on your feet. 


I like a challenge.


I don't know what I'm going to write next. And that, to me, is part of the adventure. 


The best things in life happen when we embrace risk. It's when we take chances that we find out who we really are. When we stay in our safe places, comforted by routine, our senses become dulled, and we never have the experience of flying high.



Death of a Sibling

Dr. Jonathan D. Hill, the author's late brother.



His name was Jonathan. He was a cultural anthropologist, a musician, a free spirit. He was a father, husband, and friend.


He was my brother.


It started with a phone call on a Monday morning in July 2021. Jonathan was in the hospital. He'd had a seizure the night before. This, in itself, raised alarm bells. I knew he had no history of seizures, and yet he'd had one that was so severe that he fell and ripped apart his shoulder. At the hospital, a scan showed "something" in his brain. He would be having brain surgery that afternoon.


It was my sister who called me, and she spoke slowly and carefully. Still, three words - seizure, scan, surgery - felt like three quick slaps to my face.


The surgery went on for hours. When it was over, we would learn that "something" in his brain had a name: Glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. 


With optimal care, Jonathan's prognosis was 12-14 months. With no treatment, he could expect to live four months.


He decided to fight it. He lived for 23 months, almost twice as long as predicted. He went into a final decline last spring, and died June 24. 


All is quiet now. Those of us who loved him are bereft and exhausted. We are like survivors of a crash, stunned and awaiting rescue.





Remember the Heroes

While my historical novel, Silent Came the Monster, is the story of the infamous 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks, the focus is on the people whose lives were impacted by the shark in some way, with an emphasis on resilience, love, grief - and tremendous courage.

Imagine this real-life scene as described by multiple witnesses in Beach Haven, the site of the first attack: Lifeguards and bystanders raced into the surf to pull a swimmer from the jaws of a terrifying "sea monster." Since it was widely believed, even by scientists, that "man-eating" sharks didn't swim in the waters off New Jersey or New York at all, witnesses were not only terrified, they were bewildered. Not knowing what the creature was, I'm sure, made it that much scarier.

The lifeguards were young, just as they often are today. And yet, they didn't hesitate for a second. Neither did the wealthy gentlemen from Philadelphia, many of them dressed in formal dinner clothes, who realized something terrible was happening. The lifeguards, hanging onto the victim by his arms, were joined by the gentlemen, and together they created a human chain as they tried with all their might to keep the victim from being pulled beneath the waves.

It was man – or men – against beast.

When I read the accounts of this tragic event and the others that followed as the shark moved up the coast, I was moved to tears by these extraordinary demonstrations of selflessness and bravery. This is why I dedicated the book to "the rescuers, lifeguards, and heroes who rush toward danger at their own peril. You represent the best of humankind."

I want them to be remembered.

When terrible things happen, there are always those brave souls who risk it all. I'm reminded of the police and firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center towers on 9-11, or the stories my dad told me about his buddies in World War II when they were in the Army overseas.

Sometimes it seems as if the world is filled with evil people who care nothing about the well-being of others. And yet, the good folks are all around us, like angels.



'Sea Monster' Attacks of 1916 Sparked Confusion, Disbelief

When a rogue shark began attacking swimmers at the Jersey Shore in 1916, there was utter confusion about what, in fact, it was.


Many people simply called it, "the sea monster." Among the general public - and even among scientists - it was widely believed that dangerous, "man-eating" sharks didn't swim in the waters off New Jersey or New York at all.


Some people thought it might be a huge mackerel. Others insisted that it was a giant sea turtle. A few even speculated that it was not a living creature at all, but a German U-boat spying off the East Coast of the U.S.


A Coast Guard superintendent told the press that it couldn't be a shark because "sharks are timid as rabbits." The New York Times, in what must be one of the vaguest (or perhaps cautious) headlines ever written, called it a "fish." Even those who witnessed the shark attacks didn't understand what they saw.


As a boater and longtime resident of the Jersey Shore, I've been aware of the story of the 1916 shark for a long time. The sudden appearance of the shark, which killed four people and severely injured a fifth, all in less than two weeks, upended life here. People still talk about it, and I suppose they always will.


The 1916 shark attacks became a huge, national news story because they were unprecedented in U.S. history, and people were caught off-guard. Another reason, however, was the location of the attacks. The Jersey Shore was the favorite summer vacation spot of many wealthy and powerful Americans. This included President Woodrow Wilson, following a tradition begun many years earlier by Ulysses S. Grant, who owned a home in Elberon, a part of Long Branch, NJ.


Scholarly articles and nonfiction books have been written about the 1916 shark, and arguments remain. Was it really a great white? Was it sick or injured? But the real story, to me, is how people reacted to the sudden arrival of the sea monster in their midst.  


I wanted to tell the story as historical fiction from the perspective of those experiencing the events as they unfolded, and without any of the knowledge we now have of ocean creatures. Disbelief, confusion, terror, denial, defiance, and even conspiracy theories are explored in my forthcoming book, Silent Came the Monster.


In 1916, many people accepted the idea that mankind is superior to all other creatures, an assumption that a growing number of us now realize is both arrogant and ignorant. The fact is, we are not at the top of the heap, although we may think we are, and indeed we have used our power mostly to make a total mess of things for most other creatures, among them, sharks.


In this way, one could say that the Jersey Shore shark which shocked and confused the nation continues to be a reminder that what we know, both then and now, is not only limited but biased. The shark should humble us, not make us angry. Regardless of what humans do, the fact is that Nature plays by its own rules.

Why Readers Love the Delany Sisters

They were smart. Wise. Intuitive. Their stories from long ago were riveting and historically significant.


But what seemed to draw readers to Sadie and Bessie Delany, the late centenarian pair of sisters of Having Our Say fame, was the fact that they were utterly charming and completely genuine. In a society in which people are accustomed to artifice and manipulation, the Delany Sisters were a shock. In telling their story, they had no agenda, and readers could sense it immediately.


The day I met them in 1991, they were 100 and 102 years old, and I was a 33-year-old newspaper reporter. Talking to them was like time-travel. They reached back into the past with ease, and took me with them.    


They blew me away.


I was captivated by the way they interacted with one another, sister to sister, after living together for a century. When I got home that evening, the first thing I did was call my own sister, who is a year and a half older. I couldn't wait to tell her about the pair of centenarian sisters I had met that day, and how they were still giggling and quarreling about things that had happened a century ago when they were little girls. 


This was, I told my own sister, the sweetest thing I've ever witnessed.


It is this sweetness, this unvarnished charm, that flows through the book. I made sure to include it all. I didn't want the book to come across as too reverent which to me meant stale. I wanted readers to know what it felt like to be in my shoes while I observed them puttering in the kitchen, or listening from "my" chair in the parlor or at the dining room table. Happily, the sisters liked my approach. When I suggested that the book be a work of oral history rather than a third-person biography, they agreed to that as well. To me, the words they chose to tell their stories were as important as the stories themselves.


And so, Having Our Say is peppered with endearing expressions and anecdotes. The sisters, for example, referred to themselves quaintly as "maiden ladies," a term I had heard perhaps one other time in my life. When I asked the name of their cat, they explained cheerfully, "We call him Mr. Delany since we don't have a man in the house." When asked why they thought they had lived so long, they replied: "It's because we never married. We never had husbands to worry us to death!" And then they shrieked with laughter at their own joke. 


I could go on....and on. But it's all in the book for you to read, anyway. You'll learn a great deal of American history from the book. You'll see flashes of anger and sorrow as they tell their stories. You'll be appalled at some of it. But most of all, when you reach the last page, you'll realize you've fallen in love with the Delany Sisters.  


Celebrating the Upcoming New Ebook and Audio Editions of HAVING OUR SAY

I'm so grateful to my literary agent, Mel Berger at William Morris Endeavor, and the fabulous Blackstone Publishing for the upcoming ebook and audio editions of HAVING OUR SAY. Both editions will be available January 3, just ahead of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Black History Month. With all the strife in our society, it seems like a good time for the sisters' wisdom and perspective to receive new attention. Teachers, if you're looking for a way to help students understand the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws in America, HAVING OUR SAY is a great place to start. The book has been read by millions since its 1993 publication. 

New Book (in a New Genre!) Coming in Spring 2023

I'm known for taking risks as a writer and trying new genres, but my next book is a leap even for me.


It's a historical thriller called SILENT CAME THE MONSTER: A Novel of the 1916 Jersey Shore Shark Attacks.


Writing it was how I processed the fear, confusion, and unknown we all experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.


Here's a quick summary: During the summer of 1916, a surgeon at the Jersey Shore fights denial, conspiracy theories, defiance, and confusion in a desperate attempt to convince a skeptical public that the culprit behind a series of fatal attacks is a shark, not a huge sea turtle or German U-boat, and that it will strike again. Inspired by a series of true events.


The book deal was made by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, my literary agency since 1991, with the fabulous Blackstone Publishing, long famous for audio but, since 2016, also publishing paper and ebooks. I am enjoying working with them.


I'm a little nervous as well as excited about the book, which is so far out of my comfort zone that I considered not showing it to my agent. I thought of it as an experiment and a way to deal with those grim days of the lockdown. But curiosity led me to send it to my agent after all, just to get his reaction, and he thought he could sell it. So here we are.


The book can be pre-ordered at your favorite locally-owned bookshop or any online store.

Overcoming America's Political and Cultural Divide: A Suggestion

I wonder if a part of our national divide over culture and politics stems from the huge decline in the proportion of Americans who serve, or served, in the Armed Forces. Perhaps part of what made the Greatest Generation great was that such a large proportion of them fought in the war, and thus, got to know each other in ways they wouldn't have otherwise.


My dad's experience was typical in that regard. He enlisted in 1942 three days after earning his high school diploma from Wauwatosa High School in Wisconsin. His family was originally from New York & New Jersey. He knew no one from the South or West until his Army days. He became lifelong pals with men from completely different backgrounds. The ones I recall were from Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. Most were from working or middle class backgrounds. A few were wealthy. It didn't matter.


There were other differences that didn't matter, either. For example, Dad became great pals with a Jewish soldier from the Bronx named "Dersh" (short for Dershowitz). After the war ended, Dersh said, "If you get home ahead of me, and you visit your grandparents on Long Island, will you give my mother a call and say hello for me?" Dad, of course, being Dad, agreed. And that's how it worked out: Dad got home first and made the call. Dersh's mother was thrilled. She invited Dad to come up to the Bronx, and that's how Dad found himself the guest of honor at a family Shabbat dinner. So my point is that through the miliary and serving in the war, millions of Americans from various backgrounds got to know each other as individuals.


I should add that even before the war, when Dad was in basic training in Mississippi, he had a long, memorable conversation with an older Black farmer who gave Dad, who was hitch-hiking, a ride to a city. I can't remember where they were going, but it was a long ride in a slow farm truck on back roads, and they must have had quite a good time together because Dad still recalled it when he was in his nineties. ("It was swell!")


Now I'm not suggesting, heaven forbid, that we need another world war in order for Americans to get to know one another, but instead, perhaps it could be mandatory to serve a year or two in the Armed Forces (or some alternative) for all young men and women.


I often encounter young men and women in publishing in NYC who have no clue whatsoever about huge swaths of the United States of America. They do not know their own country. They only know what they know. They are far more progressive than most of the country and they don't "get" that at all. Perhaps if they were to serve in the Armed Forces or were thrown in together fighting fires in the West or helping with the massive flooding in St. Louis and Kentucky, they would see the humanity in the "other" America - and vice-versa as well.

How This Era Will Be Remembered  

As I sit here writing this post, I look out my office window at a gentle, soothing rain. It's a comfort, this soothing rain. I like the sound of it. I like the way it slows life down from a frantic pace. No one is mowing a lawn. Traffic is lighter. Everyone has retreated indoors.


There is much to be grateful for.


There is, also, a lot to worry about.


I have never worried about my country as I do now. I fear the future. Will our democracy survive? Will we split into two parts? Will hatred define us? Is anyone able to hear over the shouting?


Greed is, as always, at the root of it all. The richest among us aren't satisfied. They want more. And more. And still more. They feel entitled. They want to run the country. They think they know better than the rest of us lowly souls, so they give huge sums of money to our elected officials. Bribes, to be blunt about it. All this money is floating into the pockets of public servants – not all, but many - who are supposed to represent us.


So we have greed. We have anger.


And we have self-interest. All of us, not "just" the wealthiest. One person's freedom is more important, apparently, than someone else's life. It's all about "me" rather than "us." Gone are the days of my childhood when we were taught to wait our turn, to share, to respect our teacher. Gone are the days, I guess, when young men like my father enlisted to fight in a world war to keep us free.


People are complicated. We're all a product of the times in which we live. We will always have greed, anger, and selfishness, but right now we seem to be giving in to it, even celebrating it.


And yet there is one more failure – a huge one – that may define us more than any other. We have not prioritized the importance of the gentle, soothing rain. We aren't appreciating the gifts of nature and, tragically, we're hurtling toward the days when there will be nothing but drought, on the one hand, or the kind of fierce, isolated downpours that cause destructive flooding. 


We aren't doing anywhere near enough to fight this crisis. There is much we could do, but we haven't. I believe, therefore, that if humanity survives, our era will be remembered for one thing above all: squandering the opportunity to address climate change.


To the next generation and the one after that: I'm sorry. 



When I see what is happening in Ukraine, I feel it in my bones, my family having gone through something similar in WW II. 


My mother lost numerous members of her family, some at the hands of the Nazis (for reasons we don't know), and, at the end of the war, by Russians. Russian soldiers chased my family, all civilians, and murdered several, including my great-grandpa, who was in his eighties. (He was shot and, while still alive, thrown off a bridge to drown.) My mother and her parents were, fortunately, in America at this time.


While in college, I interviewed several surviving members of my mother's famiily. They had been Displaced Persons at the end of the war and went through absolute hell. One great-aunt had lost both legs to frostbite. Eventually, they found their way to an American zone where they were taken care of, but the physical and emotional scars lived on. They were damaged people, and some of that trauma, no doubt, has been passed to my generation and even the next. 


What is happening in Ukraine at this moment is horrible and has made me reflect on my kinfolk who fled a similar situation in 1945 -1946. There are relatives I never met, and whose fate I will never learn. I do not know where they are buried, assuming they were buried properly at all.


The atrocities being committed in Ukraine will have a life of their own that will be felt a long time from now.