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 Born to Write
 A Blog by Author Amy Hill Hearth

How I Found my Place in the World

I want to share a story with college students struggling to answer the questions, What career should I choose? What do I want to do with my life?


I was one of those students who floundered. I changed my major from Psychology to Sociology, then History, and finally English Literature.


Although I had always loved to write, it didn't occur to me that I could be a professional writer. I didn't see the common thread until someone pointed it out to me. Perhaps this was because I didn't know anyone who made a living as a writer. My father had a degree in engineering and my mother, in math and physics.


And then one day during the worst of my confusion, my father asked me, sort of nonchalantly, "Have you ever noticed that the classes where you got an A – when you were happy – always included a writing project?"


Hmmm. Truer words were never spoken. The subject didn't matter at all. History, English literature, Sociology – Dad was right. If a course had been structured around a writing project, I was in Heaven, and I excelled.


"You love to write," Dad said simply.


And then I asked what now seems like the stupidest question ever: "Doesn't everyone?"


"Why, no," Dad replied. "In fact, most people don't like to write at all. See, writing comes so naturally to you that you assume everyone can do it well. Maybe you should be a writer."


The conversation with Dad was life changing. I had always expressed myself through writing. I kept diaries and wrote long letters starting in grade school. I wrote a draft of a novel during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. Why had I not seen this as a path for my future? Why did it take someone to point it out to me?


I have no idea. I was young and overwhelmed, I guess.


I knew in my heart that Dad was right. Immediately, I applied and then transferred to a smaller college with an intensive writing program. I took courses in magazine writing, creative writing, and screenwriting. I joined the college newspaper staff. I got an internship at a magazine in my senior year, then my first job at a daily newspaper, and on and on, leading me eventually to a reporting contract at The New York Times and then my first book contract.


After a single conversation with my dad, I was able to find my place in the world, and I've never looked back. Sometimes, what it takes is the right advice from the right person. 



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.



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.



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.  


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.