Notes From a Hired Pen

Q&A: Amy Hill Hearth

Sometimes I feel like Amy Hill Hearth is my sister from another mother. We’re both graduates of the University of Tampa. While there, we both served as editors of The Minaret, the school’s newspaper. She was the featured speaker at 2001 spring commencement. I was the student speaker in spring 2002. I love the Jersey Shore. She lives there.

There’s a big difference, though: Amy has had a wildly successful book publishing career. I do okay, but she’s knocked it out of the park. Having Our Say, the oral history of the 100-year-old plus Delaney Sisters, sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 113 weeks. The play version won a Peabody award, and was also made into a TV movie.

I’d heard about Amy through my college career, and after. We first met in 2008 when I wrote a piece about her for the then-named St. Pete Times where I called her dog potato-sized. We’ve been friends ever since.

She’s always kept projects close to her vest. I didn’t know she co-authored a book with Nancy Pelosi until it came out.  And earlier this year she stunned me when she told me that she had a novel coming out on October 2.

I’ve read Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. It’s wonderful. It’ll be a 2013 Readers Digest selection, and has already earned rave reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review.

As she geared up for a nation-wide book tour, Amy took time out to do a Q&A for “Notes from a Hired Pen.”

JAM: What made you want to try fiction?
AHH: I was taking a break, that’s all. I remember telling my mom, “I’m just going to write for fun for a while.” I had never tried my hand at fiction. I started writing what I thought might be a short story but I fell in love with my characters and my plot, and I just kept on writing. I never set out to write a novel.

JAM: There’s a great series in last weekend’s New York Times magazine about what sparks inspiration. What was the spark for Miss Dreamsville?
AHH: There was a single spark, and it happened over breakfast with my local writers group. One of the members, who is in her seventies, was telling us that she had written several articles for Penthouse when she was younger, and that her kids had been horribly embarrassed by it. It reminded me of my husband’s complaints about how his mother had embarrassed him with her sexy radio show, “Miss Dreamsville,” when the family lived in Naples, Fla. in the 1960s. I went straight home and started writing.

JAM: At what point did you out yourself to your agent? Were you scared of what he’d say?
AHH: I didn’t tell my agent until I had completed a polished first draft. I figured that if I told him what I was working on, that would mean it was “work” and maybe it wouldn’t be fun anymore. After all, I was trying to take a break. I was concerned, also, about the difficulties faced by writers when we want to switch genres. It’s risky, and most publishers and agents would rather we keep doing what we’re doing, and what we’re known for already. I had no idea if my agent would like it but he read it, loved it, and sold it immediately.

JAM: How did you weave your family history into the story without letting it take over the plot? Or did it anyway?
AHH: My late mother-in-law and her radio show inspired the novel and served as the springboard, but the book is fiction. It’s based largely on insight from my own experiences living in the South, most importantly, when my family moved from Schenectady, N.Y. to Columbia, S.C. in 1965, when I was 6. I love the South AND the North, and I understand the cultural divisions on a gut level.

JAM: How did your husband feel about being made a kid in this story? :-)
AHH: My mother-in-law and her son (my husband, Blair) are the only characters in the book who were inspired by real people. Blair is “Judd,” Miss Dreamsville’s 11 year old son in the novel. When I read the first chapters aloud, Blair was rather wide-eyed, but once he got used to the idea he’s been the novel’s biggest fan.

JAM: How is publicizing this book different than your non-fiction?
AHH: It’s a little easier in some ways. My nonfiction books are oral histories or biographies, typically involving someone who is quite old and fragile. I always worried a lot about how much publicity they should do, if any. And, of course, I worried about how the publicity would impact them and their community. With the novel, there’s no one to worry about but me.

JAM: I once described your dog as the size of a potato. How would you describe her?
AHH: How does one describe a 7-pound Boston Terrier with extremely bowed legs, a little pot belly, and over-sized ears? Well, my vet thinks she looks like a rabbit. Personally, I think she’s more like a piglet. She doesn’t even bark. She makes noises my nieces describe as “snorty-snorts.”

JAM: Obviously, I know your college very well. What was your major at UT? And how did it help you become a journalist and then author?
AHH: I majored in Writing with an English minor. Everything I learned at UT led me to where I am today. It was the place where my career started. Between the coursework, internships, and editing The Minaret, I was launched.

JAM: Favorite Minaret memory?
AHH: There were two stories during my tenure that attracted the attention of the city’s newspapers. One was our coverage of a new semester calendar called a “bi-mester” which the faculty and many students hated. The other involved our assertion that student government should have the right to choose films and programs without the intervention of the Board of Trustees. I was interviewed by the city newspapers, which ran stories of their own. We were so excited. And we celebrated, of course, as college students tend to do: by splitting a pitcher of beer.

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