Amy Hill Hearth is the author or co-author of seven nonfiction books, including Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, a New York Times bestseller for 113 weeks. Her first novel will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on October 2.
Hannah and Erica: Congratulations on the completion of your first foray into fiction, with Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society! How did the process of writing a novel compare to writing non-fiction works such as Having Our Say?
Amy: Everything I learned as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author was useful when I tried fiction for the first time. The two are, of course, opposite and yet there are still some basics that apply: For example, it’s a story, it has a dramatic arc, and there’s a lot of instinct and judgment about what belongs and what doesn’t. The leap – and it is huge – is letting go of the deeply ingrained concept that facts rule the day and allowing your imagination to take over and tell the story. For me, it was terrifying and liberating at the same time.
All I was trying to do was take a breather from the publishing business and try something new. I wanted to write just for fun. I didn’t set out to write a novel. I started Miss Dreamsville as a short story but the more I wrote, the more I loved my characters and plot, and I thought, Maybe it’s a novel. Some little voice told me to just keep going. The book is inspired by a real person – my late mother-in-law, crazy as that sounds. As a middle-aged mom, she got into all kinds of trouble when her family moved from Boston to a town of 800 people in Collier County, Florida in 1962. When I write nonfiction, I feel a great responsibility throughout the process to my subjects since, after all, it is about their lives. With fiction I did not have that responsibility, although I had some concern, of course, about my husband’s reaction. I didn’t show him a draft until it was very far along. What really freaked him out was I added a character inspired by him as a child. He’s been a good sport about it, once he got over the shock. I only wish my mother-in-law was alive to see it. She was quite a character and I believe she would have gotten a kick out of it.
Hannah and Erica: Your NY Times Bestselling book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years was also made into a Broadway play. Were you involved in the adaptation of the book to the play? What was it like to see your book translated to theater?
Amy: I was very involved with the adaptation of the book, both as a Broadway play and then an award-winning film. The Delany Sisters wanted me to participate on their behalf to be sure the adaptations were “done right,” as they said. My official role was Production Advisor and in this case it meant making sure the adaptations were authentic and in keeping with the sisters’ values and expectations. I edited the scripts, visited rehearsals, met privately with the actresses (at the home of Ruby Dee in New Rochelle, New York, for example), and even advised the set designer about wallpaper patterns. With the film adaptation, the producers added me as a character, which is a bizarre experience. My part was portrayed by the wonderful actress Amy Madigan.
Hannah and Erica: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your successful career?
Amy: I’ve always said I am most grateful for the special friendships that are a direct result of my book projects. How many people can say they are friends with an Indian Chief and his mother? (“Strong Medicine” Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say.) Or a pair of centenarian sisters whose father was born into slavery? (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.) Or a married pair of Holocaust survivors who survived by masquerading as Christians and working as spies for the Underground? (In a World Gone Mad.) Or Nancy Pelosi, the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known? (Know Your Power.) I am grateful, also, that my parents have lived long enough to enjoy my success, and that I married the right guy 27 years ago who remains my biggest fan (despite being a character in my novel!).
Hannah and Erica: How do you keep your creative muse alive and well?
Amy: Sleep. I think I actually write in my sleep. I don’t know why, but sleep is vastly under-rated in our society. You can’t do anything well unless you are well-rested. It may be more important than diet and exercise, in terms of fueling the creative mind.
Hannah and Erica: We’re excited to welcome you to the NYC chapter of the WNBA. What inspired you to join the organization?
Amy: I like the idea of being part of an organization of women who love books as much as I do. Even if I can’t attend many events, I enjoy being connected to all of you. Knowing you are out there gives me a psychological lift. I am still learning and eager to have women guide me along the way.