Monday, July 9, 2012

Amy Hill Hearth talks about Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society, writing, and finding an authentic voice.

Amy Hill Hearth wrote the astonishing New York Times bestseller, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. Her debut, Miss Dreamsville and The Collier County Women's Literary Society is about a bookclub set in a small, racially segregated town, and it's wonderful. I'm honored to have Amy here, writing about creativity. Thank you, thank you, Amy! 

I never expected to write a novel. It wasn’t part of my plans. I was taking a break from my nonfiction book projects and the intense world of publishing. I remember telling my mom, “I’m going to write just for fun for a while.”  And that’s what I did. I had never tried my hand at fiction, and I had no idea what I was doing. I began Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society as a short story.  The more I wrote, the more I loved my characters and plot, and I thought, Could this be a novel? I just kept on writing, telling no one (except my husband, although even he didn’t see a draft for months).  I’ve always been the kind of writer who doesn’t talk about my work while it’s in process. I don’t want other writers’ thoughts and ideas intruding on my muse. And I believe that if you talk too much about your writing, it dilutes the energy that you can deliver to the page. In my experience, that’s true with nonfiction, and probably even more so with fiction. Your characters have to live in your own head.

Miss Dreamsville is inspired by a real person – my late mother-in-law. When her family moved from Boston to a town of 800 people in Collier County, Florida in 1962, she got into all sorts of trouble. I think she managed to offend just about everyone. Her experience became the springboard for the novel.
Everything I learned as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author was useful when I tried fiction. Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you are telling a story.  You need a dramatic arc, and you must make a million unique decisions regarding what to cut or what to add. Of course, the two are opposite when it comes to the rules of telling that story. In nonfiction you must stick to the facts. In fiction you get to make stuff up, which was very difficult for me until I realized it was just a matter of switching gears mentally.

But the main similarity, or so it seems to me, is that both fiction and nonfiction depend on finding an authentic voice. With nonfiction (especially oral histories, such as my first book, Having Our Say) it’s a matter of listening to someone until you hear their authentic voice. With fiction, it’s about listening to yourself to find your own authentic voice. As a child, I lived in the South and acquired the playfulness and love of language that is uniquely Southern, but I’d never had a chance to fully explore that voice. Writing a novel gave me that opportunity.

Ironically, considering that I was taking a break from publishing, Miss Dreamsville put me right back in the publishing rat race: It sold instantly, to the first editor who read it.


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