Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Q&A with Amy Hill Hearth


Photo by Blair Hearth



Amy Hill Hearth is the author of the new historical novel Silent Came the Monster. Her many other books include Having Our Say. She lives at the Jersey Shore.


Q: What inspired you to write Silent Came the Monster, which is based on the 1916 shark attacks along the Jersey Shore?


A: I live at the Jersey Shore, so I’ve known about the true story of the shark for a long time. The story had never been told as a novel, and I felt compelled to write it that way. I wanted to tell it from the perspective of those experiencing the events as they unfolded, without any of the knowledge we now have of ocean creatures.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book, and what surprised you the most in the course of your research?


A: What surprised me the most is that almost nothing was known about sharks in 1916. It was widely believed that there were no man-eating sharks in the waters off New Jersey or New York, so when the first attack happened, there was denial and confusion. Theories about the culprit included a massive mackerel, a giant sea turtle, and even a German U-boat.


In telling the story, I did not stray from the facts of the actual attacks as reported by witnesses and in vintage newspaper accounts. Other true events which are based on facts include an epidemic of infantile paralysis (polio), a record-breaking heat wave which put everyone on edge, and divisions in the country about joining World War I, or staying out of it.


I invented the main character, Dr. Edwin Halsey, as a way to pull all the threads together. Dr. Halsey is a surgeon who examines the victims (in some cases, bodies) and finds himself trying to convince the public that the creature is a man-eating shark and that it is likely to attack again.  

Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: One of the characteristics of sharks is that they don’t make any noise – they don’t growl or snarl – and in some ways I think that makes them scarier. Thus, the significance of the word “Silent” in the title. There are lots of monsters but not many are silent.


The choice of the word “Monster” reflects the era in which the story takes place. People didn’t think it was a shark and many simply called it a “sea monster.”


Q: The writer Hester Young called the book “A deeply compelling novel rich with historical detail and surprising parallels to our modern world.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you see as the legacy of these shark attacks?


A: Yes, there are absolutely parallels and I was well aware of that while I was writing the book. The human reaction to the arrival of the shark in 1916 was similar to the way people felt during the sudden onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020. We humans aren’t very good at assessing risk, and when we feel threatened by something new and shocking, we react with terror, of course, but also confusion, denial, defiance, and even conspiracy theories.


As for the legacy of the 1916 shark, the attacks are widely believed to have launched the national obsession with sharks, a fascination that spawned JAWS and, more recently, “Shark Week.” Here at the Jersey Shore, the locals call the 1916 attacks “the real JAWS.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several projects competing for my attention. I’m not sure which one will win. One idea is a possible sequel to Silent Came the Monster. I’ve been jotting down ideas.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Silent Came the Monster is my 11th book but it’s my first historical thriller. In my career, which spans 30 years, I’ve written nonfiction as well as fiction, and books for adults as well as young readers. I love to challenge myself as a writer by trying new (to me) genres. I think it keeps me on my toes.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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