The inside story on "Miss Dreamsville" and a book that captures both the charm of Florida and joy of reading.
by Erin Z. Bass
Amy Hill Hearth's late mother-in-law was an outspoken Boston redhead named Jackie who moved to Naples, Florida, in 1962. Having married and had children young, Jackie regretted dropping out of college and wasn't sure what to do with herself in the tiny Southern town. She also didn't know what to think of the locals, and they didn't know what to think of her. She ended up starring in Collier County's first late-night radio show, keeping her identity a secret to add to the intrigue. Her radio name was "Miss Dreamsville."
Sound familiar? The story is also the plot of Hearth's new book "Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society." "I think I knew, going back a long time, that one day I'd find a way to write about my mother-in-law and her radio show," Hearth says. "How her radio show came about and how her identity was eventually revealed are fictionalized, but essentially they were the springboard for the novel."
"The launch of a late-night radio show - one with a hint of honest-go-gosh sex appeal, even - was a thrilling prospect in Naples. Late at night, we couldn't pick up anything except Havana. The only exception was Saturday nights, when we could usually get WSM all the way from Nashville and listen to the Grand Ole Opry." - "Miss Dreamsville," Chapter Five
This isn't Hearth's first book, but it is her first work of fiction. She started working on a short story about Jackie and her radio show, but was having fun and just kept on writing. She invented an additional storyline about Jackie starting a book club and fell in love with her cast of characters. "It began to dawn on me that I might be writing a novel," she says.
Jackie's son, Judd, is the second character in the book based on a real person. He's the 12-year-old version of Hearth's husband, Blair, who is of course Jackie's son and grew up in Collier County. The book club is inspired by Hearth's own writers' group that she's been a part of for 10 years. "I understand how close you can become in a group like that, and how you can grow as a person," she says.
The "Miss Dreamsville" book club starts out reading "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson and then moves on to Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," some Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and finally "The Feminine Mystique." Hearth says she had great fun choosing their books, which would have been new and still fresh during the early 1960s.
"None of us was Junior League material; none of us had big money; Mrs. Bailey White was an ex-con. If you were colored, homosexual, a divorced postal worker (me), or - God forbid - a sexy redhead with a Boston accent newly arrived in town, you were on your own. But Jackie was suggesting that we form our own group. And meeting at the library could give us cover." - "Miss Dreamsville," Chapter One
As for the concept of moving to a new town and from North to South, Hearth can relate. When she was 6 years old, her family moved from Schenectady, New York, to Columbia, South Carolina. Six years later, they moved back to New York but Hearth had developed a Southern accent by then. "I was bullied mercilessly," she says. Family in Florida led her to attend the University of Tampa, where she got a bachelor's degree in writing and English. After graduation, she worked as a reporter in Volusia County, Florida, located on the east coast near Daytona Beach, which is where she met her husband.
Today, they live in New Jersey, but Collier County is never far from Hearth's heart. "Miss Dreamsville" is a lighthearted tribute to the charm of the state and its many Southern traditions. Readers will fall in love with Hearth's characters just as she did and will of course be rooting for Jackie all the way through, even as she continuously gets into trouble with her friends via a banana-yellow convertible.
“Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society” is one of Deep South’s Fall/Winter Reading List picks. On Friday, January 25, we'll be chatting with Amy Hill Hearth on Twitter from 1-2 CST. Use the hashtag #southernlit to join in and find out more about "Miss Dreamsville."
Editor/publisher of Deep South Magazine, Erin Z. Bass is a native of Crowley, Louisiana. She has more than 10 years of writing experience and holds a BA in Journalism from Louisiana State University. Find out more about her here.