Monsters & Magic – How I Found Inspiration in Real Life

Photo by Cassi Josh on Unsplash

by J.Ember Hintz


Like most young people, I went through many iterations of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I dreamed of being a radio DJ, an attorney, a journalist, a therapist, and the proprietor of a Christmas tree farm. Somewhere along the way, I stopped asking myself what I wanted to be and began focusing on what I wanted to have. A distinction I didn’t understand at the time.

While I’ve been fortunate to have all the things I wanted as a young woman, a loving partner, a beautiful family, and a successful career, I realized that I still had no idea what I wanted to be. Apparently, I was experiencing the Millennial Quarter Life Crisis. But, I should point out that I’m not a millennial, nor did I feel that my life was in crisis. I had a great life, things were going well, but was this all that there was? Was I too greedy, wanting to have my cake and eat it too? 

I threw myself into new hobbies. I taught myself how to refinish furniture, re-painted, and re-decorated my home frequently. I took painting classes and started listening to podcasts about science and theoretical physics. I sought out fantasy and science fiction stories of all stripes. I’d just finished reading the Twilight series, by Stephenie Meyer, and was experiencing that post-fantasy let down. The feeling that comes after you finish a great book or the final season of a TV show when you’re forced back into the real world where magic and monsters don’t exist. And that got me thinking, what if they did?

Over the weeks that followed, I mulled over the things that I’d seen and experienced in real life and realized that my life was, in fact, full of magic. While in college, I met and fell in love with my soul mate. He was the person I’d been dreaming of, pining after and waiting for my whole life. When love is new and exciting and full of passion, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever get better or change. But it does, as it did for us. As we grew individually, our bond was strengthened by our daily commitment to love, support, and honor one another, even when it was hard. From the very beginning, we both understood that we were dual protagonists, each with our own story arcs, on the same journey. Our love, and the connection that we share is rare and I treasure it. For me, love is the purest form of magic.

When I got pregnant, I was so confident about it all. I read all the books and thought I knew all the things, but bringing my son into the world wasn’t the magical experience that I’d been expecting. I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia two and a half months before my due date, and the only cure was to not be pregnant anymore. I would have died in childbirth had it not been for the miracle of modern medicine. My son and I survived, and I have been fortunate to experience the surreal joy of watching him thrive, despite his premature and challenging start in life. Today, he still enjoys challenging his parents, but he’s a happy, healthy young adult living his best life and writing his own story.


My husband and son in the NICU. Photo by J. Ember Hintz.

There were plenty of monsters in my life, as well. I struggled with internal insecurities. Parenting was hard, much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I had no idea what I was doing and worried that I was failing my children in some way. I suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of my second child and was yet again saved by modern medicine, this time in the form of a magical little pill prescribed my by doctor that quieted all the monstrous thoughts inside my head.

When I decided to go back to work after taking nearly a decade off to raise my children, I was an anxious mess. I didn’t have the same work experience or credentials as the men and women I was competing against in what was a difficult job market at the time. My husband and I trudged our way through the pressures of adult responsibilities and raising a family. We fought tooth and nail to overcome the toll that toxic people and toxic work environments had on our marriage and our ability to be good parents. Family therapy saved our marriage, eradicated some of our inner demons, and became yet another magical milestone in our life.

Then, in 2009, our lives were forever scarred by a real-life, flesh, and blood monster in human form. Even today, more than a decade later, it’s a story that’s difficult for me to tell. My husband and I met at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. We were both pursuing degrees in criminal justice and had the privilege of being mentored by Dr. Debra S. Kelly. Debra had dedicated her career to awakening young minds and to bringing light to the role of women in crime, both as victims and criminals. She co-authored a book with another of our Longwood professors, James F. Hodgson, Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices, and Challenges in the United States and Canada.

During my time at Longwood, Debra became more than a professor and mentor to me, she was also a dear friend. We kept in touch after I graduated, and her daughter, Emma, who I frequently babysat during my college days, was the flower girl at my wedding. Debra and I talked about our children, relationships, and careers. She rejoiced in my successes and encouraged me through my defeats and always challenged me to be the best version of myself personally and professionally. Aside from my parents, she was the most influential person in my life. Dr. Hodgson once said that Debra was the most fearless person he’d ever met. She didn’t cower away from the things that made others tremble. I had great admiration for her courage and personal strength. She was and forever will be an icon of feminist power for me.

I loved Debra dearly, and it shattered my world when she was brutally murdered in her home in 2009, along with her then-teenage daughter Emma Neiderbrock, one of Emma’s friends Melanie Wells, and Emma’s father, Mark Neiderbrock.


Emma Neiderbrock at my wedding. Photo by J.Ember Hintz
Debra S. Kelly Photo by Andrea L. Parrish

Debra’s death was a catalyst that changed the course of my life. I stopped taking things for granted, and I began to question EVERYTHING, from my religious, moral, and social convictions to the very nature of reality.

Years later, after reading Stephenie Meyer’s tale of bloodthirsty monsters, unconditional love, and difficult childbirth, I was finally able to recognize the magic and evil that was so deeply rooted in my own story. It was in that culminating moment that I began to realize what I wanted to be, a storyteller, a creator of worlds, creatures, and characters that were both magical and monstrous.

That’s when Renae Martin was born; an innocent, who experiences horrible things at the hands of real-life monsters, who, despite being touched by evil, chooses to embrace the magical and the monsters natures that lives within all souls, and ultimately realizes what it truly means to be human.

Renae Martin is the primary protagonist in my novel, The Garden, the first book of my Eternal Return Series that follows Renae through her metamorphosis from a naive young woman to the most powerful creature on the planet. #NoDamsels

For anyone interested in learning about the tragic death of Debra S. Kelly that made national headlines, I recommend starting with this article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. Warning – Graphic Content.


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