For more than two decades, Paul Hertneky of Hancock has worked as a versatile freelance writer, accruing hundreds of publishing credits to his name. His articles and stories on a variety of subjects have appeared in newspapers, magazines and book anthologies, as well as in online venues.
He’s written a couple of screenplays, created comedy sketches for television and commentaries for National Public Radio. At separate times in his career, he’s specialized in food and travel writing, winning awards for each.
Above all, Hertneky is a storyteller, who has just written his first book, “Rust Belt Boy.”
It’s a project close to his heart, to which he brings a unique and highly personal perspective.
The nonfiction story, which took six years to complete, interweaves his memories and youthful experiences with the history of his hometown of Ambridge, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh. The former steel mill town is located in the Rust Belt, the nation’s industrial heartland of once-thriving manufacturing towns that stretches across the Midwest and Northeastern states.
“I’d never been interested in writing a book,” he said. “I’d written a couple of stories about Ambridge … It’s the story of another ruined industrial town. In the book, I wove my own story of 22 years into the story of place. I braided history and memoir. People write fiction all the time about growing up in the Rust Belt, but no one’s written a memoir.”
Hertneky, 56, felt compelled to write the book, he says, after returning to his hometown several years ago to interview a demolition magnate for a story. The man had come to town to demolish the mills, restore the land and rebuild parts of the town.
“My father worked for the American Bridge Company in Ambridge,” said Hertneky. “Everyone worked for it.”
“In 1975, six million baby boomers left the Rust Belt,” he said. “I wrote my story for them, and for those who stayed, who are riding it out. It reflects the experience of more than six million people. It’s the story of the town and the story of being young in the Rust Belt.”
Growing up in Ambridge, Hertneky never imagined becoming a writer. An avid reader with a penchant for stories, he studied English literature at the University of Pittsburgh, then landed a job writing letters and copy for a local steel hauling company. In the late ’70’s, he relocated to Boston as circulation director for an alternative newspaper. While there, he met his wife, Robbie, to whom he’s now been happily married for more than 30 years.
As his career advanced, the couple moved frequently: first to New York, then to Atlanta where he worked as an ad agency copywriter until moving on to new opportunities.
“We moved 13 times in 10 years, Atlanta, New Haven, Newburyport,” he said. “We came here when my wife accepted a job in development at an artist colony in Johnson, Vermont.”
Hertneky had worked on and off as a waiter and bartender in his early years, and moonlighted in restaurants periodically throughout his life.
Armed with that experience, he broke into writing for restaurant trade publications, and did book reviews on radio stations. Shortly before his 1989 move to the Monadnock Region, he took a leap of faith, and became a full-time freelance writer, gathering clients among local design firms and agencies.
Food writing became his specialty for several years. He wrote about the food industry, did some recipe development, and served as senior editor of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine. He even followed the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team, a competitive team of chefs, throughout Europe and Asia, and eventually launched into travel writing.
Beyond that, he taught writing classes at Antioch University New England for a decade, earned a master’s of fine arts degree , and worked as a sous chef at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, for creative inspiration.
It was at Antioch that he met his longtime friend, Sy Montgomery, noted animal writer and fellow Hancock resident. The two share a love of cooking, and have a longstanding holiday tradition of baking Christmas cookies together.
“I first met Paul when he took a class at Antioch that I was teaching,” she said. “He was such a great writer that I instantly discovered that he should be teaching the class, not taking it. We later taught at Antioch together.
“He’s a fantastic writer and fantastic observer,” she said. “There’s no other writer I know who worked in a steel mill. It’s a background that you typically don’t hear about. People who work in steel mills usually don’t write books about their experiences. It’s a whole part of his history that’s unique. I’ve read his book manuscript, and it’s wonderful.”
Besides his work, Hertneky is invested in the local community. As a volunteer, he serves on the leadership board of Monadnock Transitional Shelter, and on the allocations committee of the Monadnock United Way. He also is employed as program manager at Art for Water, a Harrisville nonprofit organization that raises public awareness of the lack of water in the world.
Along with writing, it’s become his passion.
“We go to schools and civic institutions, anywhere people gather, to talk about the scarcity of water in the world,” he said. “Five million people die because of lack of water. We ask people to reflect and write about water on specially made pieces of paper that we turn into art installations.”
Last year, for several months, the organization exhibited a large-scale installation at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough. A second installation is displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., through June of next year.
Future initiatives involve St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, as well as an extensive project with the Connecticut River Valley Watershed Association, spanning from Pittsburg to Seabrook.
“We’re teaching and gathering from St. Johnsbury, Vermont all the way down the watershed,” he said.
He’s also frequently invited to give public readings at various area venues, including Oct. 2 at Toadstool Books in Peterborough, where he will read a story about the North Country of New Hampshire.
“It’s become my milieu, stories of industrial areas in decline,” he said.
As for the future? He’s not far from completing his second book. It’s an autobiographical travel narrative set in Greece, which intertwines myth with personal experience. Beyond that, he welcomes new adventures.
“I’m a creature of curiosity,” he said. “As a writer, I get to indulge my curiosity. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have that be a part of my life.
“I’ve played out the solitude of the freelance writer,” he said. “I’d like to work more with people and organizations now. I’m opening up my perspective on what I’ll do. I can become a storyteller to raise funds, to promote a cause. I can use what I’ve learned about researching and telling stories to do that.”