Mary Beth Sammons: Searching Personal Ancestry for Universal Truths

Award-winning journalist and author of more than a dozen books Mary Beth Sammons shares how her mother's request to learn the fate of Sammons' maternal grandfather led her to learn more about herself, her community, and publish a book in the process.
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Mary Beth Sammons is an award-winning journalist and author of more than a dozen books including Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude and The Grateful Life: The Secret to Happiness, and the Science of Contentment. She is a cause-related communications consultant for numerous nonprofits and healthcare organizations including The Cristo Rey Network, Rush University Medical Center and more. 

Mary Beth Sammons

Mary Beth Sammons

(How to write about family in a memoir.)

She lives in Chicago's suburbs. Mary Beth's experience has run the gamut. She has been the Bureau Chief for Crain's Chicago Business, a features contributor for The Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, and The Irish American News, and a daily news reporter for The Daily Herald and AOL News. Learn more at: https://marybethsammons.com/.

In this post, Sammons share what inspired her latest book (Ancestry Quest), how she was surprised by the research process after a career as a journalist and author, and much more!

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Name: Mary Beth Sammons
Literary agent: Charlotte Raymond
Book title: Ancestry Quest: How Stories From the Past Can Heal the Future
Publisher: Viva Editions
Expected release date: November 2020
Genre: Genealogy and Heraldry
Previous titles: The Grateful Life: The Secret to Happiness and the Science of Contentment; Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude; and Second Acts That Change Lives: Making a Difference in the World.

Elevator pitch for the bookAncestry Quest guides you through the joys and pitfalls of using DNA and genealogical research to find out more about your family’s ancestry. These stories, heart-wrenching and warming, intimate and inspiring, showcase and distill the lessons learned in the search for what really makes us who we really are—and promise to redefine family in ways never possible.

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What prompted you to write this book?

It seems everywhere we turn these days someone is talking about someone whose coworker or cashier at the coffee shop just found out a shocking discovery about the family they thought they had. I know firsthand. This book was largely inspired by my own ancestral quest.

(Johanna Garton: The intersection of mountaineering and crossed paths and lives.)

As a veteran newspaper journalist and author, I was accustomed to digging for information to tell other people's stories. But several years ago, the tables turned. On the morning my 86-year-old mother was diagnosed with a rare duodenum cancer and given four months to live, she reached out to me with one urgent request: "Mary, please find out whatever happened to my father."

Holding her hand at her bedside in the GI lab of Loyola University Medical Center just outside Chicago, I made a promise to find the man who mysteriously disappeared in 1929 when she was only two, her sister six months. His abrupt departure left his daughters and my recently immigrated Irish grandmother behind in a trail of heartbreak, hardships, and crushed souls. Thus, began my quest to find Austin McMahon, 26 years old at the time he fled. Until my mother's end-of-life request, his name and whereabouts were strictly taboo, a man lost to his family and buried in an abyss of absence, anxiety, and fear.

I became Nancy Drew, the sleuth of Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Google, and 23andMe.com. I launched a relentless internet and cross-continental search to unlock the clues behind the mysterious disappearance of my mother's father. I wanted to find a way to conduct my search and share the journeys of others who were walking along side me.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I first got the idea for this book five years ago when I was with my mother during her final months and she asked me to find out what happened to her father. At the same time, a growing number of friends and colleagues were talking about ancestry searches and so myself and an author I have written other books with pitched the idea to our agent and publishers, but it was originally turned down. 

Then about a year-and-a-half ago with the steady rise of people doing their DNA tests, we tweaked the idea to focus on surprise stories, some say there is growing epidemic of surprises and we decided to focus on the stories. We got the green light from Viva and started researching and writing in the spring of 2019. 

My co-writer had a life experience that pulled her off the project and so from December of 2019 through March of 2020, I went into my own pre-COVID-19 quarantine researching, conducting interviews, and writing and editing the book. It was a fast and intense project.

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Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

As a journalist for most of my career, I thought I was an expert on researching stories and finding the answer to what I was looking for. In this book, I discovered that despite how passionate I was about answering my mother's plea and finding out what happened to my grandfather, my reporting hit a brick wall. 

Despite my digging, my investment in research and traveling to Ireland for answers, writing query letters to government agencies etc., I had to complete the book without all the answers. It was hard to let go of my commitment to find a final answer and so even through the final edit, I continued to do the reporting, hoping my pursuit would uncover some answers.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I was surprised by the serendipitous course of events that happened for me in writing the book. For example, in doing research (to the very end), I discovered that one of the men in my writing group, who I knew for several years, was part of my larger family clan. 

(Jennie Fields: Mining family stories for historical fiction.)

It turned out he was the president of the international group and connected me overnight to the clan genealogist. By the next morning, I had a volume of the history, which included my grandfather's history (before his disappearance) myself, and even my children. And the fact that the comedian Jimmy Fallon's great-great grandmother is the sister to my great-great grandmother. 

I think the surprise was that much of the information I was looking for was close by, but I never knew until I started asking.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Through this book, I have shared the journey and the remarkable, life-changing stories of real-life people who yearn to know more about their ancestors. I believe these personal odysseys are universal stories, ones that I hope will captivate and inspire others to begin their search. 

I think the book will be most inspiring for those who have uncovered some painful facts about their families, but who will know they are not alone, and that the stories can help them gain empathy and compassion for those who came before them, and lead to some healing. 

My favorite author Frank Delaney said: "Within our origins we search for our anchors, our steadiness. And everyone's journey to the past is different. It might be found in a legend or in the lore of an ancestor's courage or an inherited flair. Or it might be found simply by standing on the earth once owned by the namesake tribe, touching the stone they carved, finding their spoor. In all cases we are drawn to the places whence they came—because to grasp who they were may guide what we might become." 

During these times when many of us are more confined to our homes, there is no better time to explore our ancestries.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

When I began my career as a reporter for a local newspaper in the Chicago area, I harbored a dream to write a book and to write for New York consumer magazines. I joke that I could wallpaper my house with all the rejection letters I received during those early years to my queries with book and story ideas. 

(The 10 themes of legacy writing.)

I think much of it is timing, having the right idea at the right time, and then working hard to develop that idea and get it in front of a publisher that sees the potential too. I also jumped at any opportunity to improve my craft through writing classes and workshops. 

My advice: Do not give up. The biggest challenge is finding the energy to stay in the game and keep searching for the silver lining.

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