If you’ve ever had to board up the windows of your home and run for the hills because a monstrous storm was headed your way, you’ll understand what I faced last August. In a bizarre turn of events, it was also the moment I received an offer for my first novel.

Now?” I shouted at my Blackberry. “Seriously? Now?!”

I did not expect to sell my first novel while dangling from a ladder in the midst of preparing the family homestead for a hurricane. This also happened to be the very same week that we on the East Coast experienced a very rare earthquake.

But strangest of all was that my novel sold instantly. The first editor who read it made an offer, even before I had time to start worrying. I had expected to suffer stoically while my precious manuscript made the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and, perhaps, never to find a loving home at all.

So it was astonishingly good news but surreal timing. In the 15 years since my husband and I moved to our New Jersey seaside home, this was the first time we’d had to evacuate. New York’s mayor Mike Bloomberg was calling Hurricane Irene “The Storm That No One Dare Ignore.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, was just yelling at everyone to “get the hell off the beach.”

Earthquake, hurricane, first novel sold. “Well,” I thought, “if we lose the house, at least I sold my novel.”

The truth is that many of us in the book business live for surprises—not necessarily earthquakes or hurricanes, but a happier variety of unexpected events. Editors will say that the best part of their careers is that rare moment when the promise of genius lands on their desk in an unsolicited manuscript: oh, joy, to discover something wonderful on an ordinary day.

Publishers, of course, yearn for a surprise bestseller so gargantuan that it knocks the Earth off its axis, exhausting the accounting department and making the shareholders happy.

Writers, naturally, dream of becoming authors. Authors dream of writing a bestseller. Bestselling authors want to write more bestsellers.

And everyone hopes for big prizes.

That’s a lot of hoping, dreaming, and yearning. Despite the uncertainty of the economy and changes in the industry, book publishing remains a business in which legions of people are working very hard, against very slim odds, to create magic.

Why? Because we believe in magic.

And yet, we are not seen as risk takers. The creation and production of books is still viewed as a civilized if not stodgy arena, a field populated by people whose concept of self-adornment is a pair of reading glasses dangling from a chain around their neck. Rumpled shirts, sweaters with suede elbow patches and cat hair, and sensible shoes—that remains the image of those who love books, whether we create, produce, sell, loan, recommend, or simply read them.

But, I contend, our field is about discovery. It’s about taking chances. And that is why I left my comfort zone and, for the first time, tried my hand at fiction.

It was terrifying, liberating, and risky. As the author or coauthor of eight nonfiction books, including the 1993 bestseller–turned–Broadway play, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, no one ever expected me to switch genres. Including me. But one day I woke up and decided to try it.

In a way, I played it safe. I followed the old adage, write what you know and love. Mine is a Southern novel. I loved returning to my childhood in South Carolina during the 1960s and to my young adult years in Florida in the early ’80s. What delicious fun I had with the plot, a story line inspired by my late mother-in-law, who, as a middle-aged, free-spirited Boston beauty, struggled to adjust to rural Florida when she moved there with her husband and children in 1962.

Before I knew it, I had a full-length manuscript, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. And miracle of miracles, it was snapped up by Atria faster than you can say, “Howdy, y’all.”

Oh, yes, about the hurricane. A tidal surge roared down our street, swirled completely around our house and then went back out to sea. In what seems like a season of small miracles, the plywood and sandbags held strong.