Interview: Shirley Vernick
Current Mood: hopeful
Current Song: The Golden Girls
In 1928, a little girl from New York disappeared, and a young Jewish boy was thought to be her murderer - but he was truly innocent. This real-life tragedy inspired Shirley Reva Vernick's debut novel, The Blood Lie, which will be available September 1st. Shirley's relatives were directly victimized by the real event, and she grew up in the town where it happened, yet she didn't know it until she was a college student. In her own words:
Shirley Vernick: I was already in college when I first learned about it. I came home for fall break my sophomore year with an assignment for a sociology class. Students had to identify a local community conflict – past or present – and write a paper about it. I remember thinking, I'm screwed – no juicy controversies ever happen in my dinky little town of Massena, New York. So I asked my dad, who also grew up in Massena, if he had any ideas. That's when he told me, for the first time, about the blood libel that happened in Massena when he was a high school senior. It was just before Yom Kippur, and a little Christian girl disappeared while playing in the woods near her house. The next thing you know, the local Jews – including my dad's family – were being accused of kidnapping and murdering that little girl and baking her blood in their "holiday foods." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. In America? In the 20th century?
Little Willow: Oh my goodness. Why did they involve your father's family?
Shirley Vernick: My father's family owned a popular clothing store in town. A state trooper showed up at my father's house late the night of the disappearance and made my grandfather open up the store. The trooper then searched the store to see if the Jews had stashed the little girl's corpse there.
Little Willow: That makes me shudder, to say the least. When (and why) did you decide to write The Blood Lie?
Shirley Vernick: I knew I wanted to write something more than a term paper the minute I learned about the Massena blood libel. I always wanted to be a writer, and this was something that not only spoke to me, but grabbed me by the throat and screamed at me.
Little Willow: As it's a work of fiction inspired by real-life events, how far did you deviate from the facts? How did you distinguish between reality and fiction?
Shirley Vernick: Since there is little or no clear documentation of the details of this blood libel, and since different people remembered it differently, I had to go beyond the basic facts. So I did my best to adhere to the essence of the real event, and then I added details, including personalities and subplots. I also changed names.
Little Willow: The Blood Lie is your debut novel. Do you have other novels in the works?
Shirley Vernick: I do have another YA novel (a supernatural thriller) plus a middle-grade novel in the works. Both are strictly fictional and are a blast to work on.
Little Willow: Congratulations on your career as a journalist. Your articles have been published in Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping, as well as newspapers and college publications. Do you work regularly for any of these publications?
Shirley Vernick: I used to work regularly on-assignment for several Harvard University publications and for some newspapers, but mostly I like to come up with a story idea and then pitch whatever publication I think matches my concept. Since I've started writing books, I do fewer freelance articles, but I still enjoy it.
Little Willow: Which piece has been the most fun to research and write?
Shirley Vernick:Hmm, that's a tough one – because I've been lucky enough to work on so many fun pieces. Okay, the most fun was probably the article I wrote for Cosmo on the mind-body connection. I got to interview some amazing experts, including Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil, and "interview" my friends and colleagues for real-life anecdotes.
Little Willow: Sounds like fun! Which piece was the most heartwarming?
Shirley Vernick: Most heartwarming would be the piece I wrote for Highlights Magazine about the salamander tunnels in the town where I currently live. The salamanders have to cross a busy street to get from their forest homes to the vernal pond where they mate each spring. Think: road kill. So a whole bunch of people got together and had tunnels built under the road, along with guide fences to coax the critters into the tunnels. It's working! I got to spend a couple of days with young kids who were helping to mend the guide fences while they learned about ecosystems.
Little Willow: Which was the most heart-wrenching?
Shirley Vernick: The story I did for the Harvard Gazette about a homeless shelter the university was involved with. I spent an overnight at the shelter, experiencing it and talking to the guests – finding out how they wound up homeless, how they're trying to improve their situation, and what they're going through emotionally and physically.
Little Willow: As you approach a deadline, do you find yourself pulling your hair out, or do you have a nice, steady schedule that lends itself to completing pieces well before their due dates?
Shirley Vernick: Steady schedule – what does that mean?! No, I don't have a consistent daily or weekly (or anything) schedule. It all depends on what's going on with my various projects, not to mention my various children. However, I do try to minimize the deadline panic by (a) getting stuff done ahead of time when I have the luxury of a long lead time, and (b) being realistic with myself when asked to set my own deadline. This second strategy involves always remembering Murphy's Law!
Little Willow: I know what you mean! You now live in Western Massachusetts, in a town that's a certified fair-trade community. What moved you to help with the certification?
Shirley Vernick: I feel strongly that fair trade is good for my community (the purchasers), for their community (the suppliers), and therefore for the world. I belong to the Social Action group of my local synagogue, and we decided to take on the fair trade challenge.
Little Willow: Is your family involved as well?
Shirley Vernick: My children have helped bring the fair-trade gospel into their schools.
Little Willow: Tell me about the storytelling website Story Bee and how others may get involved.
Shirley Vernick: I love http://www.storybee.org! Here's the scoop: With the click of a mouse, children and teens can listen to free online audio recordings of stories being told by professional storytellers. The roster of tellers includes such talents as: Onawumi Jean Moss, former associate dean at Amherst College and winner of the Zora Neale Hurston Award for Storytelling; Eshu Bumpus, a multicultural storyteller and accomplished jazz vocalist; Tom McCabe, a Parents' Choice Award winner and the director of The Teachers Institute at Smith College; and Peggy Melanson, storyteller, cancer survivor, Olympic torch bearer, and newspaper columnist. We're adding stories all the time, and we categorize them for age appropriateness.
Little Willow: Do you ask storytellers to submit their work, or may anyone submit?
Shirley Vernick: We do ask some tellers to submit their work, but we also welcome unsolicited contributions. Please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Little Willow: Thank you for chatting with me, Shirley!
Shirley's website BloodLibel.org is currently under construction. In the meantime, you can leave her a note on GoodReads - and don't forget to visit Story Bee!
This interview is a part of the Summer Blog Blast Tour! Check out today's SBBT schedule:
Monday, July 11th
Tara Altebrando at Chasing Ray
Shirley Vernick at Bildungsroman
Jack Ferraiolo at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at Writing & Ruminating
If you love writing, reading, and reading interviews with writers, make sure to follow the SBBT all week long. Click here for the full schedule.
Read my 2013 interview with Shirley Vernick.