Today, I am happy to welcome Shirley Reva Vernick to the blog.
Vernick is the author of four novels. The Blood Lie is an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Readers pick and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honoree. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection.
She is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. When not creating stories, she mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program.
Shirley! That last bit is intriguing all on its own! I am certain that we could spend an hour just talking about your work with the Prisoner Express program. What a mitzvah! But today, we’re here to chat about something altogether different and I’m excited to get started. Let’s begin, shall we? Tell us about your upcoming project.
Guest: Thanks for your warm welcome, Mirta! I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m delighted to be here today. My new upper-MG/early-YA novel is Ripped Away (Regal House Publishing, February 8, 2022). This story is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants to London during the Jack the Ripper spree, when xenophobia ran high.
In Ripped Away, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper spree. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered.
My purpose in writing Ripped Away is to illuminate this episode in history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate possible responses to intolerance. National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure. From the moment Abe and Mitzy are swept back in time to the infamous Jack the Ripper, readers will clamor to find out what happens next.”
Host: I applaud your efforts and motivation for writing this book. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?
Guest: Jewish history is incredibly rich—the people, places, philosophies, and so much more. This history is is important not just for contemporary Jews, but for the world, because Jews and their millennia-long experiences have been formative to modern sensibilities, science, ethics, politics, you name it. I believe that Jewish Historical Fiction allows meaningful access to these elements. It also inspires substantive conversations and cross-cultural understanding.
Host: That is very well said. Our history is so much more than what we normally find in school books, novels, and film. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?
Guest: Yes, the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I still go back and reread his timeless tales.
Host: One of Singer’s quotes states: “The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.” What did you discover that was unique, while researching Jack the Ripper and the Jewish community in the Victorian era? Were you moved or surprised by your findings?
Guest: Yes and yes! I was anguished to learn that London’s Jewish refugees, who had endured such hardship in Eastern Europe (think pogroms), finally got to a place that seemed reasonably safe, only to have the antisemitic attacks happen all over again. I was sadly surprised to learn that the city of London engaged in the antisemitic hysteria—for instance, examining the knives at kosher slaughterhouses.
Host: In researching your book, I found some interesting information on the protagonists. You state that these modern-day youngsters, Abe and Mitzy, are learning to deal with “formative issues” such as acceptance, hate, sacrifice, crushes, and the meaning of friendship. Can you pick a favorite amongst these two? Which of your characters resonate with you most?
Guest: It’s hard to pick a favorite “child”! But if pressed, I would say that Abe resonates with me most. He is a social outsider in the way I often felt as a youngster, the nerdy, unathletic, insecure kind. The kind who wants friends but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. And, of course, he’s a writer.
Host: I understand being an outsider! My grandparents were among the Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina during the riots and pogroms of January 1919—the so-called “Tragic Week.” Because of hateful rumors and insinuations, immigrant communities were attacked—none more so than the rusos.
In Ripped Away, you showcase how rumors about Jack the Ripper spread throughout London and how the Jewish community was implicated out of pure antisemitism. In today’s society, what with the advent of social media, rumors and false information are running rampant. Young people, in particular, are targeted. Their ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions seems to diminish while they spend countless hours scrolling online. How do Abe and Mitzy fare in Victorian London, where word of mouth spreads propaganda and false truths?
Guest: Abe, Mitzy and their new families must brave the police searches, riots and vitriol triggered by the antisemitic lies in Victorian London. I sometimes wonder whether they would have fared better or worse if social media had been available then. On the one hand, false propaganda can spread much more quickly and pervasively online. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that the voice of reason, of truth, might also be heard faster and more broadly with modern technology.
Host: Your bio is impressive, Shirley. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?
Guest: As a preschooler, I used to scribble on a scrap of paper and ask my mother what I’d written. Genius that she was, she read back “my” pithy prose or imagery-rich poetry. I figured, hey, I’m a writer already! Yes, I began early.
Host: One never knows when the writing bug will bite! I want to thank you once again for stopping by today. Tell us, where can we learn more about you and your work?
Guest: Thank you, Mirta! I really enjoyed this conversation and your thoughtful questions. Here are relevant links:
Author website: https://www.shirleyrevavernick.com
Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS9LNn4w2qc