New Voice: Shirley Reva Vernick on The Blood Lie

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Shirley Reva Vernick is the first-time author of The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos, 2011)(teachers’ guide). From the promotional copy:

One autumn afternoon in 1928, a Christian girl disappeared near her home in a small upstate New York town. By chance, it was the day before Yom Kippur. 

Someone started a rumor – that the Jews had kidnapped the child, murdered her, and drained her blood to use in their holiday foods. 

People bought the lie. The police bought the lie. And they decided to take action.

That is the true story of the blood libel that happened in Massena, NY, just a few years before Hitler took power in Germany and began using the blood libel to help justify the oppression and ultimate slaughter of the Jewish people. 

The Blood Lie is a novel inspired by the events in Massena. Delving into the minds of both the perpetrators and the casualties, it’s a story about hate crimes and loving acts, despair and hope, loss and redemption.

What is it like, to be a debut author (or illustrator or author-illustrator) in 2011? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

Being a debut author is a wild, sometimes frustrating, often surprising, somehow always life-affirming ride. I don’t know if that feeling is 2011-specific, but I’m guessing it’s not.

For me, the best part is the actual writing — that gritty process of using words to create characters, settings, emotions and, ultimately, cohesive stories. I love to sit with my laptop and my muse (a dog named Twinkles) and make a narrative happen. The selling part, on the other hand, is the price I have to pay to do what I love.

I think the biggest challenge for new authors nowadays is the state of the economy, as reflected in the closing or shrinking of bookstores. Still, I’m lucky to be writing YA at a time when this age market is so popular.

My biggest personal challenge has been to thicken my skin against rejection. It’s easy to equate “no” with “you are a lousy writer,” or “it’s not my cup of tea” with a slap in the face. And, let’s face it, in a bad economy, rejections are more plentiful. I’ve developed a whole set of affirmations to remind myself that I can write well, that I’m more than my writing, that I will get to “yes,” etc.

My biggest surprise? Actually, I came into it thinking nothing would surprise me. As a journalist, I already knew the importance of revising, for example, and that facts can be tricky to track down. What I didn’t know was how magnified those truths become when you’re writing a book-length piece based on events from decades past.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

At the risk of sounding mushy, it’s my mother! I’ve always loved writing, even before I could write. I used to sit on Mom’s lap and scribble something on paper, and she’d tell me what it “said.” It was always something brilliant, of course!

As I got older, she encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming an author, even when others advised me to do something more practical. She gave me much-appreciated pep talks, as well as some tough love, and it made all the difference in the world. She also instilled a love of reading in me.

Even though Mom isn’t here any longer, I still have — and cherish — the motivation and enthusiasm she engendered in me.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Mothering is challenging. Making a writing career is challenging. Doing both is uber-challenging.

I do it by compartmentalizing my time. I write when my daughters are at school or asleep; otherwise, it’s all kid stuff.

This works only when I respect Murphy’s Laws for writers. First, writing projects always take longer than expected. Second, parenting responsibilities frequently and unexpectedly dash your plans to write (think late-night fevers, cancelled play dates, snow days).

You’ve got to take these realities into account when negotiating deadlines — even when the only person you’re negotiating with is yourself.

If you have a spouse, relative or friend who’s willing/interested in helping with childcare, go for it!

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Shirley’s work space, featuring Twinkles.

I decided early on to become actively involved in promoting The Blood Lie. I’m using social media, including a Facebook author page and a website. I’m contacting book reviewers and author interviewers who publish online or in print (newspapers, magazines). I’m also reaching out to relevant historical and library associations. And, of course, I’ve been telling all my friends and family!

My wonderful publisher has also been promoting the book through posts on their website, tweets, a book trailer, and networking with media, libraries, and other pertinent organizations.

I already knew a fair amount about promotion from my early work in public relations. But I was/am a neophyte when it comes to social media. Fortunately, my husband is a computer guy and has been instrumental in this endeavor. I have to say — and I guess I already did say — that I don’t love doing promotion. It’s not that people are mean to me — they’re surprisingly kind, once you reach them — but I just don’t enjoy the process. If I did, I probably would have stayed in public relations!

Fellow debut authors, do devote some time to promoting the book you worked so long and hard to get out there. But work smart — you need to start working on your next project!

When it comes to print media, keep in mind that many city newspapers only cover authors who have a local connection (you live there, you’re doing an event there, your book takes place there).

Finally, try to think of it all as a training ground for promoting your second book, which, with any luck, you’ve already got brewing!

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