I recently posted about Shirley Vernick’s time-traveling thriller, Ripped Away. I enjoyed the book so much, that I wanted to know more! Author Shirley Vernick was kind enough to answer some questions; read and enjoy.
MRI: Ripped Away is an incredible time-travel story and work of historical fiction! Can you tell me how you discovered that Jewish immigrants in London came under suspicion of being linked to – or being – Jack the Ripper? I feel like this is a big historical cover-up!
SV: To answer this question, I need to take you back (way back) to my student days, when history was presented to me as a string of loosely knit factoids. It was cold, impersonal, distant—and not much fun to read, research or write about.
Things changed, though, when, as a college sophomore, I serendipitously learned that Real History had happened in my own hometown, a remote village on the Canadian border. My sociology professor had sent us off for fall break with an assignment: identify a local conflict, past or present, and write a paper analyzing it. So I asked around and learned that an anti-Semitic incident called a blood libel had occurred in my town in the 1920s. A small Christian girl had disappeared (in truth, she’d only gotten lost while playing in the woods behind her house), and the local Jews were accused of murdering her and taking her blood for a ritual sacrifice. The whole Jewish community was targeted with interrogations, property searches, boycotts, and threats of physical harm. A few years after that, Hitler would use the blood libel as part of his attack on Jews.
Learning about the local blood libel was a turning point for me. It showed me that history is made of real, three-dimensional people, some of whom are a lot like me, others of whom are very different. It proved that seemingly isolated incidents are often part of a complex web of issues. And it demonstrated that the past ripples into the future, into the now.
I quickly became hooked on history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites. Years later, in one of the history sites I follow, I happened to read that London’s Jewish immigrants were suspected of producing Jack the Ripper. By that time, I was already a children’s novelist and knew that this would be the subject of my next book.
MRI: Will we see any more adventures with Abe and Mitzy? Or will Zinnia set up shop and send some other tweens on an adventure?
SV: What a great idea for a series! But while Abe, Mitzy and Zinnia live on in my mind, I don’t have a current plan for a sequel.
MRI: Related to that question, what other historical periods would you like to visit?
SV: My novel The Sky We Shared (Lee & Low Books), was released in June 2022. It takes place during WWII and is also based on true events, both in the U.S. and Japan.
Next, I’d love to write about the 2020s from the viewpoint of someone in the 2070s. I think it would be a great challenge –– and a blast –– to imagine how our “now” will seem to someone in 50 years.
MRI: What is your research process like when you’re writing? Any good tips for readers and future authors?
SV: When writing historical fiction, I immerse myself in the specific event of interest, as well as in the broader socioeconomics, culture and zeitgeist of that era. This entails doing a lot of one of my favorite activities: reading! Regarding the Ripper history specifically, I read newspaper reports from 1888 (the year of the Ripper), court documents, and diverse modern analyses of the crimes. To understand what it was like to live in the London tenements at the time, I used relevant books, government websites, museum information, and other resources. How much would a loaf of bread have cost in 1888? What were some common idioms people used? What was the outdoor market experience like?
My first piece of advice for future authors is: keep reading and learning! It’s the best way to discover amazing true stories, quirky historical figures, and fascinating subcultures to write about. My second suggestion is: find a way to make your research process fun. This can be as simple as reminding yourself that the research isn’t just the tired sandwich you must eat before you can have dessert. The research is a vital and potentially captivating dive into another time and place. And the more experience you get with it, the smoother and more pleasurable it will feel.
Thanks so much to Shirley Vernick for (virtually) sitting down and chatting with me!