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Art People: Shirley Reva Vernick of Amherst | novelist

  • Shirley Reva Vernick at her home in Amherst July 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Shirley Reva Vernick at her home in Amherst July 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

During years of doing freelance journalism and writing in-house publications, Shirley Reva Vernick had another goal in mind: to write fiction.

“I’d always wanted to be a novelist,” says Vernick, who lives in Amherst. “I can remember my mom taking me to the library, and I’d look at all the books on the shelves and think, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”

Vernick, 52, has come to realize that ambition. With her two daughters now 18 and 16, she’s had more time to devote to writing fiction and has published two books of Young Adult (YA) fiction with Cincos Puntos Press, in El Paso, Texas; a third book with the publisher is due out next year.

Her first book, 2011’s “The Blood Lie,” earned a number of literary awards. It’s a historical novel based on a 1928 episode in Massena, N.Y., an upstate town Vernick grew up where Jewish residents were falsely accused of kidnapping and murdering a Christian girl to use her blood in preparation for Yom Kippur.

Her new novel, “Remember Dippy,” is a more lighthearted story, set in contemporary Vermont and narrated by 13-year-old Johnny, a somewhat sarcastic but likeable kid whose summer is off to a bad start. Johnny’s mother has to work out of state for a few months and his parents are divorced, so Johnny has to move in with his aunt and help look after his 15-year-old autistic cousin, Remember.

“Yes, that’s right, his name is Remember — straight out of some New Age baby-naming book,” says Johnny. “He’s what polite people call different. I call him weird.”

But Johnny will make important discoveries about himself and his cousin, as well as the value of friendship and understanding, during the course of the book. That’s a theme that Vernick, who based Remember’s character in part on some members of her extended family who are “neurologically different,” says is key to her writing approach.

“I’m really interested in the concept of difference,” she says. “What does it feel like to be outside the mainstream? What is it like to be different, or not to be different, like you can’t find your own identity? How do you respond to someone from a different culture or background?”

And YA fiction, a broad classification generally considered to be books for readers age 11 to 18, is a good format for looking at those issues, Vernick says.

“I’m fascinated by that age. It’s a time when so many things can seem so vivid and fresh or are strongly felt. ... It’s the first time you’re confronting some of these important questions of who you are and what your place in the world is.”

Vernick says her work is driven by voice and character. Plot is important, she says, but what really interests her in other books, and what she aims to develop in her own novels, is a strong sense of character and a compelling narrative.

“If you have that, you can tell practically any story,” she says. “When I’m writing, I have a character or set of characters that feel very real to me, and I let them duke it out on the page — I’m letting them help guide me in the story.”

She’s written the first draft to a fourth novel and is looking forward to developing it further. Just to find herself able now to write the fiction she always wanted to “is really a dream come true,” she says.

—Steve Pfarrer

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