SALEM – Fans of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore’s Jewish Book Month speaker series will be thrilled to learn that two favorite authors, Jenna Blum and Hank Phillippi Ryan, will appear at the upcoming Salem Literary Festival.
Presented by The Salem Athenaeum, the Salem Lit Fest will run in virtual and in-person format from Sept. 5 through Sept. 10 with a host of events that range from writing workshops and moderated author panels to a puppet show and a Spanish/English bilingual community read.
On Friday, Sept. 8, Blum will share the stage with Laurie Lico Albanese to speak about, “A Telling Story: Familiar Tales Retold” at Salem Academy Charter School. The free, in-person event will start at 7 p.m. (registration required).
GennaRose Nethercott will bring added value (and her handheld and shadow puppets) to the evening with a presentation of her novel, “Thistlefoot,” a reimagination of the centuries-old character Baba Yaga as a Jewish woman living in a shtetl in 1919 Russia, a time of civil war and pogroms. This charmed exploration of Jewish myth and lyrical prose is a sweeping epic rich in Eastern European folklore, sibling rivalry, and Kyiv magic.
Keynote speaker Blum is the author of three novels: “Those Who Save Us,’’ which won the Ribalow Prize awarded by Hadassah magazine and adjudged by Elie Wiesel; “The Lost Family,” and “The Stormchasers,” and a memoir about her dog, “Woodrow on the Bench.” She is cofounder/CEO of the online author platform A Mighty Blaze. She has taught writing workshops at Grub Street Writers in Boston for over 20 years.
Blum grew up in Montclair, N.J., a town with a robust Jewish population. Her dad was “Jewish in culture – a self-described Jew,’” and her mom, a “recovering Lutheran.”
Her Westchester paternal grandparents introduced her to lox and schmear, kugel, kasha, and Yiddish terms with which she still peppers certain conversations. She always had Jewish friends and identified strongly as a “half-Jewish girl.” Reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” affected her so deeply that she prepared for the Nazis’ inevitable arrival in Montclair by outfitting an attic hiding place with her favorite stuffed animals, books, and Lorna Doones.
In the mid-1990s, after a life-changing post-college trip to Germany with her mother, Blum immersed herself in research about the Third Reich, its causes, victims, and citizens. Of most importance to her were the four years she spent interviewing Jewish survivors in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation). “It was, and is, the greatest honor of my life,” she said by email.
Almost every survivor told her, “The world should know what we went through so it will never happen again.” As a writer and an activist, she takes the moral responsibility of transmitting the stories of those who no longer can speak for themselves.
“If I spent the rest of my life communicating what they went through, it would never be enough,” Blum said.
The main characters Anna (“Those Who Save Us”) and Peter Rashkin (“The Lost Family”) owe much of their full-fleshed emotional spectrum to Blum’s careful listening and deep-dive exploration. Although she used no actual survivor testimony in writing “Those Who Save Us,” out of respect for the “hallowed ground” those memories occupy, she refracted their anguish and horror through a fictional lens.
“That is another reason I wrote the novel: to pay survivors homage,” she said.
On Saturday, Sept. 9, Hank Phillippi Ryan fans will have the opportunity to hear her moderate an author discussion titled, “Crime Time: Secrets of Suspense.” The in-person event starts at 4 p.m. at the Community Life Center.
An on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV who has won 37 Emmy Awards, Ryan is also the USA Today bestselling author of 15 psychological thrillers, winning the most prestigious awards in the genre: five Agathas, five Anthonys, and the coveted Mary Clark Higgins Award.
Of growing up as one of the only Jewish kids in rural Indiana more than 55 years ago, Ryan said, “I didn’t know it was strange until it was strange.” At that time, she ascribed her lack of friends, dates, and invitations to garden variety unpopularity. She remembers wondering what she had done wrong until her mother explained that behaviors she took for granted – celebrating Jewish holidays, attending temple, observing Passover – marked her as “different.” Her high school class voted her “Most Individual.”
Ryan always loved reading, and was especially drawn to Nancy Drew books, Sherlock Holmes short stories, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. “I fell in love with storytelling, and the architecture of a mystery,” she said. That love blossomed into her first mystery novel, the Agatha Award-winning “Prime Time,” which she wrote in 2007 after she “simply had a good idea” while working at Channel 7 on what was otherwise an ordinary day. Finishing writing that book was encouraging evidence she could succeed as a writer.
Ryan crafts her books with her readers in mind, wanting them to be unable to resist finding out what happens next. She creates compelling characters, an important problem that needs to be solved, life-changing secrets and stakes, and an ending that gets justice and changes the world a little.
“The big key of suspense is to have readers care about what happens,” she said. Her fast-paced thrillers weave intricate plots, but also tackle thought-provoking themes like female empowerment and the power that persuasive words in the wrong hands can have to devastatingly change a person’s life.
Ryan, 72, considers herself the poster child for undertaking new pursuits at midlife and urges others to consider following suit. “I’m proof, as I sit here writing my 16th book, that it’s never too late to follow your dreams,” she said. Θ
For more information and to register for the Salem Literary Festival, visit salemlitfest.org.