The story behind The Blessed by Tonya Hurley
I’ve always wanted to write a book about martyrs. Ever since I was little, I was both fascinated and horrified by their stories and the imagery I’d seen and heard from my grandparents and in churches. Very powerful stuff–gruesome and yet glorious. Girls who decided at very young ages to stand up for what they believed in, and gave their lives to defend their beliefs rather than deny them. I didn’t want to write a theological book, but I did want to explore the commitment these girls had, their inner strength.
When I was on tour for ghostgirl, I found myself visiting the churches in each city–especially in Europe. I happened upon one in Valencia, Spain, that turned out to be the one they believed housed the Holy Grail. I sat there and stared at it. How powerful it was to just be in the same room as all this faith–people coming in, losing themselves completely in the presence this relic.
I thought about the whole love and sacrifice aspect and all the various ways that dynamic plays out in life and in relationships. I opened up a copy of Butler’s Lives of the Saints that was sitting on a bookshelf. As I browsed through it, I read with awe about the lives and legends of the earliest female saints and martyrs, most of whom died horrible deaths while still in their teens. They made the ultimate sacrifices. It was all starting to come together as I read. The stories of Saints Lucy, Agnes and Cecilia touched me particularly. It occurred to me that these were some of the first young adult stories, filled with passion and pain, and they gave a whole new, yet ancient, perspective on supernatural romance.
I started thinking about what it would be like to have that sort of faith, that sort of dedication to an idea, to a person, and if it even existed these days, and I went from there. I always knew The Blessed was going to be dark, gritty and somewhat violent, even very violent, if I was going to stay true to the legends themselves. I wasn’t so much interested in retelling these martyr stories as reimagining them, mashing them up, exploring them in a contemporary setting and with a modern sensibility.
I based the characters on people that I’ve known and worked with and a little bit on myself and my own experiences coming to New York from Pittsburgh in the early nineties to “make it” in the music business. There are parallels to the starlets I worked with at that time during my years as a celebrity publicist and to the whole idea and nature of fame. I came to realize that these martyrs were actually the ultimate superstars–of all time. No fifteen minutes for them.
Finally, I drew on familiar settings and situations from my Brooklyn neighborhood, where old churches are regularly shuttered and converted to condos, people still proudly display weathered statues of Jesus and Mary in their front yards, and elaborate processions in honor of various patron Saints are commonplace. Living there, the juxtaposition of old and new is an everyday fact of life and provides very fertile ground for a writer. This story is definitely my love letter to Brooklyn–as the borough is just as much a character as the three girls.
In the end, The Blessed is a story about love, death, and faith. About an enigmatic boy and three girls who are mysteriously drawn to him one stormy night at the lowest point of their lives. All searching for something, though they don’t quite know what or even why. The Blessed is also about what happens when you find that which you seek. I was raised Catholic but I don’t think you need to have a particular religious background or be religious at all to appreciate the characters and the conflicts. The themes of self-awareness, self-acceptance and empowerment I sought to address are, I think, universal. I’ve always been drawn to religious subject matter in art, history, philosophy and literature, and The Blessed was really exciting for me to incorporate that sort of narrative into a contemporary YA trilogy without getting preachy.
Creating The Blessed has been an incredible experience. It is the most challenging thing I’ve ever written by far, and I’ve tried to stay involved in every aspect of the release from jacket design to promotion. From the cover image and the reverse jacket, which we worked on for months with eastern European art star Natalie Shau and cover designer Lizzy Bromley at Simon & Schuster, to the amazing trailer we shot at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. I’m thrilled by every bit of it and I hope my readers will be, too.