Mallory Smith and Diane Shader Smith in 2017. Photo courtesy Diane Shader Smith.
Jewish arts and culture is a powerful vehicle for investigating Judaism and Jewish identities. It can also resonate in unexpected ways. We asked Diane Shader Smith to share the extraordinary story of her daughter Mallory Smith and her memoir, Salt in My Soul; and how The Jewish Book Council, a CANVAS grantee, helped promote the book itself, the Jewish values it expresses, and its vital message about phage therapy. —Ed.
By Diane Shader Smith
As a Jewish mother, I have a strong sense of responsibility to nurture my children. While I still get to do that with my son Micah, who is thriving at the age of 33, my beloved daughter Mallory, a radiant and beautiful soul, passed away at the age of 25. The coroner’s report recorded the cause of death as cystic fibrosis. But what really killed her was a superbug infection—that is, an infection by bacteria that had developed antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Now I can only nurture Mallory’s legacy—specifically, the 2,500 pages she’d written over ten years chronicling her daily life that she wanted me to bring to publication.
Culling through Mallory’s work was a daunting task, but Random House loved the manuscript and posthumously published Mallory’s memoir early in 2020 with the title Salt in My Soul. In fact, they called it “life-changing,” and put it on their shortlist for Pulitzer Prize consideration. A proud mama moment. The book was sure to be a bestseller.
The real challenge emerged not in curating Mallory’s journal entries, but in marketing her memoir. Despite effusive press reviews, potential readers assumed a memoir by a girl who died would be too depressing. To engage audiences, I spent six months crafting an engaging talk with colorful slides, and spent a year delivering it at different venues. Then Covid struck, and all my in-person talks were canceled or postponed.
Similarly, just before the pandemic, Three Arts Entertainment obtained the rights to Salt in My Soul and planned to create a compelling documentary, and filming also came to a halt when the world shut down. But director Will Battersby took advantage of this unexpected break to deeply explore Mallory’s story and give the project his undivided attention.
When Salt in My Soul, the documentary, was released in 2022 to rave reviews, Random House reissued the paperback. The question now was how to bring the book to a new audience. The publisher suggested I apply to The Jewish Book Council (JBC), a crucial literary organization that connects Jewish authors (and their reps) to Jewish audiences.
At JBC’s annual conference each spring, authors have the opportunity to pitch their book to the JBC Network, run by the incomparable Suzanne Swift. The Network is a collection of Jewish groups and organizations looking to program author events, and it takes a fascinating approach for the pitch: the speed-dating format. You write a two-minute elevator pitch to make a compelling case for why your book should be chosen for an event. The JBC also assigns you a coach to ensure your pitch conveys the unique value of the book. I was lucky to work with Arielle Landau.
In the case of Mallory’s memoir, the value is two-fold. First, her writing offers a rare look into the mind of a young woman trying to live fully while dying. Second, it reignites interest in a promising treatment for superbugs called phage therapy, which Mallory received under the FDA’s compassionate use program at the end of her life.
Bacteriophages are viruses that kill bacteria. Phage therapy, or the use of bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections, was discovered in the early 20th century; but antibiotics made a more appealing choice, due to their broad-spectrum efficacy, ease of use, and ease of mass production. Plus, you can’t patent a living organism.
Arielle helped me hone my pitch, which stressed that Mallory was a gifted storyteller who created poetry out of prosaic experiences; that she could serve as the face of the superbug crisis (such as Angelina Jolie did for BRCA); and thus Salt in My Soul could play a key role in public health.
The week before my scheduled pitch, I was on Capitol Hill urging Congress to pass the PASTEUR Act, bipartisan legislation that will, if passed, fund innovative treatments such as phage therapy to address the rapidly growing threat of AMR.
A few days later, I was in England, sharing Mallory’s story with a group of doctors, researchers, clinicians, professors, and scientists, who were working to find solutions to the AMR crisis.
Still in England on pitch day, as I logged on to wait my turn, it struck me that I was more nervous presenting to JBC members than I was to scientists and members of Congress. And I realized it was because the audience was composed of my people. Before this event, I hadn’t considered that Mallory, as a Jew, could serve as a role model to the Jewish community. That the themes of her book—of strength, resilience, and maintaining hope in the face of adversity—exemplify Jewish values. That seeing a Jewish person’s life and struggles documented can be validating and important for Jewish audiences. That Jews, who have a long history of involvement in social causes and advocacy, might be inspired to deepen their commitment to act.
I participated in the JBC pitch session in May of 2022 and received five invitations from JBC members to speak across the U.S. Each event was meaningful. Each was enjoyable. Each helped raise awareness of the things Mallory wrote about and stood for. My final event is June 28th on Zoom: I’ll be speaking to Women’s Philanthropy, part of the Jewish Federations of North America.
I only wish Mallory had lived long enough to see how the JBC propelled Salt in My Soul forward, extending its platform and reach. Losing a child is an unfathomable tragedy. But working with the Jewish Book Council has been a transformative experience. It has enabled me to channel my grief, turn my pain into purpose, and participate in the vibrant tapestry of Jewish life by connecting me with Jewish audiences.
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