Monday, April 14, 2014

Author: Susan Meissner Interview + Giveaway! (US/Can only)

I'd like to welcome Susan Meissner to the blog today to celebrate the publication of her newest novel, A Fall of Marigolds from NAL Trade, a division of Penguin. Stick around until the end for a fabulous giveaway that you don't want to miss!

Welcome to Books à la Mode, Susan! Let's get this interview started.

Will you please share a brief bio with us?

Susan Meissner was born in San Diego, California, the second of three. She spent her childhood in just two houses.

Her first writings are a laughable collection of oddly worded poems and predictable stories she wrote when she was eight.

She attended Point Loma College in San Diego, and married her husband, Bob, who is now an associate pastor and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, in 1980. When she is not working on a new novel, she is directing the small groups ministries at The Church at Rancho Bernardo. She also enjoy teaching workshops on writing and dream-following, spending time with my family, music, reading great books, and traveling.

Readers, here's a bit about the book, which was released in February!

A Fall of Marigolds

A beautiful scarf, passed down through the generations, connects two women who learn that the weight of the world is made bearable by the love we give away...

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries…and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers…the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

I’ve long been a history junkie, especially with regard to historical events that involve ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. A couple years ago I viewed a documentary by author and filmmaker Lorie Conway called Forgotten Ellis Island, a hauntingly poignant exposé on the section of Ellis Island no one really has heard much about: its hospital. The two man- made islands that make up the hospital buildings haven’t been used in decades and are falling into ruins, a sad predicament the documentary aptly addresses. The documentary’s images of the rooms where the sick of a hundred nations waited to be made well stayed with me. I knew there were a thousand stories pressed into those walls of immigrants who were just a stone’s throw from a new life in America. They were so close they could almost taste it. But unless they could be cured of whatever disease they’d arrived with, they would never set foot on her shores. Ellis Island hospital was the ultimate in-between place—it lay between what was and what could be. A great place to set a story!

Your last few novels have had historical components interwoven within a contemporary story. Why do you prefer that kind of structure?

Living in Europe for five years awakened my love for history. It’s like it was always there but my time spent overseas just woke it up. When I think back to the subjects I did well in and that came easy to me in high school and college, it was always English and history, never math or science. I appreciate the artistry of math and the complexity of science, but neither subject comes easy to me. History has the word “story” in it; that’s what it is. It’s the story of everyone and everything. How could I not love it? Study history and you learn very quickly what we value as people; what we love, what we fear, what we hate, what we are willing die for. History shows us where we’ve been and usually has lessons for us to help us chart where we’re going.

This is your first general market novel after having written more than a dozen books for the inspirational market. Why the switch?

I got my start in the inspirational market and am immensely grateful for that experience. Every published novelist wants to connect with her ideal reader. We don’t all like the same genres and we don’t all like the same style and voice. I believe a great many of my ideal readers shop in the general marketplace because that’s where I shop. My favorite authors—among them Kate Morton, Geraldine Brooks, Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Diane Setterfield—are all general marketplace authors. Add to this that my faith threads are always subtle rather than obvious, then the move to the general market place seems like a great way for me to connect with more readers.

My approach to faith in my writing is one that I liken to the subtlety of God’s presence and influence in the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. The faith thread in the Book of Esther is as subtle as it can be—God is never even mentioned—and yet the story is powerfully told and the virtues of loyalty, trust, hope, and courage are obvious. I have never thought of myself as writer of Christian fiction but rather a Christian who writes fiction.

I think that's a beautiful approach! What will readers already familiar with your style find different about A Fall of Marigolds?

I would say any difference between my last book and this one is minimal. The takeaway of A Fall of Marigolds is heavily influenced by the idea of sacrificial love—as great a theme as any—as well as the decision we all must make as to whether we believe all of life is random or that there is purpose and design and therefore a Designer. I have never thought of my books as inspirational in nature, even when I was first starting out. I have not sought to point people to my theological positions or anyone else’s. I merely and only want to tell stories that compel my readers to ponder anew what they love, fear, or long for; what they are willing to die for, live for, hope for. I don’t put messages in my books. At least I never want any book of mine to sound like it is message-driven. But I do want my books to make you want to sit down and talk bout the story with someone.

How did you arrive at writing women’s fiction? Are there any other genres you’d like to try your hand at, or any you want to stay away from?

Actually, I don’t think of myself as a writer of women’s fiction as much as I think of myself as a writer of the kind of fiction that women like best, and defining that is kind of a gray area. You usually don’t hear women describe what they read as "women’s fiction" and you won’t often find books shelved that way in bookstores. I think storylines that women are drawn to most are those that deal with human relationships, especially those found in the family, and women readers are all about relationships.

I love mysteries, have written a few, and I would love to (someday) try my hand at a YA read with magic realism in the mix.

Not sure I would be very good at your basic thriller or true crime. I like stories that are character-driven.

Describe A Fall of Marigolds in six words.

Love makes the hard times bearable.

As a huge fan of first lines, I’d love to hear the first line of A Fall of Marigolds. Could you give us a brief commentary on it?

The length of floral-patterned challis rested on the cutting table like a bridal bouquet undone.
This line wasn’t the first line I wrote when I began; it came much later in the writing process. When I first wrote this novel, I didn’t frame the historical story with a contemporary thread as I had done with my most previous novels. My new editor at Penguin really wanted me to include one. So I set a parallel, current-day story in Manhattan, just across the river from Ellis. The setting is a tony fabric store on the upper west side and the woman who manages it is a 9/11 widow about to mark the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death. What ties this current-day woman to my main character on Ellis Island in 1911 is an heirloom scarf patterned in marigolds. This first visual is meant to hint that a piece of fabric is about to become something more than just pretty threads woven together.

I think that's brilliantly done, and a gorgeous line too! Which character from A Fall of Marigolds was most difficult to write?

Writing Taryn’s story—she’s the 9/11 widow—was the hardest for me because she was dealt (okay, I dealt her) a pretty heavy hand. Researching and then writing the scene where she’s on the sidewalk watching the Twin Towers burn, and then running from the suffocating wall of debris when the first one falls, was mentally and spiritually exhausting. She lost so much, and I knew I had to restore much to her by the book’s end for the reader to feel satisfied. I had my work cut out for me. But I think I delivered what the reader deserves.

Tell us about your road to publication, such as how you first queried, unexpected challenges, and things you picked up along the way.

I’ve loved to write for about as long as I can remember. I wrote once-upon-a-time stories in grade school, a ton of teenage drama poetry in high school and then in my 20s when I was working full-time and also in my 30s raising four kids, I let the creative writing slide because I was afraid to see if I was really any good at it. I became editor of a small town newspaper and did the journalism thing for 10 years. But there were stories inside me clawing to get out. I realized I’d rather live with rejections than regrets. I quit my 50-hour a week job at the newspaper in 2002 to write my first novel, Why the Sky is Blue and wrote it in 10 weeks. In 2003, Harvest House Publishers picked it up after I had queried maybe a dozen other publishers. What has surprised me the most is that, even after sixteen novels, it doesn’t get any easier. It gets harder, actually. I raise the bar for myself every time I start a new book but I still start with a blank page and a whole lot of nothing looking back at me.

Raising the bar is the only way you can keep up with readers. It sure may be difficult, but it makes you more seasoned as an author, which clearly shows in the quality of your writing! How do you react to a negative or harsh review to your books?

I have a little mental system for dealing with these kinds of reviews. First, I look at who wrote the review and determine how much this person’s opinion matters to me. Then I look to see if they “got it.” Sometimes a reader and a writer just aren’t on the same page, no pun intended. If that unhappy reader didn’t receive the book I wrote but somehow received something totally different in the reading, I let it go. We didn’t meet on the pages, that reader and I.

Usually though, there is at least a smidgen of truth in even the most heartless and uninformed review. I look for that smidgen and let it tutor me. If a reviewer, even that one whose opinion doesn’t really matter to me, says my characters lack depth or my plot is contrived or the pace is slow, I look to see where and how she or he came to that conclusion. Sometimes, the reviewer is right, even if they communicated it harshly.

What are you involved in when you aren’t writing?

In our spare time, my husband and I like to be outside, either walking or hiking or enjoying a glass of wine or craft beer on a sunny patio. We both love good music, good books, and quiet places like the mountains or a hideaway cove. I also volunteer with a program here in San Diego called Words Alive. We reach out to at-risk kids and teens to help them connect or reconnect with reading and writing.

Words Alive sounds amazing; thank you on behalf of the teen community for being a part of that! Name the top five novels that have made the biggest impact on your life or on your writing.

That is almost like asking what is my favorite breath of air! I’ve been moved by the writing of Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Jane Hamilton (A Map of the World), Diane Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale), Geraldine Brooks (A Year of Wonders), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), Lisa See (Snowflower and the Secret Fan) and most recently by Kate Atkinson, Kate Morton, and Donna Tartt.

What’s the greatest thing you ever learned?

It’s the choices we make that define us, not what happens to us.

I think that's an interesting perspective on things.

Click "Read more" to find out Susan's guiltiest pleasure, what she wanted to grow up to be when she was younger, and what makes A Fall of Marigolds stand out from all the other books out there. We're also hosting a giveaway for a print copy at the end, so you don't want to miss that either!

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Some randomness...

Favorite kind of chocolate? Dark, milk, white, coffee-flavored, the kind with nuts or berries inside?? Yes!! All of these! Except maybe not milk chocolate so much any more. My chocolate receptors have become more refined as I have aged. I used to love Twix bars but they are easy to pass on now. These days I want the good stuff. Chuao, for example, has wares that elevate chocolate to a whole new level.

Mmm that kind of chocolate is an experience in itself! All-time favorite quote? “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ― Mother Teresa

So, so true. Currently reading? The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

Currently wearing? Pajamas. Oh, the perks of being a work-at-home writer!

Hey, me too! ;) Most visited websites? Brain Pickings, SheReads, Mental Floss, and Goodreads.

Favorite vegetable? (yes, you have to pick one) Asparagus.

One of my favorites! Guiltiest pleasure? My husband and I are members of a local winery’s wine club. It’s the one thing we splurge on that isn’t necessary to our survival. I don’t feel too guilty about it though.

I don't suppose I would, either! What did you want to grow up to be when you were little? A kindergarten teacher! I still think it would’ve been fun, all those little five-year-old sponges eager to learn and trusting everything you say...

Go-to comfort food? Raisins. Weird, I know. But they do the job. When I am stressed, when I am stuck on a scene, when I am restless, when I am perplexed, a handful of raisins comfort me. So does expensive coffee but I don’t think qualifies as food, does it?

Coffee is valid! Coffee can be therapeutic, I swear. Not so much raisins, though LOL. Charity or cause of choice? There are so many good ones, so hard to pick my favorite. My husband and I have supported a child through Compassion International for more than 25 years. I think we are making a difference in the life of our sixth one! It’s easy to write a check, though, and I think my cause of choice where I actually do more than sign my name is working with those at-risk kids at Words Alive.

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Out of all the fantastic books out there, what makes A Fall of Marigolds stand out from the rest?

A Fall of Marigolds is the only book out there that pairs the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 with 9/11. When I first began pulling at story threads, my first instinct was to tell a story about an immigrant struggling to remain hopeful as an unwilling patient at Ellis Island hospital. But the more I toyed with whose story this was, the more I saw instead a young nurse, posting herself to a place where every disease known and unknown showed up. It was a place like no other; a waiting place—a place where the dozens of languages spoken added to the unnatural homelessness of it. Why was she here? Why did she choose this post? Why did she refuse to get on the ferry on Saturday nights to reconnect with the real world? What kind of person would send herself to Ellis not just to work, but to live? Someone who needed a place to hover suspended. I knew something catastrophic had to happen to her to make her run to Ellis for cover.

As I began researching possible scenarios, I came across the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which up until 9/11 was arguably the worst urban disaster to befall Manhattan. There were similarities between that fire and 9/11, including the tragic fact that many trapped workers jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the flames. For every person lost in disasters such as these, there is always his or her individual story, and the stories of those who loved them. I wanted to imagine two of those stories.

That sounds incredibly unique, and all the more meaningful. I can't wait to read it! What’s next for you?

My next book is set entirely in England, mostly during The London Blitz. My main character starts out as a young, aspiring bridal gown designer evacuated to the countryside with her seven-year-old sister in the summer of 1940. Though only fifteen, Emmy is on the eve of being made an apprentice to a renowned costumer and she resents her single mother’s decision to send her away. She sneaks back to London—with her sister in tow—several months later but the two become separated when the Luftwaffe begins its terrible and deadly attack on the East End on the first night of the Blitz. War has a way of separating from us what we most value, and often shows how little we realized that value. I have always found the evacuation of London’s children to the countryside—some for the entire duration of the war—utterly compelling. How hard it must have been for those parents and their children.

I went on a research trip to the U.K. in the fall of 2013 and I spoke with many individuals who were children during the war; some were separated from their parents, some were bombed out of their homes, some slept night after night in underground Tube stations, some watched in fascination as children from the city came to their towns and villages to live with them. This book explores issues of loss and longing, but also the bonds of sisters, and always, the power of love.

Sounds like another wow-worthy book by you! Where can you be found on the web, Susan?

Before we conclude this interview, is there anything you'd like to ask our readers?

I love hearing from readers, and when we talk together about A Fall of Marigolds, I like to hear about their treasured heirlooms—those special mementos from their family’s past that are precious because of what they represent. Readers, do you have an heirloom that you hope to pass down to the next generation? Or do you have something in your possession now that you hope will become an heirloom in years to come?

It was an absolute pleasure to be able to get to know you better today, Susan! Thank you again for dropping by, and best of luck with future endeavors!


Books à la Mode is giving away a print copy of A Fall of Marigolds—woohoo! To enter, all you have to do is answer Susan's question:
Do you have an heirloom that you hope to pass down to the next generation? Or do you have something in your possession now that you hope will become an heirloom in years to come?

Don't forget to include your email address in your comment so I know who to contact when I randomly select winner. Don't make me track you down!!!! No email = No entry!
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Susan and I really want to hear your thoughts! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the author—a huge thank you to Susan!
Giveaway ends April 28th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US/Canada residents only. Sorry, rest of the world! Please check my sidebar for a list of currently-running giveaways that are open worldwide.
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!