Susan Meissner is the prolific author of thirteen novels. Her most recent, STARS OVER SUNSET
BOULEVARD (Penguin/NAL) is the story of two women working on the movie set of Gone With the Wind during Hollywood’s Golden Age who discover the joy and heartbreak of true friendship. Her novel THE SHAPE OF MERCY, in which a woman takes a job transcribing the journal entries of her ancestor who also happens to be a victim of the Salem witch trials, was named Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 novels for the year, the ECPA Fiction Book of the Year, a RITA finalist, and Carol Award winners. We are so pleased to welcome Sue to WomenWritersWomen[‘s]Books.
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in San Diego, the middle daughter of three girls. I spent my childhood in just two houses -- the second of which was my home from the time I was nine until I got married.
What were you like as a kid? A teen?
When I was kid, I was afraid of everything! My imagination, which comes in handy now that I am a novelist, got me into all kinds of trouble. I was afraid of carousel horses, birds of paradise (they are flowers that look like pterodactyls), steep streets, blimps, escalators, the Michelin Man, Mr. Clean, Mr. Peanut, and Mr. Bubble. I could imagine such terrible scenarios involving any combination of these nefarious things! Thankfully, I outgrew almost all these fears although I still don’t care much for escalators. As a teen, I was learning that I loved to write, so I filled journals with teen poetry (mostly about boys I loved who didn’t love me) and I was in a Glee-club-like high school group that provided me with the social community teenagers crave. I am still good friends with a lot of those people.
I might have one. But it’s still hidden, so I’m not sure. I do play piano by ear, even though I can read music. I’d rather just hear something and figure it out by myself, though. Not sure if that counts as a hidden talent. You’re probably hoping I will tell you that I can hula hoop for hours an end, or play the bagpipes, or skin dive. But alas, no.
Best meal you prepare?
Ah! I do love to cook! My family loves my spaghetti. I make my own pasta sauce in a crockpot with fresh garlic, lots of herbs, baby bella mushrooms, and decent wine (as opposed to cooking wine - bleh). My sauce simmers all day and fills the house with a lovely, don’t-you-wish-you-were-Italian aroma.
You spend several years living in Europe when your Air Force husband was stationed there. How did that experience help to shape you as a person, as a writer? Does it have any role in your work?
Living in a foreign culture always exposes you to sights, smells, and sensations that you would never experience if you just stayed in one place. I didn’t do a lot of writing when we lived in Europe -- I should have! -- but I was raising children and otherwise occupied, so the only writing I accomplished were letters home. But I look at those letters now (my mother saved them all!) and I can see how my creative horizons were expanding, even then. If that time of sojourning appears in my work now, it’s probably just the subtle interplay of sensorial detail that I learned to appreciate when I was taken out of my ordinary world and dropped into a foreign one.
The term “high concept” is used a lot nowadays to describe what publishers want. However, what high concept is exactly is difficult to describe. Until you read the plot summaries of your books. I offer the “Books” tab of your website as evidence. Your stories can be described succinctly yet promise layers and layers. How do you find your ideas?
Wow. Thanks for that affirmation! When I think of high concept, I think of the less high-brow phrase, “So, what?” Meaning, if someone said, “What’s your book about?” and you told them, they wouldn’t say “So what?” They would say, “Tell me more!” High concept is just your story whittled down to a sentence or two that communicates why you should care about what my character wants. The more layers to the desire (what they want) and the motivation (why they want it), the more compelling (hopefully) the premise is to a potential reader. My ideas actually come when I am not looking for them. I have a drawer in my desk and a file on my computer of articles that whisper “future idea!” to me. Not all of them are story-worthy on their own, but sometimes I can take a couple of them and meld them together in some way to create a premise that is multi-layered.
Do you discuss or evaluate them with anyone else before you select one to write? If so, who and at what point in your story development?
I’ve been so fortunate to work with wonderful editors who’ve always been available and willing to help me flesh out an idea. I usually ask (and get) their input at the beginning stage - the idea stage - and then I head to my writing cave. I don’t usually have my editor or agent read what I’m writing during the creating stage unless I get hopelessly stuck, and even then I will go to a writing friend before I will send any part of the unfinished manuscript to my agent or editor. I want the first time they read it to be fresh, as if they were the reader who has just picked it up to read, knowing nothing but what is on the back cover. Agents and editors work with so many authors and ideas, that most of them (at least the ones I know!) forget the finer points of the idea they had hashed out with me months before so the first time can be fresh, as if they knew nothing.
I had the erroneous impression that you started out writing in the inspirational genre. I’ve since learned that was wrong, but you are Christian. Does your faith have a role in your stories?
Your first impression was right, actually! I did begin in the inspirational genre. My first published novel was Why the Sky is Blue with Harvest House Publishers, way back in 2004. Your second impression, that I’m a Christian, is right, though. I think any worldview an author has, especially if it shapes her thinking, the way she lives her life, the choices she makes, etc., is going to show up in what she writes. My worldview bleeds out of me in the pages of my novels as story, not as message, though. I never want my books to sound like sermons. What matters to me, like the virtues of love, sacrifice, forgiveness, affirmation, justice, does show up in my books, but in an as organic a fashion as I can pull off. That is my hope, anyway. The core of who I am is on the pages, but it's subtle. I think that is true of every novelist.
You wrote your first novel somewhat “late” in life at age 42. What prompted you to do that? Why do you write?
My beloved paternal grandfather died in July 2002 and his passing had a profound effect on me. I was editor a newspaper in a small town in rural Minnesota at the time. My Papa was 84 when he died, I was 42, so my life suddenly seemed very much half-over. I knew I didn't want to come to the end of my days having only dreamed of writing a novel, something I had toyed with doing since high school. I resigned as editor of the newspaper, which was a very hard decision to make, and set out to write my first book, Why the Sky is Blue. It took four months to write and ten months to be accepted by a publisher and I've been writing novels ever since. The reason I write is that I just must. It is an itch that must be scratched. It’s always been this way with me.
You publish about a book a year. What is your schedule when you are writing? How much time do you spend developing, then writing, then revising? How many drafts do you usually do on a single novel?
My schedule looks pretty much the same year to year. I settle on a book idea, I get the greenlight from my agent and editor, and then I begin the research. Since I write historical fiction with a contemporary thread running through it, there is always a lot of research to undertake. I endeavor to be as thorough as I can be in my study and then take as little literary license as possible. That research stage can take three to four months: lots of reading, lots of note-taking, lots of pondering, sometimes lots of interviewing. I then spend five to six months writing - usually about 2,000 words a day - and then I have the last two or so months before I turn it in to revise and edit and polish.
What have you found to be the best ways for authors to find or expand their audience?
Word of mouth - especially readers to readers - is the best way, I think, to grow readership. Readers trust other readers for book recommendations. If you can get book clubs to read your book and talk up your book to other book clubs, or if you can grow your Goodreads base and have those readers read and review and blog about your books, then you’ve got a great engine running alongside what you are doing to market your books.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Keep doing the laps in the pool even if no one is watching. Keep writing and exercising your writing muscle. It will grow stronger as you work it, and the stronger your writing becomes, the more likely it is to attract an editor an agent or an audience. Never stop learning. Never stop raising the bar.
What book are you reading right now? Which books are at the top of your TBR pile?
Right now I am reading Kate Atkinson’s A GOD IN RUINS. I loved her LIFE AFTER LIFE and am enjoying this one. She’s a master wordsmith. My TBR pile is more like a tower; I’ll just name a few recent additions: THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN by Sarah McCoy, LIFE AND OTHER NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES by Camille Pagan, THE SECRET CHORD by Geraldine Brooks, and A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman. I also can’t wait to get my hands on FLIGHT OF DREAMS by Ariel Lawhon, but I have to wait a few more weeks for that book!
What author are we not reading that we should be?
Plane or Train?
Film or Television?
Eat Out or Eat In?
Eat in with Take-Out
Swimming in a Pool or Swimming in the Ocean?
Apple or Orange?
Thank you, Sue, so much dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family! We will be supporting and rooting for you forever more. ☺
THANKS FOR HAVING ME!
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Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a regular contributor WWWB as well as overseeing the Author, Agent, & Editor Interview segment. She is the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors.
Her work has appeared in national and regional publications. When she isn’t working on her novel-in-progress, #LOVEIN140, she can be found belting out Broadway tunes (offkey and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT! – 2015 WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS!!!!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), repairing or building something around her house, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.
She is active on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. All findable with a search for “mmfinck.” [Grammar rules are forcing her to put the period within the quotes, but don’t in your search field. J) Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com