Born and raised in San Diego, the second of three daughters, author Susan Meissner acquired a passion for books and writing from her parents and, from an early age, was driven to pen stories of her own. By the age of eight, she was writing poems and stories in a journal given to her by her second grade teacher, and in high school, her freshman composition teacher saw promise in Susan and encouraged her to develop her skills.
In 1993, Meissner and her husband moved to rural Minnesota, where she began working for the local newspaper, first as a part-time reporter and later as the editor. In 2002, her paper was named the Best Weekly Newspaper in Minnesota by the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Despite her success, Meissner had a gnawing desire to write a novel and, after the passing of her grandfather in July of 2002, she resigned from her position at the newspaper and wrote her first book, Why the Sky is Blue, a story of faith and sacrifice and the rewards that can emerge from seemingly tragic circumstances.
Since that time, Meissner has written and published 16 additional books and has established herself as one of the most powerful voices in contemporary fiction. Her novels include The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the 100 Best Novels of 2008; A Fall of Marigolds, named one of Booklist’s Top Ten women’s fiction titles for 2014; and 2015’s Secrets of a Charmed Life, which was a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Meissner’s latest, Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, an enchanting tale set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, was released in January of 2016 to critical acclaim.
When Meissner’s not working on her next novel, she writes small group curriculum for her San Diego church and is a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing. To learn more about her and her writing, visit susanmeissner.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
What’s the earliest memory you have?
It sounds silly and feels silly to write it, but all of my earliest childhood memories involve me being irrationally afraid of something that couldn’t harm me. I had a very vivid imagination when I was a kid. I still have it, and it comes in handy as a novelist, but back then it was a little debilitating. I was afraid of the Michelin Man, white butterflies, carousel horses, steep driveways, blimps, and a whole host of other harmless things that I’d convinced myself were intent on my demise. I remember a lizard that had gotten in the house was climbing up the living room wall – I was probably four then – and I distinctly recall thinking we all needed to run for our lives. Screaming, of course.
What did you enjoy most about your time working in the newspaper industry?
Every day was different. Or at least every week, since it was a weekly paper that I was a part of. Every Wednesday we’d reinvent what we did. The paper went to press on Tuesdays, came out the next day, so on Wednesdays we’d have our editorial meeting and discuss what the next week’s paper would look like. We had only a handful of days to pull it off. All the photos had to be new, all the content had to be new. The ads could repeat but not the news and not the photos. That kind of quick creativity was nerve-wracking but also exciting.
What inspired the story of Stars Over Sunset Boulevard?
I am always looking for a detail-rich historical context in which to drop in some fictional characters and then weave a story. I’ve always loved the movie Gone with the Wind, the story, the score, the cinematography, the costumes, and even though I love the book, too, it’s the movie version that I’ve indulged in twenty or more times. Sometimes it’s hard to hang on to what you love, what matters to you, what you think you can’t live without. There are forces outside your control that can pull what you’re holding onto right out of your hands. We all know this. The novel by Margaret Mitchell and the resulting movie speak to this truth, and makes for a great thematic pull for two studio secretaries who become best friends on the set of the most iconic movie ever made.
When writing a novel such as Secrets of a Charmed Life or Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, how much research do you typically do into the time periods in which the stories are set?
The amount of research always varies based on how much or how little I already know. I had a lot of reading to do to write both of these books. I usually research for several months before I write a word. For both of these novels I read at least ten books apiece and then consulted many online archives, articles, blog posts, and documentaries. I usually end up having accumulated more data and details than I need to write the story, but I don’t know ahead of time what I won’t need. I prefer to overdo the research up front than to realize when I’m in the middle of writing that I have to stop and slide fully back into research mode.
How have you grown and evolved as a writer since your earlier years?
I’d like to think I have exercised my writing muscle such that it is stronger and more capable of creating worthy prose than when I first started out. I also have a greater appreciation for simplicity than I did a decade ago. A delicious sentence is wonderful of course, but not every single sentence in a book needs to be a bite of absolute wonderful. We take breaths when we eat. We chew. We drink. We share conversation. We swallow. Sometimes we even pause for a moment. There are killer cuisine sentences and there are just ordinary, simple, no-fuss breathing sentences. Breathing is good. We’d be dead if we didn’t do it.
How do you know when a book you’re working on is done and ready for publication?
Sometimes that moment never comes. You just have to let it go because it’s time, especially if you’re under contract. The printing calendar demands it and you have to rest in the knowledge that you did all you could to make it the best it could be with the time you had.
Which contemporary authors do you most admire?
My favorite authors are Kate Morton, Geraldine Brooks, and Khaled Hosseini. I will read anything they write. Even when I don’t absolutely love a new book of theirs, I will still read the next one and the next and the next. They are master artists of the written word. They make me want to be a better writer.
If you could change one thing about the world or society, what would it be?
Just one thing? So difficult a question! My first thought is the Dionne Warwick song, about what the world needs more than anything else. Love, sweet love. It’s a heady thing to imagine how the world would be different if instead of injustice, greed, hatred, and indifference, we had more love than we knew what to do with.
How did you become involved with Words Alive, and what do you find most rewarding about your work there?
My heart goes out to young people who are teetering on the edge of giving up on reading and writing. I think you can make it in this world if you aren’t proficient in algebra and history and biology for example – and I mean no disrespect to those disciplines – but you can’t make it if you hate to read and can’t express yourself. At-risk kids are especially prone to give up on reading and writing. That just makes me sad. I volunteer with Words Alive because it gives me a chance to help just a handful of kids reconnect with their writing skills and their roles as young people with something valid to say. I want to give them back their voice, if they are in danger of losing it.
What are you working on next?
I am in revisions for the book I am writing next, which is titled A Bridge Across the Ocean. One of its key settings is the HMS Queen Mary during one of its many GI war brides crossings. This ship started out as a luxury liner, was made a troop carrier during the war, and has been a floating hotel here in California since the early ‘70s. She is also fabled to be haunted by numerous ghosts, a detail I simply cannot ignore. This story is about three war brides – one French, one British and one German woman pretending to be a Belgian war bride – who meet on the Queen Mary in 1946. The current-day character, Brette, who has the family gift of being able to see ghosts, very much wishes she couldn’t. All of these characters will face a bridge they need to cross where the other side is hidden from their view. The concept of a bridge across the ocean – which of course is impossible — speaks to how difficult it is to go from one place to another when you can’t see what awaits you.