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Susan Meissner Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I probably spend as much time researching and prewriting as I do writing." -- Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner cannot remember a time when she wasn’t driven to put her thoughts down on paper. Her novels include The Shape of Mercy, a Christian Book Award finalist, and Blue Heart Blessed. Susan and her husband, a pastor and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, make their home in Southern California. They are the parents of four grown children.

I know you’ve been writing stories ever since you were a kid. What books would you say had the biggest impact on you during your growing up years?

The Little House on the Prairie books, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary and Frances Hodges Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden were among my favorite and definitely books that I read more than once in my childhood. In my young teens I was a huge C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien fan. In high school I was moved by John Steinbeck at one end of the spectrum and Lucy Maud Montgomery at the other!

What was the number one thing your dad, an English major, taught you about books and writing?

My dad was a subtle teacher on the art of writing. He didn’t teach me about books and writing at all, actually. He taught me about life, and that has been of more value to me as a writer than advice on writing. Writing has been an art form I’ve been able to hone in relative isolation, but life – that stuff that writers draw from to write anything of value – I’ve learned only from doing life with other people – family being the key influence.

Could you share with us how you became the editor of your local newspaper? Was that something you saw coming?

When my family and I moved to Minnesota after my husband left active duty and we were back in the United States after five years living overseas, the kids were older, most in school already and just one still toddling around, I was reacquainting myself with my love for writing – something I had let go comatose when the kids were infants. I saw an ad for a part-time reporter for our rural county newspaper and thought to myself, “I think I can do that.” I didn’t have a journalism degree but neither did anyone else in that quiet little county who was willing to work part-time. Had I been in the Twin Cities instead of rural Nowhere, I doubt I would’ve gotten the job. All I had to show for my writing examples were my elaborate letters home from when we lived overseas. But it was enough to get me the job. I began by writing obits and society news and graduated to court proceedings, special features and investigative reports and a fulltime job. Four years later, after learning all about community journalism by living it, the county paper bought my little town’s weekly paper – an 18-page everything paper – and named me editor.

Quite a ride.

Do you feel your newspaper years helped you as a novelist? How?

Writing for a newspaper was an excellent way to learn how to KISS and RUE! Keep it Simple, Stupid and Resist The Urge to Explain. In storytelling, over-the-top prose is only okay if you want to write melodrama. I wanted to someday write literary fiction. Simple, subtle and powerful is always better than overdone and verbose when you want a literary style. And expositional over-explaining is sometimes the hallmark of news stories, but it wasn’t for mine. I strove to make my news stories narrative nonfiction that struck people at an emotional place. I knew people would rather read something that hit them at a sensorial level than a bulleted Who-What-Why-Where-How story that read like an invitation to a boring lecture. Writing narrative nonfiction was a great way to learn to write fiction that feels real to the reader.

White Picket Fences by Susan MeissnerDuring your time at the newspaper, there came a moment when you felt a burning desire to write a novel. How did you know it was time to pursue that dream?

God kicked me in the pants; that’s how I knew it was time to pursue it. My paternal grandfather died in 2002 – a good man whom I loved very much – and as I stood at his memorial surrounded by the beautiful and expansive stonework he’d laid in his backyard over a period of forty years, I realized I was half his age and really hadn’t laid a stone anywhere, figuratively speaking. My life was half over and I hadn’t written a novel, though I had wanted to since I was twelve. I came home from my Papa’s funeral and quit my job at the paper to write Why the Sky is Blue, not knowing if any publisher would even want it, but willing to live with that risk. Two years later it was published by Harvest House.

Your favorite novels to write are contemporaries with historical elements woven through. Do you think your time traveling as an Air Force wife, especially in Europe, contributed to your love of history? Why or why not?

I think perhaps living in Europe awakened my love for history, but my fondness for history feels like part of my wiring, like it’s always been there and 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. Story! How could I not love it?

White Picket Fences is no exception with this theme---a very important element of the novel is its historical ties to World War II. Could you share with us where the idea for this particular story came from?

The story came from two different places. One, I had spent time as a court-appointed advocate for children for the state of Minnesota (my part-time job while I waited to see if Why the Sky is Blue would interest a publisher) and I had seen firsthand that the seemingly imperfect home can still be a place where a child feels loved and safe. Likewise, the outwardly perfect white-picket-fence home can be a place of pretense, lies and insecurity behind those pristine pickets. Two, I had recently read the true story of Irina Sendler, a brave Catholic woman who risked her life to rescue nearly two thousand Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the years of the Nazi occupation, and I knew that I could dovetail the two concepts. We tend to see what we want to see. To our peril.

How much research do you need to perform before you know it’s time to start writing? And how much went into White Picket Fences?

I always spend three or four months in pre-write mode, building layers of characterization, building the set in my mind, so to speak, and I do all my research up front so that I feel confident in the facts and can concentrate on the human drama that the facts create. I read and re-read accounts of the years of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp. I read books and articles about house fires, repressed childhood memories, rocky marriages, family law (as it related to Tally’s legal situation), woodworking, and uncommunicative marriage partners. I probably spend as much time researching and prewriting as I do writing.The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Of all your characters, who’s your favorite, and why?

In White Picket Fences, I enjoyed every scene I wrote with Josef and Eliasz because those two offered the slight comic relief I needed to refuel my brain for the next intense scene. Those two men also represented hope and resiliency, something we all need, especially when we’re in the furnace. Hope and resiliency keep us from letting the flames just consume us.

What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

I’d like to write a book for the mainstream market that exudes a Christian world view but is written well enough to be taken seriously by mainstream critics. I am not there yet. But that’s where I want to be. That’s where I’d like to lay a stone!

What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?

This list changes every year because I have found that I enjoy a wide variety of titles, but not necessarily all of one particular author’s work, like I really liked Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees but not The Mermaid Chair. Among my favorite books in the last few years are Peace Like a River, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Map of the World, The Thirteenth Tale, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Bel Canto and recently The Help and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

If you write, you’re a writer. Getting published doesn’t make you a writer, it makes you published. You became a serious writer the moment you got serious about writing.

What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?

If we’re being completely honest, I’ve struggled with envy. I am learning not to let it spoil the joy of writing. In the end a writer needs to write for the joy of writing. There are too many aspects of the publishing side of writing that you simply cannot control. I can only control how much effort I expend at the craft, how much I am willing to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to get it right. That’s what I can control. Envying someone else’s book sales is like envying their height when they’re standing barefoot. It’s pointless. It doesn’t change how tall I am. And I am learning to be happy for those whose books sell way better than mine. Being happy is so much nicer than being envious. I like it.

Blue Heart Blessed by Susan MeissnerWhat are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

I hate escalators
I love manatees

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?


What did you eat for breakfast this morning?


Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Kalamata olives
Orange marmalade
Diet Coke with Lime

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

A skinny cinnamon dulce latte

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

Visit Giza and the Valley of the Kings
Visit Manhattan in April
Be able to live off 50% and give 50% away

When was the last time you cried?

Last month!

Three words that best describe you:

1. Around-the-house-shoe-leaver
2. Diet-Coke-with-lime-devotee
3. Busy

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

Norah Jones’ The Fall

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C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.