Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Susan Meissner has a beautiful soul

Credit: Berkley, 2022
We're pleased to have Susan Meissner back at CLC today to celebrate the publication of her latest historical fiction masterpiece, Only the Beautiful. Melissa gave it five stars and highly recommends it. Check out her review. We enjoyed hearing what Susan had to say about this novel and we know you will too. She is so lovely to chat with, and Melissa can attest to that after attending book club discussions with her via Zoom.

Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than three-quarters of a million books in readers' hands and translations in eighteen languages. She is an author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include The Nature of Fragile Things, which earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly; The Last Year of the War, named to Real Simple magazine’s list of best books for 2019; As Bright as Heaven, which earned a starred review in Library Journal; Secrets of Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014.

She attended Point Loma Nazarene University in California and makes her home with her husband and yellow Lab in the Pacific Northwest. (Bio courtesy of Susan's website.)

Visit Susan online:
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California, 1938—When she loses her parents in an accident, sixteen-year-old Rosanne is taken in by the owners of the vineyard where she has lived her whole life as the vinedresser’s daughter. She moves into Celine and Truman Calvert’s spacious house with a secret, however—Rosie sees colors when she hears sound. She promised her mother she’d never reveal her little-understood ability to anyone, but the weight of her isolation and grief prove too much for her. Driven by her loneliness she not only breaks the vow to her mother, but in a desperate moment lets down her guard and ends up pregnant. Banished by the Calverts, Rosanne believes she is bound for a home for unwed mothers, and having lost her family she treasures her pregnancy as the chance for a future one. But she soon finds out she is not going to a home of any kind, but to a place far worse than anything she could have imagined. 

Austria, 1947—After witnessing firsthand Adolf Hitler’s brutal pursuit of hereditary purity—especially with regard to “different children”—Helen Calvert, Truman's sister, is ready to return to America for good. But when she arrives at her brother’s peaceful vineyard after decades working abroad, she is shocked to learn what really happened nine years earlier to the vinedresser’s daughter, a girl whom Helen had long ago befriended. In her determination to find Rosanne, Helen discovers that while the war had been won in Europe, there are still terrifying battles to be fought at home. (Courtesy of Amazon.)

What was the inspiration behind writing Only the Beautiful?
When I was researching to write THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS, I came across a photo from the 1915 World’s Fair, which San Francisco hosted just nine years after the catastrophic earthquake that was the setting for that novel. The photo was of an exhibit at the Fair illuminating the benefits of eugenics. I remember thinking at the time that I needed to look into that, at what eugenics actually was. I’d heard about the eugenics movement before but only in passing; I really didn’t know what the crusade entailed nor how it impacted society. When the book that I was writing was finished, I dove in and found out. Everything I read about it chilled me to the core. It seemed like here was a time in our history that we ought not to forget; this time when we thought we could—and should—engineer the collective gene pool to create only wonderful, beautiful, perfect people.

Is there anything you had to take out of the story that you would have liked to keep?
I had a section devoted to a young child impacted by what happened to her birth mother at a state-run institution known for sterilizing its patients. In the end, it wasn’t actually needed to tell the story and I had to excise it. But I saved the chapters and might share them with readers of ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL at a later date. I think readers would like an inside look at this non-main character who nevertheless plays a significant role in the story. 

Who was your favorite character to write, Rosanne or Helen?
That’s a tough question! I was emotionally bonded to both, for different reasons. Rosanne’s personality is less like mine and I don’t have her unique ability, so in that respect Helen, who is more like me in lots of ways, was easier to write. But was she my favorite just because she was easier? I am not sure. I could probably ponder this question for days…

What is the last movie you saw that you would recommend?
If I could bend the question a little I will answer by saying the last screen adaptation that I simply devoured was the miniseries Daisy Jones and The Six. I loved the book by Taylor Jenkins Reid and was cautiously optimistic about Amazon Prime taking it on as a project for the screen. But it was so well done, true to the book for the most part, and hauntingly evocative. I would recommend it even if a person hasn’t read the book. But read the book. Or better yet, listen to it on audio. The recorded version is simply stellar.

What is your go-to breakfast item?
I am pretty much a fan of all breakfast food options (pancakes, eggs benedict, omelets, grits, bacon, lox and bagels, chilaquiles) but my go-to probably needs to be what I actually go to (as in what I truly make and eat) and that would be sourdough toast with jam. The other delectables I mentioned I don’t actually prepare for myself very often but I sure do like them.

Tell us about your longest friendship.
My best friend from fifth grade is still my best friend. Kathy and I have been through it all together, puberty, junior high, and high school. We were each other’s maids of honor, raised kids at the same time though not in the same state and figured out our careers, mourned the passings of each other’s grandparents, cried and laughed and pondered life together. We’ve not lived in the same state for decades but geography hasn’t kept us from staying close. I can’t explain how we connected at the age of 10 and then just stayed connected the last fifty years. It was probably one part affinity, one part luck, and one part magic.

Thanks to Susan for visiting with us and to Berkley for facilitating this interview.

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