Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Susan Meissner Interview - The Nature of Fragile Things

Photo Content from Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than half a million books in print in fifteen 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. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University and is also 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.


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I have always loved to write, even when I was a little girl. In my teen and early adult years I thought my writing was just for fun, as kind of a therapy for me, more recreational than anything else. I didn't think of it as anything I would do professionally. I also I stupidly thought that if I did it make writing my job I would tire of it because I saw too many people coming home from the work week tired, longing for the weekend, and dreading Mondays. I didn't want writing to turn into that kind of drudgery. I’ve since learned though that you can do a job you love and it may even take you to the mat at times but you can still love it. My first professional writing gig was working for a newspaper, a job I started in my 30s. But it wasn't until I was 42 that I summoned the courage to try writing a novel even though I had wanted to do so for a long time. I finally concluded I would rather live with rejection then regret. I'm so glad I did. My first novel was published when I was 44, and I have been in this lane ever since.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
The book I am working on right now, with the working title ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL, is inspired by a rather sad Supreme Court case involving a young woman named Carrie Buck. She was caught up in the eugenics movement of the early 1920s when there was a huge push to manipulate the American gene pool so that only so-called desireable people produced desireable people. The way this was accomplished was by sterilizing young men and women in state hospitals who possessed what elites called undesirable traits, and the Buck v. Bell ruling set a precedent for states to legally do this. Often the criteria was rather nebulous and shocking. Epileptics were sterilized, people of low-to-average intelligence were sterilized, even promiscuous young women were sterilized, as if promiscuity were a byproduct of a haywire hereditary gene. Every state had eugenic laws in place, and California, where I am from, performed more sterilizations than any other state and for a longer stretch of years. It’s probably no surprise that Adolph Hitler was quite interested in the writings of American eugenics leaders in the 1920s and 30’s. I am writing a story of three generations of women whose lives are impacted by this disturbing chapter in U. S. history, and I promise that while there will be sad moments in the book, I will not leave the reader bereft of hope.

Tell us about your new book, THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS!
With pleasure! THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS is about a mail-order bride in 1905 who is so desperate to get out of a terrible tenement in NYC that she agrees to marry a San Francisco widower she's never met and become an instant mother to his 5-year-old daughter. At first newly-married Sophie is able to convince herself she's happy. She has a beautiful home, pretty clothes, good food to eat, safety and security, and a child to raise – which is what she loves best about her new life because she already knows she can’t bear any children of her own. She is able to dismiss at first her new husband's odd demeanor and aloofness because she has everything else that she has wanted for a long time. But then a year into her marriage a powerful earthquake shakes San Francisco to its core. Sophie quickly discovers in this new world where everything is laid bare, that all is not as it seems and she must set out to save and protect what she loves most. It’s a book about mother-love, friendship, and the strength of female solidarity, set against a time when women were seen as fragile creatures, easily broken and with little agency.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your characters?
The main character in THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS, does some rather courageous things, and I’ve never considered myself a particularly daring person. It was fun for me to imagine having grit that I don’t actually possess. It might even be that imagining what a gutsy person would do in a tight spot has tutored me, in a small way, to be less afraid to take risks. It’s like I’ve already practiced it.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
I don't often read reader reviews as I've learned they don't often help me become a better writer. The glowing ones can tempt me to believe I don’t need to be better and the terrible ones tempt me to just stop writing altogether! But there was one reader review I read some years back –I can't even recall now which book it was for – and she was very disappointed in what I had written. She felt my characters were vapid, meaning they were uninteresting. Boring. I didn't like what she said but I've also never forgotten what she said. In that respect I'm glad she gave me that one-star review because I've striven ever since then to clothe my characters with as much literary substance as I can, such that a reader may not like the character’s views or actions or decisions, but she would never say the character was flat, dull, or bland. I’ve been highly aware of the need to create this level of character depth ever since. There is often a kernel of truth buried in an unfavorable review. Unless that reader and I are simply mismatched and ought not to be together, there is often a nugget of wisdom to be gleaned from their harsh comments. I usually try to find it.

If you had to pick one other author to write your biography, who would it be?
What a fun question! I suppose I would pick my favorite author at the moment, which is Kate Morton. She’s an Australian author living in the UK. Ms. Morton is such a gifted wordsmith. My life story probably isn't that exciting but because she has such a way with descriptions and sensory details and turns of phrase she would be able to make my rather uncomplicated life seem vibrantly multilayered. If you're looking for a book recommendation, I can tell you without hesitation to pick up any one of Kate Morton’s titles. My favorite is THE SECRET KEEPER.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS.
Here’s one little scene to whet your interest. Minutes after Sophie steps off the Oakland ferry in San Francisco, she and Martin, the man whose ad she answered and who she has just met for the first time, get into a carriage to go the courthouse to get married. It’s near the end of day, dusk is falling and evening fog is just beginning to descend on the city. It's a subtle metaphorical way of telling the reader that Sophie’s world from this moment forward is going to be enveloped by uncertainty that will have her guessing what is on the other side of the little that she can actually see. The quote is this, starting in Chapter 3: “Delicate wisps of fog are just starting to swirl down upon the city, gauzy as grey silk and so very much like the approach of evening on the northern coast of Ireland…” And then just minutes after she marries Martin, they are back in the carriage, and she observes: “Night has fallen soft and ghostly when we emerge from the courthouse. Swaths of denser fog now hug the streetlamps and obscure the sky like a never-ending bridal train. We climbed back into the waiting carriage.” We see Sophie wants to hope that good things are in store for her in the hazy future with this man she does not know and just married. But she can’t know for sure. She can’t see the road ahead because it’s swathed in fog.

  • 1. When I first started plotting THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS, Sophie was Nora, Belinda was Jennie and Kat was Ruby. I have no idea why at some early point I decided to change their names!
  • 2. San Francisco's famous cable cars do not have any kind of motor or engine of any kind. They run on a cable in a slot that runs at a continuous speed. The car just grabs hold of the cable and then it gets tugged along.
  • 3. The Chinese fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese man from San Francisco. Yep.
  • 4. The Richter scale wasn’t invented until 1935, but the best guess is the 1906 San Francisco quake would have measured 7.8, which is considered major on the earthquake magnitude scale.
  • 5. I made up the little town of San Rafaela where Belinda has her inn, and which I have placed just north of San Mateo. Every other location in the book is real.
  • 6. In an early rough outline of the book I had Sophie and the U.S. Marshall who is questioning her when the book opens starting to fall in love at the end.
  • 7. The 1906 earthquake was the first natural disaster to be photographed.
  • 8. A water hydrant situated at the southwest corner of Dolores Park was one of the very few still working during the fires caused by the 1906 quake and is credited with saving the historic mission there. It’s said that every year on the anniversary of the earthquake, the hydrant is painted gold in remembrance.
  • 9. San Francisco outlawed burials in 1901. Most of its cemeteries are in nearby Colma, where the dead outnumber the living by 1000 to 1.
  • 10. I live in San Diego, California, which is on the coastal side of the San Andreas fault. This fault, the very famous strip of land that forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, runs up and down California from top to bottom. I’ve heard stories that San Diego will fall into the ocean when the Big One comes since I was a little girl. Almost a million and a half people live here.
Meet the Characters
Sophie Whalen is a young 20-something Irish immigrant who has been in America for two years when she answers the ad for a mail-order bride. She wants out of New York for a lot of reasons. Only some are clear to the reader in the beginning when she first starts to tell her story. Her mother’s side is Gaelic, her father’s, English. She is what some might call Black Irish, with dark hair and eyes.

Martin Hocking is the strikingly handsome man who put in the advertisement in the New York newspaper for a new wife for himself and mother for his five-year-old daughter. He is from New York, too, and didn't want a California woman for his new wife, hence the ad in the New York newspaper. He works for an insurance company, is a good provider, and he is not mean to Sophie, but there's something up with him. Something’s not quite right. Sophie dismisses it at first because she finally has everything else she’s been longing for.

Kat is Martin Hocking’s 5-year-old little girl. When Sophie arrives in San Francisco, she learns the child has not spoken since the death of her mother five months before. Sophie wants more than anything for Kat to be loved back into speaking again.

Pretty and pregnant Belinda Bigelow is an innkeeper from nearby San Mateo whose husband James has gone missing. She comes to the Hocking home in San Francisco the eve of the earthquake as she believes Martin Hocking had employed her husband for a job and might have been the last person to see him. Sophie’s world is never the same after Belinda rings that doorbell. Neither is Belinda’s.

April 18, 1906: A massive earthquake rocks San Francisco just before daybreak, igniting a devouring inferno. Lives are lost, lives are shattered, but some rise from the ashes forever changed.

Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin's silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin's odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn't right.

Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved.

The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating earthquake, thrusting them onto a perilous journey that will test their resiliency and resolve and, ultimately, their belief that love can overcome fear.

From the acclaimed author of The Last Year of the War and As Bright as Heaven comes a gripping novel about the bonds of friendship and mother love, and the power of female solidarity.

You can purchase The Nature of Fragile Things at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you SUSAN MEISSNER for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner.