Monday, April 17, 2023

Susan Meissner Interview - Only the Beautiful

Photo Content from Susan Meissner 

Susan Meissner is the critically-acclaimed author of 21 novels. Her engaging stories feature memorable characters facing unique and complex circumstances, often against a backdrop of historical significance. A multi-award-winning author, her books have earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist. 

She was born and raised in San Diego, California, but spent some of her adult life living in Minnesota as well as in England and Germany, before returning home to southern California in 2007. Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. 

Prior to her writing career, she was a managing editor of a weekly newspaper in southwestern Minnesota. She enjoys teaching workshops on writing, spending time with her family, reading great books and traveling. Susan makes her home in the San Diego area with her husband Bob, who is a retired chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, and their yellow lab, Winston.

Tell us about ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL! What inspired you to write this story?
I was deep in research mode for THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS—a novel set before, during, and after the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake—when I came across photos from the 1915 World’s Fair, which San Francisco hosted only nine years after a disaster that pretty much leveled it. One of those photos was of a fair booth displaying all the supposed benefits of eugenics. I remember thinking that term was something I needed to go back and look into. I had only a vague notion what the long-ago eugenics movement was and no notion at all of its impact on humanity. As soon as I had the time to dive in, I knew here was a moment in history that absolutely we shouldn’t forget; this time when we thought we could and should manipulate the gene pool so that only perfectly healthy and beautiful babies were born into the world.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
There are so many novels that I have loved, it is always difficult to name the all-time favorite, but I can name the one that made me want to write novels myself. I always come back to The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough as the book that me made want to do what I’m doing. I read it the year it came out, in 1979, and didn’t attempt to write my first book until 2002, but that desire to write “a book like that” was always in the back of my mind, nudging and needling me. I loved this book because the characters were unforgettable, the setting rich and resonant, and the plot emotionally wrenching. And there are many books I love outside my genre, but the one that is the fondest in my memory—I read it when I was fifteen—is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is still a favorite all these decades later.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL was the novel I wrote during the worst months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when we didn’t know how bad it was going to be and everyone was isolated and afraid and losing people they loved to a virus no one yet understood. To say that first year of the pandemic was a distraction is probably an understatement! And yet, because I was stuck at home and no one was going anywhere and nothing that drew a crowd was open, all I had with me to pour my life into besides my husband and dog was this book. In that way, it kept me sane during that terrible stretch of time. I could escape into a different time and place, and did, when every moment I was writing this novel.

  • 1. I had to restart this book four times. Yikes.
  • 2. The earliest draft of the book began with a third timeline and a gal named Kirsten.
  • 3. It takes three years before a newly planted grape vine will produce wine-quality fruit.
  • 4. I was only in Vienna once, a long time ago, and only for a day. And we were on our way to Romania so we never got off the bus. Sad face.
  • 5. Rosanne was Lillian for a while. And then Madalena. And then Anna.
  • 6. Everyone I interviewed who has synesthesia said the colors they see are so beautiful they can’t imagine life without them.
  • 7. If you take good care of it, an amaryllis plant can live for 75 years. Wow.
  • 8. Oh, and Amaryllis means “to sparkle” in Greek.
  • 9. All the while I was writing Helen’s chapters where the character Brigitta also appears, I heard Julie Andrews saying the name like she does in The Sound of Music. You know, Brig-GEETA. But it turns out the name is pronounced “BREEG-ita.” Still working on getting that right in my head.
  • 10. This book only ever had ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL for a title. The worksheet doc I created to list alternate working titles was blank for months. So one day I just deleted it and prayed fervently everyone at the House would love it. Everyone did.
Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
The art of storytelling is as old as the foundations of the earth. It’s how one generation passed on to the next the breadth and depth of human experience to that point; both the oral and then written recording of the events of the past but also made-up stories meant to give life and meaning to those events and what we learned from them. I think stories show us what we collectively care about, what we’re willing to die for, sacrifice for, chase after despite obstacles. Stories show us what we love, fear, hope for, and can’t live without. Stories let us experience—without having to leave the security of home—all the wonders and mysteries that make us human.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
I am always awed by how a character evolves as I write, almost on their own. I’m an outliner so I begin each novel with a rough sketch of what kind of person each character is—I know their Enneagram number, if you will—but then I start writing and they began to show me who they really are. Celine, for example, and who is a secondary character, began as a take-charge, this-is-how-its-done person who doesn’t like to be disappointed by people. But as I wrote the story and as she took on flesh and bone, I began to understand more fully that there is usually a reason why someone is the way they are. There is a reason why someone like Celine can’t handle having someone fail them. Experience is a teacher but it is also a molder. And sometimes the character who is a conniving back-biter is a deeply wounded soul. I think I rediscovered that truth while writing this book and these characters.

A heartrending story about a young mother’s fight to keep her daughter, and the winds of fortune that tear them apart by the New York Times bestselling author of The Nature of Fragile Things and The Last Year of the War.

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.
You can purchase Only the Beautiful at the following Retailers:

1 Winner will receive a $10 Amazon Gift Card.


  1. I've had so many, but maybe when I was driving over the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge as a tornado was touch down below me. It was like I had no control of my car's speed - it would barely move.

  2. The most frightening moment was when my son had pneumonia!

  3. My son fell on top of a plastic race track and the track cut into his head and it wouldn't stop bleeding so he had to get some stitches and it was the worst thing having to see him go through that and the removal!

  4. What scared me the most was when dark shadows appeared in my room when I was a child.