Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Blend of Historical and Contemporary with Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of  A Fall of Marigolds as well as The Shape of Mercy, named one of the 100 Best Books in 2008 by Publishers Weekly and the ECPA’s Fiction Book of the Year. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. She and her husband make their home in Southern California. 

It's a pleasure having award-winning novelist Susan Meissner here with us today to talk about her newest book from Penguin NAL, A Fall of Marigolds, a part historical novel, part contemporary novel set on Ellis Island in 1911 and in Manhattan a hundred years later. 

Susan, tell us where the idea for this story came from.

I’ve long been a history junkie, especially with regard to historical events that involve ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. A couple years ago I viewed a documentary by author and filmmaker Lorie Conway called Forgotten Ellis Island; a hauntingly poignant exposé on the section of Ellis Island no one really has heard much about; its hospital. The two man-made islands that make up the hospital buildings haven’t been used in decades and are falling into ruins, a sad predicament the documentary aptly addresses. The documentary’s images of the rooms where the sick of a hundred nations waited to be made well stayed with me. I knew there were a thousand stories pressed into those walls of immigrants who were just a stone’s throw from a new life in America. They were so close they could almost taste it. But unless they could be cured of whatever disease they’d arrived with, they would never set foot on her shores. Ellis Island hospital was the ultimate in-between place – it lay between what was and what could be. A great place to set a story

What is the story about, in a nutshell?

The book is about two women who never meet as they are separated by a century. One woman, Taryn, is a 9/11 widow and single mother who is about to mark the tenth anniversary of her husband’s passing. The other is a nurse, Clara, who witnessed the tragic death of the man she loved in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan in 1911.In her sorrow, Clara imposes on herself an exile of sorts; she takes a post at the hospital on Ellis Island so that she can hover in an in-between place while she wrestles with her grief. She meets an immigrant who wears the scarf of the wife he lost crossing the Atlantic, a scarf patterned in marigolds. The scarf becomes emblematic of the beauty and risk inherent in loving people, and it eventually finds it way to Taryn one hundred years later on the morning a plane crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The story is about the resiliency of love, and the notion that the weight of the world is made more bearable because of it, even though it exposes us to the risk of loss.

Why a scarf of marigolds? What is their significance?

Marigolds aren’t like most other flowers. They aren’t beautiful and fragrant. You don’t see them in bridal bouquets or prom corsages or funeral sprays. They don’t come in gentle colors like pink and lavender and baby blue. Marigolds are hearty, pungent and brassy. They are able to bloom in the autumn months, well past the point when many other flowers can’t. In that respect, I see marigolds as being symbolic of the strength of the human spirit to risk loving again after loss. Because, face it. We live in a messy world. Yet it’s the only one we’ve got. We either love here or we don’t. The title of the book has a sort of double-meaning. Both the historical and contemporary story take place primarily in the autumn. Secondarily, when Clara sees the scarf for the first time, dangling from an immigrant’s shoulders as he enters the hospital building, she sees the floral pattern in the threads, notes how similar they are to the flames she saw in the fire that changed everything for her, and she describes the cascading blooms woven into the scarf as “a fall of marigolds.”
What led you to dovetail the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 with 9/11?

When I first began pulling at story threads, my first instinct was to tell a story about an immigrant struggling to remain hopeful as an unwilling patient at Ellis Island hospital. But the more I toyed with whose story this was, the more I saw instead a young nurse, posting herself to a place where every disease known and unknown showed up. It was a place like no other; a waiting place – a place where the dozens of languages spoken added to the unnatural homelessness of it. Why was she here? Why did she choose this post? Why did she refuse to get on the ferry on Saturday nights to reconnect with the real world? What kind of person would send herself to Ellis not just to work, but to live? Someone who needed a place to hover suspended. I knew something catastrophic had to happen to her to make her run to Ellis for cover. As I began researching possible scenarios, I came across the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which up until 9/11 was arguably the worst urban disaster to befall Manhattan. There were similarities between that fire and 9/11, including the tragic fact that many trapped workers jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the flames.  For every person lost in disasters such as these, there is always his or her individual story, and the stories of those who loved them. I wanted to imagine two of those stories.

One important plot element is the moral dilemma Clara faces when she discovers something about the dead immigrant’s wife that he does not know. What led you to include this story thread?

Ellis Island Hospital contagious ward room
in present day.
A good story has to have tension; there has to be some kind of force tightening the screws, forcing the characters to react and respond. The main character of any novel wants something and the tension increases whenever what she wants eludes her. Clara is desperate to keep love golden, perfect in her mind, and without sharp edges. This moral dilemma I impose on her forces her to truly ponder what she thinks she wants. Is love really at its grandest when there are no sharp edges to it all? I don’t think so. I think to love at its fullest means we might get hurt. Probably will. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing, giving, and having. I include a line in the book that sums it up for me. “Love was both the softest edge and the sharpest edge of what made life real.” I think if we’re honest with ourselves we don’t want to settle for love being just as safe as “like.” Clara wrestles with what to do with her knowledge because she doesn’t want the beauty of love to somehow be tarnished; even it’s tarnished by truth.

Your last few novels have had historical components interwoven within a contemporary story. Why do you prefer that kind of story construction?

I think living in Europe for five years awakened my love for history. It’s like it was always there but 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. How could I not love it?  Study history and you learn very quickly what we value as people; what we love, what we fear, what we hate, what we are willing die for. History shows us where we’ve been and usually has lessons for us to help us chart where we’re going.

Could you share with us some of the surprises you’ve encountered along the road of your
Ellis Island Hospital patient room.
publishing journey?

I suppose one of the things that has surprised me the most is that the writing doesn’t get easier. I think I was under the impression that when you do something long enough it becomes second-nature to you --- you know, it gets easier to pull off!  But that’s not the case with writing fiction; at least it’s not that way for me. Even though I’ve written sixteen novels, I still approach every blank page with a healthy dose of apprehension and trepidation. I always raise the bar higher with every book I write but I still start out the same way each time I begin a new one – with a whole lot of nothing! That part thrills me, but it also scares me silly. 

What do you consider the best resources for historical research? 

More tomorrow from award-winning author, Susan Meissner. 

She is giving away a copy of her latest novel,  A Fall of Marigolds, in the drawing this week.

To be entered in this week’s drawings, please do the following:

1) Answer Susan’s question.

2) Leave your email addy in the form of name[at]domain[dot]com.

3) Leave your answer in the comments before 8:30 a.m. ET. Thank you!

Susan Meissner’s question for you:  The scarf in A FALL OF MARIGOLDS became an heirloom passed down through several generations of women. Do you have an heirloom that has been in your family for many years? Or do you plan to pass something on to your children that you hope will, in time, become an heirloom?


Patty said...

I have a patchwork quilt from one of my great grandmothers. Also several pieces of costume jewelry passed down from my grandmother. Certainly nothing of value except for the sentimental of course!


Kathleen Rouser said...

Patty, I can certainly relate! I have quite a few
things passed down from my grandmother--
a little jewelry, a small cedar chest, dishes and
a unique table--nothing of great value monetarily,
I just like old-fashioned things and the connection
to family.

The oldest item I have is a wooden rolling pin
from my great-grandmother, who I never knew.

Bonnie Roof said...

My aunt has a huge grandfather clock (floor mounted) with handmade wooden cabinet - which belonged to my grandmother. When my aunt passes on - it will be passed down to me, and then to my children.

Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of Susan's book - my first!!


Kathleen Rouser said...

That sounds like a lovely heirloom to hand down,
Bonnie. Thanks for sharing.

Amy C said...

I have a couple of things that have been in my family for many years. A family bible that has been in the family since 1910. A quilt made of silk ties my great grandmother made in the early 1900s. After the death of my grandmother, I found a monetary note from The Colony of Maryland. That's pretty cool!
All of these will be passed down to my children.
Campbellamyd at gmail dot com

Kathleen Rouser said...

The family Bible and the quilt both sound
like meaningful items to pass on, Amy.
And the monetary note is just plain cool!
I'm curious as to what year it was issued.

Britney Adams said...

I have some quilts and glass pieces that have been in my family for many years. I will pass them on the my children, as well as other things that have been collected that, in time, perhaps will become heirlooms.

texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

Susan Meissner said...

I love hearing about all these heirlooms! Each one seems to whisper "Have I got a story to tell..."

Anonymous said...

Hello Kathleen and Susan.I will have to say I didn't enjoy History, but love the way my authors write. I have learned so much that wasn't taught in schools. The authors tell it in a way that is interesting. But, all of my other subjects were easy for me. Had to really study hard just before with history tho. I loved some stories I wrote as essays and drew pictures, and made like a book. They disappeared over the years. most of my souveniers too. Some were taken in stolen stuff and guess some lost with many moves I guess. I have a few pieces of jewlery, and both my folks Bibles, a cookie jar, and a few just keepsakes is all to leave my kids. (and a LOT of books) LOL GOD bless.
Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

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