On Friday, I posted my review of Susan Meissner’s stellar new historical fiction novel, Secrets of a Charmed Life. (If you want to read what the book is about or missed that review, click here to read it!)
Today, I’m honored to share some of Susan Meissner’s insights to writing this novel. (Plus, stayed tuned to the end of the post for information on a book giveaway!)
Q&A with Susan Meissner
Susan Meissner is the author of seventeen books, including A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014, and The Shape of Mercy, named one of the 100 Best Novels in 2008 by Publishers Weekly. 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. (Caroline’s addendum: Plus, she’s super sweet and genuine when you meet her in person! She kindly dealt with my introverted-ness at She Speaks years ago. Thanks, Susan!)
(Susan’s answers are beneath the bolded questions.)
Susan, where did you get the idea for Secrets of a Charmed Life?
The story began first as an image in my head of an impoverished girl on the brink of adulthood sketching wedding dresses in the tiny bedroom she shares with a younger half-sister. I could see her in my mind’s eye imagining a life far different from the one she is living. She wants a fairy tale life where love and comfort and happiness are in abundance, and for her, that charmed life begins with a wedding dress worn on that blissful day a girl’s childhood dreams come true. I decided to set her in London at the start of the war because I knew that even for a young woman not yet sixteen, war is a crucible. It is a tester of dreams and desires and determination. I knew the London Blitz was an opposition that would bring out the very best and the very worst in this girl, as war so often does.
What drew you to include in your story the evacuation of London’s children?
Prior to researching for this book, I was only minimally aware of what London’s parents did to keep their children safe during World War II. I’d long ago read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and I knew the four children in those stories had been sent out of London into the countryside at the start of the war. But I didn’t know that for tens of thousands of children just like them that stay in the countryside lasted for the duration of the war. We’re talking five years. How difficult it must have been for the parents and their kids to be separated from each other – with just occasional visits – for half a decade, and during a time of fear, danger, and deprivation. From a storyteller’s standpoint, the emotional pull of this situation is intense. I knew I wanted to explore what this scenario might have been like for two young sisters.
Photos via Susan Meissner
The Cotswolds (countryside where Emmy and Julia were evacuated) – Photos via Susan Meissner
What is the significance of Emmy’s wedding dress sketches?
Those bridal gown designs represent Emmy’s naïve notions about the happily-ever-after life that she believes begins for a girl on the day she wears a dress emblematic of bliss and perfection. Emmy sees her unwed mother as someone on whom fate has frowned and that she is somewhat to blame for that. Emmy’s vision for her future is to rise above the constraints of her mother’s unlucky life. But those sketches blind her at first to the larger forces at work. And there are always larger forces at work.
Many authors accumulate way more research than what actually makes it into the book. Roughly how much of your overall research do you think is included in Secrets of a Charmed Life? What is one piece of research that didn’t make it into the book that you’d like to share with readers?
I bought or borrowed perhaps twenty different books and read most of them, which makes me think that I perhaps ended up using only half of the content I learned. That’s pretty typical for me, though. I don’t actually know what I will need in the beginning when I am in research mode, so I collect it all. And it’s as I am researching that I find I make the biggest decisions on where the story will go. The one bit that I mention only briefly in the book that was actually a big deal was when the Germans started using V-1 flying rockets in the summer of 1944. These highly destructive missiles were also called harmless-sounding “doodlebugs” but they were nothing to joke about. Londoners knew a V1 was nearby by the rasping, grating noise from the jet engine which powered the missile. They also knew that if this noise continued off into the distance then they were safe. If that sound suddenly cut off however, then there was about 15 seconds to run for cover. Nearly nine thousand people died during the Doodlebug summer.
What were you most surprised by in your research for Secrets of a Charmed Life?
I think many of us who were born after World War II have a limited understanding of what England suffered because there were so many other more shocking situations, like the slaughter of millions of Jews, the occupations of nations like Poland and France, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the storming at the beach at Normandy, and the Bataan Death March, to name just a few. I didn’t realize the magnitude of what London suffered until I took a closer look. The city was never occupied by Hitler’s forces but it was bombed relentlessly. Seven of Christopher Wren’s beautiful churches were destroyed, as were thousands upon thousands of homes. More than sixty thousand civilians were killed in the whole of the British Isles. Those are staggering losses. And yet the British people were and are resilient. Their rallying cry of Keep Calm and Carry On (I truly can’t stand trivializations of this motto!) is truly the hallmark of that resiliency. You can go to London’s East End now and see street after street of 1950’s-era buildings, framed by a quiet horizon of much older buildings that the war did not flatten. London, Coventry and the other bombed cities rebuilt what was destroyed and moved on. The memories of the war aren’t in the streets but in the museums, and in national cemeteries, and sometimes, if you look closely enough, in the faces of those who survived it.
Photos via Susan Meissner
Authors know a book comes alive when a reader reads it, so themes within are important. What would you especially like readers to take away from Secrets of a Charmed Life?
The title of this book, which I love, is meant to cause the reader to wonder if there really are secrets to living a life that has happily-ever-after written all over it. The title seems to suggest there are hidden truths to being able to have everything you’ve always wanted. But in actuality, and what I hope readers will take away, is that a happy life is not made up of what you have chased and achieved, but rather who you have poured your life into, who has poured their life into yours, and the difference you’ve made in the lives of others. Most of the dreams we pursue don’t have intrinsic worth, but people always do. It’s not a perfect world, and we can only play our own hand of cards – if you will – but if we play the hand as best we can with love for others as the motivation, I think we can rest content.
I love Susan’s answer for that last question! See my review from last Friday for some of my personal favorite quotes from the book, including some poignant thoughts on fear and hope.
Susan has graciously offered one signed copy of Secrets of a Charmed Life for one of you! Enter this giveaway through the Rafflecopter widget below. (For shipping reasons, this giveaway is open to US or Canada residents only.)
This giveaway is open from Monday, February 9th through Saturday, February 14th, 2015. See full terms for the giveaway when the Rafflecopter widget. (If you’re an email subscriber, you may need to click over to the actual post to enter the giveaway.)
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Since we’re talking history, What is a historical event you want to learn more about? (Share your response in the comments below!)
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