Susan Meissner, Interviewed

Hi Susan, thanks for joining us to talk about our She Reads pick: Shape of Mercy. We are honored to have you join us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your family?

I am a pastor’s wife, mom to four wonderful young adults — a daughter and three sons ages 24 to 16 — and I work part-time at my church as director of small groups and connection ministries. I love the ocean and the mountains — am rather schizophrenic about my admiration and devotion to both so I’m glad I am a native Southern Californian where one is a few miles one way and the other a few miles the other way. I love books, bookstores, coffee shops inside bookstores and the smell of bookstores. My husband and I recently returned to Southern California after living away for 21 years, most recently in Minnesota, but also in Arkansas, England, and Germany. It’s good to be back home. In addition to being a pastor, my husband Bob is a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves.

How did you get started writing?

I would have to say that God, the wildly creative Author of our souls, has taught me more about the art and power of story than anyone. He placed within my life wonderful teachers in both elementary and high school who saw promise in me and made a point to encourage me, even though I didn’t do any serious writing until my mid-thirties. I’ve learned more about the human condition and what we long for from being in relationships and observing relationships, rather than a particular course of study, though I highly recommend studying the art of writing. God knows everything, sees everything, understands everything. And this is what all novelists attempt. We try to make sense of the world we see through story. My primary tutor for this has always been God. I learned the art of disciplined writing from working for ten years in community journalism. Those ten years as a reporter and then editor taught me so much about making every word count.

You have been writing Christian fiction for awhile. How many books did you write before you wrote The Shape Of Mercy?

The Shape of Mercy is my tenth novel. All but three are contemporary stand-alones. I wrote a mystery series a couple years back for Harvest House, which was very enjoyable to create, but stand-alones are my wheelhouse, I think.

How have you seen the Christian fiction industry change since you began writing?

In the last five years we have seen Christian fiction expand into nearly every genre, and at last garner the respect of secular reviewers. That, to me, is incredibly good news. We have extremely talented Christian-world-view writers producing everything from suspense thrillers to speculative to literary fiction. This isn’t just great news for Christian novelists, but also for readers looking for great stories without R-rated themes and dialogue. Those great stories can now be found in every genre. It’s fantastic news, really.

What prompted you to write The Shape Of Mercy?

I read a newspaper article a couple years ago about a woman who was petitioning a Massachusetts court to exonerate her great-times-eight grandmother. This ancestor of hers was accused and convicted of witchcraft during the Salem trials, was released when the hysteria ended, but whose name was never cleared. This article was of particular interest to me because I had played the role of an innocent girl accused of witchcraft when I was in junior high school. I was reminded of how it felt, even just as an actress, to be accused of being something I was not – and the far worse feeling of accusing someone I knew was innocent. These people who died in 1692 Salem were all innocent. They all died refusing to confess they were in league with the devil. They held onto truth to the point of death. That, to me, is incredibly inspiring. The three women in my story have three very basic things in common. They are all daughters of influential men, all raised as an only child, and each one must decide who they are. Are they women who stand for the truth even if they stand alone or do they let fear propel them to do what the crowd says to do, even if the crowd is wrong?

Did you have a purpose for the book– something you wanted the readers to take away from the experience of reading it?

When I begin to write a book, I usually have a takeaway in mind for my reader beyond just entertainment. I wouldn’t say my books are message-driven, but I think it’s worth noting that every book †” not just Christian books †” has a message of some kind within its pages. Even Green Eggs & Ham has a message within it. The Salem Witch Trials reveal rather poignantly how rushed judgments and fear can bring out the worst in us. Everyone who was executed in Salem in 1692 was later exonerated. Hysteria, not reason, ruled the day for those long months when innocent people were accused of horrible acts. It didn’t matter how long or how loud the accused proclaimed their innocence. In Salem, you were whatever the crowd said you were. I could have chosen Dachau as the setting. Or Rwanda. Salem wasn’t the first setting people died because the crowd accused them of deserving death and no one stood up to say, “Now hold on there.” I guess I’d like every reader, after they’ve turned the last page, to consider how quick they are to embrace snap judgments, even so-called harmless ones, based on groupthink.

In The Shape of Mercy, Lauren encounters a diary written during the Salem Witch Trials. How much research on this time period did you have to do to create Mercy’s diary?

I wrote the diary first; before I wrote anything else. I read several different kinds of books on the Salem Witch Trials – all listed in the back of the book †” to prepare myself mentally to step into 1692. I interview my characters before I write, so I already had several imaginary conversations with Mercy Hayworth before I began to write the diary. I knew how she was wired, what she excelled at, what she feared, what she was willing to do for the people she loved. I didn’t come across any other diary in my research other than a fictional one written for school-age kids. But the testimonies of the accused can all be found on the Internet. I found particular inspiration from Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, hung as witches and later exonerated — both of whom were brave believers who refused to confess to an allegiance with the devil.

You recently won an award for The Shape Of Mercy. Can you share about that experience?

The Shape of Mercy was named the 2009 Christian Book of the Year for Fiction by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Hearing my name at the awards ceremony in Dallas was surreal. I was among a talented group of finalists and was floored to be announced the winner. It was incredibly affirming to me to have this book recognized in this way. I struggle from time to time with confidence. It’s nice to have a significant pat on the back once in awhile to let me know I am putting out something of value.

What are you working on now?

Next month “White Picket Fences” will release, which is a story about a family that seems to have the perfect iconic life. Perfect house, perfect jobs, perfect neighborhood, perfect everything. But they live on the same fallen planet as the rest of us and suffer the same flaws. To pretend all is well when all is not is to doom yourself to a life of pretense and disappointment. We need to be honest about who we are and Who we must run to for help, healing and hope. I included as a historical thread the amazing heroes of WWII’s Warsaw Ghetto, who risked everything to smuggle children away from certain death.

What is something you are excited about in your writing future?

I just finished a manuscript for WaterBrook called “Lady in Waiting,” which dovetails the historical account of Lady Jane Grey (she was queen of England for nine days, at the age of sixteen) with a woman in present-day Manhattan at a major crossroads in her life. That book releases in the fall of 2010. I learned so much about what it means to choose to love in the writing of this one. I am anxious to share those thoughts with my readers.

Thanks so much for sharing with us and we hope to hear lots more from you in the future!

My pleasure! For those who enjoyed The Shape of Mercy and want to continue spending time with these characters, I have a character blog where Lauren, Clarissa, Abigail, Esperanza and even Mercy write the posts. It’s been active for over a year, so you will need to head to the archives to pick up where the story leaves off. Here’s the address:

http://theshapeofmercy.blogspot.com

You can purchase The Shape of Mercy here!

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (2014), FLIGHT OF DREAMS (2016), and I WAS ANASTASIA (2018). Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her family.

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