Today at Random Ramblings I wanted to share a novel that nearly took me through a box of tissues and gave me an excuse to leave my house messy for another day. A FALL of MARIGOLDS by Susan Meissner is quite possibly the best book I’ve read in a long time. And I’ve fallen in love with a lot of books in the past few months, so I don’t say that lightly. My other favorite novel by Susan is SHAPE OF MERCY. Susan’s writing is always beautiful, the way she weaves the past with the present is seamless, and I’ve long admired her as an author.
I first crossed paths with Susan about seven years ago at a writing retreat. I was newly contracted to publish Ruby Among Us, but Susan had already published several novels. I remember being so nervous about meeting novelists whose books I’d seen on bookstore shelves, but Susan was full of grace and made me feel like I belonged at the retreat. I’ve always appreciated her kindness, and so when I started reading A FALL OF MARIGOLDS and fell in love with it, I wasn’t nervous at all to contact her and ask if she would answer a few questions at my blog. I think you will love getting to know her as much as you will love her newest novel.
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.
1. 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
2. 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 NorthTower of the WorldTradeCenter. 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.
3. 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.”
4. This is your first general market novel after having written more than a dozen books for the inspirational market. Why the switch?
I got my start in the inspirational market and am immensely grateful for that experience. Every published novelist wants to connect with her ideal reader. We don’t all like the same genres and we don’t all like the same style and voice. I believe a great many of my ideal readers shop in the general marketplace because that’s where I shop. My favorite authors — among them Kate Morton, Geraldine Brooks, Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Diane Setterfield — are all general marketplace authors. Add to this that my faith threads are always subtle rather than obvious, then the move to the general market place seems like a great way for me to connect with more readers. My approach to faith in my writing is one that I liken to the subtlety of God’s presence and influence in the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. The faith thread in the Book of Esther is as subtle as it can be – God is never even mentioned – and yet the story is powerfully told and the virtues of loyalty, trust, hope, and courage are obvious. I have never thought of myself as writer of Christian fiction but rather a Christian who writes fiction.
5. 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.
6. Where can readers connect with you?
You can find me at www.susanmeissner.com and on Facebook at my Author page, Susan Meissner, and on Twitter at SusanMeissner. I blog at susanmeissner.com. I also send out a newsletter via email four times a year. You can sign up for it on my website. I love connecting with readers! You are the reason I write.
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.