I am absolutely thrilled to have Susan Meissner on the blog today to chat about her new novel The Last Year of the War!
Susan Meissner is the critically-acclaimed author of 20 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 both Publishers Weekly 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, a pastor and chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. They are the parents of four adult children.
Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943–aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.
The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences.
But when the Sontag family is exchanged for American prisoners behind enemy lines in Germany, Elise will face head-on the person the war desires to make of her. In that devastating crucible she must discover if she has the will to rise above prejudice and hatred and re-claim her own destiny, or disappear into the image others have cast upon her.
The Last Year of the War tells a little-known story of World War II with great resonance for our own times and challenges the very notion of who we are when who we’ve always been is called into question.
Hi Susan! Welcome to the blog!
Susan: I love all the seasons, I really do, and I especially love all the winter holidays, but if I have to pick, I’m going with summer because of the long daylight hours, the dinners on the patio, no cold toes or fingers, the sun on my face, and margaritas and Moscow mules on the balcony.
Carrie: If I could live somewhere that didn’t get so humid as Kentucky, I might like summer too 😛
Susan: Dogs, all day long. I like cats. But I love dogs. They are loyal and smart and don’t hold grudges or make you feel like they matter more than you do.
Carrie: Yes! Love this answer.
Susan: I like all kinds of tea but if I could only have one or the other the rest of my life, coffee would win hands down. I like the jolt and how it makes the day’s agenda seem possible and it warms and comforts and empowers.
Carrie: I have always wanted to like either one or the other for that jolt but i could never develop a taste for them.
Susan: I used to be more of a sandwich girl but ever since I hit my fifties and realized any carb I ate would now hang around on me long after I’d eaten it, I’m going with soup with as few empty carbs as possible. I save bread for special occasions, because I still love it.
Carrie: I have a bread habit. It’s not pretty. LOL
Q: Around here I like to say that reading is my superpower. If YOU had a superpower, what would it be?
Susan: I would so love to be able to easily (hashtag EASILY!!) time-travel to the places I write about, but added to that super power I would want the ability to be invisible. I’d want to be in those places without being seen; partly so that I don’t mess up the space-time continuum and accidentally end the world as we know it, and partly because I’m a scaredy-cat who wouldn’t want to get caught or hurt in that other time zone and not be able to return to where I belong.
Carrie: spoken like a true writer who has thought out every angle to that plot 😉
Q: Tell me some good books you’ve read recently.
Susan: I just finished the audio version of Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris. Pam is wonderfully talented storyteller who is able to skillfully weave the lives of separate point-of-view characters into one seamless tale. In this book, she gives us a compelling story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.
Yesterday I finished an advance copy of Julie Kibler’s upcoming novel, Home for Erring and Outcast Girls. It’s described as “emotionally raw and resonant story of love, loss, and the enduring power of friendship, following the lives of two young women connected by a home for ‘fallen girls,’ and inspired by historical events.” I loved how Julie compels the reader to consider what it means to be cast out and labeled as ruined by the very people you thought would stand by you no matter what. It releases this summer.
And I loved Anissa Gray’s brand new debut, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. It’s not historical fiction, which is usually my go-to, but she’s a Berkley novelist like me and I asked my publicist for an early copy because the title was so interesting and the cover so eye-catching. It’s a fabulous book about sisters, choices, regrets, hope, and above all, familial love. Great book.
Carrie: I love Pam Jenoff’s books & I’ve heard the audiobook for that one is awesome. These other two are going on my TBR list right now!
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled while researching a book?
Susan: Just the other day I was all over the Internet looking up facts about the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, and once I decided I was going to go with a psychopath, I was finding out how one of those thinks, what makes them tick, and why they do what they do. So, yes, there just might be a psychopath in a book of mine in the coming years. And by the way, sociopaths seem to be created by their environment. Psychopaths are just physiologically different than the rest of us in terms of their brains and the way they think. They could be raised in the most loving, affirming home ever and still kill you in your sleep.
Carrie: That is so fascinating! I’m intrigued…
Q: Which character in this book was the most difficult to write?
Susan: Elise’s mother in THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR is a fragile person who relies heavily on Elise’s father for her security. When he is arrested and she’s suddenly in charge of the household, it’s a responsibility she simply can’t handle, and it’s because she can’t that he requests a transfer to Crystal City family internment camp so that they can all be together, even though he knows it means they might be repatriated to Germany in a prisoner exchange. Her weakness changed everything for that family. It was hard to write her that way because I wanted to shake her and say, “For Pete’s sake, get a grip!”
Carrie: I’ve often wanted to shake a character in a book but I haven’t thought about authors wanting to do the same. That would be tough, since you’re the one writing her and could change her if you wanted – but at the risk of the story.
Q: Did you have the whole plot outlined before you started writing The Last Year of the War, or did you let the characters dictate what came next?
Susan: I had a fairly clear idea of where the story would go, but of course, as Elise began to reveal it to me page by page, I found myself making room for discoveries I didn’t know I would make. I like to say that I outline by the seat of my pants, meaning I do outline (I’m not a seat-of-my-pants writer) but that as I write using the outline, I am constantly adjusting it.
Carrie: I like that approach – the best of both worlds!
Q: What do you most want readers to take away from The Last Year of the War?
Susan: If we’re going to remember the lessons of WWII, and I believe we should, we need to know them and talk about them. And in doing so, I believe we can learn from them, which for me has always been what I love most about reading and writing historical fiction. I want readers to discover within the pages of THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR something about the world or times past or themselves that they didn’t already know.
Carrie: This is something I’m passionate about – educating people on the lessons of WWII through the power of story. Which is why your new book has been on my radar for quite some time 😉
Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me! 🙂 Before we say goodbye for today, tell us what‘s coming up next for you.
Susan: The book I am working on now for late 2020 doesn’t have a title yet and is only in the roughest of rough draft beginnings, but it’s set in San Francisco in the early twentieth century. The lives of three women are going to converge because of the machinations of one man and because of a certain earthquake in 1906. The story is most likely going to begin with the discovery of a body, many years later…
Carrie: ooo! I am already hooked!
What about you? What interests you most about this book?