Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A View from Susan Meissner's Window!

The Shape of Mercy has got to be one of my favorite books this year! I just had to ask the author, Susan Meissner a few questions about her work on this story, and I am pleased to share that information with you here! Please, welcome Susan Meissner to my Window!!

What was your inspiration for this story? How did an eighty-three-year-old, a twenty-year-old and a girl from the 17th century come together?

When I was in junior high, I was in play called To Burn a Witch. I played the role of an innocent woman accused of witchcraft who sits in a cell with other innocent young women from her village. When my character realizes she can save herself by pretending to be bewitched, she begins to scream that one of the other girls in her cell – a friend, actually – is tormenting her. My character is led away to freedom and the woman she accused falsely is led away to her execution. I had forgotten being in that play until 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. 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 Satan. They held onto truth to the point of death. That, to me, is incredibly inspiring. These three women 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?

You state that Mercy’s diary was fictional. Was is difficult to create? Was it based on other historical documents of that time? Was she born into your imagination through research of that time period?

I wrote the diary first; before I wrote anything else. After reading several different kinds of books on the Salem Witch Trials (they are all listed in the back of the book), I felt ready to step into 1692. I interview my characters before I write their story, so I had already had several imaginary conversations with Mercy Hayworth before I began to write the diary. I knew how she was wired, what she was good 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 those accused can all be found on the Internet. I found particular inspiration from sisters Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, older women hung as witches, later exonerated – both of whom were brave believers who refused to confess to having an allegiance with the Devil. If readers want to know more about these characters, I am getting ready to launch a blog that will be dedicated to them. You can find it right here: http://theshapeofmercy.blogspot.com

I have collected several old diaries and sets of letters over the years, and I am always intrigued to take a peek into the hearts and minds of those who have gone before me. Have you ever read or collected old diaries? If so, could you share a bit about that with your readers?

I don’t own any old diaries but I would be the first to buy one if I happened upon one at a used bookstore. They intrigue me. Most are written by people who merely wanted to think out loud, they had no intention of letting others read what they had written. This makes them incredibly honest people. Honest people have a lot to teach us.

Several of your stories explore stigmas/judgments people make about each other. The Shape of Mercy explores privileged wealth vs. the average or impoverished person – status. As volunteers in a women’s rehab facility, my husband and I have had to overcome some preconceived notions of our own about people enslaved to addictions. How do Christians learn to love others with mercy and overcome the perceived barriers that often divide us?

We have to train ourselves to see people like God sees people. Having that kind of vision takes incredible discipline because our nature is not to see things like He does. I saw myself often in Lauren as the story revealed how she truly didn’t want to judge people but she did. She just did. We all do. We see a homeless man begging on the streets and we make all kinds of assumptions about how he got there and what he would do if we reached out to help him. We see a pregnant teenager or an obese child or a woman wearing diamonds and Jimmy Choos and we assume the teenager has no morals, the child has no restraint and the woman is wealthy and therefore has no worries. We believe these things because the crowd tells us it’s so. Jumping to conclusions seems to permeate culture, regardless of the generation. Whatever the crowd says, we too easily believe. We need to fix our eyes on God, not the crowd.

How important do you think it is for all of us to make sure we tell those we love how much we care for them? To make time for the meaningful moments in life? To cherish relationship?

Jesus said he had only two expectations of us, Love God, love everyone else. When we love God first and completely, we find the grace, mercy and wisdom to love the rest of the world. And really, love is something you do, not so much something you say. You learn more about love’s wonder when you give it away, not when you receive it. We are meant to be in relationship. Loving God means having a relationship with Him, and loving other people means the same thing. To love is to defer. When we can see others needs as more important than our own, we are loving them.

What exciting things is God doing in your life right now? Any words of encouragement you would like to share with your readers?

God floors me continually. He just amazes me at every turn. I am so honored and humbled that I get to wrap words around His awesomeness. If I could encourage a reader who is wondering when God is going to show up in their life, I would say this. Stand still, hush, and look up. He is there. You are not alone. He is right beside you. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, no one walks alone. You probably don’t like being there, and I wish I could say you won’t always have to be there, but just know you don’t walk it alone. He walks it with you.


Amy said...

This is a great interview, Kim. Susan has so much great insight. I truly loved this book.

T. Forkner said...

Thank you for this great interview. I've met Susan a couple of times and her heart is as big as it sounds. Now I want to read her books!