Today's #WomensHistoryReads interview is a charmer -- just like Susan Meissner herself, author of more than a dozen novels, including SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN. Her most recent is AS BRIGHT AS HEAVEN, about a Philadelphia family reborn through love and loss during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Be sure to check out her website for tour events to see if she's coming to a city near you on tour in March or April.
Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?
Susan: I just finished I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon and my first response when I read the last page was, “Wow!” The last imperial Russian tsar, Nicholas Romanov, was executed along with his wife and five children during the Bolshevik revolution in 1918, but mystery surrounded one of the daughters, when in 1920, a woman who later went by the name Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia Romanov. Anderson attempted to kill herself by jumping off a Berlin bridge two years after the executions. She carried no identification papers and refused to give authorities her name. When she finally did speak, she said she was Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only surviving member of the Russian royal family. This same woman spent her lifetime claiming she had survived the brutal execution of the rest of her family. Lawhon has constructed a cleverly engaging look at both Anastasia Romanov of history and the woman who claimed until her dying day to be the sole surviving daughter of the last tsar of Russia. It is a non-linear tale, in that part of the story moves forward and part moves backward, but I loved how the story played out that way. It was a very unique architecture that was probably not easy to pull off, but Lawhon is a master storyteller and she totally made it work.
Greer: I am SO excited for that book! And Ariel will be a guest here the day it publishes, March 27. Next question: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?
During the writing of one of my older books, WHITE PICKET FENCES, I came across the life and times of Irena Sendler, a brave Polish social worker who helped smuggle more than two thousand Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She was arrested on October 20, 1943, and sent to the notorious Piawiak prison. Here she was tortured when she would not give up the names of the other people in her smuggling network. Despite the cruelty of her questioners, she remained resolute and gave up no names. Irena was sentenced to death, but the German executioner who was to have killed her was bribed so that friends could help her escape. Posters were put up all over the city with the news that she’d been executed. She hid during the remaining years of the war. Irena was the only one who knew where the children who had been smuggled out were located. When the war was over in 1945, she dug up the jars that contained the slips of paper detailing the whereabouts of the 2500 children whose lives she had saved and began the job of trying to find a living relative. She was so very brave, and few high schoolers know her name.
Greer: That's amazing -- both what she did and that it's not better-known. What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
My next book was just released in February, so it’s just a month old and I’m so glad that it is out in the wild. AS BRIGHT AS HEAVEN is a novel set primarily in Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed an astonishing 50 million people worldwide. But it’s not just a book about an all-but-forgotten event, it’s also a story about what gives our lives beauty and meaning. It’s because we’re mortal that life is so precious, and the time we are given – however long or short – is always made more wonderful because of who we’ve loved along the way, and who has loved us. The point-of-view characters telling the story are an undertaker’s wife and the couple’s children – three daughters whose ages bring unique perspectives to what is happening all around them as well as around the world. Library Journal gave AS BRIGHT AS HEAVEN a starred review and Romantic Times named it a Top Pick in their January issue and said it was “heart-wrenching, well written and unforgettable.” It has been likened to two favorite books I’ve read in my own book club, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, by M. L. Stedman.
Greer: A wonderful book. (And catnip to fellow THE POISONWOOD BIBLE superfans.)
Susan: My question for you: You have been granted a lovely dinner with three literary greats – dead or alive. Who do you pick and what is on the menu?
Greer: I love it when fellow authors' questions give me superpowers! Let's go with some dead and some alive, to assemble a powerhouse salon of Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, and Agatha Christie. On one hand I think a classic afternoon tea spread with scones and Darjeeling would be most appropriate, but since it's my fantasy, I'm going with my favorite party food: Spanish tapas like marinated Manchego, garlic shrimp and chorizo coins, washed down with gallons of Rioja. Let's see what tipsy Jane would spill -- maybe her wine, maybe some secrets.
Learn more about Susan and her books here:
Tomorrow's #womenshistoryreads interviewee is Erika Robuck -- be sure to stop by again!