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Interview: January 21, 2016

Susan Meissner is the acclaimed author of multiple bestselling novels, as well as a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her latest book, STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD, is set in both the present and the past, and tells the story of two women who meet on the set of Gone with the Wind, whose friendship is tested by the glamour and deception of 1930s Hollywood. In this interview, Meissner talks to’s Susan Miura about the incredible research that went into making STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD historically accurate, the role that her faith plays in her storytelling, and why she thinks friendship is the most interesting relationship to write about --- especially because there's a bit of Scarlett O'Hara inside us all. Tell us about your motivation for setting the backstory of STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD in the late 1930s and using Gone with the Wind as a key element in your plot. Was this a favorite movie of yours?

Susan Meissner: This movie has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never really known why until I chose the 1939 film set as the backdrop for a novel. Last year, Gone with the Wind was re-released for theaters in restored digital format for its 75th anniversary, and I was transfixed again by the sights and sounds of a movie that is still, for me, unparalleled. I’ve read the book, and I loved that, too, but it’s the movie that I’ve seen a dozen or more times, and I’ve only read the book once. There’s something about the portrayal of these characters on screen that is intriguing to me.

BRC: You are obviously quite knowledgeable about the filming of Gone with the Wind. Was this start-from-scratch research for you, or did you have previous insight into this movie and its actors?

SM: All I knew before I started writing was that I loved this movie. I spent many weeks researching the film and contemplating my own insights into its many layers of story. Because it’s such an iconic movie, there is a lot of material out there. My favorite research books include the beautifully composed THE MAKING OF GONE WITH THE WIND by Steve Wilson, published by the University of Texas at Austin. It’s coffee-table worthy, it’s that well done. I also couldn’t have written the book without reading David Selznick’s correspondence in MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK, edited by Rudy Behlmer, and also the letters and notes technical advisor Susan Myrick penned. Susan was a personal friend of Peggy Marsh (a.k.a. Margaret Mitchell), and every aspect of Southern culture and lifestyle had to have her stamp of approval for the filming.

BRC: Your scene-building of vintage Hollywood was vivid, making readers feel like they were right there. How did you research to get your scenes period-perfect?

SM: I went after detail-accuracy several different ways. I live only two hours away from Hollywood, so one day a friend and I took the train up and her son-in-and-law and daughter, who live just below the Hollywood sign, took us around so I could get a feel for the lay of the land. Even though much has changed in 70 years, there are still echoes of old Hollywood’s grandeur if you know where to look. I also visited Culver Studios (the former Selznick International), where most of Gone with the Wind was filmed, and walked the lots. Again, much has changed, but you can honestly feel the past whisper to you if you are quiet and observant. I read books written about the time period, and I watched old movies filmed in that time period. Lastly, an author friend of mine, James Scott Bell, who lives in Los Angeles and has written about the 1930s, wisely told me to avail myself of the Los Angeles Public Library’s digital archives, which I also did. Looking at old newspapers (his idea) was a great way of capturing the vibe of what classic Hollywood was like.

BRC: In STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD, main characters Audrey and Violet each harbor secret agonies related to bearing children. Why did you choose this particular type of heartache?

SM: Violet wants to be needed, and Audrey wants to be wanted. The two desires are similar yet different. I knew I could use the topic of motherhood as a way of not only exploring their separate yearnings but also having those desires tangle and therefore produce the tension any good story needs. For Violet, being someone’s mother was the surest way to validate her worth. For Audrey, being sought-after was the same thing. It’s this commonality that actually set up the point of departure for them, because it was at this point that their desires started to collide instead of dovetail.

BRC: You’ve once again given us a novel in which you seamlessly weave the present and past into a compelling plot, using whole chapters from each time period. What draws you to this method of storytelling?

SM: I’ve long been a history junkie, especially with regard to ordinary people finding themselves facing extraordinary circumstances. I like mulling over how the past informs the present. History shows us what we value, what we fear, what we are willing to fight for, and what we don’t want to lose. Eight years ago with THE SHAPE OF MERCY, which is the first book I wrote using this kind of past/present construction, I used a diary from a witness to the Salem witch trials to link two stories together. That book struck a chord with my readers. They wanted more books like that. In LADY IN WAITING, I used a ring to dovetail the story of Lady Jane Grey with a modern-day Jane. In A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, the item that bridges both stories is a scarf. With SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE, Thistle House is the constant in every time change, and in STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD, it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain-dress hat.

BRC: Audrey and Violet have very different backgrounds and emotional baggage. They start the book as strangers, but quickly become good friends who traverse some lofty mountains and deep valleys as the years unfold. What do you hope readers will take away regarding friendship and its potential for impact on our lives?

SM: Friendship is the most remarkable of human relationships because it is completely voluntary. We choose our friends. There is no civil or legal code that demands we stay friends; no vows are said and no contracts are signed. And yet most of us have friends whom we love as deeply as those people we are legally and morally bound to. I know I have friends like that. C. S. Lewis described friendship this way: “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” I love that. I write novels about relationships, and no relationship is quite like that of friendship.

BRC: Violet starts out with a sweet and humble demeanor, but a manipulative side of her emerges as her desire for Bert grows stronger. What prompted you to develop her character in this way?

SM: I think all of us have our good side and bad side, and sometimes it’s hard to keep our inner Scarlett from taking over. You know that bit about the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and both are telling us what to do? That’s only partly comedy shtick. I think it’s a struggle sometimes to do what’s right. That struggle is at its most difficult when what we love is under threat. I began writing this book thinking I’d use the Scarlett template for one of the main characters and Melanie for the other. But I quickly figured out that Violet and Audrey are actually both to some degree. And we are, too.

BRC: Some foreshadowing takes place when Audrey and Violet are debating the merits of Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett stealing her sister’s fiancé. Why did you choose that scene, and that timing, to foreshadow changes in Audrey and Violet’s friendship?

SM: When you look at this film as a study in the friendship between two women who seem --- at first glance --- completely different, and yet who face the same terrible struggle against war, deprivation and loss, you see that Scarlett and Melanie aren’t true polar opposites. The scene I chose here shows that. Melanie’s virtues are so obvious that it’s easy to miss her weaknesses. And the same is true of Scarlett. Her admirable qualities are overshadowed by her faults. Melanie is not as naïve or as sainted, nor is Scarlett as shallow and conniving as they both at first glance appear to be. There is a lot more going on between Melanie and Scarlett, and it’s their friendship that provides one of the more interesting canvasses for us to see just how much. The same is true of my characters, Audrey and Violet. Their flaws and virtues tumble around, just like ours do when we are faced with a choice and something of value is at stake. The scene in the movie that Audrey mentions here speaks to this observation perfectly.

BRC: How do you compare the Hollywood at the start of STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD with the town we know today?

SM: Old Hollywood, for me, exists in snippets and shadows. It’s there, but it hovers over the hype and hoopla of the present-day vibe, which can seem a bit superficial. Movies are made on location now, for the most part, and you just don’t see the actors walking around on Sunset Boulevard or having lunch at the Brown Derby. There isn’t the same kind of glamour and class without the streetcars and fancy nightclubs and men in fedoras. You can get a sense of the past at Union Station, and when you drive up into the hills and are surrounded by darling stucco houses like Audrey’s, and in the vintage shops, but it’s easily missed if you aren’t looking for it.

BRC: Your novels are set in a wide variety of locations. Are you inspired by places you have lived in or visited, or do you visit some for the first time after choosing your setting? 

SM: The answer to both of those questions is yes. When I visit a new place, even when I am on vacation, I do tend to take little mental notes for a future book. It is easier to write about a place when you’ve been there, even if the details have changed over time. I have also visited places after having chosen them if I wasn’t fully confident I could glean the subtleties of a location from just reading about it. I spent four days in Fredericksburg, Virginia, after choosing that setting for A SOUND AMONG THE TREES, a book set partly in the present day and partly during the Civil War. Interestingly enough, I did not go back to Massachusetts when writing THE SHAPE OF MERCY to poke around what had been Salem Village during the infamous witch trials of 1692. That place truly no longer exists. This is just one reason I am so glad we as a culture still value experience and history, and that we write about it, so that every time and place can be visited mentally, if not physically.

BRC: Does being a pastor’s wife influence your plots and/or characters? If so, how?

SM: What an interesting question! If I’m being honest, who I am married to has less of an influence on me than what my worldview is. I am a person of faith, and my view of the world and us and why we’re here is naturally going to show up in my novels in some way or another. It shows up in my marriage, too, of course. I think any worldview that an author has, especially if it shapes her thinking, is going to appear somehow in what she writes. My worldview bleeds out of me in the pages of my novels as story, not as message, though. I never want my books to sound message-driven. What matters to me, like the virtues of love, sacrifice, forgiveness, affirmation and justice, does show up in my books, but in an as organic a fashion as I can pull off. That is my hope, anyway. The core of who I am is on the pages, but it's subtle.

BRC: Can you give us a sneak peek at your next novel?

SM: The book I am working on at the moment is tentatively titled “A Bridge Across the Ocean.” One of its key settings is the HMS Queen Mary during one of its many GI war brides crossings. The Queen is such a perfect place to set a story because she has such a marvelous past. She started out as a luxury liner, was made a troop carrier during the war, and has been a floating hotel here in California since 1967. She is also fabled to be haunted by numerous ghosts, a detail I simply cannot ignore. So there will be a ghost or two in this next book! This story thematically, though, is about three female characters, two of whom are war brides --- one French and one German --- who meet on the Queen Mary in 1946. The current-day character, Brette, has the family gift of being able to see ghosts, and she really wishes she couldn’t. She also doesn’t want to pass along that hereditary gift to a child, but her husband is anxious to start their family. All three characters will face a bridge they need to cross where the other side is hidden from their view. The concept of a bridge across the ocean --- which seems impossible --- speaks to how difficult it is to go from one place to another when you can’t see what awaits you on the other side.