When I read The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, I got lost in the story and forgot all about being a writer. Lately I’ve been a real complainer about books that lack stories and certain fiction titles. But The Shape of Mercy reminded me that my love of books – especially those which take risks with prickly characters and pop back and forth between the past and present – is much stronger than the things that irritate me. As soon as I finished her book, I had to have her on the blog and talk about what inspired the story, the surprises she encountered on the way and the world she created for her characters.
Please welcome Susan Meissner, author of The Shape of Mercy.
Chica Lit: How did the idea for The Shape of Mercy come to you?
Susan: When I was in junior high, I was in play called To Burn a Witch. I played the role of an innocent young woman accused of witchcraft. The play opens with my character sitting in a jail cell with other innocent young women from her village also convicted of witchcraft and facing the stake. 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 the Devil, even though their lives would have been spared if they had. They held onto truth to the point of death. That, to me, is incredibly inspiring.
Chica Lit: Could you talk about your writing process?
Susan: The writing process for me begins with something like what I just shared: Ordinary people who I can relate to experiencing something extraordinary and faced with a choice. The Shape of Mercy is about a college student from an affluent family who takes a job she doesn’t need transcribing the 300-year-old diary of a young victim of the Salem Witch Trials. 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 her 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. After I had written the diary, it felt real to me. And I wanted it to, because it had to feel real to Lauren, the college student. The Shape of Mercy is about how Lauren’s character develops, and it’s all based on the discoveries she makes while she’s transcribing Mercy’s diary.
Chica Lit: Which character surprised you the most?
Susan: I would have to say it’s Abigail who evolved into a character I actually grew to care about. Abigail is the 83-year-old recluse who owns the diary and hires Lauren to transcribe it. Abigail was always going to be kind of a hard-souled sourpuss whose own disastrous choices made her the way she was. She was to personify regret so that Lauren could see what becomes of a person who makes decisions based on self-preservation alone. But the more I got into the story, and into her stony heart, the more I saw a woman who wasn’t past getting through to. She became someone I could redeem. Nice surprise.
Chica Lit: How did your journalism career help and/or hinder you as a novelist?
Susan: I have come across only good things that have transferred over from my days as a newspaper editor. Journalism is all about word economy, hooking the reader with the first sentence, saying much in a short amount of space, choosing powerful nouns and verbs instead of cosmetic adjectives and adverbs, and of course, sticking to a deadline. I am amazed at how much journalism prepared me to write fiction. And I know that sounds a like a joke! But it’s true. Go figure.
Chica Lit: In a way, you’re continuing The Shape of Mercy through a blog written by the characters. Will you write a sequel or continue the blog?
Susan: The blog, which is found here, has been a wonderful way to keep the characters alive.
More than once I’ve finished reading a novel where I’ve connected deeply with the characters and found myself a little depressed when I turned the last page. It’s been like having to say goodbye too soon to people I’ve learned to care about. My goal is always to create characters that seem real. I want them to seem real to you and to do that they must seem real to me. This was especially true with the characters in The Shape of Mercy. I wanted Lauren, Abigail, Esperanza, Raul, Clarissa, – and even Mercy – to keep breathing, to keep talking to me, prodding me even though the book was done. It’s true that the characters write the posts and I wouldn’t exactly say it’s an online sequel. The posts are emails between Lauren and Raul, advice from Clarissa, stories and poems from Mercy’s recovered storybook, insights on life and literature from learning-to-let-go-of-regrets Abigail and kicky recipes from Esperanza, Abigail’s housekeeper. It has a sequel-type feel and I like that because I have no plans to carry the story into another full-length book. I feel I told the story that needed to be told there. And I guess I will continue the blog until the story that needs to be told here is told!