Interview with Susan Meissner
Author of The Girl in The Glass
as well as A Sound Among the Trees and The Shape of Mercy
It’s a pleasure having award-winning novelist Susan Meissner here with us today to talk about her newest book from WaterBrook Press, The Girl in the Glass, a part-contemporary, part historical novel set in Florence, Italy
1. Susan, tell us where the idea for this story came from.
For our 25th wedding anniversary a few years ago my husband and I took a much-anticipated eight-day Mediterranean cruise. One of the ports of call on the Italy side was close enough to Florence to hop on a bus and spend the day there. When I stepped onto Florentine pavement I fell head over heels in love. There is something magical about Florence that I didn’t see in Rome, or even Paris if you can believe that. The artistic genius that meets your eye no matter which direction you turn is unparalleled. The beauty created by mere mortals during the Italian Renaissance is jaw-dropping. It was the perfect place to bring a disillusioned present-day character who needs to re-invent her life. That’s what Renaissance means: rebirth. I went back a couple years later with my mom, daughter, sisters and nieces and knew I just had to set a story there and somehow involve the infamous Medici family.
2. What is the story about, in a nutshell?
Meg Pomeroy is a disenchanted travel book editor unsure of her father’s love, still smarting from a broken engagement, and whose normally cautious mother is suddenly dating a much younger man. Her perspective on everything that matters is skewed. She escapes to Florence, Italy, on a long-promised trip, believing her father will meet her there. True to form, he’s a no-show, but the trip allows her to connect with Lorenzo DiSantis, a writer she’s met only via Skype and e-mail, and Sofia Borelli, a tour guide and aspiring writer who claims she’s one of the last Medici, and that a sixteenth-century Medici granddaughter, Nora Orsini, speaks to her through Florence’s amazing statues and paintings. When Sophia, Meg, and Nora’s stories intersect, their lives are indelibly changed as they each answer the question: What if renaissance isn’t just a word? What if that’s what happens when you dare to believe that what is isn’t what it has to be?
3. The Girl in the Glass refers to a painting that the heroine of your novel, Meg, loves. Describe the painting and what it stands for.
Because this story is set in Florence, against the backdrop of the most stunning art that can be seen today, I wanted there to be a current day painting that connected my main character, Meg, with this amazing city. The painting Meg loves features a little Florentine girl mimicking a statue whose marbled hand is extended toward her. The painting hung in her maternal grandmother’s house; a place where Meg felt loved and safe. Meg hasn’t seen the painting since she was a little girl. When her grandmother died, everything in the house was sold or parceled out to other family members. Meg knows the statue in the much-loved painting is real, that it is somewhere in Florence, and that it is likewise beckoning her to come. Since she doesn’t know where the painting is, she is set on finding the statue itself. In a way, the lost painting represents Meg’s perceived loss of her family when her parents divorced and everything stable in Meg’s life turned upside down.
4. In its review of The Girl in The Glass, Publishers Weekly said that this book is like taking a trip to Florence. What kind of research is involved in creating that kind of experience? Why do you think readers love to take those kinds of journeys in a novel?
The best kind of research is that which lets me usher the reader right into the time and place I want to take them, without them feeling anything — no motion sickness, if you will. So I need to know everything, not just facts and figures but even the subtle nuances of a time period. It means a lot of reading and note-taking. I usually end up collecting more data than I can possibly use, but I don’t always know what I’ll need until I am into the story, and the characters start talking and reacting and deciding. I think readers like the thrill of being somewhere they couldn’t visit any other way than through the pages of a book. Novels let us experience the lives of other people without having to make any of their mistakes. And we can also share their joys. And their victories. And the lessons they learned in the crucible of life.
5. One important plot in The Girl in the Glass deals with Meg’s disappointment in her parents’ divorce and her father’s behavior in the years following the divorce. What inspired this particular thematic exploration of disappointment with parental expectations?
My parents have been happily married for over fifty years so I had to research this aspect for the novel. I like to think of myself as a hungry observer; I tend to watch people, study them, to learn from them. I have seen a lot of people who grew up in homes where their parents had divorced and I’ve seen the effects of that severing. Some have never gotten over it. Childhood life-changers tend to stay with us. And the family, especially the parents, are the child’s universe. When you upset that you upset quite a bit.
6. Your last few novels have had important historical components in the storytelling. Some of the history of the famous Medici family is included in the novel. What was the most fascinating thing about the Medicis and how do your reconcile their infamous behavior with their unquestionable contribution to the world of art?
The Medici family both appalls and fascinates me. On the whole they were shrewd, conniving, opportunistic, unfaithful, vengeful, murdering rulers, who of all things, loved art and beauty. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Donatello, and so many other Italian Renaissance artists, wouldn’t have had patrons if it weren’t for the Medici family. They wouldn’t have the financial backing and opportunities to create all that they did. I don’t know if we would have the statue of David or Brunelleschi’s Dome or Botticelli’s Primavera were it not for the Medici family. They made Florence beautiful and yet most of them were addicted to leading un-commendable lives. That is astounding to me. They weren’t — taken as a whole — admirable people, and yet look at the legacy of beauty they made possible. I like to think that demonstrates there is hope for all of us to be able to see beauty in spite of living with much disappointment. You don’t have to look hard to find ugliness on Earth, but beauty is there. Don’t close your eyes to it.
7. One of your point-of-view characters is a little known Medici family member named Nora Orsini. Tell us about her. Why did you choose her?
Nora Orsini was the daughter of Isabella de’Medici and the granddaughter of Cosimo I. In the Girl in the Glass, Nora’s short chapters precede every current-day chapter, as she tells her story on the eve of her arranged marriage. Very little is known about Nora Orsini, so I had the glorious freedom to speculate, which is the reason I chose her. I wanted the literary license to imagine beyond what history tells us. There is, however, plenty that is known about her mother, Isabella Medici. Nora did not lead the happiest of lives. I wanted to suppose that the beauty of her city offered solace to her, and that if it were indeed possible for Sofa, the tour guide that Meg meets, to hear Nora’s voice speaking to her from within the masterpieces, she would speak of how the beauty that surrounded her kept her from disappearing into bitterness.
Where can our listeners connect with you online or learn more about The Girl in the Glass, and your other books?
You can find me at www.susanmeissner.com and on Facebook at my Author page, Susan Meissner, and on Twitter at SusanMeissner. I blog at susanmeissner.blogspot.com. I also send out a newsletter via email four times a year. You can sign up for it on my website. I love connecting with readers! You are the reason I write.
Leslie here: visit Susan’s blog and enter to win a framed watercolor print of Florence’s Duomo and Arno River (below) or a basket of Italian goodies.
And leave a comment on this blog post to win a copy of The Girl in the Glass.