Many years ago, I paid a visit to Ellis Island. An unforgettable experience, especially for someone like me whose ancestors immigrated to America generations ago. That visit led me to write the Coming to America series where each novel begins with part of the immigration process on Ellis Island. And I can never get enough of the history of this very American experience.
When I heard about award-winning novelist Susan Meissner’s new book, A Fall of Marigolds, I knew I was going to want to read it. I love Susan’s writing style, and this novel does not disappoint. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re going to want to put it on your to-read shopping list right now.
Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of fifteen books, including The Shape of Mercy, named one of the 100 Best Novels in 2008 by Publishers Weekly and the ECPA’s Fiction Book of the Year. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. She and her husband make their home in Southern California.
I’m delighted to be participating in a blog tour for A Fall of Marigolds (Penguin NAL). The book is part historical novel (set on Ellis Island in 1911) and part contemporary novel (set in Manhattan a hundred years later).
Make sure you read to the end of the post so that you can find out how to get in on a drawing for a fabulous gift basket that includes a $100 Visa gift card.
1. Susan, tell us where the idea for A Fall of Marigolds came from.
I’ve long been a history junkie, especially with regard to historical events that involve ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. A couple years ago I viewed a documentary by author and filmmaker Lorie Conway called Forgotten Ellis Island; a hauntingly poignant exposé on the section of Ellis Island that no one really has heard much about; its hospital. The two man-made islands that make up the hospital buildings haven’t been used in decades and are falling into ruins, a sad predicament the documentary aptly addresses. The images of the rooms where the sick of a hundred nations waited to be made well stayed with me. I knew there were a thousand stories pressed into those walls, stories of immigrants who were just a stone’s throw from a new life. But unless they could be cured of whatever disease they’d arrived with, they would never set foot on America’s shores. Ellis Island hospital was the ultimate in-between place – it lay between what was and what could be. A great place to set a story
The book is about two women who never meet as they are separated by a century. One woman, Taryn, is a 9/11 widow and single mother who is about to mark the tenth anniversary of her husband’s passing. The other is a nurse, Clara, who witnessed the death of the man she loved in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan in 1911.In her sorrow, Clara imposes on herself an exile of sorts; she takes a post at the hospital on Ellis Island so that she can hover in an in-between place while she wrestles with her grief. She meets an immigrant who wears the scarf of the wife he lost crossing the Atlantic, a scarf patterned in marigolds. The scarf becomes emblematic of the beauty and risk inherent in loving people, and it eventually finds it way to Taryn one hundred years later on the morning a plane crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The story is about the resiliency of love, and the notion that the weight of the world is made more bearable because of it, even though it exposes us to the risk of loss.
3. Why a scarf of marigolds? What is their significance?
Marigolds aren’t like most other flowers. They aren’t beautiful and fragrant. You don’t see them in bridal bouquets or prom corsages or funeral sprays. They don’t come in gentle colors like pink and lavender and baby blue. Marigolds are hearty, pungent and brassy. They are able to bloom in the autumn months, well past the point when many other flowers can’t. In that respect, I see marigolds as being symbolic of the strength of the human spirit to risk loving again after loss. Because, face it. We live in a messy world. Yet it’s the only one we’ve got. We either love here or we don’t. The title of the book has a sort of double-meaning. Both the historical and contemporary story take place primarily in the autumn. Secondarily, when Clara sees the scarf for the first time, dangling from an immigrant’s shoulders as he enters the hospital building, she sees the floral pattern in the threads, notes how similar they are to the flames she saw in the fire that changed everything for her, and she describes the cascading blooms woven into the scarf as “a fall of marigolds.”
When I first began pulling at story threads, my first instinct was to tell a story about an immigrant struggling to remain hopeful as an unwilling patient at Ellis Island hospital. But the more I toyed with whose story this was, the more I saw instead a young nurse, posting herself to a place where every disease known and unknown showed up. It was a place like no other; a waiting place – a place where the dozens of languages spoken added to the unnatural homelessness of it. Why was she here? Why did she choose this post? Why did she refuse to get on the ferry on Saturday nights to reconnect with the real world? What kind of person would send herself to Ellis not just to work, but to live? Someone who needed a place to hover suspended. I knew something catastrophic had to happen to her to make her run to Ellis for cover. As I began researching possible scenarios, I came across the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which up until 9/11 was arguably the worst urban disaster to befall Manhattan. There were similarities between that fire and 9/11, including the tragic fact that many trapped workers jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the flames. For every person lost in disasters such as these, there is always his or her individual story, and the stories of those who loved them. I wanted to imagine two of those stories.
I think living in Europe for five years awakened my love for history. It’s like it was always there but my time spent overseas just woke it up. When I think back to the subjects I did well in and that came easy to me in high school and college, it was always English and history, never math or science. I appreciate the artistry of math and the complexity of science, but neither subject comes easy to me. History has the word “story” in it. That’s what it is. It’s the story of everyone and everything. How could I not love it? Study history and you learn very quickly what we value as people; what we love, what we fear, what we hate, what we are willing die for. History shows us where we’ve been and usually has lessons for us to help us chart where we’re going.
6. This is your first general market novel after having written more than a dozen books for the inspirational market. Why the switch?
I got my start in the inspirational market and am immensely grateful for that experience. Every published novelist wants to connect with her ideal reader. We don’t all like the same genres and we don’t all like the same style and voice. I believe a great many of my ideal readers shop in the general marketplace because that’s where I shop. My favorite authors — among them Kate Morton, Geraldine Brooks, Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Diane Setterfield — are all general marketplace authors. Add to this that my faith threads are always subtle rather than obvious, then the move to the general market place seems like a great way for me to connect with more readers. My approach to faith in my writing is one that I liken to the subtlety of God’s presence and influence in the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. The faith thread in the Book of Esther is as subtle as it can be – God is never even mentioned – and yet the story is powerfully told and the virtues of loyalty, trust, hope, and courage are obvious. I have never thought of myself as writer of Christian fiction but rather a Christian who writes fiction.
7. Where can readers connect with you?
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.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.
As part of the release of A Fall of Marigolds and this blog tour, Susan is giving to one lucky winner a gift basket that includes a $100 Visa gift card, a copy of the book, the DVD Forgotten Ellis Island, and a beautiful re-purposed infinity scarf patterned in marigolds and made from a vintage Indian sari. To be eligible, just leave a comment on this blog post between today and midnight Eastern on Friday, February 21. If you would like to see a list of the other participating blogs on this tour, just click here. Feel free to visit those blogs and increase your chances of winning by posting one comment on those blogs as well. One comment per blog will be eligible.
Additionally, there will be one winner of a signed copy of A Fall of Marigolds from among those who comment on this blog. Just leave a comment by midnight Eastern on Friday, Feb. 28 and you’re in the running for the grand prize as well as a signed copy of the book.
Good luck, everyone!