Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Shape of Mercy

I recently read a book which took me all of two days to read. It was easy to get into, especially for someone like me who does not read a great deal of fiction.

The book is called The Shape of Mercy and is by Susan Meissner. I also had the privilege of interviewing her via email. Hopefully the questions asked don't give you too much information. The interview is informative since most people do not get to ask some questions to a writer, so it was also a learning process for me and hopefully for you as well.

Basically the story takes place in the present day, as Lauren is attempting to make sense and transcribe a journal of a girl named Mercy who lived during the Salem Witch trials. Being a lover of history, I was intrigued by the setting and truly appreciated the struggles of Mercy, Lauren, and Abigail (the older woman who asked Lauren to transcribe the journal.) There was a lot to learn regarding who we look at others, good, bad and at times pretty ugly.

This is the type of book which would be great for a book study as Meissner also includes a brief study guide in the back of the book. We will be putting one copy in the church library. It's a moving book, a story about hatred and love, privilege and loss, bitterness, grace and more. Below is a portion of the interview I had with Susan.

You can purchase the book at ~

INTERVIEW (my questions are in black, Susan's answers in red).

1. How did you come to choose the setting and context for your story? I sense your story could have taken place in any setting, why Salem ?
I’ve had a fascination for what happened in Salem for a long time, beginning when I was 13 and in a play about the same subject and then later in high school when I read The Crucible. The Salem Witch Trials reveal rather poignantly how rushed judgments and fear can bring out the worst in us. Everyone who was executed in Salem in 1692 was later exonerated. Hysteria, not reason, ruled the day for those long months when innocent people were accused of horrible acts. It didn’t matter how long or how loud the accused proclaimed their innocence. In Salem, you were whatever the crowd said you were. I could have chosen Dachau as the setting. Or Rwanda . Salem wasn’t the first setting people died because the crowd accused them of deserving death and no one stood up to say, “Now hold on there.”

2. Do you see yourself in any of the main characters? Since both Lauren’s and Mercy’s sections are told from first person point of view, I did have to imagine myself as being those two young women. As I imagined being each, I know part of who I am and how I think seeped into their characters. That’s inevitable. I don’t know that I could’ve been as brave as Mercy Hayworth, but I do know I make presuppositions about people, like Lauren does, even when I don’t want to. Do you see other family; your husband, parents, papa, in the characters? As part of that question, do you try to distance yourself or family members from characters so that you don't "step on anyones toes?" There is no character that is an exact mirror of one distinct person that I know. My characters are usually mutts; amalgamations of many people that I’ve encountered. I don’t purposely try to do that, it just happens as the story unfolds and the characters evolve. Much of what I know about fathers I have gleaned from my own dad, but I also mine from my experiences of watching my husband be a dad to our kids and every other father – real or fictional – I’ve ever encountered. It really does seem to happen by itself as I’m writing.

3. I noticed you wrote a series called Rachel Flynn Mysteries, would you consider a follow up to Lauren's life, possibly getting her involved in another project which leads to further self discovery?
The Shape of Mercy had sufficient closure for me. If WaterBrook wanted a sequel and readers showed promise that they would buy it, I would consider writing it. But this experience with the diary and with Abigail is what changes Lauren forever. We can’t expect to have many of those in our lives or they cease to change us.

4. Do you find yourself becoming absorbed in the characters of your books, possibly taking on some traits of theirs, as an actor/actress would do?
I do become absorbed in the thought processes of my characters and I very much hope that any character changes that have merit have rubbed off onto me. I want to judge people less and love more, like Mercy did. And I want to assume less and learn more. But the thing is, this book has just released and yet I finished it a year ago. That’s the timeline of publishing. I’ve already written another manuscript in that time. Whatever quirky influences hung around after I was done with The Shape of Mercy dissolved as I immersed myself into the world of new people in a new story. Hopefully, though, the lessons learned stay with me. I have to think they do. or the writing was mere entertainment and I want it to be more than just that.

5. Near the end of the novel (301), Abigail is not certain people will believe Mercy wrote a letter to John Paul, but Lauren states, "Everyone will believe it. They'll want to believe this is what Mercy would have done." Do you find that a true statement about people, i.e., we want to believe in truth and virtue, so we tend to lose ourselves in a book such as this one?
When we’ve embraced a person like Mercy – a virtue like mercy – into our lives, we become ambassadors of hope. People with hope are attracted to the good they see in other people. I think books that reinforce hope definitely keep us from throwing in the towel. Life can be hard. There has to be more than just this life. Hope assures us there is.

6. Along with that, do you prefer fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, because you can write the ending yourself?
I have to say I very much enjoy the Edenic nature of writing fiction. I create something from mostly nothing every time I write a new novel. I believe that appeals to the little bit of the divine in me. We were all made in God’s image. God is creative, among many other things. That part of Him resonates with me. I like being an image-bearer that creates.

7. In terms of the spiritual side of your book, since you do not overtly talk about the "Christian life" (note this is not a criticism) do you believe this book can appeal to a wider audience than only Christian? I certainly hope so. Possibly it can be given as a gift to a nonChristian, who may gain spiritual insights. I would be over-the-moon happy if this book were picked up by readers who aren’t presently enjoying a personal relationship with God. I am perfectly happy writing for the Christian reader, but he or she is already a devotee of truth and redemptive love. Imagine the influence Christian writers could have if more people in the general marketplace began reading our books!

8. As we look at the call of believers in Christ, we often find ourselves condemning our own people, critical and hypocritical . . . how can you be a conduit in the world to help shape and make a difference through the books you write?
We’ve been called to speak the truth in love. Those three words sum it up in total. Speak. Truth. Love. We are to be the voice. We are to share, embrace and shine truth. We are to regard others, those very same others who need to hear the voice of truth, as more important than ourselves. Being a conduit really means being obedient. Speak. Speak truth. Speak truth, always in love not judgment. It’s really kind of simple.

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