Twenty years ago, I finally had the opportunity to visit San Francisco. My husband, Tim, and our two daughters, thirteen and eleven, experienced all the thrills: street performers and artists on Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square (yum!), cable cars and Lombard Street, the Victorian homes in Haight-Ashbury, Giants baseball at Candlestick Park (including a home run by Barry Bonds), and Alcatraz.
The girls’ favorite parts were arm wrestling at the Pier 45 arcade on Fisherman’s Wharf (the Musée Mécanique—remember Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries?) and riding bicycles across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito.
We also visited a cathedral and learned more about San Francisco’s history, including the 1906 earthquake. That devastating event seemed so far removed from the lovely days we enjoyed during our stay. In fact, I could hardly imagine it. Plus, growing up in the Midwest, I’d been subjected to far more tornadoes than earthquakes.
In The Nature of Fragile Things, author Susan Meissner takes us back to 1906 San Francisco for a glimpse of that catastrophic event.
Here’s a list of novels I’ve featured that revolve around U.S. disasters:
- All Manner of Things — by Susie Finkbeiner — the Vietnam War (1967)
- Under a Cloudless Sky—by Chris Fabry — the poor treatment of coal miners (1933)
- The Pink Bonnet — by Liz Tolsma — the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia’s Tann’s abductions of thousands of children (1920s – 1940s)
- The Red Ribbon by Pepper Basham — the Hillsville Courthouse Massacre of Carroll County, Virginia (1912)
- Under the Tulip Tree — by Michelle Shocklee — the Federal Writers Project slave narratives during the Great Depression (1930s)
- If It Rains — by Jennifer L Wright — the Dust Bowl (1930s)
- The Finder of Forgotten Things — Sarah Loudin Thomas — Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia (1930s)
But rising above these catastrophes are people whose characters are forged and strengthened in the heat. The Nature of Fragile Things introduces us to Sophie Whalen, an Irish immigrant and mail-order bride who arrives in San Francisco shortly before that fateful day of April 18, 1906.
April 18, 1906: A massive earthquake rocks San Francisco just before daybreak, igniting a devouring inferno. Lives are lost, lives are shattered, but some rise from the ashes forever changed.
Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin’s silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin’s odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn’t right.
Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved.
The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating earthquake, thrusting them onto a perilous journey that will test their resiliency and resolve and, ultimately, their belief that love can overcome fear.
From the acclaimed author of The Last Year of the War and As Bright as Heaven comes a gripping novel about the bonds of friendship and mother love, and the power of female solidarity.
This was my first introduction to Susan Meissner. I’d been wanting to read her novels for a while, and now that I have, I’m wondering why it took so long.
If you ever wondered what it would be like to experience the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath, you’ll find out here. Historical information is woven in seamlessly through the devastating sights, sounds, and smells—including the fires that ravaged the city afterward. This is the first time I’d read about (or rather, experienced) an earthquake in fiction.
But there’s nothing fictional about this disaster. And the earthquake isn’t the only thing high on the Richter scale. This story entails way more than the fallout and survival after an earthquake. It’s about the fallout of relationships and family dynamics of the worst sort. The rebuilding of San Francisco is a fitting metaphor for Sophie Whalen and the women she befriends, united in purpose, fighting for everything that matters.
I was hooked from the outset–a police interrogation regarding a suspicious event. The interrogation continues intermittently throughout the unfolding drama of previous incidents infused with mystery and mayhem.
Sophie, the first person narrator, is an Irish immigrant who originally came to New York City in the early 1900s. When she sees an ad for a wife and mother from a widower in San Francisco, she seizes the chance to move west and start over. There’s more than meets the eye here, which we find out later.
Upon arrival to San Francisco, she immediately marries handsome Martin Hocking and falls in love with his five-year-old daughter Kat who hardly speaks. Sophie wants to be a good mother to this dear child who has lost so much. It doesn’t take long for the bonds of motherhood to tighten.
But things aren’t as they appear. Something about Martin doesn’t feel right.
I’m settling for vague right now since I don’t want to give any spoilers, but mainly, I admired Sophie’s integrity and unselfishness when there were so many other directions she could have taken as she starts to realize certain unsettling things.
The prose, pacing, and characterizations are stellar. Dark moments and the twists and turns of tragedies are buffered by the hope, strength, and tenacity of women’s friendships and the power of motherhood. This story illustrates how much a mother is willing to sacrifice for her child’s well-being—or for someone else’s child.
Join me for some Q & A with author Susan Meissner.
Questions about The Nature of Fragile Things
What was your inspiration for writing The Nature of Fragile Things? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation?
California is my home state so its history has always been of interest to me, plus living there at the time of the writing meant the research was easier to approach than other locales I have written about.
Aside from that though, it has always been astonishing to me that a simple and moment-long touching of two tectonic plates one hundred miles below the surface of the earth could bring about such devastating results. San Francisco was forever changed by the 1906 earthquake and firestorm.
That quake was so damaging because the city had been built on a major fault zone: San Francisco was a city of fragile structures piped with gas lines and water mains that were also fragile. Fragility’s opposite, which is strength, was found in the people that survived it. I wanted to imagine a few of those stories.
What prompted you to intersect a mail-order bride motif with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake?
Creating a character for a novel is always about creating a person with a past who wants or needs something and they must go after it. I never want my made-up characters to come off as the same kind of people as in any previous novel of mine. I want them to be distinct, in that they can’t all want or need the same things or have the same past.
Giving Sophie the role as a mail order bride was unique and fresh for me, but it also put her in the good position of wanting something—out of New York—and also showed she is willing to take big risks and bravely step forward despite visible odds that just keep getting bigger.
How did you develop your heroine Sophie Whalen? What would Sophie have to say about you?
When I first started writing this book, I chose third person for the characters’ point of view and it just wasn’t working. When I switched to first person POV, and only Sophie’s point of view, the story finally began to gel. With this change the reader—and myself, too—would now be privy to Sophie’s biggest and most private hopes and dreams and fears.
But because of the intimacy of this POV, the reader will also understand that there are certain things about Sophie’s past that she does not revisit, even within herself. Because she has suffered, the reader can understand then why she makes some of the choices that she makes.
I think Sophie and I would be good friends! We are not the same, she and me, but we share some common characteristics, one of them being our devotion to the welfare of children, especially the most vulnerable, even if they are not our own.
Did your characters hijack the story or did you have full rein? Did you plan or “discover” the story as you wrote?
I have never felt like my characters are suddenly piloting the ship; I know a lot of writers feel like that’s what happens for them. It’s probably different to some degree for all writers. As I am writing, discovery and intuition suggest things to me that I did not see coming, which is really great, because that means the reader won’t see these things coming either.
But I’ve never felt like the boat has been hijacked. I’m still in control of the direction we’re headed, even when it changes. These sudden departures from the outline don’t happen by plan, they happens as I’m writing. I love it when that happens.
How do you want The Nature of Fragile Things to resonate with your readers?
I’d feel like I had done some literary good if readers of THE NATURE OF FRAGILE THINGS took a moment after they’ve read the book to consider the architecture of their own lives and what they are building. We don’t often contemplate the notion that everything can be taken from us in an instant, but if it should happen, it’s comforting to know that no disaster can take the love you have for the people you care about.
Even if someone you care about deeply is taken from you in this fragile life, you get to keep all the love that you have for him or her. It’s yours to keep. That’s a wonderful truth to hold onto, that love is stronger than fear.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Some of my favorite books on writing include Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (which is actually a screenwriting book), On Writing by Stephen King, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. Those are all about the craft. Books that have influenced my actual prose would include The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
I write historical fiction that is character-driven but revolves usually around a historic event that I usually come across first, like the San Francisco earthquake, the 1918 pandemic, or the eugenics movement which is the backdrop for my newest release, Only the Beautiful.
What grabs my attention regarding events of the past is when ordinary people have faced extraordinary circumstances. I do the research up front, as much as I can, and depending on how much I already know about the topic—which often is not much at all—it can take between four to six months for the research and another six to twelve to write.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
My newest novel, Only the Beautiful, which released April 18, is the story of two women—an unmarried pregnant teenager in pre-war California and an ex pat working in Nazi-occupied Vienna for the family of a disabled child—who are both greatly impacted by a powerful and pervasive scheme in the early twentieth century to manipulate the gene pool so that only perfectly healthy, “beautiful” people had children and so called undesirables didn’t.
What happened here in the states with forcibly sterilizing both women and men was the precursor to what Adolf Hitler did when he took eugenic thinking to its absolute worst. He began his terrible campaign to create the “master race” by doing the same thing, forcibly sterilizing people he deemed inferior.
You have written historical novels set in a variety of places and time periods. Are you drawn to any particular setting or time? Are there other settings you want to explore in future novels?
I have been parked in the 1900 to 1950 lane for a while now and probably won’t depart from it. So much happened during those five decades. There are still many rabbit holes to go down with this time frame…
You’ve written several dual timeline novels. Do you prefer writing dual or single timeline stories? Which of your novels is your favorite and why?
I don’t have a preference. If the story calls for a dual timeline—and I can usually tell if it does—I include one. If it doesn’t need one, the last thing I want to do is insist on it just to have that kind of construction. That’s always a bad idea.
I’ve read books written with dual timelines—probably because the author wanted that construct—where only one of the timelines held my interest. That usually spells doom for the book. If the historical story can stand alone, I don’t frame it with a contemporary thread to give the historical one meaning. Meaning and impact should come from within the reader, I think.
My favorite is always the one I have just written, so in this case Only the Beautiful!
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
I understand better now than I did at the beginning of this gig that novel writing is an art form like all the other art forms; I’m creating something out of nothing, just like other artists do and like all art it’s a very subjective thing. Not all artistic expressions appeal to people equally. I can’t please every kind of reader with my book; I can only please the reader who enjoys the same kind of books that I do. And that’s OK. I don’t need to please every reader, and I can’t anyway. I need to write for the reader who wants to read what I have to say. He or she is out there.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like historical fiction, you might enjoy my novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This dual timeline story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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Susan Meissner Bio
Susan Meissner is the critically-acclaimed author of 21 novels. Her engaging stories feature memorable characters facing unique and complex circumstances, often against a backdrop of historical significance. A multi-award-winning author, her books have earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.
She was born and raised in San Diego, California, but spent some of her adult life living in Minnesota as well as in England and Germany, before returning home to southern California in 2007. Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
Prior to her writing career, she was a managing editor of a weekly newspaper in southwestern Minnesota. She enjoys teaching workshops on writing, spending time with her family, reading great books and traveling. Susan makes her home in the San Diego area with her husband Bob, who is a retired chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, and their yellow lab, Winston. Visit her on her website.
Join me next time for a visit with author Amanda Dykes.
Meanwhile, have you read The Nature of Fragile Things or any others by Susan Meissner? Have you read novels about California history? Answer in the comments below.
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