An interview with Susan Meissner

I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a link to the piece on the HNS website, about Susan’s excellent book, A Bridge Across the Ocean, but I’m also posting the whole Q&A here.

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When did you first learn about war brides and what made you want to write about them?

When I first began to consider The Queen Mary as a possible setting for a new book all I knew about the famed ship was that she’s been moored for the last fifty years as a floating hotel just two hours from where I live in San Diego. It was when I toured the ship to find out more about her that I learned of her storied past, including her role in 1946 as a transport for European war brides. Thousands of European women married American servicemen stationed overseas during World War II, and when the war ended it was no small feat to reunite them with their husbands in the States. Nearly all of these women had survived five years of relentless bombings, deprivation and loss. And they boarded these ships for America – a place they’d never been – to join husbands that they hadn’t seen in over a year. All of those details made me want to write about them.

Of your three principal characters – Brette, Annaliese and Simone – was there one you enjoyed writing the most, or whose story you cared about most particularly?

It’s a real toss-up between Annaliese and Simone, primarily because they were thrown into the hell of war and were forced to find ways to survive it, even though they were both just innocent young women when everything changed for them. Annaliese might have a slight edge over Simone in terms of my affection because she lacked some of the strength and resolve that Simone had, and yet still had to soldier on in the same world gone upside down. Brette certainly has my sympathy, but survivors of war are particularly brave and endearing, in my opinion. I admire anyone who can come out of that kind of crucible with their humanity intact.

How did the structure of the novel come in being?

I knew from the beginning there would be three points of view: Brette’s, Simone’s and Annaliese’s. The ghost’s short vignettes came later, when I realized I wanted that character to also have a voice. I wrote the chapters separately from each other, such that Brette’s chapters were titled Brette1, Brette2, Brette3, and so on, and the same was true for Simone and Annaliese’s and even the ghost’s chapters. It wasn’t until I was finished with the book that I laid out all the printed chapters on the living room floor and began to piece them together so that the individual chapters became interspersed. When I was done, each chapter got its new number. Mary Kubica told me this was how she pieced the chapters of The Good Girl together. I knew when she said this was how she constructed that story that this was the only way that would work for A Bridge Across the Ocean.

Are any of the characters modeled on real people?

None of the historical characters are real people or are based on real people, although their stories could easily have happened. During my research, I was privileged to become friends with a real war bride, June Boots Allen, who was 18 years old and a new mother when she emigrated to America aboard the RMS Queen Mary in February 1946. June was my go-to for all research questions related to the five-day voyage that these brides undertook, from what it was like at the registration station near Southampton to the joy of eating fresh oranges for the first time in five years to what the bands on the dock were playing as the brides sailed into New York Harbor. Brette’s character is also wholly imaginary.

I don’t know of anyone with a gifting like she has, and I didn’t research that particular kind of ability. I wanted to be able to control everything about what Brette could and couldn’t do so I imagined what it might be like to be able to see the souls who refuse to cross over when they die. One of the nicer parts about writing fiction is the freedom I have to ask, “What if?” and then to simply imagine the answer to that question.

Do you believe in ghosts? (I saw in the acknowledgements that this is a question you have been asking others while writing this book and wanted to know what your position was!)

A few years back I would’ve been a bit more of a skeptic on the matter of ghosts and whether or not they exist. But I asked a great many people during the research phase if they believed in ghosts and why, and I was honestly floored by the number of responses I got from highly intellectual, grounded people who had experienced something ghostly that had no explanation. I can tell you what I do believe. I believe we don’t know everything. Is there a spiritual dimension to our world? I believe there is. Do we exist in some form after we die? I believe we do. Can some people hover in between earth and what awaits after death? I don’t know. When I was interviewing the commodore of the Queen Mary, I asked him what he thought of all the reports of ghost sightings aboard the Queen and the ghost tours that the ship offers. He shrugged and said, “Well…” and I thought he was going to say, “it sells tickets, and that extra income keeps this old ship in good repair.” But that’s not what he said. He said, “Well, things have happened on the ship that no one can explain. They’ve even happened to me.”

Can you talk a little about the ship, the Queen Mary, and its importance in the novel?

The Queen Mary is the last of her kind really, and she has seen so much history. She started out as a Cunard luxury liner in the 1930s, carrying celebrities and kings across the Atlantic. During WW2 she was painted gray, dubbed the Gray Ghost and spent the wars of the war as a troop carrier ever on Hitler’s list of targets. His U-boats never found her, by the way. Then in 1946 of course, she transported thousands of war brides. It was in the late 1960s, when jet airplanes made transatlantic travel possible in hours instead of days, that the Queen was sold to the city of Long Beach, was stripped of her engines and made a floating hotel. She doesn’t sail anymore, but she is still a repository of thousands upon thousands of memories. The placards below decks that feature the names of all the crew and passengers who had the misfortune to die aboard the Queen during the years she sailed list only fifty-some names. But paranormal experts will say there are more than 100 ghosts on the Queen Mary. That means, if we want to make the leap that ghosts do exist, and the even larger leap that they are in fact aboard the Queen Mary, that means more than half chose to come there. To me, that fact is a story begging to be written, even if it’s completely fanciful.

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Find out more about Susan Meissner at Susan’s author website