A Sound Among the TreesA Sound Among the Trees
Susan Meissner
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A house with a turbulent Civil War history becomes home to a new bride and stepmother in Susan Meissner's richly absorbing tale of a line of women stuck living in patterns of regret.

For 150 years, Holly Oak, a spacious Southern home, has stood the test of time and wills in historic Fredericksburg with Civil War scars to prove it. Marielle Bishop marries into the family with multi-generational ties to the home, leaving behind her independence and her love of Arizona's deserts to move to Holly Oak to become a wife and stepmother. But it isn't long before Marielle is led to believe that the house she just settled into brings trouble and misfortune to all the women who live there. Local folklore has it that Susannah Page, a Yankee spy who housed Union soldiers, haunts Holly Oak because she's longing for pardon. When Susannah's great-granddaughter Adelaide McClane tells her that the house is "stuck" because of it's tumultuous past, Marielle is determined to get past the rumors and uncover the secrets that are buried within its walls. With Adelaide's richly peppered superstitions and deep family roots at stake, Marielle must carve her new life out carefully as she sorts out the truth and makes peace with the sacrifices she has made for love.

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susan MeissnerAward-winning writer Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Books of 2008. She is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she's not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at her San Diego church.

Favorite Verse: Isaiah 43:1 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!

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 Our Interview with Susan Meissner


What inspired the concept for A Sound Among the Trees?  Did you model Holly Oak after a specific southern home? How did you choose the location for the setting?

I’ve been a quiet devotee of the human element that was the Civil War. I’m not a fan of war, but I am drawn to any backdrop of human drama where the stakes are high, courage and sacrifice go hand-in-hand, and relationships are refined by fire. I’ve watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War on PBS several times over the course of my adult life; it moves me every time I see it.
I modeled Holly Oak after a house in Fredericksburg that sits on Washington Street – it’s a very famous street. George Washington’s mother is from Fredericksburg. I made logistical adjustments, like moving it to another street closer to the river, and since I didn’t go inside this house I had to imagine the interior. And I chose Fredericksburg after contemplating many other cities made famous by the battles that took place there. I chose this Northern Virginian town for two reasons. One, it is only fifty miles from the line that separated North from South, and two, the battle that took place there in December of 1862 was unimaginably tragic, and the civilians in Fredericksburg witnessed it all.

The title is very interesting and the cover is stunning.  What is the meaning behind the title?

The title is excerpted from a line in a hymn Fanny Crosby wrote about the Civil War. Her hymn is called “There’s A Sound Among the Forest Trees.” It’s basically a call to defend what you say you hold dear. A call to arms. But we are not always to be in the mindset of war, and we can’t stay tethered to the past.  My thought here is, when we hear trees rustling we don’t always know what is causing the sound; could be the footfalls of ten thousand soldiers or it could be a gentle breeze to cool you from the heat of the day. It can be one or the other or something else entirely. It will not always be soldiers. You can’t live like that’s all it ever is.

Is any part of A Sound Among the Trees factual?
All the major events that Susannah writes about in her letters to her cousin are factual. The details of the Battle of Fredericksburg are left to us in the form of many literary remains. And there were many civilian women involved in what we would call espionage – on both sides of the conflict. The Holly Oak women are all fictional but the world they lived in really existed.

How did you manage to keep four generations of people straight and then add in the secondary characters?

That’s a great question because I am not good at numbers! I had to refer to a timeline that I’d tacked to the wall to keep track of who could be where and when! I was always having to go back to it.


How closely is A Sound Among the Trees based on your life experiences?
Most of my books are blessedly not autobiographical. I put my characters to the test, and I usually force them to take the test with the people they love all around them. I’ve never had to make the kind of choices Susannah, Adelaide, and Marielle had to make. But I do wonder from time to time what it would be like if I had to. That’s the joy and torture of writing fiction.

How long did A Sound Among the Trees take you to complete?
I spent four months in research and four months writing it.

Do you have a favorite character in A Sound Among the Trees? Why?

I didn’t think I would like Caroline until I had a chance to “meet” her. I hesitate to say why in case it would spoil anything for anyone. I like her moxie, if I may use that word. She was willing to say what needed to be said, regardless of what it might mean in terms of repercussions on her.
How much research did A Sound Among the Trees take?

For awhile there I was drowning in research. Narrowing down the venue to Fredericksburg took awhile and then I had to know everything there was to know about Fredericksburg! I am grateful to fellow author Sarah Anne Sumpolec who let me stay with her for four days in her lovely Fredericksburg home and took me to every museum, battleground and visitor center in a 50-mile radius while I was in research mode. I also bought a dozen books and watched Ken Burns’ DVDs twice. There is a wealth of information on the Civil War. I had far more information than I needed when I finally began to write.

What was the most interesting fact that you learned while writing and researching A Sound Among the Trees?

I found it incredibly interesting, in a sad way, that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, believed he had heaven on his side. He thought he was a rebel with a noble cause, just like George Washington had been, and he had a portrait of Washington above his desk at the Confederate capitol in Richmond. Davis truly believed the Confederacy had the same worthy goal as the American colonists did when they rebelled against Britain. It amazed me that he truly believed that the right to own slaves—arguably one of the reasons the States when to war—was a righteous cause.

What are some of the challenges you face as an author?
I struggle to keep all my ducks in a row; there just aren’t enough hours in the day, it seems. In addition to writing novels, I direct the small groups ministry and write small group curriculum at my church. Giving both jobs my absolute best is a tricky endeavor.


What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?

I like the freedom to create people who exist only in my mind but who seem real on the page. I like contemplating the reasons why we love what we love and fear what we fear and despise what we despise. Writing fiction allows me to explore what makes us human and divine. We were created in God’s image, so there’s something divine about us, and it usually comes out in a good story. As does our flawed humanity.

Do your characters begin to take on a life of their own as you write?

Most definitely. And I am very glad they do. Because while I am still in the driver’s seat, those characters tend to sound and act just like me. When they take over I become a narrator. And they begin to seem real, even to me.

What other new projects do you have on the horizon?
I am working on a book called The Girl in The Glass which will release next year with WaterBrook. Part of it is set in Florence, Italy – one of my favorite places. I have a young travel book editor headed there for lots of compelling reasons, one of which is to meet a woman who claims she is the last of Medici and that the great paintings and statues talk to her!

What message would you like your readers to take from A Sound Among the Trees?

The past is not be feared or adored or ignored. It is to be considered, so that we can discover what is real about it and what is not, what matters and what doesn’t. The past teaches us why we are who we are, but it doesn’t define who we are. We are who we because of the choices we made, not the circumstances that were imposed upon us.

What is your greatest achievement?

I am still waiting to feel like I have achieved any kind of greatness. I think it will happen, if it happens at all, in Glory, and I am okay with that.

What is your goal or mission as a writer?

I want to present truth in the form of story in such a way that when the story is ended, the truth resonates inside somewhere, long after you’ve closed the book and moved on.

What do you do to get away from it all?

I like quiet places that are cozy and conducive to quietness and solitude. A mountain top retreat, a secluded beach – those appeal to me. But I want there to be amenities! Good coffee, good music, the people I love close by, books, and no clocks.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for this lovely chat!


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