Elizabeth Musser writes “entertainment with a soul” from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. She is also the author of over ten novels, including her bestselling novel, The Swan House, which was named one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year. All of Elizabeth’s novels have been translated into multiple languages and have been international bestsellers. Elizabeth’s most recent novel, The Promised Land, won the 2021 Carol Award for Contemporary Fiction.
In this interview, she talks with us about her new novel, By Way of the Moonlight.
FF: Please provide a brief summary of your new novel, By Way of the Moonlight.
It’s 1943 when Dale Butler, riding her dappled mare, comes upon the body of a merchant sailor on the shore after his tanker is sunk by a German submarine during the Battle of the Atlantic, and subsequently, she inherits a treasure too big to reveal. Almost eighty years later, her grand-daughter Allie needs that gift to keep the property that ties their lives and their dreams together: a stable filled with horses.
FF: By Way of the Moonlight is set in Atlanta, Georgia, which is the same setting as your bestselling novel, The Swan House. Why did you choose to return to Atlanta for this novel?
As a Southern girl, most of my novels are set either in Southern France or the South in the USA, with Atlanta being my favorite city setting. But in this novel, I am not just focusing on Atlanta or even Buckhead, the neighborhood where I grew up and the setting of The Swan House. This time, I focus on the house and property where I grew up in Atlanta. I weave a fictional tale around my parents’ home on Nancy Creek Road as I ask questions about the worth of land, family history, memories, and shared dreams.
FF: Can you tell us a little more about what and who were the inspirations behind this book?
The inspiration for the Atlanta part of the novel came from growing up in the middle of Atlanta with a barn filled with horses in my backyard and several buried in the riding ring. Our five-acre property has been in the family since 1938, when my grandfather built a small house and a two-horse barn out in the boonies of Buckhead on a dirt road for his only child, my mom, to keep her horse and indulge her in her love of riding and showing. My mother was a great equestrian, showing and jumping until she was seventy, and I rode and showed as a child and teen.
Over the years, the house and barn have evolved into something of a rustic private paradise for our family. But estates like my parents’ are being bought up and sold to contractors who implode the house and create cluster mansions on the property, and that was my mother’s worst nightmare, and I feel the same way. So I’ve wrestled in my mind for years with the question of “How can we keep this property after my parents are gone?” My novels often touch on themes that mirror events and ruminations in my own life, and so I began to pen a novel about finding alleged dinosaur bones in the backyard of an estate.
At the same time, I serendipitously happened on a photo of a group of military men galloping their mounts along the beach of Hilton Head Island—my family’s favorite vacation spot for the past fifty years. But this photo was taken during the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII when the island was mostly deserted. I found myself cantering into the world of the Coast Guard Mounted Patrol, affectionately called the Sand Pounders, and what a wild ride that was!
So I created a dual-time novel that highlights the wonder and adventure of my mother’s life as a young equestrian star, referring to real events but scooting the storyline back to the 1930s and ’40s (Mom’s heyday was in the ’50s) combined with the intrigue of the Battle of the Atlantic, and then brought in my present-day protagonist as her granddaughter, who has dreamed for all her life of turning Nana Dale’s estate into an equine therapy center.
FF: Your present-day protagonist, Allie Massey, is a gifted physical therapist who specializes in equine therapy. What type of research was required to accurately portray both Allie’s profession and this form of therapy?
I was privileged to interview Gwen Hanna, who just happens to be the mother of my wonderful marketing assistant, Jori Hanna, and hear her firsthand experience working in equine therapy. I also studied the different programs at the real Chastain Horse Park in Atlanta and read and watched different depictions of this type of therapy. Most interesting was learning the story of the Danish champion, Lis Hartel, who overcame polio by using this therapy in the ’40s and ’50s before it was known in the US. But of course, as a horse lover and a gal who grew up with ponies and horses who were like my best friends, I knew all about the healing power of horses from the time I was young.
FF: Your story in the past focuses on the Coast Guard Mounted Patrol during the Battle of the Atlantic—how did you research that period?
After finding that photo of the Sound Pounders, I started doing research in earnest. I discovered an article about a father-daughter team who reenact the famed Beach Patrol horseback units. Wayne Ormsbee, a civilian employee at Coast Guard Base Boston, and his daughter, Petty Officer Keisha Kerr, a coast guard active-duty boatswain’s mate, make appearances at parades, civic celebrations, veterans’ events, and horse shows, helping to rekindle interest in the storied Beach Patrol units.
Keisha was kind enough to do a Zoom call with me while she was on duty in Guam. She also pointed me to the book, Prints in the Sand by Eleanor Bishop. From there, I dug down many rabbit holes and learned about the two US tankers who were sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of St. Simons Island. Then my husband and I journeyed to the island and spent hours perusing the excellent displays at the World War II Homefront Museum. We met a docent historian, Dr. George Cressman, who also provided previously classified documents detailing the creation of the Coast Guard Mounted Patrol and the different stations along all of the coasts of the United States. We also spent an afternoon on the grounds of what was Camp McDougal on Hilton Head Island, where the military camp and horses were housed during WWII.
Suffice it to say, I spent many, many hours understanding the Battle of the Atlantic and found it inspiring and fascinating. Especially the heroism of so many Stateside civilians doing their part to construct Liberty ships and guard the coasts when the German threat was at its height.
FF: Both Allie and her grandmother, Nana Dale, are determined to risk everything to save what they love most. Without giving away any spoilers, can you explain how this impacts both of their lives?
Allie and her nana are both strong women who are courageous, savvy businesswomen with a deep respect for family and a deep love for horses. One of the themes in the novel is about obsession. I wanted to examine the thin line between fighting for what you believe in and developing an unhealthy obsession. Both women learn important lessons about pursuing dreams at all costs, which may cause them to sacrifice something or someone they love.
FF: By Way of the Moonlight is a dual-time novel. What challenges did you experience when focusing on characters in two different time periods?
I loved every part of writing this novel because it was so close to my heart—I was doing research in my childhood home, reliving my mother’s past, and digging into history that was brand-new to me, which was all about horses! I had such fun including lots of slightly altered incidents from my growing-up days with horses, my favorite by far being the mystery of finding “dinosaur bones” in a Buckhead backyard. Truth is stranger than fiction, and my family’s story has a lot of delightful strange in it!
I also absolutely loved creating two sweet love stories that, in my humble opinion, are swoon worthy and sure to bring laughter and tears. Love in the 1940s and in present day aren’t so different when they involve a besotted girl, a kind and adventurous guy, and horses. Lots of horses!
FF: What lessons do you hope readers gain from reading By Way of the Moonlight?
• Be careful about obsession.
• Be kind and courageous.
• Find joy in helping others.
• Fight for what you believe in but fall on your knees often to make sure the Lord has the last say.
• Hold tightly to those you love.
• In life, you often have to take the risk of being misunderstood.
• Practice gratitude—Husy, Dale’s nursemaid, says it well: “It will never be enough, Dale, until you decide that you already have it all. You settle in your mind a grateful heart, a content spirit, and everything else will be gravy, girl.”
• Embrace paradox—Nana Dale tells Allie, “Life is paradox, Allie. When you learn to embrace it all, let it mix together like molasses in oats, well, the sweet fragrance comes out. Even when life stinks.”
• When life gets hard to stand, kneel.
By Way of the Moonlight
Genres: Women’s Fiction, Contemporary, Historical/Time-slip
Release Date: August 2, 2022
Allie Massey, a gifted physical therapist, has long dreamed of turning her grandparents’ ten-acre estate into a trauma center using equine therapy—a dream that her grandmother, Nana Dale, embraced wholeheartedly with her financial support.
But when her grandmother’s will is read, the money left to Allie and her family is barely enough to cover the cost of hiring a lawyer. Worse yet, the property has been sold to a contractor who plans to implode both the house and the barn.
With only three weeks left before the demolition, a backhoe unearths one of Dale Butler’s best-kept secrets and perhaps a clue to keep Allie’s dream alive.
In a race against time, Allie desperately searches for her grandmother’s chest, which she believes may contain money that would aid her predicament. But what she finds instead is far more valuable. Little by little, Allie unravels bits and pieces of Nana Dale’s past, which includes her champion filly, a young man named Tommy, and a fateful night in 1943 during the Battle of the Atlantic.
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