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Q&A with Susan Elia MacNeal

 

Q: Please share with us your educational and professional background.

Susan: Well, I grew up in Buffalo, New York (Blizzards! Chicken wings! Sabres!) and went to Nardin Academy, which is an all-girls Catholic school. I then went to Wellesley College, where I majored in English, and cross-registered for classes at MIT. Did the Radcliff Publishing Course at Harvard (a six-week summer book and magazine intensive), and was able to get a coveted paid internship at Random House. From there, I worked my way up the editorial ladder at Viking/Penguin and McGraw-Hill, until I landed my dream publishing job, as an associate editor and staff writer at Dance Magazine. It’s been a wonderful “full circle” for me that the Maggie Hope series is being published by Random House, where I first interned.

Q: Please describe the moment when you decided to take the plunge and pursue a career as a writer. 

Susan: I think I’d always wanted to be a writer, but never really had the guts to even say it out loud, let alone take any kind of plunge. But, looking back, I always had ideas and short stories in the works. And I took creative writing classes at the Harvard Extension School and the 92nd Street Y. In addition, I was a staff writer at Dance Magazine, which led to a lot of writing.

When The Powers That Be at Dance Magazine decided to move the publication from New York to San Francisco, I stayed in New York, for a number of reasons. Since I’d just gotten married, I had health insurance, so that was one less thing to worry about. We were relatively young, no kids yet, no mortgage, so with the support of my amazing husband, I decided to try the freelance writing life — I edited, wrote articles, and also wrote two non-fiction books. There have been ups and downs along the way, but I’ve never looked back.

Q: How did your editorial career help prepare you for the rigors of the publishing business? And what has been the most challenging part of transitioning from an editor to an author?

Susan: Hmmm, I have to say that in working for publishing houses I know what really happens in editorial meetings, how thinking about sales and marketing goes, how the money is figured out, the language of contracts, etc. Writing is all about imagination, but publishing is all about business, and it’s good to remember that.

Transitioning from being an editor was challenging — I missed my co-workers (especially some amazing friends at Dance Magazine), having an office of my own, and, of course, a regular paycheck.

However, in the throes of freelance life, our son was born. I will say that being able to be a work-from-home mom was (and is) fantastic. Often insane, but truly fantastic. I feel blessed in that regard — that I was able to spend so much time with my son when he was a baby and toddler, and arrange my work schedule around his schedule.

Q: What was it that drew you to the period?

Susan: Actually, I feel like the time period chose me, rather than the other way around.
I happened to be in London with my husband, who was there for work. We met up with some friends at a pub, and they brought me a copy of Time Out London. I was flipping through it and came to an ad for the Cabinet War Rooms (now renamed the Churchill War Rooms), to which one Brit said, “You do know that the war started before 7 December 1941, right?” Well, ahem, yes — but I did realize I knew very little about what went on in Great Britain during 1940.

So the next day I decided to go to the War Rooms, which is the underground bunker near the Treasury, where Churchill and his staff worked during the Blitz. It happened to be fairly empty that day. I remember walking around, with the audio guide. There was an actress reading Elizabeth Layton Nel’s wonderful memoir of working for Winston Churchill during the war. As I heard her words, I stopped in front of the room where the typists worked. And, suddenly, it all seemed real — it was 1940, bombs were falling overhead, I could smell the cigarette smoke, hear the bells of the typewriters, hear the ticking of the clock….

I felt that time had telescoped in on itself. And I felt that I just had to write about the people who worked in the War Rooms during 1940, the “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” I didn’t want to write about soldiers, sailors, and pilots (although I have enormous respect for them, of course) — I wanted to write about the civilians, who had blackout curtains and ate rationed food and slept in Andersen shelters. I wanted especially to write about the women of that time, because there was a huge sea change going on with women and their work outside the home, and how women’s contributions were seen by society.

Q:  Where/when did you first discover your character, Maggie Hope? 

Susan: I knew I wanted to write about a young woman who becomes a secretary for Winston Churchill. The name Margaret, or Maggie, was a tribute to my writing mentor, novelist Judith Merkle Riley, and the heroine of her first book, Margaret, in A Vision of Light. Margaret was also a popular name for baby girls in the early 20th century, so it worked for someone in her early twenties in 1940.

Another of Winston Churchill’s young wartime secretaries, Marion Holmes, didn’t write a memoir, but her quotations in Tim Clayton and Phil Craig’s book Finest Hour and the BBC-TV series of the same name were incredibly helpful. When I write that Mr. Churchill calls Miss Hope “Miss Holmes” by mistake, that’s an allusion to Marion Holmes.

In fact, according to her diary, Winston Churchill once referred to Miss Holmes as Miss Hope: “He went straight into dictating and I took it down on the silent typewriter. ‘Here you are’ — he still didn’t look at me. I took the papers, he reached for more work from his dispatch box and I made for the door. Loud voice: ‘Dammit, don’t go. I’ve only just started.’ He then looked up. ‘I am so sorry. I thought it was Miss Layton. What is your name?’ ‘Miss Holmes.’ ‘Miss Hope?’ ‘Miss Holmes.’ ‘Oh.’ ”

When I read this exchange, I knew I’d found the last name of my heroine.

I was never able to speak with Miss Holmes, who passed in 2001, but Mrs. Nel assured me that they’d had quite the adventure accompanying Mr. Churchill to Russia together.

Maggie’s personality is very much inspired by Judith. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time, brilliant and working in economics, a male-dominated field, in the ’60s and ’70s. She also was a painter, spoke Russian, played the piano, and danced the tango. Honestly, I think she worked as a spy at one point, but she would never talk about it! But there’s a lot of Judith in Maggie, especially her humor and her impatience.  

Q: How did you do your research?

I spent a long time reading about Britain in 1940 and the years leading up to it. You know, I actually kept one of my European history textbooks from high school and there was only one sentence on it: “And then Britain stood alone.” So — obviously — I had a lot of work to do. I remember starting with the wonderful Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lucas, and went from there, reading Churchill’s own Memoirs of the Second World War and The Gathering Storm, as well as William Manchester’s The Last Lion, Roy Jenkins’s Churchill: A Biography and Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill, just to start.

Elizabeth Layton Nel’s memoir of being Winston Churchill’s wartime typist was my bible, and I was also privileged to correspond with Mrs. Nel before her heath in 2007.
I also saw many documentaries. One that I absolutely loved and would wholeheartedly recommend is the BBC’s 1940s House, about a present-day family who volunteers to live life as it was during the war, with rationing, Andersen shelters, etc. And I was lucky enough that my husband’s work (he was Bear in the Jim Henson children’s television show Bear in the Big Blue House, which was very popular in the U.K.) brought us back to London quite often, and I was able to do research in person there.

I also did fun things, like finding samples of vintage perfume to sniff, reading novels from the ’30s, and listening to music that was popular at the time. I looked through at clothing, shoes, and hats in vintage shops. Garments, even inexpensive ones, we finished so beautifully then.

And I spoke with many people who’d lived through the Blitz, asking questions about the day-to-day life. One reader expressed surprise that Maggie and her friends were still going to pubs and bars and performances, but that’s quite accurate. People kept on living their lives.

Q: How did you feel up to the task of writing about the Blitz?

Susan: I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I was frequently intimidated and overwhelmed by the dual task of writing about both a foreign country and a different time period. I know how possessive the British are of Churchill (and rightly so).

However, I do feel a legitimate kinship with the people of London of the 1940s. You see, my husband and I are both New Yorkers, and we were both were eyewitnesses to the events of September 11, 2001. I’d seen the planes hit the World Trade Center and then both towers fall, from the window of a plane about to take off from JFK airport, in a strange coincidence. Then the National Guard closed Manhattan, so we were basically living in a hotel for a week or so after that. When we finally returned to New York, I remember looking out the windows of our apartment and seeing a tank go by. Yes, a tank went down our street.

We also lived across the street from a mosque, and I remember standing at my bedroom window — in pajamas and fuzzy slippers, no less — and seeing National Guardsmen with machine guns guarding each corner.

When you see your city attacked, watch tanks go down your street, and can see men with machine guns directly out your bedroom window, it changes you. I definitely felt and still feel that I can draw from my own personal experiences. I don’t think it’s any accident that I wrote about terrorists trying to take down a huge and emotionally important building.

Q: What were your impressions of Winston Churchill?

Susan: I absolutely adore Winston Churchill, although I don’t think he was an easy man to work for, nor was he perfect, nor do I agree with all of his decisions. However, Mrs. Nel, his secretary, had this to say of him: “Sometimes by the time bed was announced I would be feeling nervously worn out, especially if I’d made a few mistakes and come under the hammer that evening. But, so often, Mr. Churchill would give a beaming ‘Good-night!,’ sometimes accompanied by a small remark to convey, ‘Sorry I was cross,’ so that, far from resenting his displeasure, one would feel honored to be a sort of safety valve for his feelings.”

I’ve had bosses like that myself and I know how, when you respect that person’s work and character, the tough times really aren’t so bad.            

Q: Is Mr. Churchill’s Secretary the first book in a projected series? In which case, will Maggie continue to work for Mr. Churchill?

Susan: Yes, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first book in a series! The second is called Princess Elizabeth’s Spy and takes place at Windsor Castle during the winter of 1940. Maggie Hope isn’t working for Mr. Churchill directly anymore, but he certainly still exerts great influence over her and her career at MI-5. I’m proud to say it was chosen as Oprah.com’s Book of the Week and made the New York Times bestseller list.

Right now, I’m finishing up copyedits on Maggie Hope book number three, His Majesty’s Hope (set in Berlin), and writing book number four (still untitled), which will take place in both Scotland and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Maggie Hope and Winston Churchill have an ongoing relationship through the series, and it’s been fun to watch it change as Maggie grows up. Mr. Churchill will always be an important part of her life.

Q: Tell us a bit about your life — anything like Maggie’s?

Susan: Ha! No, nothing like Maggie’s, I’m afraid. I’m happily married and the mother of a seven-year-old boy. We all live in Park Slope, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. You’re far more likely to see me in jeans and a tee-shirt than any of Maggie’s ensembles — although I do wear red lipstick and shake a decent martini and other vintage cocktails.

I’m also nowhere near as smart as Maggie, and was actually math-phobic at school. I had to ask my brilliant friends from Wellesley, MIT and Caltech endless questions about mathematics and codes and whatnot…. Actually, that’s one thing she and I do have in common — our wonderful and random groups of friends.

I’d love to think someday that Maggie does end up married and maybe have a baby or two, in addition to having a brilliant post-war career. We’ll see what happens….

Q: What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?

The first book I remember reading and loving was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I think I read it for the first time in third grade. I just adored Jo. She spoke her mind, she was a tomboy, she cut all her hair off, she spoke and then thought. And, of course, she wanted to be a writer. I loved her for her big heart, her struggles with her anger, her love of reading and writing

My character in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Maggie Hope, is definitely a descendent of Jo March. She’s part Jo March, part mathematician Alicia Stott, and part La Femme Nikita.

Q: Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?

Susan: Two characters, actually — Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man. I love their chemistry, banter, and love of martinis. And their adorable dog, Asta.

Q: How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published?

Susan: You know, I’d had a long, long, long string of disappointments and rejections, and I’d said to my agent, “Please, let’s stop sending it out and I’ll self-publish. I just need closure.” To which she said, “Fine, but there are just a few more places I want to try before you do.” And, truly, I had no hope — just thought it was the pro-forma thing to do.

And then, out of the blue, she called. (FYI, agents never call.) And she told me that an editor at Random House wanted it, and a sequel as well. All I remember is I kept saying (like some crazy teenager), “Get out! Get out!” And she kept saying, “I will not ‘get out’!”

I think it finally sunk in after going back and forth with her at least ten times.

And then I told my husband, who been listening to the whole call, and he picked me up and twirled me around. Our son, who was five at the time, kept saying, “Daddy, do it again! Spin Mommy again!”