Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Interview with Susan Elia MacNeal

Hey all! Today I'm going to introduce you to one of my favorite Historical Fiction authors. Her name is Susan Elia MacNeal, and she writes the Maggie Hope series about a female spy during WWII. Below you can find out more about he and her writing process below! If you stick around to the end, you're going to find a nice surprise!

The Interview

Tell us a little about yourself.

Hello Nicole! Hello, lovely readers!

Well, let’s see — I grew up in Buffalo, New York and attended Nardin Academy. I went to Wellesley College, just outside Boston, where I also took classes at MIT and graduated with a B.A. in English. After that, I went to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a six-week book and magazine intensive course (a sort of “publishing boot camp”). I became a paid intern at Random House in New York, then worked my way up the editorial ladder, becoming an associate editor at Dance Magazine, a job I absolutely loved.
            Alas, the magazine moved to San Francisco, but since I’d just gotten married (and now had health insurance through my husband), I decided to freelance as a writer and editor.
            Ok, that’s the factual stuff. The fun stuff? Well, I married a Muppet (not really a Muppet, but a guy who’s done significant work with the Jim Henson Company and works in children’s television) and live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I’m also the mom of a seven-year-old son (seven going on forty-two!), and we have two funny, naughty cats, Xander and Lola. I don’t have a lot of free time, but I do love to cook and have people over for dinner. A friend calls our place “the clubhouse” because we always have a friend or two (or more) around — musicians, journalists, actors, puppeteers, artists, ballerinas, break dancers, Chinese acrobats — you name it, our friends do it.

What inspired Maggie Hope?

I’d been taking fiction writing classes at the Harvard Extension School and also the 92nd Street Y, and most everything I was writing was set in present-day New York. Then, thanks to my husband’s work on the Disney Chanel show, Bear in the Big Blue House, we were able to go to London frequently, and stay there for fairly long chunks of time.
            I remember going to the Churchill War Rooms in London on a lark. It was a random rainy Tuesday. A British friend had guilt-tripped me into going, actually: “World War II did start before Pearl Harbor, you know….” So I went.
The underground corridors looked just as they must have during the war — and suddenly I felt like time telescoped in on itself and the Blitz was going on overhead — with the smell of cigarette smoke, the clatter of typewriter keys, the shrill ring of telephones. Not to mention all those tense, pale men in military uniforms or dark suits waiting for the arrival of the Prime Minister.
            The moment didn’t last, but the feeling haunted me. I knew I wanted to write about it, but I really didn’t have the confidence — what did I know about London in the 1940s? (I mean, really — how presumptuous!) But my husband saw how taken I was by the idea and encouraged me.
And so, Maggie Hope was inspired by Winston Churchill’s actual wartime secretaries. I knew I wanted to write a strong woman character and did some research on the typists, including Mrs. Elizabeth Layton Nel, who wrote a wonderful memoir of her time working for Mr. Churchill during the Blitz. I was honored that Mrs. Nel corresponded with me in 2004-05.
Maggie herself is inspired by my writing mentor, the late Judith Merkle Riley. I worked on Judith’s books at Viking/Penguin, and we became friends. Maggie gets her name and her red hair from Judith’s character Margaret in her novel A Vision of Light. But a lot of Maggie’s character was (and is) based on Judith herself, who was an academic as well as a novelist. She would look at some of the scenes I’d written and say, “No! It was even more horrible and sexist back then!” Then she’d tell me some things that were said to her, and what she wished she could have said…Yes, a lot of Maggie is Judith.

What made you decide to become a writer?

You know, I don’t think I ever decided — I really felt like Mr. Churchill’s Secretary picked me up by my metaphoric lapels, shook me and said, “You must write this! You have no choice!”

What was your favorite scene in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary?

Hmmm…In Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I was terrified to write any of the scenes with Winston Churchill (because, you know — no pressure or anything). However, once I started, I always had lots of fun with those scenes.
One of my proudest moments as a writer was getting the “seal of approval” on my portrayal of Sir Winston (and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy) from venerable Churchill historian Richard M. Langworth, C.B.E.. He is the author of four books: Winston Churchill by Himself (2008), The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill (2009), The Patriot’s Churchill (2010) and All Will Be Well: Good Advice from Winston Churchill (2011). He’s also the founder of the Churchill Centre and the editor of the journal Finest Hour, which is running a lovely review of both Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, written by fellow novelist Michael McMenamin, author of the Winston Churchill thrillers, The Devalra Deception, The Parcifal Pursuit, and The Gemeni Adgenda.
In PRINCESS ELIZABETH’S SPY, I really loved writing the scenes with Maggie and the young Princess Elizabeth. Despite the vast differences in their lives, they both are serious and smart women, with a strong sense of duty, but also a streak of whimsy.

Was their any scene that was particularly hard to write?

I find the characters of Edmund Hope challenging to write, especially now that I’m a parent. I can’t fathom a parent ever abandoning a child. And yet, a similar situation happened to my husband—we only recently found out that his biological father faked his own death, then started a new life in a different state. (And in case you’re wondering, no, I really and truly am not kidding. I wish I were.)
Obviously, that revelation affected my writing. Some people are quick to say things about Maggie’s story, like, “That’s crazy! That’s soooo over the top!” Meanwhile, I want to say, “Hey, come over to our place. Let me pour you a martini and then let’s talk about what’s ‘crazy.’ ”

What was your reaction when you found out that you were going to be published?

There was a fair amount of disbelief, then a lot of running around, hugging, and crying. There was champagne involved at some point. It’s all a blur now, really.

Do you dream of seeing Maggie on the big screen? Who would you like to see play her?

How great would that be? I can see Maggie played by the actress Claire Danes. She has the intelligence and gravitas to play the role, I think.

What is your favorite book?

Oh, that’s a tough question. Hmmm…I have to say that year after year I always come back to Jane Austen. I’m torn between Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.

Who is your favorite author?

Do I have to pick just one? Um, let’s see — Jane Austen, Sarah Waters, Alice Hoffman, Laurie Colwin, Louisa May Alcott, M.F.K. Fisher…. My favorite book of this year is Tigers in Red Weather. I absolutely love what author Liza Klaussmann does with her multiple narrators — gorgeous prose, insight into human nature, and great storytelling.

Who do you think has had the biggest influence on your writing?

Judith Merkle Riley, definitely. In fact, PRINCESS ELIZABETH’S SPY is dedicated to her memory. She was an incredible woman, and I was lucky to have her in my life as both a friend and mentor. I was privleged to work on her books, The Oracle Glass and The Serpent’s Garden.

What would you say is your biggest achievement?

That my son says “please” and “thank you” and is (most of the time) a really good and loving kid.

What do you do when you get writers block?

Hmmm, I always think of the choreographer George Balanchine, who said, “My muse comes to me on union time” (because he was working with dancers and musicians being paid by the hour through their respective unions). So, I try to take that attitude and just write whenever and wherever I can.

What genre of books do you find yourself drawn to?

I love books from all genres! I know I’m late to the party, but I’m absolutely obsessed with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I’m also reading Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, and the historical novel, Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication.

What other time period would you like to write about?

I’d actually love to try present day at some point…

What is your writing process like?

Well, I usually start off with a vague idea of a setting and plot, and lots of notes, which I fill out into a three-act outline. Then I think about characters and relationships and really write a lot about them – most of which, never makes it into the book (their first love, worst humilation, what they keep in their bottom drawers, what they have for breakfast, etc.). But I also leave room to change things during the process. You never know what can happen. Sarah, for instance, was not a planned character, and she just appeared one day — I couldn’t say no to Sarah.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary took years, but now that I’m under contract with Bantam; it takes me about a year, plus the copyediting process. It’s like having a baby. Just as painful sometimes, but also as infinitely rewarding.

What was it like trying to get published?

It was hell on toast. Seriously. There is a land of Literary Rejection, and I am the Queen. But I never stopped writing, and I never gave up. I may not be the best writer ever, but I think I have to be close to the top when it comes to perseverance, edits, and rewrites. I have worked very, very, very hard to be very, very, very lucky.

Are there any tips you have for aspiring authors?

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never, never give in.” Believe in yourself, in your characters, and in your story. Weeping in bed in the fetal position is fine as long as you eventually get up, wash your face, and make a cup of tea — and then start writing again.
Find a mentor, and find a community of friends who are also writers. Your writing tribe will understand and support you in ways your family and friends can’t.

Thank you so much for this opportunity, Nicole!

The Surprise!



1 ½  ounces Dubonnet Rouge
½  ounce London dry gin

Stir well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lemon slice and a large ice cube.


  1. "I really felt like Mr. Churchill’s Secretary picked me up by my metaphoric lapels, shook me and said, “You must write this!" - I love that! Maggie certainly seems like a character who would be bursting off the pages.

    Thanks for featuring Susan for the tour!

  2. Very interesting interview. I also liked the portrayal of Churchill.




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