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Monday, August 13, 2012

Author Interview - Susan Elia MacNeal

Today we welcome Susan Elia MacNeal, author of Mr. Churchill's Secretary to our blog.  I reviewed the book a few weeks ago (click here) and sought an interview immediately.  I hope you enjoy this little view into the author and her writing.

Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy starts out with Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor, discussing an assassination plan with the Nazi commander Walther Shellenberg. What they discuss directly affects the Royal family — and Maggie Hope, of course.

Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc) before sitting down and writing?

I usually do a lot of research first, take notes, and out of that, ideas for stories emerge. Then I make a loose three-act outline. But I always leave plenty of room for improvisation.

Maggie Hope is a great character, as well as the rest of the crew (I loved Sarah.) What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write?

Thank you! Usually I develop characters by having an idea for a particular person, then choosing a name, then creating a whole biography and backstory. The reader may or may not be shown all of that, but it’s there. I even know what they keep in their bottom drawers!

I’m so glad you loved Sarah — Sarah was different, actually. She just appeared at the Blue Moon Club one day when I was writing and I went with it. We haven’t seen much of Sarah in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy and His Majesty’s Hope, as she’s been on tour with the ballet, but I have big plans for her (or she has big plans for me?) in book #4. I’ve missed her.

Why WWII Britain? What drew you to base a series in that time and place in history?

You know, I’d been writing short stories, and since I live in New York City, I always pictured writing a novel set in present-day New York. However, my husband was doing a lot of traveling to London (for Bear in the Big Blue House, a Disney Channel show), and I was lucky enough to be able to go along. A friend suggested I go to the Churchill War Rooms and I did.

    The experience was incredibly powerful. There you are, in the actual bunker where Churchill commanded World War II. All the details are intact, left just the way they were when the bunker was closed after the war. I really felt as if time collapsed for a moment and I was actually there — I could hear the bells of the typewriters, smell the cigarette smoke…. Even though I felt woefully unprepared to write historical fiction, let alone historical fiction set in another country, I felt like I had to do it. The ghosts of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries wanted me to do it.

I was fascinated by the actual Churchill secretaries that you researched, tell us a little about them.

When you go to the Churchill War Rooms, you get an audio guide. For one part, when you’re looking at the typists’ office, an actress reads a portion of Elizabeth Layton Nel’s memoir, about her experiences as a young girl coming to work for Mr. Churchill during the Blitz. The book was out-of-print at the time, but I was able to track it down and read it. It was invaluable for learning about the day-to-day duties of Churchill’s secretaries. Later, I was able to find Mrs. Nel’s address and had the great honor of being able to correspond with her before her death. She was very supportive of the novel, but insisted that they (the typists) had no time whatsoever for mysteries or romances!

Do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?

There’s a quote from the choreographer George Balanchine that I love: “My muse comes to me on union time.” Meaning that when he had the studio and the union-paid dancers in front of him, he’d better create something then and there. That’s my attitude, too. If I have a bit of time, I make the most of it.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?

The first book, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, took me a long, long time to write, in fits and starts. Overall, it took about ten years from the initial trip to the Churchill War Rooms until publication. I was very lucky that Random House offered me a multiple-book contract at that time — with a due date of just one year for Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. I wrote that in a year, and then took another year to write His Majesty’s Hope. I’ll be starting the untitled Maggie Hope mystery #4 in August — I have a year for that, too.

    Generally, I write in the mornings and edit and do other freelance work projects in the afternoon. Then I pick up my seven-year-old son from school at three and “Mommy time” begins.

What in your background prepared you to write not just intrigue novels but historicals?

I’ve always loved history in school, and have always read history books, as well as historical fiction. Reading is an amazing form of time-travel, isn’t it? But to research Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and the other books, I really had to roll up my sleeves and just read, read, read (and take notes and talk to experts). At the end of each book, I like to provide a list of source material I used, so people can always investigate further, if they want.

Who is your favorite Mystery/Suspense character?

I absolutely love Nick and Nora Charles (and their dog, Asta, of course) from The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. 

Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?

The book I’ve read the most over the course of my life is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I even wrote my senior thesis in college on the stories and novellas of Louisa May Alcott. My editor once asked where Maggie Hope came from, and I said she’s part Jo March, part Nora Charles, and part La Femme Nikita.

How did you get your first break to getting published? Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?

Getting published was an odyssey for me. The short answer is I mailed a query letter to a literary agent, was taken on as a client, and then my amazing agent sold the book (as a series) to Random House. However, the short version omits all of the rejection letters, the weeping in bed in the fetal position, the endless rewrites, and the nail biting.

What are you currently reading?

I’m proud to say I’m just finishing the first draft of His Majesty’s Hope and I’m taking a two-week vacation — reading is number one on the agenda! The stack of books I’m bringing includes: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess), The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin, and an ARC of Invisible, the new novel by Carla Buckley.

If your Maggie Hope Adventures were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your top character's roles?

Ooooh! What a fun question! In this wonderful dream world, I would love to cast Claire Danes as Maggie Hope, Kit Harington as John Sterling, James McAvoy as David Greene, and Emily Blunt as Sarah. I’d love to see Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill, Dean Winters as Michael Murphy, Jason Isaacs as Peter Frain, Heather Matarazzo as Chuck, and Mia Wasikowska as Paige Kelly. And Hugh Laurie as Edmund Hope and Emma Thompson as Aunt Edith.

Claire Danes as Maggie Hope


Tell us about the next book in the series, Princess Elizabeth's Spy.  What was your biggest challenge with it?  What was your greatest joy with this book?

Well, in writing Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, I had the opportunity to create new characters and also a new setting — Windsor Castle — which I found a bit intimidating. But once I got into the story, it was so much fun to write. I think one of the most amazing things for me was putting together a fictional Windsor Castle and town of Windsor from books and documentaries. Then, when I was done with my first draft, I was able to travel to the real Windsor. It was an incredible experience to walk along the same corridors in the Castle  as my characters — it really took my breath away. I hope people find Princess Elizabeth’s Spy as much fun to read as I did to write.

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Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Thank you so much for the interview, Ariel! I love the photos of the actors you chose.

A.F. Heart said...


Thanks for stopping by! I loved your answers and I suspect that the readers enjoyed it as well.

I am looking forward to your next book. Keep me in mind if you do any online blog tour!


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