Susan Elia MacNeal

Steve Thomas: This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Susan Elia MacNeal. She’s the author of the Maggie Hope series, which starts with Mr Churchill’s Secretary and the newest title that just came out a little bit ago is called The King’s Justice. Circulating Ideas is brought to you with support from listeners just like you. Find out how you can help support the show by going to circulating ideas.com/support .

Susan, welcome to the show.

Susan Elia MacNeal: Oh, thank you for having me, Steve.

I wanted to start out just, since it’s a show about libraries, I wanted to just hear about your experience with libraries as you were growing up.

Well, I grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York called North Tonawanda, and it’s right on the Niagara River and the North Tonawanda Public Library was everything to me growing up, and I just had such a wonderful experience there. It was like a safe place to go. It was a wonderful place to go. The librarians were so engaged with everybody and in fact, I made a very special friend, Mrs Elizabeth Lewin, who was a librarian there in the seventies and eighties, and she knew I was sort of reading at an advanced level for my age. So she kind of like helped me find things like, you know, Jane Eyre and all sorts of cool stuff that’s sort of better for like, you know, kids who are a little more advanced but not too advanced…?

Right, right, challenging.

Like, not Judith Krantz-type stuff? She steered me away from Judith Krantz. But anyway, I was so psyched because a few years ago I was actually asked to go back and speak at the North Tonawanda Public Library and Mrs. Lewin, who is now retired, was able to come. And it was so wonderful to see her again. I reminded her that one of the books that she recommended to me was Mrs Miniver. So at a pretty young age, I was reading about Britain, you know, during the Blitz. And I do wonder if that had some sort of influence on why I chose to write about World War II in London.

Yeah, we may be able to thank your librarian for your whole career?

Pretty much. I do believe that. And I have thanked her and books so, and in person. So thank you, Mrs. Elizabeth Lewin from North Tonawanda Public Library.

Do you think your experience in libraries there and reading as a kid did encourage you to want to become a writer?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, reading was everything to me, and it’s just such an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s almost like magic, you know, like someone writes a book, it’s all these things in their head and then you pick it up and you can connect with what’s in their head. I mean, it’s really quite astounding when you think about it.

But back to libraries a little bit. Now that you are a professional writer, do you still use libraries today to do your research? I mean, you do write historical fiction, so I don’t know if you need to do some more research on that time period?

I do use libraries. I live in New York city, so I am so blessed that I can use the New York Public Library and I have gone on microfiche to research newspapers, you know, what was happening exactly on that day, and magazines, just to get the feeling of what that month like women were wearing and thinking about and interested in. There’s just so much, there’s so much online and we’re all very lucky like all of us who write historical fiction, but there’s so much that you can only get at the library. So I’m really grateful that, you know, I can go there and I’m assuming I will be able to go there again someday!

Yes. Someday, we will reopen our physical doors.

Yes.

Yeah, but I can see what you’re saying though, it’s kind of just immersing yourself, like being able to see the entire like newspaper on the screen and see how it’s laid out even and what’s emphasized and what’s not.

Yeah, that’s a big deal. And just like being able to go through a magazine, you know, it just gives you such a better picture of like what was going on than just like one article that you could find online.

And have you ever been able to go over to England or London or to somewhere over there to do some research there as well?

Oh, absolutely. Well, before all this craziness happened, I would go for each book, I would take a research trip and sometimes I would go and do research in their libraries.

Did you notice any differences between libraries there and here?

Oh, you know, libraries there have a lot more history and you know, they keep you aware of who else has used that library to do work. And some of the names are pretty incredible. So I remember I sat in the same seat where Bram Stoker, or not the same seat, but the same area where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.

Oh, wow.

Yeah. But I think locally, I think Walt Whitman used our Brooklyn Public Library. Don’t quote me on that, but I think Walt Whitman did.

That’s pretty cool too.

Yeah. Yeah. So around the world, great people.

So how did you, once you decided you wanted to be a writer, have you, were you always kind of an Anglophile or what kind of led you to wanting to write about Britain in the first place and then maybe World War II and also mysteries on top of that?

I know, it’s all so weird. I guess I’ve always loved British literature. I was an English major, but the big thing is that I was over in London… My husband… Okay, we have to unpack this. My husband works for the Jim Henson Company, so he was working as Bear in the Big Blue House, that was a show on Disney Channel awhile back, and he was doing a lot for Disney Channel UK as Bear, and I got to tag along and I remember going out to a pub with a friend of ours, and he gave me a copy of Time Out London and he said, “You know, despite what you Yanks might think, World War II didn’t start with Pearl Harbor, you might want to check out the war rooms.” And then he opened it up to the page where it showed like the advert for the war rooms. And I really, I took him up on it, I went to the war rooms the next day and it was just a completely life changing experience. So the war rooms are these, it’s the rooms where Churchill and his colleagues ran World War II, and it’s like an underground bunker near 10 Downing Street and it’s so they all could meet together and if there were, you know, God forbid, a bomb, it wouldn’t take them all out if they were meeting together. So, it’s all left the way it was back in 1945 and the pushpins in the maps are in the same positions and you can walk the same floors Winston Churchill walked and it’s the same kind of airless low ceilings place that you might expect from an underground bunker. And going there was just such a catalyst for my writing this book, I was just so taken with it.

Yeah, I was going to say, you just describing it just makes me, brings me right back into that first book. So, I mean, obviously that must have been really in your head.

And you can see where the secretaries worked, too. There was a room for a typist. And then the other thing that was really cool and I’m sure led to my writing the book is there was a, you know, they give you one of those headsets you get to walk around with, and one of the things that they did was they had an actress read part of one of the young typist’s memoirs. And it was a memoir that I used quite a bit in my research, and the woman’s name is Elizabeth Layton Nel. And, so being able to hear her words as I was walking those corridors was just incredibly powerful.

That’s awesome. So when did it come to you to write this specific first story? Like, when did Maggie come into your head?

Well, I remember looking at the room where the secretaries were and I was thinking like, what if there were somebody there who was really chafing at being a secretary? Like, what if somebody really didn’t want to be a secretary but couldn’t do anything else because of gender? And so Maggie kind of just came from that.

Was there anybody real that you knew about that was kind of in the same situation? I mean, obviously didn’t get to the level that she did, but I mean, did you read about any women that were kind of chafing against that?

Well, once I started reading, yeah, there were a lot of extraordinary women of that time who did and did not do, extraordinary things. I mean, did not do because of the sexism and whatnot. But, yeah, Maggie was… I wanted to show someone who was very cerebral and smart, but who’s also maybe not as clued into social skills and working with people. And so that’s like, her thing is she’s so smart, but she really sort of lacks some of these other skills. And so through the books we see her developing all these other parts of herself that, you know, if she’d gone into academia, she never would have developed.

Right. And you get to, and it’s always a good idea in fiction a lot of times to have this outsider come in like her to come in and then you can describe all this stuff in the war rooms because she’s somebody who doesn’t know all that stuff. So you get it explained to the reader, as well, and get to go into depth in that kind of stuff.

Yeah. And the same for British society because she’s an outsider. She’s sort of an insider/outsider, but she gets to like sort of tell us what she thinks about all these things and you know, not take anything for granted.

Did you know from the beginning… Did you say, “Oh this is going to be a series!”?

No, I wrote the first book. I mean I didn’t even hope that it would be published and it was a hard, long, arduous journey to publication. But I always knew like the characters would keep going. Like they would continue their lives. I don’t know, that probably doesn’t make sense. But like I always knew that they would keep going after the story cause the war wasn’t over and they obviously had more cool things to do. And then the editor that acquired Mr Churchill’s secretary at a Random House, she was just like, “So what else are you thinking about?” And I told her, she was like, “Well, that sounds pretty good. Why don’t we do a two book deal?” And I was just like, Oh my gosh, I was gobsmacked. I was completely overwhelmed and then, you know, it was sort of touching and go, because they wanted to see what the sales were like. But finally I did get the contract for the third. I think ever since then I’ve had two or three book contracts. So it’s been good.

Great. So what are you in the middle of now? Do you have a… are you in the middle of a contract right now? Should we automatically assume there’ll be another Maggie Hope…?

Absolutely. I am currently finishing up for my editor, The Hollywood Spy, which is the next Maggie Hope book. And, yeah, it’s due May 15th. So in the craziness of all this, I am writing a novel.

You’re having to focus!

I’m having to focus. I’m also having to focus without my office space because usually what I would do is I would go to, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, we have like a workspace. It’s called like, I don’t know, a study hall or something, but it’s basically just people with their laptops who come in and we all just sit there and work together, but it gets me out of the house and you know, it’s a nice place to go to, you know, you have to get up, get dressed, go to, quote unquote work. And I really, really, really am missing that now.

So the newest book is The King’s Justice. Do you want to tell the listeners a little bit about that one?

Sure. Well, in The King’s Justice, Maggie Hope returns to London after quite a few adventures in Paris and then Scotland, and she’s really sort of done with everything. She’s had quite a hard time. I mean, let’s face it, it’s book nine, she’s been through a lot and I want to just sort of recognize that and have her act out a little. So in this book we see her drinking too much. We see her riding a motorcycle way too fast. We see her smoking. We see her making passes at her boyfriend. I mean, she’s in a very odd place and trying to work through it while not, you know, while pretending everything’s just fine. And in the middle of all this, she gets pulled into a case of a stolen Stradivarius violin, which then leads to a case that has to do with a serial killer. So it was fun for me to do – well, not fun – but it was interesting for me to do because I got to revisit some of the characters from a previous book of like two books ago, The Queen’s Accomplice. So it was neat to be able to revisit those characters and sort of see what they’d been up to and what they’d been doing.

Yeah. That’s one of those fun things I think as you go back to visit other places she’s gone, you’ll be able to bring back some other characters that had popped up in those, like people who live in Paris or people who live in America and things like that.

Absolutely. So even though she’s going to LA, there will be people that she knows in LA.

Would you see, and this is obviously quite a ways out into the future, but would you see the series continuing past the end of World War II and beyond if you kept the series going?

You know, I don’t think so. Right now, I mean, don’t hold me to it, but right now my plan is to end the book series with VE Day or soon after VE Day. I just think there’s a natural close to it there. And the thing is, Maggie and her cohorts and her real life cohorts in World War II, they did what they did for the war effort. They didn’t do what they did because they were interested in being a professional intelligence officer or, you know, professional military. They sort of did what they needed to do to help their country and then they went back to their lives and rebuilding. And I just don’t think Maggie’s cut out to be a professional Cold War spy. I think maybe she’ll go back into academia, but as a very changed person.

Yeah, I was going to say “Cold War spy” is a lot different and you don’t want her to turn into James Bond at some point.

Right. That’s exactly what I don’t want. So I think just following what a lot of her real life, you know, SOE secret agents did, like she’s going to return to normal, you know, quote-unquote normal life.

Well, I think readers would obviously like to continue to seeing more of Maggie, but do you have plans to ever write anything outside of the Maggie Hope series?

I have been really excited to do a standalone novel, and I’m not sure exactly when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to be set in the United States and it’s going to be set in the Los Angeles area in the 1930s and it’s going to deal with the American Nazi movement. And it’s also going to follow a mother-daughter team. And these are real women, Sylvia and Grace Comfort, and they absolutely were real people, worked for a man named Leon Lewis who was a sort of spymaster. He was, he did intelligence in World War I for the Americans. He’s American and became a lawyer and as someone who was Jewish, he was really appalled by the rise of Nazi-ism in the Los Angeles area, and obviously keeping an eye on things in Europe. So he basically pulled together all of these people to infiltrate the Nazi groups and report back to him and he tried telling things to the FBI. The FBI in the 30s, at least, wasn’t listening. It’s an incredible story and I’m really excited to talk about it and, you know, write about it. And so we’ll just see where this turns up in the order of books.

So you’re obviously a big fan of writing historical fiction.

I do like historical fiction. I don’t even know what I would do, like, writing in the present day. It’s probably a whole different skillset. I’m not knocking it. It’s, you know, to get your time period exactly right. Of course, now they consider the 80s, like, historical fiction…

Right? Yeah, you’re not going to write an Old Maggie Hope series in the 80s.

Seriously.

So before we wrap up, do you have anything in particular that you’ve been reading recently that you’ve been enjoying?

Well, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which I love, but I have to say my concentration is a little bit off during all this craziness. I just find reading is a bit harder than usual, although I’m grateful for it and I enjoy it. And I’m also trying to finish my own books. So I think maybe I just don’t have that much time for reading per se. Oh, here’s something that might interest people who love libraries because I can’t get out of the house to write, I’ve been using… Okay, so on YouTube they have ambience, you can listen to ambience. And I’ve been listening to library ambience. And I’m not kidding, they have all kinds of library ambience. They have like, you know, one with a crackling fireplace, they have one from the 1930s, they have one with thunderstorms and lightning and it’s incredible. So you could pick your ambience and honestly it’s helped a bit just to be able to like drown out the household noises and you know, make me feel like I’m in a really cool library.

And is it just like general page turnings and stuff in the background?

Yeah, page turnings. I think, you know, somebody must have recorded a real library so that, you kinda hear books sliding in and out and, but it’s all sort of white noise. It’s comforting. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. Oh I know. But yeah, we all need some comfort these days, and I think I’m feeling the same thing. I think a lot of people are feeling the same thing too. It’s hard to just focus and concentrate on things like reading in these days that’s why a lot of people are just plopping in front of the TV because they just can’t focus on.

Yeah. And I think we’ll get it back. I mean, I think we’ll get our concentration back, but you know, in the meantime, if it helps to like put on, you know, the library atmosphere off of YouTube, I say go for it. It’s helping me. It just makes me feel like I’ve been to some different place, you know?

Right. And then you can write about bringing readers to another place at the same time.

Exactly.

All right. Well, Susan, thank you so much for talking to me today. Your new book is The King’s Justice, and it’s available now at, I guess you have to look at it online now instead of going to your local bookstore or library for that. I did get it off of Libby, the library ebook app. So it is available there for people who want to read it.

Yeah, but you can patronize you local independent bookstore and they will order things in for you. Most of them.

Yes. They’ll order for you and ship them to you or hold them for you until this is all over with.

Exactly.

All right. Well, Susan, thank you so much.

Thank you. Have a good one.

You too. Bye bye.

Bye!