The British Monarchy has been at the forefront of the media lately. Whether it’s Prince Harry flaunting the family jewels or Princess Kate sunbathing topless, the Royals are everywhere. It comes as no surprise that the public is fascinated by the exciting lives they lead. Imagine what it would be like if you had an insider’s look at what truly goes on behind the castle’s gates. I, for one, would jump at the chance.
This month’s Jens Jewels Susan Elia MacNeal shares our interest in the Royals in her Maggie Hope Mystery Series. In her latest release Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, Maggie Hope is back in action this time at the majestic Windsor Castle. Posing as Princess Elizabeth’s math tutor, it’s up to Maggie to ferret out a traitor in order to protect the future of the British Monarchy. A delightful mystery series capturing the essence of wartime Britain, this book is an absolute must-read for historical fiction fans.
As part of this interview, Ballantine Books, a division of Random House Books, has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading list.
Jen: As an accomplished writer and editor, you know firsthand what it takes to be successful. So that my readers may catch a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, 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 took cross-registered classes at MIT. After that, I did the Radcliff publishing course (a six-week summer book and magazine intensive at Harvard) 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.
Jen: Please describe for us your “Aha!” 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 different stories being published.
When The Powers That Be at Dance Magazine decided to move the publication from New York to San Francisco, I decided to stay 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.
Jen: 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.
Jen: Your latest release PRINCESS ELIZABETH’S SPY is the second book in the Maggie Hope Mystery series. For those readers not familiar with the first title, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, please share with us the premise of the series.
Susan: Maggie Hope is a young Briton, raised in the United States, who goes to London in 1938, to sell her grandmother’s house. While she’s there, war breaks out, and she’s offered a job as one of the typists working for Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Since Maggie’s a mathematician, with a gift for code-breaking, she learns about an assassination attempt on Churchill’s life-as well as some family secrets…
Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, how much research is needed in order to have the plots ring true with your readers? What is the most fascinating bit of information you have discovered along the way?
Susan: I did a LOT of research, a lot. I spent a significant amount of time in London (my husband was working there for a while, as Bear in the Big Blue House for Disney Channel UK). I went to museums, read books, saw documentaries, talked with scholars, spoke with real people who lived through the Blitz in London…You name it, and I did it. I even experimented with rationing, just to get a feel for what people went through. And I’m very good at darning socks now, thanks to “make do and mend.”
I will say though, that I didn’t truly understand what the people of Britain went through during the war. And then, on September 11, 2001, that changed.
I’m a New Yorker, and my husband and mother-in-law and I were all on a plane at JFK airport that morning, waiting for takeoff. We had a clear view of downtown Manhattan. So we had a clear view of both planes hitting the World Trade Center, and then the first building falling. We didn’t see the second tower fall, because, by that point, we were being evacuated.
Still, we couldn’t go home, because Manhattan had been shut down-no one could get in and out. So, we ended up helping out a young couple with a newborn baby and rented a van to drive them to Tarrytown, New York, where relatives could pick them up.
Witnessing your own city being bombed…Words just can’t explain. I feel like those images are permanently burned in my retinas. Finally, after a week or so, we were able to go home-but New York was quite a different place. Back then, we lived near an armory on the Upper East Side, so I remember seeing tanks go by one day on my street. We also lived near a mosque, and there were Reserve Guards, with machine guns, standing watch around the perimeter. I distinctly remember being in my pjs and fuzzy slippers, looking out my bedroom window at soldiers with machine guns, and thinking, “This can’t be happening. This just can’t possibly be real.”
Jen: The main character Maggie Hope is a vibrant young woman on a mission to save England from falling into the hands of Nazi Germany. What is the driving force behind her decision to become a MI-5 spy?
Susan: Maggie’s frustrated with the jobs open to women at the time-secretary and nurse, basically-although things were starting to open up on the homefront, with all the men at war and many women taking over civilian jobs. But Maggie also has a family connection to MI-5…
Jen: Her new assignment is to ferret out a traitor at Windsor Castle by posing as a tutor for the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. How does her relationship with the girls, especially Lilibet, affect the way in which she feels about her own personal life and the sacrifices she has made for her career?
Susan: Maggie originally isn’t too thrilled to “babysit” the princesses, but when she gets to know them, they become friends. I think Elizabeth, even when she was young, took the idea of duty to her country very seriously. I think Maggie respects Lilibet’s sense of duty and her sense of her own eventual role as queen. There’s definitely a sense of gravitas to Princess Elizabeth, as there is to Maggie, and I think that’s one reason why they got along so well. They both realize that they are called on to make personal sacrifices. They both grew up very fast.
Jen: How does Maggie’s relationship with her father or lack thereof, impact her focus on the current assignment at Windsor Castle?
Susan: Maggie’s relationship with her father definitely becomes more complicated in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. Basically, he’s keeping a huge secret from her, and she’s trying to figure it out…He’s trying to spare her from certain revelations, but instead incriminates himself…So Maggie’s spending a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what the secret is-and she becomes distracted in her perusal of the enemy at Windsor because of it. It’s Maggie’s first time out as a spy, and she has a lot of lessons to learn about not getting sidetracked, and not letting emotions and prejudices get in her way.
Jen: Maggie’s friends Charlotte and Nigel are tying the knot. How does their happiness cause her to second guess her decision to not accept John’s proposal?
Susan: Maggie is truly happy for her friends. But, at the wedding, she can’t help but feel regret that she didn’t accept John’s proposal. It’s a bittersweet moment. Chuck is there with her parents, and Nigel is there with his parents. They’re getting married and will presumably start their own family. So Maggie’s not just feeling the loss of John, but the loss of her own family of origin, and the loss of her potential family with John.
(Thank goodness Chuck and Nigel served champagne at the reception….)
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your avenues of reader involvement. Please take us on a brief tour of your website highlighting points of interest.
Susan: My lovely web site is designed by Barone Graphics & Design, http://www.baronegraphicsanddesign.com/ . I loved the one they did for Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, but I’m also loving the recent redesign, which encompasses Princess Elizabeth’s Spy and the Maggie Hope series.
Jen: Do you participate in social media?
Susan: Yes! I’m on Facebook as Susan Elia MacNeal at https://www.facebook.com/susaneliamacnealand Twitter as @SusanMacNeal. https://twitter.com/SusanMacNeal Come find me and chat! (I joke that since my two “colleagues” have fur, four feet, and tails, I take frequent social media breaks…) I love to talk with readers about good books, kids, pets, recipes, cocktails, travel, vintage fashion…There’s also a Maggie Hope fan page at https://www.facebook.com/maggiehopefans .
Oh! And I’m on Pinterest as Susan Elia MacNeal. I never thought I’d like it, but I really do-have boards for all my books, as well as some random stuff like art and fashion. If you’d like to see photos of some of the places and people that inspired Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, as well as boards for Maggie Hope book #3, His Majesty’s Hope and yet untitled book #4, check out http://pinterest.com/susanmacneal/
I’m also on Goodreads.com as http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/517286.Susan_Elia_MacNeal . In all seriousness, I wasn’t sure about joining Goodreads, but I’ve found a fantastic community of fellow-readers there, and have gotten the best advice about books. I’m on Goodreads more as a reader than an author, but, basically, I’ll talk about books anywhere, with anyone. (Just for the record, I just finished Eva Moves the Furniture, The Thirteenth Tale, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Paris Wife-currently in the middle of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened and The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society.)
Jen: Do you participate in Book Club Phone Chats? If so, how would my readers go about scheduling one? Also, are there reading group guides available for your books?
Susan: Yes, I love to chat with Book Clubs, either in person or on the telephone or via Skype. We always have a lot of fun. Readers who’d like to schedule one can contact Lindsey Kennedy, one of the lovely publicists at Random House. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen: Are you currently at work on the next title in the series? If so, what may you share with us?
Susan: Yes, thank you for asking! I just finished the second draft of His Majesty’s Hope, the third book in the series, and handed it in to my editor. In this novel, we see Maggie get her wish-to go to Berlin as a spy. But her mission doesn’t go exactly the way she thought it would. As Stephen Sondheim says in Into the Woods, “Wishes come true, not free.” His Majesty’s Hope will be published in the spring of 2013.
Book #4 will see Maggie back in the U.K., but this time in Scotland. We’ll also be seeing another old friend again, Sarah. (I’ve missed Sarah.)
Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to stop by and chat with me. I thoroughly enjoyed both books in the series, and I look forward to the next release. Best of luck on your book tour!
Susan: Thank you very much, Jen.
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Susan. Please stop by your favorite book store or library branch and pick up a copy today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win. Good luck!
Name the title of the third book in the series.
In November, I will be bringing to you my interview with mother/son writing team Charles Todd, author of the poignant holiday novel The Walnut Tree. You won’t want to miss it.