Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Susan Elia MacNeal

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of The New York Times, Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and USA Today-bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series, starting with the Edgar Award-nominated and Barry Award-winning Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, which is now in its 22nd printing.

Her books include Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, The Queen’s Accomplice, The Paris Spy, The Prisoner in the Castle, The King’s Justice, and The Hollywood Spy. The Maggie Hope novels have been nominated for the Edgar, the Macavity, the ITW Thriller, the Barry, the Dilys, the Sue Federer Historical Fiction, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Fiction awards.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Love, love, love the title The Hollywood Spy— because it tells the reader exactly what they’re going to find—a spy story set in Los Angeles. And then the cover—the font, the design, the amazing painting by artist Mic Wiggins—lets us know it’s set in the 40s with a strong female lead. And then, as the reader goes through the novel, I hope that he/she/they will see that there are actually many spies in Hollywood—and the title may refer to more spies than just Maggie.

What's in a name?

Maggie Hope is the protagonist of The Hollywood Spy and also the entire series. I chose the first name after going to the British census for popular names in England in 1915 (Maggie’s birth year). Margaret was right at the top. I remember loving it because it’s definitely a name of that period, but it’s also a classic name. And then shortening to the nickname “Maggie” makes her more approachable.

Hope is interesting, too. Again, I went to the census for popular English last names. And then, not finding anything, I looked at British celebrities who came of age during World War II. There was Bob Hope! What a great name! And then there’s the whole double meaning—yes it’s a last name, but it’s also Maggie’s viewpoint—that of hope, not cynicism.

Also, one of the secretary’s memoirs about working for Mr. Churchill, he misheard her introducing herself and thought her surname was “Holmes”—and then calling her “Miss Sherlock” for their time together. So I had my fictional version of Churchill mishear Maggie the first time she gives her name—and then when she corrects him, he says, “Yes, we need some Hope in this office.” It just really seemed true to something he’d pick up on, appreciate, and then say.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would be surprised and happy by the fact I wrote a book called The Hollywood Spy, especially considering all the reading and writing I was doing at that age, as well as watching old movies. (Although, maybe not…. My teenage self was kinda capricious and moody, as I recall.)

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Oh, I find beginnings really hard. Remember—there’s the story and then there’s how you tell the story. How you open sets the tone for everything, introduces key people, as well as foreshadows so much. Plus, it’s what readers will pick up and read in the library or bookstore (or online) to see if they’re going to like the book enough to buy it. One thing that takes off some of the stress (while still being daunting) is that I rarely use my first prologue. In fact, I’ll usually keep it for a while, but then jettison it and rewrite something completely different for the novel that I end up writing. So, it’s sad because I know I’ll most likely cut all those words I struggle over—but at this point I realize it’s just a necessary part of the process.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My characters are all better-looking, smarter, more athletic, more charming, and braver than I am. I think they’re more based on people I know (not just one person, but composites). The only character taken directly from reality and placed in my books is Mr. K., Maggie’s cat. Mr. K was my first cat, when I was her age—and I love getting to share him with readers. There are actually a few (real) cats now named Mr. K. or K. in his honor by readers of the series, which I find amazing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m inspired by the ballet choreographer George Balanchine (who also has a cameo in The Hollywood Spy). I love the way he was so (seemingly) matter-of-fact about working/creating. One of his quotes is: “My muse comes to me on union time.” Because he used unionized dancers, musicians, etc. for his work—when they were there, he just had to create. No excuses, no procrastinating. So I like to think of my characters on “union time” as well—and that I really need to get down to business every day, regardless of what else is going on in my own life or in the world.
Visit Susan Elia MacNeal's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Prisoner in the Castle.

--Marshal Zeringue