Interview: The Maggie Hope Mystery Series by Susan Elia MacNeal

If you haven’t discovered the Maggie Hope Mystery series yet, you need to! If you are a fan of Jacqueline Winspear or Laurie R. King then you will LOVE Maggie Hope.

This series has gotten a lot of attention since the second book, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, was a New York Times bestseller and chosen by Oprah.com as “Mystery of the Week” and one of “7 Compulsively Readable Mysteries (for the Crazy-Smart Reader).”

Set in London during the Blitz of WWII, Maggie takes a job for the PM, Winston Churchill, that will change her life. She is a math wiz who is able to crack Nazi codes for the British government which leads to an opportunity of a life time, a potential position with British Intelligence as a spook…follow her journey and adventures where she goes from secretary to a full fledged spy!

I discovered this series last year when I won a copy of the first Maggie Hope Mystery, Mr Churchill’s Secretary. After reading it, I knew it would be a series that I would continue following. Maggie made me want dye my hair flaming read and don red lipstick, I love her character! I was thrilled when the author, Susan Elia MacNeal, agreed to do an interview with me as well. Her latest book, His Majesty’s Hope (Maggie Hope #3) is out currently, and you don’t want to miss this one!

Without further ado please welcome Susan Elia MacNeal to The Lit Bitch!

The Lit Bitch: Which of the Maggie Hope books were more difficult for you to write and why?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Writing Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was hardest from a technical point of view, because I was a first-time novelist and I had to write, and cut, and rewrite so much. But His Majesty’s Hope was the hardest emotionally.

As you and maybe some of your readers may know, it deals with the so-called Children’s Euthanasia Program that Hitler created and approved — where German doctors murdered thousands of children. Since my own son was born with a condition called torticolis (literally, twisted neck), and wouldn’t have received physical therapy back in those days, he would have been considered “crippled” in Nazi Germany, and so one of the children targeted by this program. It was horrifying to think about.

The Lit Bitch: What was your original idea for the Maggie Hope series and how did it first develop?

Susan Elia MacNeal: You know, I was inspired to write about Maggie Hope when I visited the Cabinet War Rooms in London, in 2000. I remember being there on a day when it wasn’t at all crowded, and doing a slow turn and realizing everything that I saw was exactly the same as it had been during the Blitz. And it was this very powerful, transformative experience — I really felt as though for a moment I had slipped through time and I was there in 1940 — with the smell of cigarette smoke, the ringing of the telephones, the feeling of tension and dread in the air.

I was doing the self-guided tour, with the accompanying audio recoding, and when I reached the typists’ room, an actress began reading from Mrs. Elizabeth Layton Nel’s memoir of her time working as a secretary for Mr. Churchill — and I knew I wanted my main character to be one of the Prime Minister’s typists.

While researching and writing the novel, the story changed quite a bit with each draft. I have to say thank you to a friend who sent me a link to the BBC — it had just been discovered that Nazi code had been hidden in the dots and dashes of a women’s fashion newspaper advertisement of 1940.

That ad definitely inspired me and shaped the story — women were overlooked, typists were overlooked, this code was probably overlooked because it was hidden in a dress — there was so much that just came together.

The Lit Bitch: How has the series evolved or changed from your original idea? Has it taken a new or unexpected direction?

Susan Elia MacNeal: It’s funny, because my first draft of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was very different — much more “literary” and definitely a coming-of-age novel. It was rejected everywhere.

      What was encouraging though, was that so many editors wrote personal notes — saying they loved the characters, they loved the setting, but it was just too quiet — and nothing really happened.

      So, was around this time that my friend had sent me article about the Nazi code found hidden in the women’s clothes advertisement — and I began a huge and all-encompassing rewrite to change it into a mystery/thriller.

But Maggie was always a mathematician, so it felt like the right direction to go in.

The Lit Bitch: Which was the most difficult scene for you to write in either His Majesty’s Hope or any of the other Maggie Hope books?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Hands down, the scene in His Majesty’s Hope where Elise goes with the children by bus to Hadamar was the hardest to write. I hated every moment of writing it and I’d always want to skip over it during edits, because I found it so painful. During the time I researched and wrote His Majesty’s Hope, I went through a dark period, because of the subject matter and my immersion in it.

The Lit Bitch: How much research went into the Maggie Hope series? Can you discuss how that all came together for you. Did you travel to many of the locations in the novels as part of your research, if so please discuss what that experience was like for you.

Susan Elia MacNeal: I knew very little beyond what I’d learned in high school and college about World War II, and almost nothing about the British experience, so I had to educate myself. I read endlessly, watched documentaries, and talked to as many people who were in London during the war as possible. I was privileged to be introduced to, and correspond with, Mrs. Elizabeth Layton Nel, one of Mr. Churchill’s real-life typists and ask her questions. I also have as one of my readers for all of the books in the series a woman who’s a Blitz survivor.

      I’m lucky to have friends who are interested in code, who are medical doctors, German historians, Brits — so they read my manuscripts and give me constructive criticism. I’m very grateful to them.

The Lit Bitch: If you had the chance to be a spy would you want to be? Why? Would you rather be a modern spy or a spy of the past?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Wow, I’d be a terrible spy, regardless of time frame. I have no “poker face,” I’d be panicking at every turn, and, in all honesty, I’m not half as smart as Maggie. I think if I were a woman in World War II London, I’d want to be an ambulance driver — I’d make a much better driver than a spy!

The Lit Bitch: Hugh or John?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Ha! I was joking with my editor that we should make “Team John” and “Team Hugh” tee shirts! I think John challenges Maggie, while Hugh is supportive. Both are great qualities in a significant other. But who’s to say Maggie hasn’t met her true love yet? Maybe she’ll meet an American post Pearl Harbor? Or maybe she’ll choose to stay single, in order to focus on her contribution to the war effort? We’ll see… All three of them have a bit of growing up, and healing, to do before contemplating a serious relationship, I think.

The Lit Bitch: What can we expect for Maggie in the next book?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Well, Maggie went through a lot of trauma in His Majesty’s Hope. So in book #4, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, we’ll find her back in Scotland, this time, though, as a teacher, not a student. Maggie works through what we’d now call her PTSD as she also works to solve a local murder. In many ways, working through the case is going to help her battle her own demons. While I don’t think Maggie will ever be the same ingénue we met in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I do think she’ll be able to come to terms with her past, make peace with it, and move on.

The Lit Bitch: I love the cover designs! Can you describe how you arrived at these designs? Was there a special feeling you wanted to convey to the readers when you picked the designs?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Random House deserves all the credit for choosing the wonderful artist Mick Wiggins, who does all the cover designs. His web site is here: http://www.mickwiggins.com/ , so you can really see the depth and breadth of his work. I absolutely love everything about the covers — the feel, the colors, the font. The book’s design by Thomas Beck Stvan is just as important as the art and is fantastic, too. Mick Wiggins and Thomas Beck Stvan are a huge part of making Maggie Hope come alive for readers.

The Lit Bitch: Who is your all time literary crush?

Susan Elia MacNeal: Oh, Mr. Darcy. Definitely Mr. Darcy.

About the Author

Edgar, Dilys, and Barry Award-nominated Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the Maggie Hope Mystery series from Bantam/Random House. The first is Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s 2013 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and also the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s 2013 Dilys Award for “the mystery title of the year that booksellers have most enjoyed hand-selling.” Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was also declared one of Suspense Magazine’s Best Debut of 2012 and Deadly Pleasures’s Best Paperback Original of 2012 and nominated for the 2013 Barry Award.

The sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, was a New York Times bestseller and chosen by Oprah.com as “Mystery of the Week” and one of “7 Compulsively Readable Mysteries (for the Crazy-Smart Reader).”

Maggie Hope novel, His Majesty’s Hope, will be published in May 2013, and The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent in 2014.

Susan graduated cum laude from Wellesley College, with departmental honors in English Literature and credits from cross-registered classes at MIT. She attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard University.

Her first job was as an intern at Random House for then-publisher Harold Evans, before moving her way up the editorial ladder at Viking/Penguin and McGraw-Hill, then becoming an associate editor at Dance Magazine.

Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Fodor’s, Time Out New York, Time Out London, Publishers Weekly, Dance Magazine, and various publications of New York City Ballet. She’s also the author of two non-fiction books and a professional editor.

Susan is married and lives with her husband, Noel MacNeal, a television performer, writer and director, and young son in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (from Goodreads)

For more information about Susan Elia MacNeal and the upcoming Maggie Hope books, check out her website, Twitter, and her Facebook page!

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1 Comment

  1. I have enjoyed your Maggie Hope books very much and I am looking forward to your next book! I have been interested in codes as my Mother was a WAC during WWII coping Japanese codes a a secret base called Two Rock Ranch near Petaluma, CA. There are only a few of these ladies left as they are all in their 90’s now.. They used to get together for reunions and talk over old times.

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