Novelist Susan Elia MacNeal faced down years of rejection slips for her mystery novel Mr. Churchill's Secretary, but it has a happy ending: the novel is being released by Random House today. (In other words, like Churchill said, “nevah, nevah, nevah" give in.) But how does an American writer from the 21st century step back in time 70 years to Churchill's War Rooms?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that Susan was my sophomore roommate. So now you know. But I would have loved Mr. Churchill's Secretary even if I didn't know the author. It's a cracking read, as you can see for yourself in reviews from USA Today and Library Journal, which gave it a starred review and named it the debut read of the month in February. See, it's not just me! --JKR
One of the many excellent aspects of Mr. Churchill's Secretary is its behind-the-scenes setting at No. 10 Downing Street during WWII. How did you, as an American writer, choose this setting? What did the research involve?
I feel like the setting chose me, actually. I was in London in 2000, and ended up at the Churchill War Rooms, a museum in the actual underground bunker, quite by serendipity. I remember walking through the maze of halls and offices, and suddenly had this crazy feeling, as though time were collapsing and telescoping, and it was suddenly June of 1940, with bombing going on overhead. It was one of the most intense moments of my life.
At first, I fought against it — I was completely intimidated by writing about life in a foreign country and a different time period. But I was able to get over at least part of that fear by making Maggie Hope, the heroine, raised in the U.S. And also by just reading and researching my little heart out. And having lots of experts go over the manuscript.
One of the (many, many) books I read was the memoir of Elizabeth Layton Nel, a typist for Churchill during the war. Her book provided meticulous details of what it was like to work in the War Rooms and sleep in “the dock” — which was a floor even deeper underground. And yes, according to Mrs. Nel, it had air conditioning!
I was actually able to correspond with Mrs. Nel, who lived in South Africa, before she passed. It was an absolute honor to receive letters from her, about her experience working with Churchill. I will always cherish them.
There’s a lot of you in your feisty heroine, Maggie Hope, who also went to Wellesley, loves the ballet, and knows her way around a cocktail. What do you love most about Maggie?
Ha! Well, first I must say that Maggie is actually much, much smarter than I am. As you may remember, I was terrible at math and science in school. I’m lucky that I can run all the math and code material by a group of really smart friends from MIT.
In terms of what I love about Maggie — hmmm, I love that she’s occasionally cranky. A heroine who’s absolutely perfect, all the time, is no fun — at least not for me. I like her humor, and quips, and asides. Of course, as you know, I’m never snarky like that myself. Never.
The novel kept me guessing at every turn, with numerous plot twists involving Bletchley Park, an IRA terrorist cell, and Maggie’s own family history. How did you learn to write in the mystery genre?
Thank you. Well, I feel like Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was very much a first novel, and I’m definitely still learning. I’ll always be learning. But I love mysteries and thrillers. I learned by reading a lot in the genre and then writing a lot. I have a ridiculous amount of discarded scenes in a file on my laptop.
What did you learn that you would pass on as advice to other writers?
I think to be a writer, you need to be tenacious. As you know, I worked on this manuscript for years. It was turned down by a bazillion (ok, that’s how it felt, at least) different agents before I met my current one. And then it took a long while until she found my perfect editor, who actually “got” me, and my story, and tone.
I also think writers need to find their voice and be true to it. In a lot of rejection letters, people questioned my style, you know — the war is serious, why are your characters joking? Is it camp? Etc. But, in all honesty, I tend to joke during some of the bleakest times of life — and I think that sort of “black humor” is also quintessentially British.
However, at one point, beaten down by all the rejections, I asked my agent if I should do a rewrite and take all the funny bits out. Bless her, she said no — that was my voice and I should be true to it. And, wouldn’t you know, that’s what the editor who bought the book (and the series) ultimately responded to.
So, all you authors out there — be tenacious and true to your own voices!
What can we expect in the sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy?
In Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (due out in the fall of 2012 — so not too long a wait), we can expect Maggie Hope to return (of course), and also David Greene, in a major role. Maggie will take a job to tutor the young Princess Elizabeth in math at Windsor Castle. While she’d prefer to be sent as a spy to France or Germany, she accepts the position — and then, of course, wacky hijinks ensue.
I’m thrilled to say that Bantam Dell/Random House has picked up books #3 and #4 in the Maggie Hope series, so Maggie’s adventures will continue beyond London and Windsor! I’m currently at work on #3 (still untitled), where Maggie will ultimately get her wish, and be sent to Berlin. But be careful what you wish for….
Since this is a blog about faith, I’d like to mention that book #3 deals with religion and spirituality in a significant way. I’ve been researching some of the religious people who protested against Nazi atrocities in Berlin, especially Father Bernhard Lichtenberg, Cardinal von Preysing, Cardinal von Galen, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I hope to do them justice in my work, and inspire people to read more about them.
Author photo by Lesley Semmelhack.