I first became aware of Susan Elia MacNeal at Bouchercon (where else?), when she appeared on a panel that discussed wartime mysteries, moderated by Peter Rozovsky (who else?). Susan is the author of the popular and acclaimed Maggie Hope series of novels, set in World War II-era Britain and Europe. She has won a Barry Award, and been nominated for—take a deep breath—Edgar, Macavity, Dilys, ITW Thriller, Sue Feder, and Bruce Alexander awards.
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, and 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 their young son in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her new book, released last week, is The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent.
Susan Elia MacNeal: I‘ve come to think of it as “How Maggie Gets her Groove Back.” (A reviewer came up with that one and I love it).
But here’s the official description: “World War II rages on across Europe, but Maggie Hope has finally found a moment of rest on the pastoral coast of western Scotland. Home from an undercover mission in Berlin, she settles down to teach at her old spy training camp, and to heal from scars on both her body and heart. Yet instead of enjoying the quieter pace of life, Maggie is quickly drawn into another web of danger and intrigue. When three ballerinas fall strangely ill in Edinburgh—including one of Maggie’s dearest friends—Maggie partners with MI-5 to uncover the truth behind their unusual symptoms. What she finds points to a series of poisonings that may expose shocking government secrets and put countless British lives at stake. But it’s the fight brewing in the Pacific that will forever change the course of the war—and indelibly shape Maggie’s fate.”
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
SEM: Well, at the end of His Majesty’s Hope, Maggie was in a dark place, and I didn’t want her to be some sort of a “Jane Bond,” with no physical and psychological effects from her experiences and actions in Berlin. So, for The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, I brought her back to a place where she thinks she’ll be safe and protected — her old training camp in Scotland. Only it’s not really all that safe and protected — because what she’s fighting is in herself. And because nowhere really is safe anymore.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, start to finish?
SEM: I think it took about a year, more or less.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
SEM: Well, Maggie is fighting her inner demon, or as she comes to think of it — her black dog of depression (an image she’s gotten from Winston Churchill). Her father’s more or less abandoned her, her mother tried to kill her, her fiancé also comes back from Berlin traumatized.
And worst of all, she’s not sure that she did the right thing herself when she was in Berlin and that eats at her.
But when a friend of Maggie’s in in trouble, Maggie drops everything to help her — and ends up saving herself as well as her friend.
OBAAT: In what time and place is The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
SEM: It’s set in the winter of 1941, leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Things look bleak for the United Kingdom, really and truly bleak. Maggie’s emotional state in some ways mirrors England’s — they are both at the end of their proverbial ropes.
OBAAT: How did The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent come to be published?
SEM: Well, I’m happily under contract to Random House for (at least) six Maggie Hope books, and this is number four so….
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
SEM: I love early Ken Follett, in the World War II period. Outside of historical thrillers and mysteries, I’m reading Karin Slaughter and George R.R. Martin. I’m really looking forward to the next Sarah Waters novel, which is coming out soon.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
SEM: I’m influenced by a lot of writers who write strong women characters — everyone from Louisa May Alcott to Charlotte Bronte to Joss Wheedon.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
SEM: I wear pants! (Although they may be pajama pants….) I usually have an arc in mind and an outline, but then things seem to happen….
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
SEM: I just write and write and write at first. Editing comes much later, once there’s something on paper to edit… I do a lot of rewriting when I edit. So the first draft is like a big pencil sketch, and then I fill in and fill in and fill in….
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
SEM: Write! Don’t talk about writing and don’t stress about writing. Just write. Give yourself a daily word count.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
SEM: I really just like hanging out with my family, cooking, and having people over. I’m also getting back into yoga after a long time away. It feels good. Oh, and love to travel whenever possible. I think I may be a travel addict!
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
SEM: Oh, money and reviews don’t have anything to do with what I do, truly. I love having touched people and vice versa. I’ve met the most amazing people on this adventure. The people and the places I’ve traveled to are what I think of.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
SEM: I don’t think I could ever stop writing, certainly not now. Maggie still has so many adventures before the war ends! I’m committed to seeing her through.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
SEM: I’m going to go with Big Six, since that’s been my experience and Random House has been very good to me.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
SEM: Mixed drinks (dirty martini) once in a while, but I like wine.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
SEM: Figure skating. Or hockey, if the Buffalo Sabres are playing.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
SEM: I think you asked it with the “Do you even wear pants?” question…
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
SEM: Yes, I wear clothes when I write! Sometimes, I’m wearing pajamas, but definitely something!
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SEM: I’m working on Maggie Hope’s next adventure, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. This will bring Maggie back to the U.S. with Winston Churchill post-Pearl Harbor. It’s a lot of fun to write, as now we get to see the Brits in America, instead of an American in Britain.
To learn more about Susan, visit her website, which has what might be the coolest home page I’ve ever seen.