- RHYS BOWEN: I have always been fascinated with World War II stories (in fact I've secretly longed to write one myself), so I was delighted when I was asked to blurb MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY a first novel by Susan Elia MacNeal. I was even more delighted when I discovered that this book was a terrific read. Now I've discovered she wears RED LIPSTICK she's an obvious choice as at guest here at JRW.
- So, first question, Susan. I think one of the reasons I am so fascinated by the time period is because it was the last clear time of good versus evil, of daring exploits, heightened emotions and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So what was it that drew you to the period?
- SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL
Well, I for one (and I’m sure I’m not alone) would absolutely love to read any series you would set during World War II. (I’m already a huge fan of Her Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy!) I think it is because it was the last clear time of good versus evil, of daring exploits, heightened emotions and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. What was it that drew you to the period?
Actually, I feel like the time period chose me, rather than the other way around.
I happened to be in London with my husband, who was there for work. We met up with some friends at a pub, and they brought me a copy of Time Out London. I was flipping through it and came to an ad for the Cabinet War Rooms (now renamed the Churchill War Rooms), at which one Brit said, “You do know that the war started before 7 December 1941, right?” Well, ahem, yes—but I did realize I knew very little about what went on in Great Britain during 1940.
So, the next day I decided to go to the War Rooms, which is the underground bunker near the Treasury, where Churchill and his staff worked during the Blitz. It happened to be fairly empty that day. I remember walking around, with the audio guide. There was an actress reading Elizabeth Layton Nel’s wonderful memoir of working for Winston Churchill during the war. As I heard her words, I stopped in front of the room where the typists worked. And, suddenly, it all seemed real—it was 1940, bombs were falling overhead, I could smell the cigarette smoke, hear the bells of the typewriters, hear the ticking of the clock….
I felt that time had telescoped in on itself. And I felt that I just had to write about the people who worked in the War Rooms during 1940, the, as you put it, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” I didn’t want to write about soldiers, sailors, and pilots (although I have enormous respect for them, of course)—I wanted to write about the civilians, who had blackout curtains and ate rationed food and slept in Andersen shelters. I wanted especially to write about the women of that time, because there was a huge sea change going on with women and their work outside the home, and how women’s contributions were seen by society.
RHYS:How did you do your research?
SUSAN: I spent a long time reading about Britain in 1940 and the years leading up to it. You know, I actually kept one of my European history textbooks from high school and there was only one sentence on it: “And then Britain stood alone.” So—obviously—I had a lot of work to do. I remember starting with the wonderful Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lucas, and went from there, reading Churchill’s own Memoirs of the Second World War and The Gathering Storm, as well as William Manchester’s The Last Lion, Roy Jenkins’ Churchill: A Biography and Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill, just to start.
Elizabeth Layton Nel’s memoir of being Winston Churchill’s wartime typist was my bible, and I was also privileged to correspond with Mrs. Nel before her death in 2007.
I also saw many documentaries. One that I absolutely loved and would wholeheartedly recommend is the BBC’s 1940s House, about a present-day family who volunteers to live life as it was during the war, with rationing, Andersen shelters, etc. And I was lucky enough that my husband’s work (he was Bear in the Jim Henson children’s television show Bear in the Big Blue House, which was very popular in the UK) brought us back to London quite often, and I was able to do research in person there.
I also did fun things, like finding samples of vintage perfume to sniff, reading novels from the 30s, and listening to music that was popular at the time. I looked through vintage shops at clothing, shoes and hats. Garments, even inexpensive ones, we finished so beautifully then.
And I spoke with many people who’d lived through the Blitz, asking questions about the day-to-day life. One reader expressed surprise that Maggie and her friends were still going to pubs and bars and performances, but that’s quite accurate. People kept on living their lives.
I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I was frequently intimidated and overwhelmed by the dual task of writing about both a foreign country and a different time period. I know how possessive the British are of Churchill (and rightly so).
However, I do feel a legitimate kinship with the people of London of the 1940s. You see, my husband and I are both New Yorkers, and we were both were eyewitnesses to the events of September 11, 2001. I’d seen the planes hit the World Trade Center and then both towers fall, from the window of a plane about to take off from JFK airport, in a strange coincidence. Then the National Guard closed Manhattan, so we were basically living in a hotel for a week or so after that. When we finally returned to New York, I remember looking out the windows of our apartment and seeing a tank go by. Yes, a tank went down our street.
We also lived across the street from a mosque, and I remember standing at my bedroom window—in pjs and fuzzy slippers, no less—and seeing National Guard men with machine guns guarding each corner.
When you see your city attacked, watch tanks go down your street, and can see men with machine guns directly out your bedroom window, it changes you. I definitely felt and still feel that I can draw from my own personal experiences. I don’t think it’s any accident that I wrote about terrorists trying to take down a huge and emotionally important building.
RHYS:What were your impressions of Winston Churchill? From what I’ve heard and from your book he would not have been an easy man to be around. Clemmie must have been a saint.
SUSAN: I absolutely adore Winston Churchill, I must confess, although I agree with you—I don’t think he was an easy man to work for. However, Elizabeth Layton Nel, his secretary, had this to say of him: “Sometimes by the time bed was announced I would be feeling nervously worn out, especially if I’d made a few mistakes and come under the hammer that evening. But, so often, Mr. Churchill would give a beaming ‘Good-night!,’ sometimes accompanied by a small remark to convey, ‘Sorry I was cross,’ so that, far from resenting his displeasure, one would feel honored to be a sort of safety valve for his feelings.”
I’ve had bosses like that myself and I know how, when you respect that person’s work and character, the tough times really aren’t so bad.
As far as Churchill’s wife Clementine goes, yes, she must have been a saint, I agree! Although reports say that they were close and quite affectionate. Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage by Mary Soames provides a terrific window into Clemmie’s life.
Oh, and I absolutely loved Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Clementine Churchill in the HBO film, The Gathering Storm. Yes, it’s fiction, but Ms. Redgrave gives a wonderfully nuanced portrait of Clemmie and the trails and tribulations of being married to Winston Churchill during his so-called “wilderness years” — when he was certain of the threat from Hitler and Nazism, and no one would listen to him. It must have been hard on their marriage.
RHYS: Do you have English connections or are you an anglophile?
SUSAN : I’m part Scottish, although I grew up in Western New York. But I grew up reading British novels (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice), and then went on to major in English literature, reading the rest of the cannon, but concentrating on novels written by women during the Victorian era, such as Elizabeth Gaskall and George Elliott.
And some of my best friends are British!
I don’t know if I would have called myself an Anglophile before starting this writing adventure, but I certainly am now. I have infinite respect for the generation of Brits who lived through the Blitz—and I think that “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude still informs the British character.
Is this the first book in a projected series? In which case, will Maggie
continue to work for Mr. Churchill?
SUSAN: Yes, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first book in a series! The second is called Princess Elizabeth’s Spy and takes place at Windsor Castle during the winter of 1940. Maggie Hope isn’t working for Mr. Churchill directly anymore, but he certainly still exerts great influence over her and her career at MI-5. Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is to be published on October 16, 2012.
And I’m finishing up Maggie Hope book number three, His Majesty’s Hope, (set in Berlin), and about to start writing number four (still untitled). Maggie Hope and Winston Churchill have an ongoing relationship through the series, and it’s been fun to watch it change as she grows up. Mr. Churchill will always be an important part of her life.
RHYS: Tell us a bit about your life—anything like Maggie’s?
- SUSAN: Ha! No, nothing like Maggie’s I’m afraid. I’m happily married to an
Emmy-nominated television performer, and the mother of a seven-year-old
boy. We all live in Park Slope, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
You’re far more likely to see me in jeans and a tee-shirt than any of
Maggie’s ensembles—although I do wear red lipstick, especially in the
winter, and shake a mean martini and lots of other vintage cocktails.
I’m also nowhere near as smart as Maggie, and was actually math-phobic at school. I had to ask my brilliant friends from MIT and Caltech endless questions about mathematics and codes and whatnot…. Actually, that’s one thing she and I do have in common—our wonderful and random groups of friends.
I’d love to think someday that Maggie does end up married and maybe have a baby or two, in addition to having a brilliant post-war career. We’ll see what happens….
Thank you so much, Susan. This was great.
- If you'd like a chance to win a copy of Mr. Churchill's Secretary OR an advance reading copy of Princess Elizabeth's Spy then you have to leave a witty comment. Susan will select her favorites at the end of the day!