Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Scoop on Mr. Churchill from Susan Elia MacNeal

    • 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?

      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.
    • RHYS: 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!


  1. Thank you Rhys and Jungle Reds! (BTW, did you know that Nars has a lipstick actually called "Jungle Red"? It's pretty wonderful.)

  2. Red lipstick? Who would spring for that when beet juice is still available? Great interview!

  3. Wonderful interview! Can't. Wait to read the book. My daughter in law, who happens to be from Scotland, tells me that the comment she most often hears in America is, "Oh I am Scottish too!". Seems that UK pride is in the Genes. :)

  4. Hi Susan, I have nothing witty to say but wanted to come by and look at your interview. As I mentioned on goodreads and also sucking up to you on Facebook, I really loved the book and can't wait for the second one. Also as a native NYer myself (16th birthday lunch at Windows on the World), I was really hit by your experiences during September 11th...the tank going down the street. I think our generation misses some of the absolute fear and despair that a wartime generation had...but we got twinges on 9/11. Great stuff, all, and keep writing!

  5. Susan — beets are great in theory, but not really portable, no? : )

    Beth — yes for UK pride! My husband is Scottish too (hence the name MacNeal!) and is very proud of his heritage.

    Kris — I had no idea you're a native New Yorker! When are you coming back to NYC???

  6. I can't help wondering if the "Jungle Red" title of this blog is a tip of the hat to the wonderful 1930's movie(not the horrid remake)THE WOMEN. If so, kudos to you. That's one of my favorite movies. Love the classics.

    Great post, ladies. Thank you so much Rhys & Susan for putting it together. I really enjoyed reading Mr. Churchill's Secretary and am looking forward to reading her next work.

    Here's hoping!
    C xx

  7. Susan, I hadn't even finished reading this interview when I tweeted you in excitement over the fact that your husband was Bear! I'm not sure who was the bigger fan, me or my daughter. :)

    This was a great interview. My dearest book buddy friend recommended MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY to me and I cannot WAIT to read it!

  8. Simplyblake — yes, my husband was Bear! And it was thanks to Bear's many trips to the UK that I was inspired to write Mr. Churchill's Secretary and was able to do research in London! I'll tell him you say hi! : )

  9. Cathleen, I'm fairly certain that the "Jungle Red" is indeed a nod to The Women... I think it says that somewhere on the blog? Fabulous title.... Although this grou of women is much more supportive of fellow women writers, I'm happy to say.....

  10. Welcome, Susan! Wonderful interview!I can't wait to read the book. It sounds right up my Anglophiliac alley.

    I'll have to try the Nars lipstick. Every time I find a favorite, they stop making it in true red.

    Beth, the reason so many people in America say "I'm Scottish, too" is that the English went a long way to depopulating Scotland with forced starvation and the Highland Clearances. Most of those came here, the rest went to Australia and NZ.

  11. Linda, do try the Nars, but also try Lipstick Queen's Red Sinner/Red Saint/Medieval for a lovely true red. And great comment about all the Scots in the U.S., etc. I have to add Canada, too (my Scottish relatives originally settled in Ontario before heading to the U.S.).

  12. Susan, thanks for the lipstick tips. Makes me feel like a real girl trading makeup secrets! LOL Lipstick is the only makeup I use, so I don't get to do that much.

    Yes, Canada also. many, many Scots went to Canada. At one time, I think there were more people born in Scotland outside of Scotland than in.

    Well, third try on the captcha here. They've used deliberately bad, blurry photos of house numbers today. Who knows? Maybe a real market for all those pics I took when the camera was new to me?

  13. Hey Susan! I already read Mr. Churchill's Secretary, of course, but would LOVE to get my hands on Princess Elizabeth's Spy. I enjoyed your comments on the telescoping effect you felt in the war rooms. I also admire all of the research that you put into the time period to paint that picture for us. But I'm most excited that you are married to the Bear in the Big Blue House. You see, that was one of my 11 yo's favorites, because we live in a house that looks almost like that. It's a big, blue Victorian. I'm attaching a link to a pic on Facebook if you don't believe me. Keep up the great work! ;-), Rebecca https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1490226221969&set=a.1490225941962.2067159.1423389007&type=3&theater

  14. Susan, I'm looking forward to reading your novel. I've toured the War Rooms and found them fascinating and humbling. I love that you've chosen to write about common citizens' experiences. I'm trying to remember if this is a poster or LIFE photograph, but somewhere in the back of my brain is a photo of a middle-aged woman in a flowered dress, picking up rubble around her home in London, and the caption is something like "Hilter's worst enemy." He never did factor in the resilience of the common person to pick up and carry on, did he?

    I have no witty comment except when I wear red lipstick, it's in homage to Robert Smith of The Cure, one in a long line of My Pretend Boyfriends. ;)

    Best of luck with the series. I am anxious to be a reader.

  15. Susan,
    You book sounds terrific. I love WWII period myself and am sorry I missed the Churchhill War Rooms when I was in London because I think I might have walked right past it.

  16. In a followup to yesterday, must come here and confess: Mr. Right came home yesterday and said M. had her baby, at home, it's a girl, and everyone's great. No other details, but hey--he hit the high notes.

    If only he knew where he put the red spatula ... .

    (And this book sounds terrific. My mother would love it -- and if I get it for her, I can borrow it back, because she always knows where everything is!)

  17. Ramona, aren't the War Rooms amazing?

    Jan, I think they were very easy to pass by without noticing before, but they recently redid the entrance and it's much more prominent now.

    And Leslie, glad to hear M. and the baby are doing well!

  18. Susan, my proper British mother would love your books. She holds Churchill in very high esteem. Even with her memory loss she can still quote from his speeches.

  19. The pressure to be witty is too much for me, so I won't even try! I do promise to look for your book,though. Novels about the two world wars fascinate me. Even before you showed up today, I made the decision to read your book.

    My dad was a history buff and had all of Churchill's books. I have them now, but have so little room for all of my books that te overflow is in my basement. I started reading Churchill's books decades ago but insignificant matters such as college finals interrupted my reading. I must get back to them! Sadly, I fear that mold and mildew may have set up residence with them.

  20. As a transplanted old broad of 86 years young , I go nowhere without my bright red lipstick! It would be like going without one's knickers, I recall nights during the war dwhen the siren would sound, and my familly's scramble f or the shelter. My sister crying " where's my lipstick" ? I am always reminded of those crazy moments, and can testify to the importance of ordinary people doing ordinary things, in the midst of fear that we might not have a home to return to. Churchill gave us hope...

  21. Darlene, thank you — please give me regards to your mother for me.

    Deb, NO PRESSURE! I'm just so happy people showed up. My nightmare was the internet's version of . I'm glad to hear your dad was a Churchill buff and that you still have the books. Maybe some fresh air and sunlight could help restore them?

    And Anonymous, thank you for commenting! I hope if I make it to your age, I'll still be wearing my red lipstick, too! Yes, some readers seemed surprised that my characters would still go to parties, lectures, and performances, but, really — talk to any Londoner who lived through the Blitz and they will say that life DID go on, and there were still parties and dances and fun. Carpe diem....

  22. I've just finished Mr. Churchill's Secretary--Well Done! It's jolly good!

    I've visited the War Rms on my two trips to London. I'm delighted they have preserved them so carefully.

    I think it was Pres. Truman who praised the Prime Minister as being crucial to the Allied victory--too bad folks didn't listen to him before 1939.

    Keep up the good work, Susan. I'm really looking forward to Princess
    Elizabeth's Spy.

  23. Susan, I love the story of your bunker trip. A few years ago I visited one with a member of the Danish Home Guard. This one was used by soldiers of Nazi Germany. I still have chills when I think of it.

    Searching for a witty comment here, I desperately go with... the Danish Home Guard officer who took us to the bunker was my step-granddaughter's former stepfather. It seems witty here in my space, but when I see it up there on the computer screen it gets a little blah.

    Let me try another, then. i have here on my desk, a little book by The Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., O.M., C.H., M.P., PAINTING AS A PASTIME. One of my little boys dug it out from the eaves of my mother's house. A few months later he came home from school crying. His second-grade teacher had asked if anyone had ever heard of Winston Churchill. She called on my son and he said that Winston Churchill was a painter, a great watercolorist. "She didn't believe me, Mummy. Now I have to bring the book to show-and-tell next week."

  24. Susan, I'm so glad to have read this interview because now I can look forward to reading all three of your books!

    Like you, I'm drawn to wartime Britain; perhaps it traces back to
    "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" when the Pevensey children being sent to the country during the Blitz? I've recently been watching "Foyle's War", which is marvelous for catching the essence of the period. Grief and courage, nobility and meanness of spirit, tenacity, compassion, hope and despair, all woven together in a landscape that is quintessentially British. Terrific show.

    @Reine: love the story of the little boy who knew Churchill only as a painter. In 2002, we were able to visit Chartwell, Churchill's home. It has been carefully preserved, almost as if he still lived there, and some of his paintings were displayed as well. Of course, our 7-year-old daughter, who knew nothing of Churchill, was more excited about the marmelade cat wandering the gardens!

  25. Reine, both stories are fantastic. And I feel so sorry for your little son! Winston Churchill would have been delighted to have been thought of as a "great watercolorist." I hope he did bring the book in!

    Lark, I too loved The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — looking forward to introducing my son to it this summer. And Foyle's War is terrific, also. Oh, and the marmalade cat at Chartwell is named Jock, named after Churchill's private secretary Jock Colville. There have been five generations of Jocks at Chartwell and the current one has a Facebook page, if you can believe!

  26. Ohn,this i SO fascinating!An I am touched to hear that he was aware he was brusque. This is a fantastic interview, and I am enchanted with your book, and the cover.

    Well, that's gushy. But it's well-deserved. And yes, Cathleen, "Jungle Red" is the nail polish color in The Women! I am off to find the Nars...I always wear red lipstick.

    So lovely to see you all here today!

  27. My captcha word was "bablepro." Now...I ask you...

  28. Susan he did bring the book back. We were so proud of him marching off, book in bag, to defend himself!

    Hank... bablepro! xo

  29. Susan Elia MacNealJune 12, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    Hank, yes, I believe he was self-aware af his brusqueness. Also at some point during the terrible summer of 1940, his wife, Clementine, wrote him a letter basically saying don't take out your anger on the poor staff.... So I think she also had a hand in his keeping perspective.

    Raine, so glad he brought the book in! HA!

  30. Lark, thank you... my little boy would have loved the marmalade cat!

  31. Truly enjoyed this interview! And Susan wears red in white and writes blue on white-an awesome USA Brooklynite.

  32. Susan Elia MacNealJune 12, 2012 at 10:06 PM

    Hey everybody, thanks for coming by — this was so fun! And thank you Rhys and Jungle Reds for the opportunity. This tired mom of a seven-year-old is going to bed now, but I'll be back tomorrow morning with my picks. Good night!

  33. So sorry I was late to this post--long working day. Thank you, Rhys, for introducing us to Susan, and Susan, for being here. And Anglophile to the core that I am, I absolutely cannot wait to read your book!! Fascinating time, fascinating premise!

  34. From what is said here it seems to be a really interesting book. What I wanted to ask, though: is it really a book about Good vs. Evil? For I personally doubt this was the sole feeling towards Germany back then. Most atrocities the Nazis did were not really known, but if they were in higher political circles, surely there must have been the knowledge, too, that the Germans were the first to suffer from the terror regime of the Nazis? I have read the autobiography of Hitler's last secretary who spent the last days of the regime in the F├╝hrerbunker in Berlin and they were fully aware what the war did to the people involved, not only to the Germans who suffered from bombardement. But of course that secretary was a young, malleable girl who adored the "F├╝hrer" and would have done all for him... But still she had some nagging doubts and I wonder if Maggie at some point has them, too?
    Greetings from Germany, Bibiana

  35. Susan Elia MacNealJune 13, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    Hi Deb sorry to have missed you!

    Bibiana, excellent question, thank you. I think the "evil" Rhys was referring to is the specific evil of the IRA agent and the undercover Nazi agent who combine forces in my novel. And even then I hope to show some shades of grey.

    At the moment, I'm finishing up His Majesty's Hope, the third book in the series, which takes place in Berlin. I have characters associated with the Kreisau Circle, as well as character Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Father Bernhard Lichtenberg — Germans who spoke up against Nazi atrocities. Yes, it's not always clear, indeed.

    Again, thank you for your comment!

  36. Susan Elia MacNealJune 13, 2012 at 7:49 AM

    Ok, picking people is hard!So I'm going to give away two of each!

    I'd like to give the copy of Mr. Churchill's Secretary to Ramona and Reine.

    And the ARC of Princess Elizabeth's Spy to Joan and Rebecca Lane.

    Please email me at susanelia@yahoo.com and I'll get your addresses, etc.!

    Thanks again for joining in. I'd love to keep talking with you — you can friend me on Facebook (Susan Elia MacNeal) or follow me on Twitter @SusanMacNeal. Please keep in touch!

  37. I read and loved Mr. Churchill's Secretary. I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

  38. I am so anxious to read your first book; visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago - a very meaningful experience, as first definitive memories are WWII.
    Watching the Churchill ceremonies following his death, I was in tears, even tho' "deep in the heart of Texas".

  39. Thank you, Susan. Very generous of you to do that - award two each category! xxx

  40. What Reine said. Very generous of you!

  41. Not a witty comment, for sure. I look forward to reading the book. WIthout Winston Churchill's courage and leadership, we'd not be free today. Thank you, Mr. Churchill.