Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Q&A with Susan Elia MacNeal




Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the new novel Mother Daughter Traitor Spy. She also has written the Maggie Hope series. She lives in Brooklyn.


Q: You write that you based your characters Vi and Veronica Grace on the real-life mother-daughter spies Sylvia and Grace Comfort. What drew you to their story?


A: I’d read Steven J. Ross’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated nonfiction book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, to research my latest Maggie Hope novel, The Hollywood Spy, and I came across the real-life Grace and Sylvia Comfort, a mother and daughter who worked as spies in early 1940s.


I just couldn’t stop thinking about them and their story—why did they do it? How did they infiltrate? What was it like for civilian women to work as spies? How did they feel about it? How did it affect their lives? Since there’s little to be known about the Comforts besides the bare bones of their lives and their work, I really wanted to write the novel to imagine the rest.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: Everything in the novel is true—meaning factual and based on Hitler in Los Angeles or direct research with original documents in the libraries at California University at Northridge and University of Southern California, but certain events have been consolidated or moved around in the timeline for dramatic effect.


There’s very little to be known about the Comforts’ personal lives, so I felt free to create a bit there—while sticking to the known facts. I also love to include notes of the research and history at the end, so that readers can find out for themselves, what’s fact and what’s fiction.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: When I was trying to think of a title, I found myself saying, “Well, it’s about a mother and daughter” and then “traitor spy” flashed in my brain—obviously a riff on the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


I like that the title encapsulates the book—it’s about a mother and daughter who go undercover as traitors—American fascists—to spy. But I actually thought more about Carré’s Little Drummer Girl—about a young female spy who’s enmeshed in her double life—while I was writing.


Q: Do you see any parallels between America in 1940 and America today?


A: Yes, even to resurgence of the name “America First.” I remember hearing people saying, “Well, how did we get here?” and I wanted to show we were always here—that American fascism has been around and a danger to democracy since the 1930s.


Those pro-Nazi Americans never had their minds changed during World War II, they just went underground and waited until the time was once again right to try to take over—which is what’s happening now. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Happy to say I’m working on the new Maggie Hope novel, which will see Maggie go on a diplomatic mission to meet with designer Coco Chanel—and find all sorts of intrigue. It’s based on the nonfiction book by Hal Vaughn, Sleeping with the Enemy, about Coco Chanel’s actual work as a Nazi spy in 1943-44.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There’s some major construction happening on the façade of our condo building, which is loud and disruptive—so if anyone has a spare Tuscan villa or house in the Hamptons or cottage in Maine that’s just sitting empty, I’d gladly take in your mail and water your plants for a quiet place to write!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Elia MacNeal.

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