Reading with... Susan Elia MacNeal

photo: Andrea Vaszko

Susan Elia MacNeal is the Barry Award-winning and Edgar, ITW Thriller, Dilys, Agatha, Macavity and Lefty Award-nominated author of the Maggie Hope mysteries, including Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, His Majesty's Hope, The Prime Minister's Secret Agent, Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante and the most recent, The Queen's Accomplice (Bantam Books, October 4, 2016). She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and child, and she's hard at work on the next Maggie Hope novel.

On your nightstand now:

Oh, it's such a pile! Galleys and bound manuscripts and finished books.... On the top, though, is the novel Muse by Jonathan Galassi. I worked in publishing at the Little Random imprint of Random House in the 1990s, watching (as an assistant) editorial greats such as Jason Epstein, Joe Fox, Robert Loomis and Kate Medina--and so I can't wait to read this inside look at that era of publishing.

Right now I'm writing a book called The Paris Spy, and so I also have a number of books about Paris during the Nazi Occupation on the nightstand: a galley of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War by Hal Vaughan and The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. A little dark for before-bedtime reading, but what can you do?

On a more lighthearted note, I'm also reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling along with my husband and 11-year-old son. We all play different roles as we read it aloud!

Favorite book when you were a child:

I loved, loved, loved The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. And everything by Madeleine L'Engle, starting with A Wrinkle in Time. Meg Murry, brilliant but underestimated, is definitely a literary inspiration for Maggie Hope.

Your top five authors:

In no particular order: Robertson Davies, J.R.R. Tolkien, Donna Tartt, Alice Hoffman, and Philip Pullman. If I had to find a common theme, it would be the never-ending fight of darkness versus light, a sense of hope in the face of cynicism, and joy in the beauty of the English language.

Book you've faked reading:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I read the beginning.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I've given away more copies than I can count, and if I'm in a bookstore with a friend who hasn't read it, I'll find a copy and press it into her hands with, "You've just GOT to read this!" (No, really. You've got to read it.)

Book you've bought for the cover:

Possession by A.S. Byatt. Yes, most of its gorgeousness is the painting, The Beguiling of Merlin by Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, but it's also the different fonts, the choice of that deep rich blue, and the accents of gold foil. Exquisite. And the cover is perfect for the book inside, a postmodern historical masterpiece.

Book you hid from your parents:

Honestly, I don't think they cared what I was reading. Let's see--Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, anything by Judith Krantz....

Book that changed your life:

Holding onto the Air by New York City Ballet ballerina and George Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell. It opened up the world of 20th-century dance and art and creativity to me in a way no other book has. I read it alongside Bernard Taper's excellent Balanchine biography, and Toni Bentley's delicate Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal.

Favorite line from a book:

So many Tolkien quotes to choose from, but my favorite, from The Fellowship of the Ring, is: "The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater."

Five books you'll never part with:

I have a particularly battered copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, that I read as a girl, and then used when I wrote my college thesis on the works of Alcott from a feminist perspective. It still has some of my notes in the margins! Jo March, what an inspiring heroine. She definitely had a huge influence on my being a writer--and is definitely a literary "godmother" to Maggie Hope.

Following Balanchine by the late dance critic Robert Garis. He was my professor at Wellesley College, and we were both obsessed with New York City Ballet and its world. He was a beloved mentor, and I treasure my signed copy.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is one of my all-time favorite books. I seem to turn to it as comfort reading whenever the world feels too much. It's eccentric and witty and wise. And it's the source of one of my favorite quotes about reading: "Still, looking through the old volumes was soothing, because thinking of the past made the present seem a little less real. And while I was searching, the Vicar got out biscuits and madeira. I never had madeira before, and it was lovely--the idea almost more than the taste, because it made me feel I was paying a morning call in an old novel."

I edited the late Judith Merkle Riley's books when I was at Viking/Penguin. I was able to work closely with Judith (on the telephone, there was no e-mail then!), and we became fast friends. Then, when I started writing, she was my mentor. I still miss her terribly, and to ameliorate that, I often reread The Oracle Glass. My battered and beloved first edition is next to the new reprint, now out from Sourcebooks. I'm so happy to know Judith's work is in print once again.

The Hobbit is a book I reread when I need courage. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Was there ever a more perfect first sentence?

Does it have to be only five? What about Jane Eyre, Things Fall Apart, Sophie's Choice, Great Expectations, The Color Purple, Persuasion, North and South, Jazz, The Great Gatsby, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Brideshead Revisited, Remains of the Day....

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt builds on all the promise of The Secret History and surpasses it. I stayed up all night to finish it. It was that good. And apparently the Pulitzer committee thought so, too.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold took my breath away. The language, the perspective, the characters (oh, Susie Salmon), the plot, the insights, the hard-won wisdom. I feel it's our generation's Our Town.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin is one of those big, ambitious, gorgeous books that makes you fall in love with reading all over again. It's about love and God and magic and myth, all set in Edwardian New York City and written in a way that's visceral. You are there, no question.

How do you pick a favorite Robertson Davies book? For me, perhaps A Mixture of Frailties, the third book of his Salterton trilogy. With every rereading, I uncover more of Davies's wit and wisdom and integrity--and feel his sheer joy in language and storytelling.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

As I said, I love rereading The Hobbit and the other books by J.R.R. Tolkien, but since I read it first when I was so young, I sometimes wonder what I would have thought coming at it as an adult? It doesn't matter, though. Each rereading (probably every few years) is like reading it for the first time.

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