DA3 Interview & Giveaway: The MacGuffin
Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin,” using it as shorthand for whatever object put the characters (and the story) in motion. For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin mattered mainly because the characters cared about it enough to go after it–whether the audience precisely understood it was a secondary concern.
Today’s novels all feature a story centered around an object of desire. Are the objects true Hitchcockian MacGuffins? I ask the authors about that. But first, a little about the books:
In Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird, it is the story of the object rather than the object itself that provides the chase, one that crosses maps and centuries as a psychic antiquities dealer tries to discover the secrets of a Russian woodcarving. First sentence: He sent his mind in search of me that morning.
In Lauren Willig’s The Garden Intrigue, spy Augustus Whittlesby goes undercover as the worst poet ever, all in the name of finding Napoleon’s secret weapon, which may or may not be hidden at Josephine Bonaparte’s estate. First sentence: “A little to the left…. A little to the…No!”
The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen in Syrie James’s book doesn’t stay lost, which means readers get the treat of a story-within-a-story, experiencing Austen’s “first” novel along with a librarian and British aristocrat of the present day. First sentence: The minute I saw the letter, I knew it was hers.
The protagonist’s six word memoir:
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I freed myself by being myself.
SYRIE JAMES: Samantha’s story- Lost Austen novel changed my life! Rebecca’s story in “The Stanhopes,” the Austen novel within The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen– Life…and love…cannot be predicted!
LAUREN WILLIG: They seek him here, they seek him—oh, wait, that’s been used already. Um, how about: When Napoleon asks you to write a masque, you say yes.
The heroine is:
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: Nicola buys, sells, and authenticates Russian fine art for an exclusive private gallery in London, England.
SYRIE JAMES: Samantha McDonough is a Special Collections Librarian at a small private university in southern California. Rebecca Stanhope is a rector’s daughter in England circa 1801.
LAUREN WILLIG: Giddy widow/socialite in public, privately passionately interested in issues of drainage and engineering. (Hey, we all have to have a hobby.)
What readers will love about the hero:
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: Rob (who some readers may remember from his first appearance as the young Scottish boy with Second Sight in my novel The Shadowy Horses) is strong, comfortable in his own skin, and dependable, which sounds really boring, except with Rob, it…isn’t. And Edmund, in the 18th century sections of the story, is the good kind of bad boy, complete with scars, inside and out. Both of them, really, are easy to love.
SYRIE JAMES: Anthony Whitaker is a smart, handsome, hard-working, goodhearted Englishman who learns, through his admiration for the heroine, to love Jane Austen. The hero of The Stanhopes is an excellent man of outstanding moral character, who would do anything for the woman he adores.
LAUREN WILLIG: Doesn’t everyone love a poet in a puffy shirt? At least, until you read some of his poetry. Augustus Whittlesby puts the verb back in verbose. And the adverb. And lots and lots of adjectives.
The first kiss happens:
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: In an Edinburgh sidestreet, at night, in the rain.
SYRIE JAMES: 4) I can’t give that away! You’ll have to read the book and find out!
LAUREN WILLIG: Josephine Bonaparte’s country estate, Malmaison.
Tell readers about the object your characters are after. Was it a starting point for your story, or something that evolved as you wrote?
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: The Firebird is a small wooden carving, brought in to my heroine’s gallery by a woman who desperately needs the money from its sale, and needs to prove its origins. So in one sense, it’s the history of that carving that my characters are chasing. But in another sense, the “Firebird” they’re chasing is a person, too—the heroine of the past story, Anna, who once owned the carving. If they want to learn the carving’s past, they have to find and follow Anna’s path. Both Anna and the Firebird carving were there on the page at the beginning of the novel—they’re the seeds from which the story grew.
SYRIE JAMES: The lost Jane Austen manuscript that Samantha goes in search of was definitely the starting point of my story. Every Austen fan despairs that she only wrote six novels. I thought: what if there was a seventh, but somehow it went missing? Wouldn’t it be thrilling to find, and read? In “The Stanhopes,” Rebecca and her father are cast out of their home and livelihood when he is accused of misappropriating church funds. What happened to the money? That question haunts them on their journey and becomes the object of an important quest.
LAUREN WILLIG: It’s a bit tricky, since I can’t reveal the actual object without my major spoilers since my characters don’t know exactly what it is, either, until the very end. My hero, who has been undercover in Paris as an excruciatingly bad poet lo these many years, has had word that Napoleon has commissioned a top secret device to aid in his attempted naval invasion of England. In this case, the device definitely came first, since the device was one that Napoleon actually did commission, and it’s one of those incredibly cool, quirky, historical fun facts that I just couldn’t resist using in a book. And that’s where I’ll have to stop, since I don’t want to give too much away….
Besides being a literal thing, what thematic or symbolic importance does the object in your book have?
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: The Firebird is a familiar character in old Russian fairy tales. In every version of the tale, the hero sets off on a quest to find and catch the Firebird, and bring it back. But really, it’s the journey, and the unexpected lessons and rewards it brings, that always prove to be the greatest treasure, of more value than the bird itself. So in my book, the Firebird carving serves as a reminder of that fact—that, as Rob puts it: “What you bring back with you in the end might not be what you started out in search of to begin with.”
SYRIE JAMES: The missing Jane Austen manuscript is not only an important and exciting discovery for enthusiasts of literature, it is also a valuable commodity, which could make its owner extremely wealthy. In “The Stanhopes,” the discovery of the missing money is of crucial importance to the Stanhopes; it could rescue them from dire circumstances and return them to the life and home they loved.
LAUREN WILLIG: One of the things I loved about writing this particular device and scenario is that the hero, Mr. I Rely On No One But Myself Professional Spy, has no hope of getting near or understanding this thing without the heroine. Augustus initially writes Emma off as a flaky socialite, but it’s Emma’s connections to the Bonapartes that he needs to get an invitation to Malmaison, and, when he does finally get his hands on the plans, he can’t make heads or tails of them without Emma’s engineering know-how. So, in many ways, this device represents Augustus’s acknowledgment of interdependence. (It’s always fun humbling the hero, isn’t it?)
Do you consider the object of desire in your story a “MacGuffin”? Why or why not?
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I’m not sure it is, in the classic Hitchcockian sense of the word. A true MacGuffin can be swapped for another item without changing the plot—it doesn’t matter, for example, what’s in those bottles in the wine cellar in the movie Notorious; Hitchcock could have changed the uranium to gold dust without altering the story. But the Firebird, I think, has a significance within the book that would have made it difficult for me to swap it with another object. If it was any other item, even any other bird, the story wouldn’t be the same. So no, it’s not a real MacGuffin, in my view.
SYRIE JAMES: The missing manuscript is not really a MacGuffin in this story, since it is found relatively quickly; it is then the content of the manuscript, and its fate, that become the important and most pressing issues. In “The Stanhopes,” the missing money isn’t a MacGuffin either, because it’s not so much the money itself that’s important, but the truth behind its disappearance—upon which a main character’s profession and entire reputation depend.
LAUREN WILLIG: I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that a large part of the purpose of the Extra Secret Device was to throw Augustus in Emma’s path, but it also has significance in and of itself (see cool historical fun fact!, above). Among other things, Emma is an American who has close emotional ties to the Bonaparte family. She’s not automatically inclined to help an English spy. When it comes to deciding whether to help Augustus or hinder him, the nature of the device plays a large role. (Because it sure ain’t his poetry.)
In keeping with the theme, what’s the last thing you went hunting for?
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: A pencil with a point. They’re hard to find, sometimes, in my house.
SYRIE JAMES: I’ve been searching for several years for the perfect comforter set for my bedroom. My husband and I both love blue, but couldn’t find anything we really liked. I must have looked at 10,000 comforter sets in stores and online before I found the perfect one—and it was worth waiting for because it’s gorgeous!
LAUREN WILLIG: My work ethic. I keep misplacing it somewhere.
Your favorite book at age 10:
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: OK, so this will make me sound like a big geek, but that was the year my family went to Britain for the first time, and I was reading to prepare for it, and stumbled on an old used book I fell in love with: A Shorter History of Scotland to the Union of the Crowns, by P. Hume Brown. I read it over and over. It’s still on my shelves.
SYRIE JAMES: A tie between The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables.
LAUREN WILLIG: Gone With the Wind, hands down.
What’s coming up next from you?
SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I’m working on a new book, called A Desperate Fortune—a twin-stranded story with modern-day codebreakers, Jacobite ciphers, real history, a road trip from Paris to Rome, and a sharpshooting Highlander bodyguard. [NOTE: The Firebird has its U.S. release June 4.)
SYRIE JAMES: A new Jane Austen memoir, about her first young love. It’s the most amazing story; it’s never been told, and I’m having a great time writing it!
LAUREN WILLIG: My next book, The Ashford Affair, is a women’s fiction/historical fiction hybrid that rackets back and forth between 1999 New York, Edwardian England, Jazz Age London, and 1920s Kenya as a modern woman uncovers a long-held family secret that challenges everything she thought she knew about her family and herself. I call it my Downton Abbey meets Out of Africa book.
Many thanks to Syrie, Lauren, and Susanna for taking time out for this interview. If you’d like to be eligible to win one of today’s books, leave us a question or comment!
This made all three books sound really interesting. However, I’m a huge Susanna Kearsley fan so I really want The Firebird.
What a fantastic interview — I was cracking up! All three of these authors would be new to me so I definitely hope their senses of humour show up in their books. Speaking of — any recommendations with starting points for the three of them?
I agree, these three books sound fabulous. I’ve read all of Ms. Kearsley’s and it’s clear that I will really enjoy Ms. Willig’s and Ms. James’s. Thanks for the interviews. This format is perfect for letting us know what’s coming, but also for piquing our interest.
I’ve read Kearsley’s books — and loved them — before, but I think I have to check out Willig and James. Thanks for the terrific interview!
I’ve read The Garden Intrigue, and it rocked. I’d love to win The Firebird!!
I, too, have read and loved Ms. Kearsley’s books! I’m very much looking forward to The Firebird. I’ve been thinking about trying Ms. Willig’s books for a while, and The Garden Intrigue sounds perfect. Thanks for the interview and giveaway – I especially enjoyed reading the first lines of the three books!
All three books sound really interesting. I just finished A Winter Sea which was my favorite read for the year.
Great post! I loved reading the answers. I love Susanna Kearsley and The Firebird is on my wishlist! The one she’s working on now sounds awesome!
Thank you Winter Sea is one of my all time favorite books. I am so looking forward to Firebird.
Would love The Firebird but I will defintiely check out the other authors too. :)
Reading about the 3 different authors/novels I find them all different, but so well written. I can’t wait to pick up all 3 and read this summer.
I really enjoyed this method of interviewing. All of these books sound interesting. I am waiting on the Ashford Affair – looking forward to it!
I’m a big Susanna Kearsley fan and I can’t wait to read The Firebird, however I’d be thrilled to win any of the books because I love to read new (to me) authors!
I love Susanna Kearsley! I’m waiting impatiently for the release of The Firebird.
Wow; I liked Gone With the Wind, but I read it as a teenager. That’s a long book for a 10 year-old.
Going undercover as the worst poet ever might be the best thing to watch.
I love books by Susanna Kearsley — they are so easy to get lost in and totally forget what’s going on around you. :)
I’m a huge fan of both Lauren Willig and Susanna Kearsley. I’ve never read anything by Syrie James but that book sounds great!
I’ve read all of Susanna Kearsley’s books, and I’m a huge fan of her writing style. I am enthusiastically waiting for the Firebird. I have a feeling that I will love the one she is currently writing as I love Rome and Paris…….can’t wait. Until then I will definitely check out the other two authors. Thank you!
Great reads, I’m a fan of both Lauren Willig and Susanna Kearsley (currently reading Mariana), will have to check out Syrie James
I have read Garden Intrigue and just got Ashford Affair at the library today. I am a latecomer to Susanna Kearsley, but discovered her on this site! Maybe I’ll say the same about Syrie James.
Wow, what a great way to introduce these books. I’d love to read all of them!
I love this DA3 format — y’all always come up with the most interesting themes.
Like many other commenters, I’m a big fan of Ms Kearsley and Ms Willig.
But I am a HUGE fan of Hitchcock, and I’d disagree with the contention that it doesn’t “matter” what, exactly, the MacGuffin is. It might be interchangeable in terms of plot (the MacGuffin as the driver of external conflict), but a good MacGuffin will always encapsulate the themes, motives, and/or aesthetics of the work (the MacGuffin as the symbol of the central theme.)
Think of the realms of ink that have been spilled talking about the significance and resonance of the archtypical film MacGuffin, the Black Bird in the film THE MALTESE FALCON. Or even go back to one of the original legendary MacGuffins, the Holy Grail — although it makes no difference to the shape and outcome of the quest, the *meaning* changes completely as the Grail morphs from a magical wish-granting stone into the cup used by Jesus at the last supper.
I love Susanna Kearsley and can’t wait to read The Firebird!
Susanna’s books are always so great. Can’t wait to get my hands on The Firebird.
i did not know that about hitchcock. is there a book that you read? could i have the title please? thank you. patrice
Just heard that The Garden Intrigue won an RT book award! I’d love to read any of these books.
What a great combo of the three writers’ books. I’ve read one Kearsley book and know I am going to have to read all of her books. I’m looking forward to Firebird because of the Russian history and because Rob is my husband’s name :)
Lauren Willig’s books are so much fun and I’ve been needing an excuse to pick her books up again. I haven’t read The Garden Intrigue yet and am looking forward to checking out her next book The Ashford Affair.
I haven’t read Syrie James yet but I have two of her books on my shelf to-read. I
Thanks so much for the giveaway! I enjoyed reading the interviews.
Drat! Now I have to put more books on my goodreads list. All of the books sound lovely, but I would especially love Kearsley’s book.
Awesome!! The books sound really interesting. Going in the TBR pile.
I have read all three authors and your awesome ladies. Ms. Kearsley really looking forward to the Firebird!
I love Susanna Kearsley’s writing and have searched for some of her previously published novels for years – I was so happy when The Splendour Falls was re-released, I can’t wait to read The Firebird!
What a great interview! I would love to win The Firebird, but I think I would be happy to receive any of the 3. Will the copies be offered in ebook format (my preferred reading format, love my Nook)? I’ll be looking for these books, no matter what!
Great interview! I am looking forward to reading The Firebird and, now, the book Susanna is currently working on, too!
What an interesting theme for an interview. I learned something about literature, and got introduced to three authors I’ve never read. They all sound like great reads.
I enjoyed the interview. So ready to read Lauren’s new book.
I love Lauren’s work and I have finally read one of Ms. Kearsley’s and I feel a glom coming on.
They all sound fantastic! Thanks for sharing :)
@Lindsay: The Garden Intrigue is ninth in the series, and though I read the first book (Secret History of the Pink Carnation), I’ve skipped around since with no problem. I loved both The Rose Garden and The Shadowy Horses by Kearsley, and can recommend either as a good starting point.
What an amazing trifecta of writing talent! I want to read all 3 of these books!
@mbg1968: Thanks. I’m looking forward to Willig’s new direction, too!
@hapax: Argh! I’m having to rush through comments–thanks for the thoughtful input. I’ll come back when I can reply in kind. :)
@patrice m.: I think the first time I encountered the term was in the Hitchcock bio “The Dark Side of Genius” by…was it Donald Sobol? I’ll try to remember to post links to some interviews about it later.
Adding this link, Hitchcock’s explanation of the MacGuffin: http://www.alfred-hitchcock-films.net/MacGuffin.htm
Two of my favorite authors and a new one to me…great interview!
Interesting setup! All of these look great!
For me, Susanna Kearsley is the primo author of the decade. Her prose and storylines are perfection. She is historically mastered and blends the old and new with flawless style. The Winter Sea made me fall in love with the Jacobites and King James II. Thank you for introducing me to time travel, Scotland and Stuart history. I can say the same of her other works. They are my favorites and I keep the hard copies on my bed table to re-read over and over again.
All these books (and authors) sound really interesting! Thanks to Alison and the authors for the fun interview.
I don’t have anything deep and meaningful to contribute, just “Damn, I really want to read all three of these books!”
They all sound wonderful. Thanks for the heads up.
Love Susanna Kearsley……..patiently waiting for this next book :)
Thank you so much for featuring these three authors — I love both Susanna Kearsley’s and Lauren Willig’s books but have never tried Ms. James. My favorite Susanna Kearsley is The Shadowy Horses so I can’t wait to read Rob’s story. Have been reading Lauren Willig’s books since Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Would relish a chance to read any of these.
I “discovered” Susanna Kearsley through The Winter Sea, and have been drawn to her writings since then. It’s too bad only a few of her backlist are published here jn the US. I can’t wait to read Anna’ s story, and meet the grown up Robbie in the Firebird.
Love the interview questions. These books sound so interesting. I love anything that references Jane Austen..cliche I know.
I first “met” Susanna Kearsley in The Shadowy Horses and would love to read Rob’s story in The Firebird. I have been a Lauren fan ever since The Pink Carnation, and already have the Garden Intrigue (what a great book!) and while it’s true that you can jump around, I personally think it’s better to read them in order (can we say CDO – you know, OCD but in the proper order).
I have Susanna Kearsley’s books on my Kindle, but haven’t read them yet. I really should tho!
Syrie James is new to me, so thanks for the introduction!
I cannot wait to get my hands on The Firebird. I loved Rob (then Robbie) in The Shadowy Horses and I’ve always wanted to know what happened to Anna from The Winter Sea.
What do all three books have in common? Incredibly interesting stories by incredibly engaging authors. I’m adding all three books to my TBR pile.
And I’d like to add, there just aren’t enough books with foppish heroes. Damn you, Baroness Orczy!
I’m already a big fan of Susanna Kearsley so it’s The Firebird that I am really looking forward to.
I purchased a copy from Britain and so pleased I did so. If I win, I would pass it on to a friend.
All three of these books sounds extremely interesting! Thanks for the interviews. I really enjoyed reading them.
I’ve been meaning to pick a a Lauren Willig novel for some time now. The Garden Intrigue sounds fun and the hero hilarious. Anybody know if it’s a stand-alone?
I really enjoyed Mariana and The Winter Sea and have been meaning to get around to The Shadowy Horses on my Kindle, but I’ll probably end up reading The Firebird first because I find the psychic bit interesting.
Definitely lots of MacGuffin’s there!! Would love to read any of these books!
I love Lauren Willig, and the Garden Intrigue was one of my favorites by her. I haven’t read Susanna Kearsley yet, but her books are working their way up my TBR list!
All three of these books sound wonderful. I’m already a fan of Syrie James and Susanna Kearsley and have been planning to get their new books. Lauren Willig is now on my list of authors to start reading.
Lauren, my work ethic must be hiding with yours, buried under Susanna’s pencils. I’d look for it except now I’m busy reading A Shorter History of Scotland to the Union of the Crowns while waiting for Syrie’s new memoir of Jane Austen’s first young love. How did I get distracted??
Enjoyed reading this interview. Would like to check into reading these books. Always willing to read something different.
Thank you, Alison, for hosting this interview and giveaway. I love the theme! It was great fun to participate, and a real honor to appear here with two such brilliant authors as Susannah Kearsley and Lauren Willig, whose work I truly admire! All the best, Syrie James
I loved this interview, which had me in stitches more than once — particularly all three answers to “what did you last hunt for?” Alas for my already lengthy TBR list, I must now add all three of these books to it! I’m particularly appreciative of the introduction to Syrie James because she’s new to me; Susanna Kearsley and Lauren Willig I have come across before, and already planned to read some of their earlier titles. Thank you so much for the interview and the giveaway!
I really want to read Lauren’s book – love her books!
@Lark @ The Bookwyrm’s Hoard: Glad you enjoyed, Lark, thanks.
Syrie, it was wonderful to have you. Thanks for the interview.
@Ellen S: :D I understand. I rarely start a movie or continuous TV series if I haven’t seen the beginning, but for some reason, I enjoy jumping into the middle of a series with books. I admit, starting with the 26th Discworld book (Thief of Time) was a challenge, but it all made (Pratchett-style) sense by the end!
@Lea B: I think you’d really enjoy Syrie’s book–so many people have noted that the “The Stanhopes” (the lost manuscript of the title) has an authentic Austen voice and feel.
@hapax: I love Hitchcock, too. I get the concept that the audience cares about the trouble or danger the MacGuffin causes for the characters and not so much the MacGuffin itself. Still, the writer in me is skeptical when I hear that because it seems like a risky attitude to take, that the audience doesn’t have to care about a plot point. As you point out, a story is richer when the MacGuffin has the kind of resonance you describe in your examples.
@Amanda: Thanks, Amanda, and everyone for checking in. I’ll come back with a winner on Monday; you can leave a comment to enter until then.
What a fun interview! All 3 women had interesting comments and all the books sound amazing! On any given day, each of the books would keep me up long into the night. Alison, I’m sure the historical aspects of each one are going to be outstanding because you are such a researcher yourself. So, eenie, meenie, miney, moe…one of each? Actually any one of them would be great for my beach trip in a few weeks.
I’m going to Great Britain in three and 1/2 weeks. I want Susanna’s book so much before I go-or after;-), it would be perfect plane reading! Pretty please! First trip!
<3 Susanna Kearsley's writing, the only books I've ever found that top my favourite, Mary Stewart.
Love Susanna Kearsley but haven’t read anything from either of the other authors yet! They all sound wonderful! Looking forward to reading all three of these books!
I loved this format for the interview. Very clever and I learned a new term. I had no idea what a “MacGuffin” was so thanks for that. I already preordered Susanna Kearsley’s book in preparation for her visit to Houston. Yahoo! I can’t wait to meet her. The other books sound great. I’ll probably read both but I will start with “The Garden Intrigue” first since I have a soft spot for gardening. So if I win, send me that one please.
All of these books sound amazing but now that I know Robb from The Shadowy Horses is also in The Firebird I am even MORE excited to read it! Thanks to all the authors for the exciting and informative post!
I’m a huge fan of Susanna Kearsley’s work, and would LOVE to win her book, “The Firebird”!
All 3 books sound fabulous, winning any of them would be great reading.
I can’t wait to read them!!
I can’t wait to read The Firebird; the heroine and I have the same name! Thanks for the great interview with these authors; I look forward to reading each of these books!
Thank you for the Wonderful and informative interviews ~ I am a long-time lover of Susanna Kearsley’s books and I can’t wait to read The Firebird~ Looking forward to reading Lauren Willig and Syrie James as they are new authors to me and I can’t wait to read their books~ Cheers~ Elizabeth
Susanna Kearsley’s Firebird is my current MacGuffin. I am looking forward to reading it very much. I thought the interview was quite interesting.
I love both Susanna’s and Syrie’s books and would be thrilled to have them. I haven’t yet read anything by Lauren Willig but am game!
Lauren Willig and Susanna Kearsley are two of my favorite authors.. will have to check out Syrie James now.
I have read all of Kearsley, I will be checking out the other ones, too! Always looking for good reading! Thanks for the info.
Sign me up!
Lauren & Syrie are new to me but not for long, As for Susanna love her so much .
looking forward to Firebird release.
have a good one Ann/alba
Thanks for a fun and interesting interview! Looking forward to delving into some new stories and authors.
Great interview! Really enjoy hearing from authors I love to read!
Syrie James is a new author for me – LOVE Lauren and Susanna!
@Violet Bick: Violet is our winner this time! I’ve emailed you, Violet.
Thanks again to everyone for stopping by!
Syrie I think we are “kindred spirits.” I’ve loved Anne of Green Gables since I was about 10 too and The Secret Garden is my absolute favorite children’s book!