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Francine Mathews: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Francine Mathews is the author of many spy and mystery novels, including The Alibi Club and Death in a Cold Hard Light. As Stephanie Barron, she's also written the Jane Austen Mystery series. Her latest book, Jack 1939, was just published by Riverhead.

You've previously written, as Stephanie Barron, a series of books featuring Jane Austen as a private detective. In Jack 1939, you turn instead to a young John Kennedy. Do you recall what first gave you the idea of using Kennedy as your protagonist?

Oddly enough, it was a glimpse of a photograph from the summer of 1937, when Jack was twenty years old and traveling with his best friend through Europe. He was standing on a street in Germany—possibly Nuremberg, possibly Cologne—wearing mismatched clothes he clearly hadn't changed in days: baggy flannels, a T-shirt, a crumpled check jacket with sagging pockets. His hair was a mess, and he was thin as a rail, all cheekbones and chin, but his mouth was wide open in raucous laughter, and he was juggling for the camera. He looked like some crazed street busker—carefree, joyous, young. And I thought, My God, he was just a kid once. I wanted to know who that kid was.

When I realized he’d taken off half his junior year to travel alone through Europe just as Hitler was about to invade Poland, I had to use it.

What benefits do you see in deploying historical characters as fictional detectives/secret agents? On the flip side, are there disadvantages to this?

Most of my books are about people who actually lived—not just Jane Austen, but Allen Dulles and Virginia Woolf and Queen Victoria. As a writer, I'm caught by the "what if" moments in the known record. The gaps. The blank weeks in a well-documented life. For me, they're tantalizing opportunities. I can fill those gaps with fiction and create an alternative reality. As a guide, I've got a famous person who’s already intriguing—readers are willing to follow Jane Austen or Queen Victoria or Jack Kennedy anywhere they choose to go.

The drawback as a writer, of course, is that the historical record has its limits. Virginia Woolf went for a walk on March 28, 1941, and her body was found twenty days later. I suggest in The White Garden that she was alive for most of that time. But her body was pulled from the river in the end, and the fictional story was forced to address that.

Jack 1939 sees Kennedy traveling all over Europe during the spring and summer of 1939, which he was in fact doing. Do we know much about what he was really up to during those months? Can you tell us a bit about the research you did for this book?

Ostensibly, Jack was researching his senior thesis—interviewing key political figures and journalists and government officials in hotspots from London to Moscow and everywhere in between. He did some partying, too, particularly in England, where his father was the U.S. ambassador and his sister Kick was one of the most famous debutantes of the year.

He wrote letters while he traveled, which help to untangle his itinerary; many have been stolen or lost, but others survive in the Kennedy Library. (One of the most interesting files contains the comments of his thesis advisors on his opus—which was eventually published as Why England Slept. Bruce Hopper's are the most enthusiastic; later, he was to sign a letter to Jack with "Cheers, mon brave"—a detail I used.) Jack pops up, too, in the memoirs of contemporaries like diplomat George Kennan or Deborah "Debo" Mitford, who eventually became the Duchess of Devonshire.

Jack actually went everywhere I send him in the novel—Danzig and Prague and Val d'Isère. When I deviate from the known record, it's to cut episodes that don't mesh with the plot, like his trip to Jerusalem that spring or his drive with Byron "Whizzer" White through Bavaria.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during the research process for Jack 1939 (whether you included it in the book or not)?

Oh, my God—I was astounded to realize just how ill he really was. All his life. Chronic pain and nausea and weight loss and hives. The experimental steroids and the deteriorating spine. One of his biographers notes that he routinely told friends, "I won't see thirty." In every picture from the period he looks like a frail teenager—in one British paper he's misidentified as being seventeen years old—simply because he was as thin as a knife.

That knowledge shaped my sense of his character. He spent so much time alone and isolated in hospital beds, in an era without our electronic distractions, that he was forced from sheer boredom to read and write. He experienced profound loneliness. And he had a sense of mortality far more acute than other people his age. He masked all of these with incandescent charm and a wicked sense of humor. That's all most people saw.

On your website you call John McPhee your "personal god of craft." What did McPhee teach you about writing that's served you well over the course of your career?

John tried to impart three things that I've found lasting and invaluable: the discipline to examine each word I put on the page; the sense of a story's arc—where it ought to begin, peak, and end; and finally, the fundamental importance of research. He once discarded a piece I'd submitted as being written from passion rather than truth; and that alone was perhaps the most valuable lesson he taught me. Deliver a story—not a polemic.

What's your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?

I love the research. I invariably stumble over something that triggers an entire imaginative thread—and shapes the eventual book. The research happens in layers; first, the overarching content (Jack's life, Jack's year), and, at later stages, specific subjects (the location of the Polish Corridor; Enigma encoding rotors; the craft of British suit tailoring in 1939).

I dislike most the Middle, also called, in my world, The Slough of Despond. It's the mud-filled trench that sucks me in at about page 236 and does not release me until roughly page 342. The Middle is always the hardest part of the book to write; and I have triumphed if it is NOT the hardest part of the book to read.

Do you have a few favorite crime/espionage books (or authors) you'd like to share?

Tons. Daniel Silva. Robert Harris. Alan Furst. And, of course, the once and future John le Carré. I worked in intelligence for four years and am convinced that nobody captures the soul of the covert operator so completely as le Carré.

For Jack 1939, I specifically went in search of two novels: Prelude for War, by Leslie Charteris, and Above Suspicion, by Helen MacInnes. Both were published around this time. Charteris created the character of the Saint, and MacInnes was married to a British Secret Intelligence Service agent. I wanted to know what Jack's contemporaries were writing about Hitler's rise—how the coming war in Europe looked to spy novelists at the time—and what Jack might have read for entertainment. I already knew what he was reading for his Harvard advisers; the list is in his academic files.

What's your own library like? What sorts of books would we find there? How do you organize your books?

I do not live in a new house. This is a constant subject of discussion and even acrimony within the Mathews family. But the one great gift of our old house is its library: paneled in cherry, lined with shelves, blessed with a fireplace and a welcoming couch. I spend most of the winter holed up in mine. I don't write there—for that, I have an office—but it's where I spend endless hours reading. My books are arranged in a system only I understand. The research volumes that served as the basis for each book I have written are given individual shelves; other shelves are filled according to subject—gardening, metaphysics, philosophy, World War II, travel, history, Book Club fiction, mystery fiction ...

What books have you read recently that you particularly enjoyed?

I loved Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. I've just started Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale. Candice Millard's The River of Doubt changed how I think of Teddy Roosevelt forever. In a fit of nostalgia and spring fever, I reread Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April. It is something Jane Austen might have written had she lived a hundred years later—instantly transportive to another time.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

I'm currently researching a book about Ian Fleming, tentatively entitled Becoming James Bond. I've got part of a Stephanie Barron book about Edith Wharton down on paper. But I also have an outline and first chapter for something called Jack's Treason. So we'll see.

Thanks, Francine. We'll look forward to all of them!

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Books by Francine Mathews

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