By Dawn Ius
Twenty-two year old Jack Kennedy takes off the spring semester of his junior year at Harvard to research his senior thesis in Europe–as Hitler mobilizes to invade Poland. Chronically ill and the self-proclaimed black sheep of his family, Jack is recruited as an unexpected spy by President Franklin Roosevelt, who’s convinced the Nazis are buying the 1940 election.
Francine recently sat down for an interview with The Big Thrill:
I LOVE your website – it has such a great feel to it! In a time where social media is overtaking the world, how important is an author website? And when it looks as awesome as yours, how do you use it for self promotion?
I’m glad you like the site. Maddee James, the web designer who runs Xuni.com, specializes in author websites. She has been a good friend for twenty years, and I’ve watched her develop her presence in publishing with considerable awe. We spent a lot of time redesigning the entire look of www.francinemathews.com to reflect the time period of JACK 1939. In that sense, the site is an immediate visual ad for the book—but naturally it’s also a venue for posting events, offering reader contact, and showcasing my blog. I’m not sure how many people actually follow author blogs these days, but I invariably send my posts to Facebook, so I can double their potential readership. I suspect that Facebook author pages are gradually superseding author websites for reader contact, but the huge gift of the website is its space—Facebook is far more limiting. If a reader really wants to know more about me or my work, the website is the place.
How much time do you spend on blogging? What role does it play in self promotion?
I maintain two blogs—one as Francine Mathews, and the other under my pseudonym of Stephanie Barron; and to be honest, I’m something of a slacker. I don’t post every day. I wait until I think I have something interesting to say—whether it’s about Jane Austen (the Barron blog) or espionage and Jack Kennedy. I’m too absorbed in fiction to spare blogging much time. I probably spend no more than a few hours a week posting. I do think blogs play a role in self-promotion, however. At the moment I’m running a contest on mine for free advance copies of JACK 1939. I love the fact that I can instantly post my blog excerpts on Facebook, and double my exposure. And of course, it’s a great venue for reader contact. Responding to comments is almost more interesting than posting in the first place, because it’s a dialogue. Sometimes it’s a roundtable discussion.
Even after so many books, today’s marketplace demands that we spend time on self promotion. How do you divide your time? What tactics do you use?
I find self-promotion excruciating, frankly. I find selling books an ordeal. If I could, I would give them away on street corners and simply be thrilled that people were reading them. I rarely self-promote while writing, because the process of creating a book is too consuming for me. I focus on selling the work to the public once it’s written. I will always respond to requests for appearances, however, whether it’s at a fundraiser, a conference, or a local book group—so in that sense I don’t neglect my audience. But I’m the parent of two teenaged boys, for God’s sake! There’s a limit to how much one woman can do!!
I’m assuming you write full time – how do you divide up your day? Do you have a process for each book? Are you working on more than one at the same time?
I write most effectively between the hours of ten a.m. and two p.m. That said, I’ve been known to write for twelve hours straight if the house is empty and the Muse is available. I cannot leave a scene unfinished, so I write until I feel it’s complete. And I cannot work on multiple books at one time, despite the fact that I publish under two names.
I’ve developed a fairly uniform approach to constructing a novel over the past twenty years and twenty-two books. Initially, I’m seized by an idea—who knew that Marie Curie’s son-in-law had the plans for an atomic bomb as the Germans entered Paris in 1940? Who knew Jack Kennedy took off half his junior year and traveled alone through Europe as Hitler was preparing to invade Poland? I start researching that single moment in time, and the person it involves. The research unfolds in layers—first Jack, then the time period, then the locations, then the politics and surrounding personalities. Then I write an outline. Develop characters. I often use unique individuals from history—Queen Victoria, Virginia Woolf—and I set out consciously to make them distinct from the popular perception of them. I attempt, in other words, to make them my own.
I have to know the ending of a story before I begin. The ending, to me, is the point—so how could I write the book, otherwise? I usually know the opening as well. The initiating event. What I generally don’t pin down is the middle of the book. I let that happen—and call it the Creative Process.
What’s your must-have item when writing?
A dog snoring at my feet. Preferably two.
The CIA has to be the number one “cool job I wish I had” for so many people – and you were there! What did you love about it? And how has your experience there shaped your writing?
There is really no substitute in life for rapelling off a helicopter skid with an M16 strapped to your back. Or setting up a dead-drop on the Exorcist Stairs in Georgetown at midnight. What girl doesn’t love a thigh holster? I totally embraced my paramilitary and tradecraft training, because it was straight out of a novel, and I’m not—I’m the kid who never got her clothes dirty and was always picked last for the basketball team.
Some of the best and most dedicated minds in the US are collected at the CIA. I wanted to tell that side of the story in fiction. And I suppose my awareness of the central dilemma in espionage—you persuade good people to betray their country in order to protect your own—shaped my characters. At the heart of every good spy novel is a wrenching moral dilemma. LeCarre understands that, and so does everybody worth reading in the field. Espionage illuminates the human soul. The Damned and the Saved.
Did you want to write about spies and espionage BEFORE working for the CIA or did that come as a natural thing during your time there?
I’ve always been a reader of spy novels. I cut my teeth on George Smiley and Bond. But it took me ten years to actually write about my own experiences. The choreography of a thriller—spy novel or otherwise—is immensely demanding. It requires simultaneity of action, multiple POVs, a breakneck pace, a plausible crisis, compelling characters, terrifying villains. Detective novels are far more straightforward. I can write one of those in 8-10 weeks. A spy novel takes at least a year.
Tell me about this book – what compelled you to write it? What about the subject intrigued you? Is this your favourite book or among them?
The impulse for the book came when I stumbled over a photograph of Jack Kennedy in 1937. He was twenty years old, traveling with his best friend. Rail thin. His clothes look like they’ve been slept in for a week. Nothing matches. Everything’s filthy. His hair’s a mess. He’s squinting up at the sky with a shit-eating grin on his face. And he’s juggling oranges. He looks like a street busker, a carefree clown—like any college kid on a summer trip through Europe. But it’s 1937 and he’s in Nazi Germany. I glanced at the shot and thought, “Jesus. He was just a kid.” I’d completely forgotten he was even alive in 1937. I wanted to know who he was, then. When I learned he’d taken off the spring of his junior year at Harvard to research his senior thesis—I had to use it. Jack, in a car, in the summer of ’39—as Hitler’s rolling through Prague to take Poland? Perfect.
What approach do you take to research? How much time is spent on it? Is it a part of the process you love?
I research in multiple stages. I spend about two months educating myself on stuff I need to shape the story—a good knowledge of Jack’s childhood, a sense of his personality, enough of a feel for his relationship with his parents, his chronic patterns of illness, Roosevelt’s presidency as he prepared to run for a third term, domestic politics and isolationism, Harvard’s teaching structure in the Thirties, our pathetic lack of Intelligence, the floor plan of the ambassador’s residence in London—you get the idea. But once I’ve started writing, I’ll realize I know nothing about Danzig. Or Reinhard Heydrich’s office. Or the hotels foreigners might have frequented in 1939 Moscow. I’ve worked in the US embassies in Prague and Budapest myself, but I can’t quite remember their addresses…and so I find myself doing spot research as I go.
What’s next for you? Something in process?
I’ve got several projects in the works. One is tentatively titled Becoming James Bond, about Ian Fleming in World War II. Another is a sequel to JACK 1939, set in Washington after Pearl Harbor.
What have I not asked that you’re itching to tell?
I’m desolated by the death of Nora Ephron. I had a fantasy I’d meet her one day. Now I never will.
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out writing?
Concentrate on the words. Ignore the process of selling. The one is impossible without the other.
“From London to Rome, Berlin, Paris, Prague, and the French Alps, brainy, romantic, and intrepid Jack is shadowed by a serial killer, steered by Resistance operatives, and inflamed by an enigmatic beauty as his high-wire investigation imperils his family loyalty and his life. Jack is beguiling, and Mathews’ strobe-light, fact-infused drama of covert pre-WWII operations is riveting.”— Donna Seaman, BOOKLIST
“Young Jack Kennedy makes for a flawed but appealing protagonist, and the espionage plot is complex and thrilling in equal parts.” LIBRARY JOURNAL, starred review.
“Mathews (The Alibi Club) provides an intriguing look at pre-WWII politics, both in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a meticulous character study of the future president, who, overshadowed by his more promising older brother, is eager to prove his own worth.” –PW
“The pace relentless, Mathews describes a Europe fracturing under the most consequential intrigue of the twentieth century. At her story’s heart is a brash young John Kennedy, who is just learning his game. With JACK 1939, Mathews is definitely at the pinnacle of hers. Read this.” — Stephen White
“JACK 1939 is a triumph: an exciting thriller, an intriguing exploration of a troubled time, and an absorbing take on the early history of one of America’s most iconic figures. Highly recommended.” – Iain Pears
Francine Mathews is the author of 22 novels of mystery and suspense. A graduate of Princeton and Stanford, she spent four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA, where she briefly worked on the Counterterrorism Center’s investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Publishers Weekly named her previous book, THE ALIBI CLUB, one of the 15 best novels of 2006. As Stephanie Barron, Francine also writes the critically acclaimed Jane Austen Mystery Series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Denver, Colorado.
To learn more about Francine, please visit her website.