I’d like to open a door to another history, an alternate history, where wonderful heroes we know and love go on even more fabulous adventures than they did in their real lives. Standing right on the other side of that door is Francine Mathews, whose WWII spy thriller TOO BAD TO DIE will be released this month.
It’s a pleasure to interview Mathews, a writer right at the other spectrum of political fiction than me: she writes historical thrillers and I write “right-the-hell-now” ones; she has written more than twenty books and I’ve written one. It’s a match made in heaven and I was a little giddy when I received the opportunity to conduct the interview.
For those of you who don’t know Mathews, she studied history at Princeton and Stanford, and then worked as an intelligence analyst at the CIA for four years. She’s written twenty-five novels under two names—the other being Stephanie Barron—most of them historical fiction dealing with real-life historical figures.
To start, would you tell our readers about TOO BAD TO DIE? What inspired the novel?
You know, when I wrote JACK 1939 a few years ago—about Jack Kennedy’s six-month odyssey through Europe when he was twenty-two and Hitler was embarking on his invasion of Poland—I kept running into Ian Fleming. He knew everybody Jack knew, on two different continents, and he had a finger in every one of World War II’s spies as assistant to the Chief of Naval Intelligence. I like to write about real people in unreal situations. When I realized Fleming had actually planned the Tehran Conference, which Hitler intended to explode by assassinating Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt—I thought, okay, that’s the next book!
The plot of TOO BAD TO DIE is incredibly complex. I wonder if it has a similar complexity to most of your novels? How much research do you put in?
Research is my dirty little secret. I write books in order to do the research. There’s a truism sold to writers that you ought to “write what you know.” I think that’s bullshit. It’s absurdly limiting and stultifying. Write what you want to know, and educate yourself in order to do it. I stumble over something I want to learn about and then I spend half a year attempting to understand it. And somewhere in the midst of it, I find a story that has to be told. If the story’s compelling enough, people will read it and ignore the fact that they’re learning something.
This book features Stalin, FDR, Churchill, Alan Turing, and a young Ian Fleming. How do you ensure that the historical figures in your novel are represented properly, with the right voice, motivations, and chutzpah?
That’s the million-dollar question. Under my other author name, Stephanie Barron, I’ve written about Jane Austen for two decades. I’ve written books about Virginia Woolf and Queen Victoria, and as Mathews, about Jim Thompson and Allen Dulles. All of them are leaps of historical faith. I love to inhabit a certain historical consciousness—a particular individual—and see the world through that person’s mind. Invariably, in my fictional worlds I write about people who have actually lived. And that carries with it an enormous responsibility. There’s no question that my Jack Kennedy, age 22 circa 1939, is a construct of research and my creative impulse. Is it Jack Kennedy, really? Is my Ian Fleming, age 35 and drinking Laphroaig in Cairo, anything but a construct of imagination and will? No. But I hope I convey something of the character that resonates with readers, and amplifies the importance of the historical events I’m portraying. Whenever I take on an icon—like Jack Kennedy, Queen Victoria, or Ian Fleming—I have to make them mine. That means I have to find a psychological aspect to their personas that speaks to me. For Jack, it was his childhood of illness, and the isolation that bred—which in turn made him a reader and highly vulnerable—that made him interesting to me. Those things made him a desperate character willing to risk everything. With Ian Fleming, it was the early loss of his father and the burden he carried to live up to a legendary hero that defined his life. Whatever isolates a person dictates the majority of his choices; and it’s those choices that are compelling to a writer. They create character. They dictate a life. We just transcribe.
You’ve written quite a number of books. Do you write full time? What’s your writing process?
I structured my early writing around my sons’ nap times. Within a few years, they entered school. Talk about a liberation! I had the hours from eight to three entirely at my disposal. My eldest son is now in college and my younger one is halfway through high school. I write from ten to two, every day, and do what all wives and mothers do with the rest of their lives—pick up dry cleaning, shop for food, cook, do laundry, and talk to school or sports administrators. I’ve managed to write twenty-five novels in twenty-two years because I sit down in my chair for at least four hours a day. It can be done on twenty hours a week, with discipline.
As well as an extensive backlist, do you have more books in the works that readers can look forward to in the near future?
I’m a Gemini, which means I live a dual life. Under two names, I write for two publishers. I’ve just turned in my thirteenth Jane Austen Mystery as Stephanie Barron—JANE AND THE WATERLOO MAP—and I’m embarking on a novel about Jennie Churchill. That’s Winston Churchill’s American mother, who took the world by storm for most of her life, despite being married to a (closeted) gay aristocrat with life-ending syphilis. It’s a story that’s never been told in fictional form. I’m excited about it.
You were a CIA analyst for four years. Can you tell us any juicy secrets that won’t land you and me in jail?
Moammar Quaddafi liked to wear nylons and dress as a woman in his spare time. Word, bro.
In five words, why should readers check out TOO BAD TO DIE?
It’s a damn good read.
Francine Mathews is the author of 25 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. The New Yorker called her previous spy thriller JACK 1939 “the most deliciously high-concept thriller imaginable.” As Stephanie Barron, she writes the Jane Austen Mystery Series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Denver, Colorado.
To learn more about Francine, please visit her website.