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The Sirens of Suspense




Francine Mathews, who also writes as Stephanie Barron, is the author of more than twenty novels, including (as Stephanie Barron) the Jane Austen Mysteries, the most recent of which was named one of the "9 Mysteries a Thinking Woman Should Read" by Oprah Winfrey, and (as Francine Mathews) several spy thrillers including JACK 1939. A graduate of Princeton and Stanford (history), she pursued a career in journalism before spending four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA, and presently lives and works in Colorado.

Find her on Facebook as Stephanie or Francine.

Francine Mathews: Spying the Past item1

The subjects of your mysteries are often famous people, including Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, most recently John F. Kennedy, among others. Were these people that had always intrigued you?

To be frank, my motives in choosing the subjects of my novels varies from book to book.  For example, when I began the Jane Austen series, I was looking for a way to employ her extraordinary diction and style, in a setting that would tap my knowledge of the late Georgian, Regency and Napoleonic periods.  Using Jane herself as the main character was just an added inspiration.  I focused on Queen Victoria in a book because of the hemophilia she passed genetically to most of the royal houses of Europe—and the curious political circumstances that compelled her birth; I didn’t love the woman herself.  In the case of JACK 1939, it was a photograph of Jack Kennedy at age twenty that stopped me dead.  I’d forgotten he was ever that young, or ever looked so free—and I wanted to know who that lost boy was.


You touched briefly on Coco Chanel in THE ALIBI CLUB, but I read that you'd like to write about her more in depth, and also that you've considered Edith Wharton. are either of those projects still on the horizon? What led you to these women over others?

Unfortunately, neither project is on the horizon.  There’s a great term we used to employ when I was an analyst at the CIA.  We’d say that a project had been OBE’d.  Which is spy-speak for “overtaken by events.”  Chanel and Wharton have been OBE’d. Which means other people have published perfectly good novels about them in the past year or two, and the market is probably saturated.  What intrigued me about Chanel was specific moments in her life—one, when she was quite young, and the wealthy Englishman who kept her as his mistress was killed in a car crash while traveling between his wife in the south of France and Coco in Paris.  She’s described as driving through the night to the exact spot on the highway where he died, and sitting pathetically in the dark, keening.  The other moment is when she was tried for treason after the war, having lived openly with a German intelligence agent for years at the Ritz.  She got off with only exile to Switzerland—where she lived with the same German, a man called Spatz, for nearly a decade.  I’m convinced she bargained her way out of that trial.  She had too much on too many important people in England and France.  I’d love to write about that...But I’ve been OBE’d.


Interestingly, the protagonists (based on real people) you've chosen have been female until Jack 1939. Of course, we all know he had a very strong woman in his life, Jackie, so I find it particularly interesting that you tackle him long before they've met.  In fact, your main female character in the book, Diana Playfair, is fictional. Was it a challenge to write a male protagonist? What (and who) went into the making of Diana?

I’ve written any number of male protagonists in the past who’ve been fictional, and I’m very comfortable in male minds.  The Alibi Club, in particular, has both fictional and actual male characters; I never regard gender when I’m conceiving a role in a story, only motivations and conflicts and needs that drive people to do what they do.  That said, Jack Kennedy had to be made my own boy before I could effectively use him.  As with Jane Austen, so many readers have personal conceptions of the actual life and work that they baulk at accepting mine.  A sort of fusion between what’s known and what’s imagined has to take place in my head and on paper before an actual person can effectively function as a fictional one.  I liken the process to the one an actress like Meryl Streep must undergo before she becomes Maggie Thatcher or Julia Child.  She’s not a mimic, doing her best Richard Nixon impression; she’s embodying an idea, a suggestion of the famous person, with her own gifts—and we become spellbound by the fusion of the two.  In the case of Jack Kennedy, I wanted to convey aspects of his character I thought many people may have missed: the impact of chronic illness and an awareness of his own mortality on his day-to-day life; and his highly analytic mind, fed by voracious reading.  He wasn’t a star in school because he was an inveterate rebel.  But he possessed a curiosity that was always seeking more information. Those two qualities—illness and intellect—gave me my take on the fictional character.

Diana was very loosely based on a female spy operating in London and Europe during WWII, codenamed Cynthia.  British Intelligence deployed her as a sexual siren against high-level German targets.  She was married to a Foreign Office man who was gay; she was his cover, he was hers.  I’m sure Jack Kennedy ran into “Cynthia” somewhere during his time in London.  It was fun to imagine and employ that possibility much more broadly in fiction.


Spies play a large roll in your books, obviously, you have some firsthand experience with this as a result of your work with the CIA. What made you decide to try your hand at fiction when you already had a career most novelists only dream of? Do you ever miss it?

Sometimes I miss the access to information.  More information came to my desk in an hour at the Agency than I could find on my own in a year.  But I wrote my first novel during my last year at the CIA simply because I wanted a different life—a more creative one, lived on my own terms.  Novel writing is a profoundly self-indulgent job; you’re paid to make things up, in the privacy of your own home, without having to wear stockings.  It’s a gift to be able to do it for twenty years, as I have.  But all writers are born, not made—I never really had any choice.  Intelligence work was a fascinating diversion, and it gave me a lot of useful material—paramilitary and tradecraft training, rappelling off a helicopter skid with an M16 strapped to my back, a knowledge of counterterrorism.  It was never going to be my career.


If you can tell us, what would you say (if you can tell us) are the most common errors in fiction (books or film) about spies (or the CIA)?

I’ve talked about this a bit before: I’m irked by how overwhelmingly male the fictional spy world is.  (Not to mention the ranks of espionage authors.)  During one period of my work at the CIA, my entire chain of command was female.  It was the first government agency to have a daycare center, because it’s populated by so many young mothers.  Friends used to breastfeed on their lunch hours.  This is never the picture of the spy world Hollywood portrays.  Consider Valerie Plame: a perfectly normal working mother with kids in school and a husband elsewhere in government.  None of her neighbors knew what she really did for a living.  I knew any number of Valerie Plames.

The other fictional cliché is the lone (male) operator who can never have a normal life or loving relationships because he’s seen too much horror.  Half the Agency is married to the other half, and bringing in their kids as summer interns during college.  It’s one huge extended family.  It’s possible to come in from the cold every weekend and coach your son’s soccer team.


I've read your Jane Austen series since the beginning. Unlike the other real people you've written about, you've devoted an entire series (eleven and counting) to her. What about Jane makes her so interesting to you?  

I suppose I’ve written so many books about Jane because I was interested in the way her life evolved, as a woman and a writer, in an era that accorded little room for either.  Many of her readers take comfort in what they believe to be her traditional and predictable world; and yet, she was something of a maverick.  She pursued her life despite the weight of convention.  There’s always a similarly wistful woman in each of her novels who dreams a better world than she has been given.  And usually, that character finds the life of her dreams, through sheer force of intelligence and endurance.  Jane’s my hero, for all those reasons.  And of course, her vicious wit.  She never becomes boring to me, and I constantly learn from her.  In that sense, she’s a character to grow old with.


What's coming next for you? Any upcoming appearances?

I globetrotted for much of the summer, and am happily NOT appearing much of anyplace but my sons’ school in the coming months.  As for the writing—I’m working on a book about Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, during WWII.  He was a brilliant deviser of deception operations in British Naval Intelligence.  I’m toying with a sequel to JACK.  I’m also researching a Stephanie Barron book about Waterloo.  The bicentennial of the battle (summer 2015) is coming up fast.



QUESTION FOR FRANCINE? COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW? Tell us your thoughts by using the Comments box further down on this page, or commenting on this blog entry on our Facebook page and be entered to win a signed, personalized copy of JACK 1939!



Writing ambience: I write in an office upstairs in my house.

To outline or not to outline: Numerous and constantly evolving outlines.

Reading now: Dominic Lieven's RUSSIA AGAINST NAPOLEON. Ian Fleming biographies. WILD, by Cheryl Strayed. THE DOUBLE GAME by Dan Fesperman.

Book she wishes he could read again for the first time: PRIDE & PREJUDICE.

Favorite sentence she’s written: I haven't writen it yet.

Book or eReader: Book. Both.

Cats or Dogs: Definitely dogs. I'm never without at least two sprawled on the sofa or the floor. Cats make me sneeze.

Favorite protagonist: Harriet Vane.

Favorite big or small screen detective: Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes.

Favorite Austen novel and TV or film adapatation: PERSUASION, actually, and it will always be the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds production

If she could have any profession other than writer: Interior designer. I love houses, fabric, furniture, paint. I have entire coffee table books on paint.

She’d like to travel to: Istanbul. I just finished Joe Kanon's ISTANBUL PASSAGE, which is as close to as perfect a spy novel as anyone could hope to write; and I'm longing to see the Bosporus.

Period in history where she’d time travel: The Regency. But I'd probably be a kitchen maid and never see anything but the back stairs.

Her biggest fear: Dying a bag lady. It comforts me that this is also Katie Couric's biggest fear.

Favorite independent bookstore:: I have several. The Tattered Cover here in Denver is irreplaceable. But so is The Poisoned Pen in Phoenix, where Barbara Peters is single-handedly saving writers every day, and Politics & Prose in Washington, DC.

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