Julie McElwain was first on The Joys of Binge Reading back in in 2018 with her first book in the Kendra Donovan time travel series Murder in Time about an FBI agent who travels back to Regency England. . She’s back today with book # 5, Shadows In Time and a series that is going from strength to strength – now optioned for TV.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve got Julie here with us for Encore talking about her latest book, Shadows in Time, which is part of a time slip series. Welcome to the show, Julie.
Julie McElwain: Thank you very much. I really appreciate you inviting me.
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Jenny Wheeler: The last time we talked it was December 2018 and you had two books in the series out at that stage, I think, and working on the third. Now you’re on to number five and I believe number one has been sold to TV, so congratulations on that for starters.
Julie McElwain: Thank you.
Meeting Julie McElwain again
Jenny Wheeler: Tell us about the journey since we last talked. Number three you were working on, but now you’re up to number five.
Julie McElwain: Yes. It has been a wonderful adventure, I’ve got to say, not only creating the series but also having people all over the world reaching out to me and connecting with me about the series. It was so touching because I’ve had several people reach out and say that reading the series has helped them through the pandemic. That was unexpected and really nice to hear.
It’s not only the first book, all the books have been option by Hollywood now. Prior to Covid a Hollywood producer reached out to me. We had a beautiful lunch in Beverly Hills about this, and then Covid happened and everything screeched to a halt. I think it’s coming back on track. We’ve heard good things, so fingers crossed.
Murder in Time still a hot item
I was also very honored because Town and Country magazine recently selected A Murder in Time as its 35 best time travel books. That was an honor. Also I’ve got to say, I had people from New Zealand reach out and I’m going to credit you, because they said, you’re getting quite a fan base here. I credit you, Jenny, for giving me a fan base in New Zealand, so thank you.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s very sweet of you. We were quite new when we started, so that’s lovely. Your book is about a 21st century FBI detective, Kendra Donovan. She gets time slipped back to early 19th century London, not intentionally at all. She’s actually engaged in trying to handle her life in the 21st century when she suddenly finds herself shooted back into 19th century London. Tell us a little bit about the background for how that happens to her.
Julie McElwain: What happens in A Murder in Time is you see her in the 21st century. She’s involved in tracking this terrorist. She’s this brilliant FBI agent, and that mission goes seriously wrong. Half her team ends up killed, she herself is seriously injured. When she recovers, she finds out the mastermind behind it has actually been recruited by the CIA.
He is now a CIA asset and untouchable, and she can’t handle this. She wants justice, so she ends up going to England where he is located. She infiltrates a fancy ball where she has to pretend to be a ladies maid to get close to her target. What she doesn’t realize is that he has double-crossed other people now as a CIA operative, so there’s an assassin sent after him. The assassin gets him before Kendra can, and Kendra has to flee the assassin.
She goes back in time in a stairwell
She ends up running into the stairwell. That’s when things go seriously wrong, through no fault of her own. She stumbles out again and it takes her a little bit, but she starts realizing she is no longer in the 21st century, and because she is dressed as a ladies maid, they mistake her as a ladies maid, so she has to deal with her change of circumstance, which is very strange to her. When she is dealing with it is for me a fun moment, because she is so brilliant and talented and efficient in the 21st century. In the early 19th century she is not, and she’s demoted for the first time in her entire life, and she ends up as a below stairs maid.
During this time a young girl was found in the lake, murdered, and she, as an FBI agent knows that it’s the work of a serial killer. She has to convince people that there’s a serial killer. This is before anybody even knew about serial killers. She had to convince them that there’s a killer on the loose, and that she can find them. Basically, that’s the book. She’s trying to uncover this killer.
How can she get back home?
The series is, she wants to get home. She just doesn’t know how to get home. When it comes to all the books, she’s solving a murder in every book and she’s developing and growing as a person in that era. She does want to get home, but that’s not so easy.
Jenny Wheeler: She doesn’t really understand how she can get home, does she, because she doesn’t quite understand how she even got there in the first place.
Julie McElwain: Yes. To me, that’s one of the fun aspects of it. The duke who she gets to know, he’s what we would call back then a natural philosopher but now we’d call him a scientist. He is very enlightened. He’s very spiritual. He’s got a deep faith and Kendra just doesn’t. They both look at her circumstances there, and where he attributes it to maybe a higher power, she looks at it more as a science. To me, it’s interesting.
Jenny Wheeler: She is semi adopted by this duke, so she’s in a protected environment. He describes her as his ward or his goddaughter, doesn’t he?
Ambiguous status in a stratified society
Julie McElwain: Yes. He took her on as his ward because basically she’s this beautiful young woman and even though the castle is quite large, if she’s not a servant, they don’t know where to put her. Back then you had to have a place. In A Murder in Time he understands where she’s from, so being his ward seems the best way to handle this situation, because as a single lady, she can’t just hang out in the castle.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. And as a former FBI agent, of course, she’s got huge amounts of technology at her fingertips with which to solve crime, like being able to do fingertip printing and DNA testing. None of that is available to her in the 19th century, so she has to resort to old fashioned methods of sleuthing, doesn’t she, to get her results?
Julie McElwain: She does. She tries to be as innovative as she can be, but it’s a source of frustration to her that she doesn’t have all this technology that she had in the modern era. Also, when she sees how things are done. One of the things when I did my research, if a crime is committed, they sometimes opened up the house for looky-loos. People could come in and look at the body or where the bodies were.
It’s kind of fascinating, not having crime scenes, crime scene tape and everything, in procedure. She creates her own procedure which they don’t under really understand, that’s familiar to her. But she has to do everything the old fashioned way.
A cutting edge Duke is her guardian
Jenny Wheeler: One of the aspects of it that fascinated me was her guardian, the duke whose house she’s staying in, is very scientific and up with the cutting edge of science as understood in his time. But she’s very aware that she shouldn’t tell him about things that have been discovered since because she might change the whole path of history if she tells him about some of the discoveries that have been made in the late 19th century or early 20th century.
That’s quite fascinating. Tell us a bit about how deeply you went into that and what kinds of things you became aware of.
Julie McElwain: Oh, it’s so interesting. Honestly I did a lot of research into time travel itself – more than will ever end up in the books, because the time travel aspect is really a vehicle to get her to the early 19th century and to put her in this situation.
Once I was at a library doing a book signing and I was speaking and all this stuff, and I got into the time travel thing, all the research I’ve done, and I could see people’s eyes glaze over. So I’m like, okay, I’ll go back. Obviously, she thinks about it from her standpoint. She has a lot of knowledge on this subject, so she can think about it.
Various views of history – fixed or fluid?
Growing up I’ve seen a lot of time travel shows or twilight zones or whatever. We have the theories like the butterfly effect or the chaos theory, that you can change history. There are certain people who have the theory that the giant things in history are fixed and nobody can go back and change them. Then there are the people that think even a tiny butterfly wing can create a hurricane in another part of the world.
Kendra doesn’t know, and because she doesn’t know, she’s afraid. She doesn’t want to change history. In the beginning she doesn’t want to change history because she doesn’t want to get back to her own era and find everything changed. But now, even if she thinks she’s not going to get back, she does not want to be the one responsible because who knows what could happen. What dire thing could come from that?
She’s also careful because there are certain things she does know about that era. She doesn’t want to give the duke a heads up because he might try to save somebody or Alec might try to save somebody. She is in this position where she has to keep a lot to herself and sometimes it’s an uncomfortable position.
Kendra an outlier in contemporary life too
Jenny Wheeler: There are just a couple of people in her world she has confided in about the fact that she is from the 21st century. One is the duke and the other is the man who becomes her romantic interest, and that’s Alec. Tell us about that developing romance between Alec and Kendra when they’ve got such a huge golf between them in some ways.
Julie McElwain: It’s been fascinating because it’s taken me several books to realize how much they have in common. I didn’t really bring that out in the first book. To me there was a chemistry, attraction, whatever, but as I started to think about both of their histories, Kendra Donovan is an outlier in the modern area era as well.
Her parents were two brilliant scientists who believe in positive eugenics. They believe that if two brilliant scientists get together, their offspring are going to be brilliant. That’s what they did with Kendra. They had a path for Kendra. She had a destiny that they had in mind for her and she needed to follow that destiny. There was a lot of loneliness in her childhood, a lot of living up to standards.
Alec – her love interest – also a ‘misfit’
Alec is in the same boat because he’s in the upper classes of England of that time, and that was a very rigid class system. The duke had a family, a wife and daughter, but they perished quite early on. He loved them so much, and he was like, I’m not going to remarry, so the dukedom would have fallen on Alec’s shoulders. He knew that was his destiny. His destiny was to get married, to have more children, to take care of that legacy, to take care of the lands. He was not supposed to deviate from that as well.
His biological mother passed away. His father remarried, and then he passed away. The stepmom did not like Alec. She had a son she wanted to inherit everything, so there was a lot of resentment. I think he was an outlier. I look at these two individuals and I think it’s fascinating because they are separated by over 200 years and yet they have so much in common. On an emotional level they both had very lonely childhoods. They had so much expectation on them. I find it fascinating.
It’s also interesting because obviously Kendra is from the modern world. She’s an independent woman. Alec will accept so much, but he’s used to taking care of people, so sometimes that rubs each other the wrong way. She feels she doesn’t need somebody to take care of her, although back then she needs it more than she ever had. I like their relationship.
Kendra’s place in her own time
Jenny Wheeler: As we’ve mentioned, she is very independent even by 21st century standards, and she finds some of the restraints of the 19th century difficult to live with, but is there anything about the 19th century that she’s beginning to prefer to her own time?
Julie McElwain: This is so interesting because I honestly feel that in terms of the technology and everything around the 19th century, I think she would give it up in a heartbeat for the modern century. I mean, I would love to visit there, but no way would I want to live there. Women especially would be giving up so much and I don’t know if I could do that.
But this is what’s interesting. What makes a place a home? What makes a house? You can have a beautiful house with all the appliances, all the technology, this most beautiful house. But isn’t it the people in it that make it a home? Maybe a shack, if you had filled it with people you loved, might be something you prefer than the beautiful big house with all the technology. Would you give up the lack of technology?
A 21st century girl living in the 1800s
She wants the modern conveniences, but if you asked her to give it up because of the people – that’s what is changing her. I think it’s a wonderful change because in the modern era Kendra was abandoned. Her parents had rigid expectations of her. She was brilliant. She has a photographic memory. She got to Princeton when she was 14 years old, and she wanted to explore more things. She was an outlier there as well. She wanted to explore more things and her parents were like, no, you’re on the path we put you on, and they kind of abandoned her when she wanted to deviate from that path.
So she’s got abandonment issues. She was always very careful, especially in the 21st century. She didn’t need anybody. She can live her life completely with her work and only have her work. She could live and survive and that’s fine. I don’t think she looked at herself as lonely, but that was her life in the 21st century.
Being forced in the 19th century, she really did need people to survive. I mean, there were no matches back then. She can’t even light a candle. She needs people to survive, and that opened her up and made her more vulnerable. That’s why she opened up to a father figure she never had, which is the duke, and to a deep love interest she never allowed herself. Even to a friend. She never had many friendships, so I think we forced her.
Kendra’s story is a discovery tour
Jenny Wheeler: Have you got any sense of how this is all going to end?
Julie McElwain: I don’t. As long as the readers are out there and are interested in it, and as long as Kendra’s story still speaks to me. As a writer, you have these voices in your head and these characters who have these voices. Right now Kendra’s voice and all the characters, they are pretty strong. I feel like there’s still a lot to learn and develop and explore. The day when I feel there’s nothing else to be said, then that’s the day it should be done.
Jenny Wheeler: I seem to recall that the last time we talked, you were working in journalism in California. In fact, I think you were working around the TV area. Are you still doing that or have you become a full-time author?
Julie McElwain: One of the things Covid did was it shuttered our magazine. When that happened I guess it’s like the old saying – when one door closes another opens. It really made me think what I wanted to do. Do I get another job and still do these two jobs?
Moving back home from California
The books were doing well enough. California is a very expensive place to live, so I don’t know if they were doing well enough for me to live in California. But I am originally from North Dakota and my family’s still back here, and Covid – especially when you’re shut down and can’t see people – was very difficult. So I decided, this is the time. This is the opportunity. I decided to move back to my very small town and become a full-time author. That’s what I’ve been doing.
Jenny Wheeler: So you’ve gone back to your roots. That sounds rather nice.
Julie McElwain: Yes, it’s been fun. At first I thought, well, maybe it will be for a little bit and then I’ll go to a larger city in North Dakota. But I’ve been having such a blast, so I’m going to be sticking around.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, great. Tell us a little bit about how that lifestyle has changed. Are you in a country town? Do you have pets and things that you couldn’t have in the city? What substantially has changed in the way you live?
Julie McElwain: I’m in a very, very tiny town and it’s very rural, so even during Covid there was a lot more freedom to move around. Most of my family is here and they are in farming and construction. I help out and stuff like that, so there’s a lot of family oriented stuff that I’m very busy with. I just got on the library board of our small town, so I’ll be doing that.
A change of pace for Julie McElwain
I was in California for almost 30 years, and I loved it. I love my friends and a lot of things, but it’s like everything’s fresh and new now. The way I grew up, I remember it, but it’s all new to me now again, so it’s been very fun.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. Tell us a bit about your workload over the next 12 months. Is there another Kendra book in the works, and have you got any other series that you’re thinking about?
Julie McElwain: Yes, actually. I wrapped up book six for Kendra and it’s with my agent. The last nine months I worked on and I just finished a modern day mystery which has a kind of a connection to Kendra. In the last book I wrote with Kendra that’s with my agent, there is a missing diamond that comes up with the murder. There’s a famous diamond.
In the new book I have this disgraced lawyer who works for her father who is a PI. She’s a PI that was a disgraced lawyer. The diamond shows up in that book and then there’s a murder. What I like too is that they’re based in Washington DC, and there are some familiar characters that will pop up. One character that popped up in this particular book is Dean Cooper who came in at the very end of A Murder in Time.
Where the Kendra story is going
He’s the director of intelligence who was saying we’re going to get Kendra Donovan wherever she is, because they don’t know what happened to her. As far as they know, she killed the CIA asset and disappeared. So they’re after her. He pops up in this book. You don’t have to have read the In Time series to appreciate this book or the new mystery, but there are four people who have read that. There are kind of their lines. They will see where Kendra is mentioned and they’re looking at the same diamond.
I have a friend reading this now, before I send it to my agent, but now I’m plotting and researching my next Kendra Donovan mystery.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds really fun. I love that idea of now having a series back in Kendra’s own time where she figures there in the background a bit. You can see all sorts of ways that might end up coming in a complete circle. It’s a fantastic idea, Julie.
Julie McElwain: Thank you so much. It’s been fun.
Jenny Wheeler: We have come to the end of our time because this is a little bit shorter than the main episode we do. Thank you so much. It’s been fun to catch up, and we’ll continue to watch your work with interest. Maybe when that new one finally gets published, we’ll get together and talk about that one.
Julie McElwain: I would love that. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Jenny Wheeler: Okay, bye now.
Julie McElwain: Bye.
Next week on Binge Reading WWII Spies
Kate Parker’s World War II spy series began in the 1930s, but we’re now into 1940 and the Phony War is over. Can two British spies escape before Norway is overun by the Germans? Next week on Binge Reading.
Next month on Encore – Jillian Cantor
Next month on Encore: Jillian Cantor talking about her latest book, Beautiful Little Fools, a re-imagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s classic The Great Gatsby, told from the point of view of the female characters.