Stephanie Barron’s popular Jane Austen mysteries feature the famous novelist as a crime investigator and are so close to real life that Stephanie sometimes hears Jane’s voice in her head as she writes.
Hi there, I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler and today Stephanie talks about channelling Jane Austen, World War II espionage novels, and That Churchill Woman, her latest novel about Sir Winston Churchill’s controversial American mother.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How CIA experience helped with espionage novels
- JFK’s ‘secret’ Moscow mission revealed
- Why Pommie power brokers found Jennie hard to take
- Mourning the loss of bookshops and newspapers
- Having a double writer identity
- Being an opera composer in the time of The Beatles
Where to find Stephanie Barron and her alternative author name -Francine Mathews:
http://www.francinemathews.com/ (historical fiction like That Churchill Woman)
Stephaniebarron.com (Jane Austen mysteries)
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Before we get to Stephanie, we’re delighted to offer a Christmas Giveaway – a paper back copy of Stephanie’s recent Jane Austen mystery – Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Inhabit Jane Austen’s world and experience Christmas through her eyes as she solves yet another mystery.
ENTER THE DRAW and be in to win. Contest closes December 12, and we’ll do our best to get it delivered before Christmas – but no promises!.
Jenny: But now, here’s Stephanie. Hello there Stephanie and and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Stephanie: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Jenny. Thanks for being interested in my work.
How Stephanie got started
Jenny: Oh, I love your work, but tell me, and I’m sure your readers will want to know, was there a Once Upon A Time moment when you realized that you wanted to write fiction, and if so, what was the catalyst for it?
Stephanie: Well, I think like many writers I was born writing, or at least I personally believe that each of us has particular way of processing our experience. You know, I can’t draw. I’m pathetic at anything visually artistic. I can’t sing, I don’t play an instrument, but words have always been my “superpower” right there.
They’re my way of processing everything that happens to me, making it comprehensible and hopefully gleaning something from it that I can pass on to others. I firmly believe that we all use storytelling as a way to understand how to live and that’s why stories of every type are so critical for children and for how we relate to one another and simply get through what can be very difficult at times, just daily existence.
Writing ‘a leap of faith’
So, I was always a writer. I think many of us who write grow up just immersed in paper and I was no exception. But in terms of practically deciding to sit down and write my first novel, that took a leap of faith, and I think it’s because I was raised in a family that valued education.
I went to a university where literature – and I mean literature, was viewed as art, and so I had a lot of inner inhibitions about testing my ability to write, even though I was a very facile writer from Day One. It took walking into a mystery bookstore one day when I was 29, and looking around at the walls of shelves, floor to ceiling, and thinking to myself, you know, this is not simply art.
This is not a God-given talent that you either possess or do not. This is also business, and it can be pursued, perfected, launched, as a business. Writing can be entertainment. And so that made it comprehensible for me, Jenny. It was something I could get my hands around then and not feel that I was risking “art” that might forever be judged a failure. Once I got writing down to the level of entertainment that I could apprentice at and perfect and sell, suddenly I could write a book.
Inspired by women writers
Jenny: That’s fantastic. I don’t know if your experience was similar to mine in that also in those days, most of the ‘literary gods’ were men and there was a particular type of male writer who didn’t really value women very much. There was quite a subtext there. Well, more than a subtext. That women weren’t really truly creative spirits in the way that men were.
Stephanie: Yes, I think that’s absolutely valid. And I would note that my epiphany about mystery fiction coincided with phenomenal success for certain female mystery authors.
People like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, were simultaneous with my decision to attempt to write a mystery novel. Now, granted, I didn’t simply pursue that genre because of those women, but they certainly gave me an example of people who weren’t afraid to attempt careers in writing, and that was valuable to me.
I pursued mystery writing specifically because it was a genre I had grown up reading and loved and turned to for comfort as a reader. And I felt that if I were going to make an effort to write, – to begin, middle and end a manuscript that it ought to be as a trial, in a genre that I actually love to read.
Write what you want to learn about
And that’s advice I always give to aspiring writers, to not ever write what you know, because that’s boring. Write what you want to learn about. But also, start writing in a genre you love to read, because you will have half-consciously imbibed and internalized a lot of the structural parameters of that genre that you can then access as you attempt to write your own version of a book.
Jenny: So, you started on your Jane Austen mystery series? You do write general historical fiction as well, and we’ll get onto some of that very quickly. But was the first Jane Austen the first book that you actually published?
Stephanie: No. I write under two names. I write as Francine Mathews and Stephanie Barron. Under both names I’ve written 28 novels over the past 26 years. So my very first novel as Francine Mathews, which is, I should say, my first name and my married name, while Stephanie Barron, is my middle and maiden name. That’s how it works. I published my first novel as Francine Mathews, and then started writing the Jane Austen mysteries about two years later.
The first Jane Austen, which is Jane and the Unpleasantness At Scargrave Manor, I wrote as my third novel. However, a different editor and publishing house bought that book than had published my Francine Mathews mysteries. And they refused to cross publicize. I was told I had to publish the Jane Austen mystery as a different person than Francine Mathews, which is why I now have two names.
Jane Austen popularity grows
Ironically, all of my books are now under one house, but at the time, they were not.
Jenny: And I saw mentioned online that it seemed that Jane Austen as a popular identity was being re-discovered – and that there was a certain serendipity for you in that. It was the late nineties, and your Jane Austen series came out at the time that she was being re-discovered, but you didn’t quite plan that. How did that all come about?
Stephanie: You know, I was pregnant when I wrote my first Jane Austen mystery, and I firmly believe that pregnancy is a hallucinatory state. I had been reading Jane, as I do every year, usually in autumn because there’s something very autumnal I find about her prose.
It’s laced often with regret and the desire for second chances and introspection. And I find that well-suited to winter weather. I found, as I often do when I reading Jane, that her voice is in my head, and I really wanted to be able to use that voice, which is so replete with multiple meanings. She operates, particularly in her dialogue, on multiple levels at once. And we live in an era of soundbites, which convey very little. So I thought, wow, if I could tap into the richness of that language, but use it in a way that the reader enjoys, rather than feeling is somehow inaccessible, which I do hear from people who are first reading Austen – would it be a wonderful merging of genres?
I sat down and I thought, well, I don’t want to use her characters, because I think like every reader, I’m very attached to my conception of Jane Austen’s characters. I mean, I have an internal vision of who Lizzie Bennett is, or Anne Elliot, that I didn’t want violated and I didn’t want to violate for other people.
Launched just at the right time
Jane Austen herself is far more opaque than her characters. People know less about her. And I had happened to major in college and European history, particularly the period that is the Regency in England and Napoleonic France, which was Jane Austen’s period. So I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to use her language, use her letters, use her life as the framework for a series of mystery novels.
Position different books in different places she lived, incorporate the characters she knew in her own life and the politics of the day. So that was my conception. It happened that I was pregnant in 1994, with my first son who’s now 25. And it was the year that they were filming the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice for the BBC.
And they were also filming Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root’s Persuasion, not to mention Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. And they were all coming out at the same point, and this was happening entirely unbeknownst to me because recollect.
This was the pre-social network digital era and that kind of information about productions and pop culture was disseminated a lot more slowly. It happened that my book and those productions emerged at the same roughly period or within the same 18 months, I would say. And that was quite nice for me, but unexpected.
Jenny: Fantastic. Yes. What sort of reaction did you get from Jane Austen fans? Did you get a few who turned up their noses and said, this isn’t “real lit. “
Meeting the ‘Janeites’
Stephanie: Yes. But they tended to be people who had not yet read the book or were British. I will say that people in Britain tend to disparage Americans meddling with their sacred cows, and Jane is very much a sacred cow in England.
But certainly in this country, I was welcomed with open arms by most ‘Janeites.’ That’s what we call – and I’m sure you do too – fans of Jane Austen, and I am a member of the Jane Austen society of North America, and I have frequently spoken at their annual general meetings. I was actually tapped as a traveling lecture on Austen for the Jane Austen society, North America.
It’s been a lovely community, that I think has embraced the Austen murder mysteries, simply because I try very hard to be authentic to the language of Austen’s letters in particular, which are in the first person, of course, and in a much more intimate voice than her novels, which were heavily edited. I have that absolute hallmark of her era, of the passive voice construction.
Exploiting gaps in the record
I’m forgetting the actual technical term, but it’s dialogue that is related rather than actually heard. It’s been fun to mimic a lot of those techniques in Austen’s writing and try to reproduce them in an authentic way.
Jenny: I think you’ve done the most amazing amount of research into her letters and journals. You can see it in the books. Do you feel you almost know her life more closely than your own?
Stephanie: Certain things about her life I feel very intimately grounded and yes, but the tricky thing with Jane is that there are so many gaps in the known record of her life, which can be a double edged sword.
I have enjoyed exploiting gaps in her correspondence, for example which exist for multiple reasons, but the two most obvious are that her sister, Cassandra, to whom she most frequently wrote, apparently destroyed parts of letters or entire letters in the known record of Austen’s life, out of a sense of, I guess kindness or excessive propriety, a desire to protect people that Jane might’ve spoken of in her letters, from knowing what she thought of them.
One way to censor letters
She cut with her little embroidery scissors passages out of letters or she destroyed letters entirely. So those are missing. But also because Cassandra was the person to whom Jane wrote most often, if they were together, there were no letters. So for periods, sometimes of up to a year, there are no letters extant that describe Austen’s life.
And so those gaps are fun for me because I can fill them with fiction and postulate about what might’ve happened. I can create adventures for Jane that there’s no record of. However, I have also written a number of books, and I should say that I’m at work on the 14th of the Jane Austen mysteries right now – but I have written a number of books that dovetail absolutely with the letters she wrote from a specific place.
And that I’ve incorporated details into the novels. So she’ll mention that there was moonlight one night, which meant they were able to go out, for example, because most people only traveled on nights or had social engagements on nights when there was at least a half a moon or a full moon so that you could navigate dark roads in safety.
Jane’s letters ‘wonderful source’
Or she’ll mention having attended a party and whom she saw there, with whom she played cards, with whom she danced. She’ll mention who was ill in the neighborhood that day, or she’ll mention what she wore. Scads of things that Jane Austen referenced in the way that we in texting now or constantly relating to people what we’re doing on a moment by moment basis. She was doing it in her letters because people wrote so much more frequently and prolifically than we do now.
So they (Jane’s letters) are wonderful primers for the period and events of the day and what she was reading, whether it’s a newspaper or a novel, what she was wearing, and so it all that richness of detail, it does creep into the books. In some instances, I took one of her letters from Lyme Regis, for example, where she later would set key passages of Persuasion and I was able to use every single person she mentioned in the letter as a character in the novel.
Lyme Regis and Persuasion
One is the murderer and one is the victim, so it’s really been a wonderful sort of “found resource,” her letters and her characters and her novels, for anyone wanting to create an alternative world.
Jenny: Sounds wonderful. I think it’s Book 12, Jane, and the Twelve Days of Christmas which is topical right now for this time of year if people wanted a little touch of Jane Austen at Christmas. That setting with the Chute family at The Vine, I wondered, was it actually based on a real Christmas that she had in that place. Was that real or was that imagined?
Stephanie: It was imagined. Definitely. I don’t know that she ever would have spent Christmas with the Chutes, but they were close family friends of the Austen family. They had been very close neighbors when Jane was growing up. Her brother James, who was also a clergyman, like her father, and took over her father’s living in Steventon Hampshire, he used to hunt with the master of The Vine Hunt and The Vine was the home that belonged to the Chutes, and Mr Chute was the master of The Vine Hunt. So they were very interconnected. I felt it was a great family group and neighborhood in which to place the action of that novel.
Catering for the ‘Janeites’
Jenny: Right. You mentioned about being a guide for the North America, Jane Austen organisation. Does that mean that you take tours of interested people to Jane Austen sites?
Stephanie: No. It means that I am sent by the Austen society to various chapters within the Jane Austen society to speak to them on various topics, usually of the chapter’s choosing.
Jenny: Good. Oh, lovely. And the other question that I must ask is, is Lord Harold a real person or an invention?
Stephanie: Well, Harold Trowbridge, who figures in a number of the novels in the series, is not a real person. He is a fictional character, but he’s as an amalgam of several leading politicians of Jane Austen’s day.
Whig politicians, the Whigs being the more upper class, but progressive group of politicians in Regency England who coalesced around the Prince of Wales, later the Regent, rather than the Tories who were more adherents of King George, the Third and the King, or monarchic executive power.
Lord Harold – Jane’s political guide
So anyway, he figures as a progressive liberal. He’s also the second son of a Duke. He has inherent social power, but he is naturally a conniving sort of person who has multiple agendas operating at one time. And he is also engaged in espionage. I created him because I had been reading various volumes of letters written by Whig politicians, and using those as a resource.
Much of the intrigues of the day centered on the Wars with Napoleon, but also with the United States, and it provided rich material. I wanted a person who could connect Jane to that world. Although she had five brothers – well, she actually had six. One was in care and disabled, but she had five brothers who were in various aspects of public life in her era. She had two brothers who were Naval captains, one who was a banker, one who was a landed member of the Gentry. And the fifth was a clergyman.
That Churchill Woman
She had those male guides in an era that didn’t afford women a lot overt power into realms of Regency society that might otherwise have been closed to her. She didn’t have anyone in the government as a credible source. I felt that to place her squarely in the midst of the politics of the period, I needed a sidekick. And that became Lord Harold.
Jenny: Yes. he’s a great character. Look we could talk about Jane all day, but I do want to move on to talking about your historical fiction as well. Your most recent book is That Churchill Woman a fascinating book centered around Sir Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Churchill. What made you decide to take on this huge project about a fascinating woman?
Stephanie: Well, Jennie Jerome Churchill was an American woman, a very privileged daughter of a titan of the Gilded Age in America, the Gilded Age being roughly post-Civil War America, or the 1870s up through World War I, which would of course been the Edwardian period in England.
It was a period that saw unlicensed untrammeled capitalism in the United States, the growth of technologies as well. And the two taken together meant fortunes were made and lost on a titanic scale. Jennie grew up the child of privilege here in the US, she was a product of New York wealth.
Her father was a Wall St speculator and she grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, which is an area of New England that is known for its glorious homes that rival the mansions of royalty. And she also grew up in Paris right after the Prussian invasion of France in 1871. She had a really interesting and storied childhood, but she ended up going down in history for having given birth to Winston Churchill.
I just found it fascinating when I was researching Churchill for other books I’ve written, which are World War II espionage novels, that he revered his mother and credited her with so much influence in his upbringing, character, and destiny.
A woman way ahead of her time
And yet most biographers of Churchill dismiss her in ways that range from disparaging to truly contemptible. I think in the language they use to dismiss Jennie Jerome Churchill, has at its root in several things. Namely, a lot of Churchill’s biographers are both male and British and they really hate the fact that the cherished son of British destiny, Winston Churchill, the man who saved not only England, but arguably Europe from the Nazis, was in fact only half British.
It’s really hard for them to accept that that Churchill was half American, and being male, they tended to dismiss Jennie as an influence on Churchill, because she is someone that they regarded as frivolous, selfish and as a bad mother. As a profligate financially and ultimately as sexually licentious. She was someone who lived very much by her own rules. She was married to a man who may have been homosexual and certainly I think had syphilis.
So her marriage was unhappy and she refused to stop living because of it. She’s an interesting, complex and provocative figure that history has not necessarily agreed upon, but that I found to be a fascinating subject for exploration in a novel.
Until Clementine she was only one
Jenny: Yes. The book more or less finishes at the end of her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill. It does make reference to two subsequent marriages, but you get the feeling that Winston was really the focus of her life and in a way that he was the man in her life. Would you feel that was a fair thing to say?
Stephanie: Absolutely. Until the advent of Clementine in his life she was the only woman in his life as well. You know, arguably she had him when she was 20. Having a young -at-heart approach to life, she never seemed too much older than he did, once he reached his teens and twenties himself.
He used to refer to her more as the companion, or like a sister might’ve been, as opposed to the authority that a mother could have, could have exerted. I think they were great companions in arms. She was ferociously engaged in politics and loved campaigning, and she embarked on that. I had this wonderful moment where I did a variety of blog posts prior to the book’s publication. They’re called A Hundred Days of Jennie, and you can find those blogs on my website.
On the hustings in 1899
The posts centered on stuff that didn’t make it into the book. And for one of them, I was writing about Winston’s first campaign for Parliament, which occurred around 1899 when he was about 24, and I just happened to Google “Churchill Parliament 1899” and up comes a photograph, an image of him standing in his characteristic way, even though he was only 24, with his hands on his waist. And he’s standing on the hustings, the campaign platform, and someone is helping a woman up the stairs to join him on the platform.
And I looked at it and it was so clearly Jennie, but she’s not listed in the picture caption because she was just a woman. Right? She was the only woman in a sea of working class men, because only men could vote in 1899 in Manchester and this was taken in a part of the town that is clearly not genteel.
Beloved by the voters
And of course, voting campaigns were characterized by a massive vote buying through offering alcohol to the voters, and so it would have been a very rowdy crowd of working class men, and she was beloved by that constituency. She had always campaigned for Winston’s father, and similarly, often in the absence completely of Winston’s father, she was his campaigner.
So, it’s a great “in the trenches” image of the two of them that I really cherish and didn’t know to look for because it doesn’t list her on the photograph credit.
Jenny: You can see why a woman like that, the men of the time, particularly men in power, just wouldn’t know what to make of her.
Stephanie: Exactly. She was extremely articulate. Winston gets a lot of his verbal ability from her, I would say. There’s some suggestion she wrote her husband Randolph’s speeches. He was known as a fiery orator as well. She wrote her memoirs, and they’re highly creative memoirs because she leaves out certain key events and embroiders others.
Brilliant and multi-talented
When you see Winston as writer, which of course he was his entire lifem that’s very much Jennie. She was also a visual artist. She was known for the portraits she painted, and she passed on her love of painting to her son. And finally, she was a concert level pianist, who studied as a child with a disciple of Chopin’s.
She was a multitalented, a quite brilliant and complex person and people like that are formative with regard to everyone that they encounter, but certainly their children.
Jenny: Yes. you’ve mentioned your crime mystery trilogy. I think it’s the Nantucket trilogy, isn’t it?
Stephanie: There’s a variety of books. Jenny. There’s six novels set on Nantucket Island, which are murder mysteries. Yes. And actually, the sixth one is forthcoming, so there’s no reason you’d have known about that. It’s out in May.
World War II espionage novels
Jenny: And then, you’ve got a JFK one too. Is there a Europe series with one that features JFK?
Stephanie: Yes. I’m also a former intelligence analyst with the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, in the United States. And I’ve always had an enduring interest in espionage fiction. I have written six standalone novels that are spy novels, espionage novels and three of those are set during World War II.
That is a period that I love almost as much as the Regency, I would say. My father was a World War II veteran, and growing up in my family, we carried the knowledge of the war and a sense of its immediacy way beyond when most people would. I think it’s increasingly being viewed as ancient history because it’s the last century now.
But it’s very fresh in my sensibility, and it’s a period of time that I love to research. I’ve written three books set in that period, while the others are more contemporary spy novels. But those three are called The Alibi Club, which is about the last three weeks before the Germans marched into Paris in June, 1940, Too Bad to Die and then Jack 1939, which is very near and dear to my heart.
Jack Kennedy’s secret journey
It’s about Jack Kennedy when he was 21 years old and was about to go into a senior year at Harvard. He took off six months, the spring of his junior year and traveled alone from London to Moscow and everywhere in between, researching his senior thesis for Harvard, and that period of time is lost to history.
Most people don’t even know what he was doing when he was a junior in college and why should they? But I stumbled on the fact that he had done this and I thought, wow, what a great template for a novel, because we had no intelligence service in the United States in 1939 and FDR, (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) knew war was coming.
He was running for his third term of office, which was highly unusual, anyways, the only U S president that has served more than two terms. And he relied on people he knew. It was the six degrees of separation thing. He would employ friends on the ground, in different places to give him intelligence he couldn’t get through a formal apparatus.
And he certainly knew Jack Kennedy. Jack’s father Joseph Kennedy was the U S ambassador to Great Britain at the time. And he also knew most of Jack’s professors at Harvard. They were members of his Kitchen Cabinet, as it was called, informal advisors that Roosevelt relied on for expertise when he lacked it in his formal government.
Poor health a Presidential bond
So I connect a young guy who will eventually be a Democratic President of the United States with a mentor who is during World War II, a president of the United States, and I linked them deliberately by disability. Roosevelt was a president who served in a wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the waist down. But he was possibly the most formidable force in the executive office in the United States in the last 150 years.
And Jack was ill his whole life, which is something most people didn’t really understand. When he was running for office later or when he was young, but he would tell everyone he met, I’m going to die before I’m 30, and as a result, he had a very vivid compulsion to live every day. It made him a risk taker. It made his regrets few. And it pushed him to the edge of every experience, which makes for great character.
Jenny: Wonderful. I think I’ll have to get that to read next.
Mysteries and histories
Stephanie: I love it. It’s one I recommend to a lot of readers, particularly male readers, because the Austen books tend to draw mostly women readers. I do have people who read both my Mathews books and my Barron books, but I should say, Jack 1939 is a Francine Mathew’s book. It is one I can recommend universally, which is nice.
Jenny: Slightly confusingly Jenny Churchill has come out under Stephanie Barron when you’d half expect it would be a Francine Mathews
Stephanie: Because of the historical I put it out as Barron because it’s not an espionage novel and I thought would appeal more to women.
Jenny: Yes. I think you’re probably right there. It’s fascinating talking about the books, but let’s move on and just talk a little bit about your wider career. Is there one thing you’ve done, perhaps more than any other, that you’d credit to your success as a novelist?
An insider’s view of the CIA
Stephanie: Hmm. You know, when I was younger, I worked in college and then afterwards, professionally as a news reporter. This was between the time that I joined the CIA, where I spent four years and later began writing fiction. So I credit journalism with a lot of my success as a writer, simply because it taught me two things.
How to write under deadline pressure, which is really important. And secondly, how to write in the midst of distraction. I have been writing my whole life while raising children and also being engaged with the broader world. And when people run into a professional writer, they often say, how do you actually get anything done?
You know, how do you force yourself to sit down and write? Well it’s thanks to the training I had as a journalist. It answers that question for me. It accustoms you to sitting down in a crowded newsroom surrounded by other people who are on the phone or clacking away at their own stories, or talking, or arguing.
And you acquire the habit of simply focusing on your own bit of prose despite the world in chaos around you. And I think that that training is invaluable. It also, thirdly, I should add, conditioned me to be edited. And I rely heavily on the dialogue that I have with an editor. I trust my editors about the shape of the story, how it can be improved, where it goes wrong, and how best to polish it.
There are very few people I trust with that power over my work, but I find it invaluable. and without it, I would probably be less confident in the ultimate product I’m offering to the world. I do encounter writers who resent editing, and I think that that’s so shortsighted.
To me, it’s all in service to a better product. When you engage with an editor who’s qualified to comment on your work.
Jenny: Do you still use developmental editors even after all these books?
The book as a living entity
Stephanie: No, not at all. I never have. Now I had one editor in particular for 21 of my novels and I valued her enormously. She edited the Jennie Churchill book. She edited many of the Jane Austen novels. When I say someone you trust, it’s because you have spent years back and forth with them in a in a mental dialogue that is very hard to find just anywhere. I think that true editors are as much in love with the prose and the storytelling as you are as a writer.
For them the book is a living thing that you are raising between you. It’s your mutual child, and those people are worth their weight in gold. It’s wonderful.
Stephanie as reader
Jenny: Turning to Stephanie as reader, because this is The Joys Of Binge Reading and we’re starting to come to the end of our time together. You obviously do a huge amount of reading for your research. What do you read for your own pleasure?
Stephanie: I do read murder mysteries, I have to say. They tend to be, oddly enough, Golden Age mysteries. I cut my teeth growing up on Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, as well as Agatha Christie, of course. I do love those women and their writing. I also loved for years the Nelson’s Navy based novels of Patrick O’Brian. The Aubrey Maturin novels as they’re called, which recreate for me the life that Jane Austen sea captains must’ve known.
I obviously read Austen in excess. I also love her great-great-granddaughter Georgette Heyer who wrote wonderful 20th century novels that could be “Austenesque,” set in the Regency. As far as contemporary writers go, I love, Deborah Crombie who is a mystery author with the series set in England. I love Jane Harper who writes about Australia in the crime genre.
And I love a couple of spy novelists since we were talking about spy fiction, a man named Joe Kanon, who’s written extensively in the World War II period and post World War II.
And Robert Harris, who ranges all over the map in terms of his periods of history that he loves, but always manages to produce a suspenseful novel.
Doing it over again . . .
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, is there anything you’d change?
Stephanie: The advent of Amazon? No, that’s not helpful. I suppose in the 26 years I’ve been writing Jenny, that what I have observed most forcibly, is less about my own writing or progression than it has been about the changes in the publishing industry, which is what I was really touching on. I came out in a period when books were books and people read. They read newspapers and they read magazines as well. And all of them were vehicles for spreading information.
And increasingly that’s not the case. I feel like someone who was an opera composer at the period when the Beatles were starting. I mean, there’s just a sense of being less and less relevant to mainstream culture. And I say that even though my son, the 25-year-old one in this case, has said to me, ‘Mom, the world will always need content providers. And look at you. You’re a content provider.’
Never aspired to content provider
I have never aspired to be a content provider, but that appears to be what I am now. You have to come to terms with the changing value placed on your contribution to life. And there’s nothing I can do to change that. So that’s not really a helpful answer to your question I suppose. That’s just progress.
Jenny: I’m sure that he’s right in that sense of you’re a content provider, but it’s finding the way to get it into the right channels, isn’t it?
Stephanie: Yes, it is. And you know, I am not someone who disparages different formats. I personally read digitally all the time on my iPad. I love audio books and I listen to them – I happen to be an avid needle pointer. I listen to audio while I’m needle pointing because then I feel less guilty about doing either. It’s fine if I’m multitasking. I love formats that vary, and I think reaching people visually is hugely important.
I’ve always been an advocate for great visual entertainment, whether it’s streaming television or phenomenal movies. I don’t really have any argument with that. It’s more the diminishing number of outlets through which people access their information. Yes. It’s sometimes disturbing to me.
Mourning loss of newspapers
The loss of bookstores being a major one. Yes. And newspapers. I mourn the death of newspapers, perhaps because I was a print journalist.
Jenny: Yes. I fully understand where you’re coming from there, but what is next for Stephanie, the writer? What are you working on over the next 12 months?
Stephanie: At the moment, I am writing the 14th Jane Austen mystery, which is called Jane and The Year Without A Summer. It’s set in 1816, which is only a year before Jane Austen’s death. So I am running out of Jane. I am also writing the seventh Meredith Folger Nantucket mystery, which we didn’t really touch on, but that’s one of my mystery series that I keep going back to.
And finally I’m researching and preparing to work on a standalone novel. I’m not sure whether it’s a Mathews or a Barron novel, and it’s probably a World War II espionage book, and I won’t say any more about that right now.
Jenny: The Nantucket mysteries. Are they contemporary?
Island clash of cultures
Stephanie: They are contemporary. They feature a female police detective who is named Meredith Folger. She is a third-generation cop on Nantucket Island. And for some of your listeners who are less familiar with the United States, I would simply say that Nantucket is a very wealthy enclave off the coast of New England. It’s a charming, small village in its own right. It could be Miss Marple’s village of St Mary Mead. It’s 30 miles out at sea.
It’s the historical home of the American whaling industry, and, from the federal and colonial period of the United States, it’s an historical gem. But it’s also a venue for enormous wealth and celebrity. There’s a conflict between the people who make the Island home, the teachers, the firemen, the police, and those who fly in periodically with entire staffs to one of their six homes and enjoy the beauty of the place in a more parasitic way.
And I think that that clash of cultures always makes for conflict. And then, you know, conflict is where we get the potential for crime. So it’s been a fun place to set a mystery series,
Talking to Stephanie and Francine
Jenny: Didn’t the Kennedy’s holiday nearby?
Stephanie: The Kennedy’s are nearby on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. Some of the Kennedy descendant have found their way to Nantucket, but in the main, they’re still pretty fixed on Cape Cod in a town called Hyannisport.
Jenny: Yes. Okay. So moving into this new digital age, do you like to interact with your readers online, and if so, where can they find you?
Stephanie: Actually, that has been a godsend because, I’ll tell you the truth, Jenny, I’m a really lousy correspondent. If you write a letter to me, I tend to lose it. I take forever to answer it, and by the time I do, you’ve forgotten who I am. But I always answer any email I get. And I respond to comments. I am on Facebook.
I have a website, which is my name, both of my names. If you plug in either name. You can reach my website, which has, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of blog posts that offer background to the books I’ve written. And finally I am on Twitter, very politically, not much about anything else, which can be off putting to some people.
Instagram ‘the best’ network
And Instagram, which I love. I’m a huge fan of Instagram because it’s the nicest place. In the social network world, it’s all people who have beautiful pictures of their dogs, their food, their art, their book covers, their clothing.
It’s just a visual feast, without any nastiness that I’ve yet encountered. So that’s one of my comforting outlets that I like to post on and follow.
Jenny: That’s wonderful. We’ll have links in the show notes so that you’ll be easily able to connect through and follow up on those. Thank you so much for your time. I honestly feel I could talk to you all day, but obviously we can’t do that, but it’s been wonderful having the chance to just get a little insight into your world.
Stephanie: No, thank you, Jenny. I so appreciate you being interested and having this conversation with me. It was utterly delightful.
Jenny: Thank you so much.
Stephanie: Bye bye.
If you’ve enjoyed hearing about Stephanie’s Jane Austen mysteries and historical fiction maybe you’d also enjoy Renee Rosen’s novels of American life in the 50s and 60s, or Gill Paul’s dual time line stories highlighting the lives of famous women.
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