Monday, March 09, 2015

Francine Mathews at The Poisoned Pen!

Saturday, February 28, I pulled into The Poisoned Pen's parking lot to find available spaces to be few and far between. In fact, I think I snagged the last one. When I walked into my favorite bookstore, I found that the joint was jumping. Charles Finch, the first of The Poisoned Pen's Writers in Residence, was conducting his final workshop in the back half of the store, and I quickly learned that all his classes had been filled to capacity. Yes! The rest of the store was filled with customers browsing and buying. I made my purchase quickly and sat down in the only empty chair in an attempt to read Finch's first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, but although I did manage a chapter or two, the temptation to people watch was just too great. 

My inquisitive nature was amply rewarded when a little boy and his mother walked in. Well, the woman walked in. Her son's gait more closely resembled a bounce. The little boy was in a dither to get back to the children's book section, but that part of the store was blocked off due to the workshop. Watching that impatient little boy dancing from one foot to another and peering through gaps between the rolling bookshelves almost made me laugh out loud. How absolutely wonderful to see a child so eager to get his hands on books!

Once the workshop concluded, the staff moved quickly to set up for the event that I had come to attend. In my humble opinion, Francine Mathews writes the best historical thrillers going (I loved Jack 1939), so I wasn't about to miss seeing her come to talk about her latest, Too Bad to Die-- especially when fellow author Jeffery Deaver was here to interview her! 

"Nothing will stop true writers from writing."

L to R: Francine Mathews, Jeffery Deaver, Barbara Peters

After a short introduction for the Livestream feed, Barbara Peters took a seat in the audience, and Jeffery Deaver got right down to the interview. "Nothing will stop true writers from writing," he said. Francine replied, "Writers are born, not made." Deaver then asked her when she knew she wanted to be a writer.

"I've always processed my life by writing about it." Mathews told us that ever since she was a child, she'd been a prolific letter writer and journaler, she wrote poetry and short stories, and she wrote articles for her school paper. "I was always terrified of fiction," she said. "My family taught me to consider it as art, and I was afraid to attempt to write fiction and fail-- and have one of my dreams gone forever." It wasn't until she was working in Washington, DC, and walked into her favorite bookstore in Bethesda one day that she looked around her and realized that "this is a business. It can be art, but it can also be entertainment at the highest level, and it can be sold."

The Inspiration for Too Bad to Die

Jeffery Deaver
Deaver then wanted to know what inspired Mathews to write Too Bad to Die, "a lovely conceit... that seamlessly blends fact and fiction."

"I was intrigued by Fleming while researching Jack 1939. I stumbled over Ian Fleming repeatedly. He planned every conference between Roosevelt and Churchill. Unlike the book, in real life Fleming had bronchitis and didn't go to Tehran for the conference between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill.

"The three leaders were in Tehran to plan D-Day, and Hitler couldn't pass up the opportunity to try to assassinate them."

Francine went into more detail about the top Nazi killer sent to assassinate these men. The man had a saber scar on his face, and this is when she told us that her son is a saber fencer at the international level. This certainly interested Deaver, who used to fence-- both saber and épée.

"I write books in order to do research," Francine admitted. "I learned about Pamela Churchill while I was writing Jack 1939, and here she is again in Too Bad to Die. When I find all these connections between people it almost begins to feel that World War II was this tiny coterie of people making decisions on both sides of the Atlantic-- and they all knew each other. Doing research in the Kennedy Library and finding things like letters signed in red lipstick gives you such an immediate sense of that person! I often find the seeds of my next book while researching another."

The Agency

Francine Mathews
Deaver wanted to know more about Mathews' career in the CIA ("to the extent that you don't have to call in a drone strike and take us all out"), and she was more than happy to oblige.

She was an analyst for the CIA, but she did spend a year in Operations with all the military training that implies. She formed some very strong friendships with other women in her training class, at first because the females were so outnumbered.  "That said, the CIA is the first government agency to have a daycare center," Francine said. "It's much more female-oriented than most people imagine."

"We were all at The Farm for training, a place that I came to think of as a wild game preserve for the male animal," Francine told us. "Some very decided differences between the sexes emerged during this time. Women wouldn't eat breakfast so they could dry their hair. Men would eat breakfast, but they wouldn't shave.

"When we were briefed about our training exercise out in the field and catching, field dressing, and eating rabbits was mentioned, all the females decided that we would be vegetarians and let the rabbit go. Let me tell you, one of the things I discovered about myself during that exercise is that I will do anything for food. For some people, lack of sleep is what breaks them. For me, it's lack of food!"

A Green Beret was monitoring them all from a Jeep. When he left the vehicle to go out and "shoot" one of the participants, Francine's best friend Barbara stole the Jeep, ate the lunch the Green Beret's wife had packed for him, drove to the pick-up spot, and ditched the Jeep. Barbara won the exercise because she'd done the best job of living off the land and taking advantage of the opportunities placed in her path. "That's when I knew I wasn't cut out for Ops!" Francine told us.

Austen. Jane Austen.

Jeffery Deaver then brought up the fact that Francine writes the Jane Austen mystery series using the name Stephanie Barron.

Francine Mathews
"Do you remember when I tried to talk you into writing the books from her sister Cassandra's point of view?" Barbara Peters asked.

"Yes," Francine replied, "but Cassandra is such... a... drip!"

"You were ahead of the curve on Jane Austen," Deaver said.

"Baby, I made the curve!" Francine admonished. "It began to feel as though I'd made some sort of Faustian deal and sold my soul to the devil because I was having fun writing about Jane, and that isn't allowed.

"I also feel responsible for the worldwide glut of Jane Austen literature. Now there's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Who knew?"

Jeffery Deaver was unaware of the last two books, and his puzzlement made us all laugh.

A Little of This & a Little of That

Deaver briefly brought up the dreaded outline. He uses extensive outlining when he writes a book.

"I do research first, and I'm not as masterful at outlining as you are, Jeffery," Francine said. "I outline the beginning of the book... the middle not so much, and the last 150 pages are much more tightly outlined."

Deaver then mentioned that he had visited the CIA himself and was rather stunned to find that they had a gift shop. When he went to the cash register to pay for his items, he noticed a sign that said, "If You Are Covert, Don't Use Your Real Name." Looking out at us, Jeffery added, "I was rather worried over the fact that someone felt they needed to be reminded," which brought on more laughter.

Alan Turing, a man who is more familiar to many of us now due to the film The Imitation Game, was our next subject because, as Deaver noted, he is a character in Too Bad to Die. He also added a fact that most of us did not know. Think of how many blogs use CAPTCHA to prove that you're a human being so you can leave a comment. Do you know what CAPTCHA stands for? Completely Automated Public TURING Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. Yes, it's named after Alan Turing because it uses one of his algorithms.

Available Now!
"Yes, Alan Turing is a character in the book, although he's only a person on the other end of the phone," Mathews said. "Turing told Ian Fleming that he and his group needed the pieces of German intelligence equipment-- the Enigma machine-- whenever the British conducted a raid. Fleming created a team specifically for that.

"Something I learned after I'd written the book-- it gave me chills-- was the fact that I gave Turing a stutter when I didn't know he stuttered!"

Charles Finch, who was sitting in the audience next to Barbara Peters asked Deaver and Mathews about their favorite movie Bond.

"I think it depends a great deal on the time in which you grew up," Francine replied. "Daniel Craig is good for now, but it's Sean Connery for me-- even though Ian Fleming didn't like Connery."

Jeffery thought for a moment and said, "I've never been a huge fan of the movies. I've always pictured Ian Fleming's choice for Bond: Hoagy Carmichael."

A fan in the audience asked Francine if, when writing about a person who actually lived, she stayed true to what she knew about the character or if the character took on a life of its own.

"It's really a combination of the two," Mathews said. "I first have to find an aspect of the character that I find emotionally or intellectually compelling. With regard to Ian Fleming, I found the character in the child." (She did an excellent job. The scenes depicting Fleming's childhood are among the strongest in the book and are what made me care for him as a character.)

The event began to draw to a close with some favorite author signing stories. Barbara Peters told us of witnessing a woman telling Diane Mott Davidson, "This picture on your book is so much prettier than you are!" You know how you laugh when you simply cannot believe someone said what they said? Well, imagine an entire room of people doing the same thing!

Francine had her own similar experience. At a signing, a woman was holding one of Francine's books, looking at the author photo, then looking at Francine. Photo. Francine. Then she looked at the author and Mathews said, "'This is a very flattering picture of you!' -- almost as if I was trying to pull something over on her!"

Jeffery had his own story to tell. He was in Connecticut doing a drive-by (going into a bookstore unannounced to sign copies of his books). "There was a stack of my books at the register, and I told the clerk, 'Hi, I'm Jeff Deaver. I see you have my books here. I'd like to sign them.' She said, 'Oh sure! Do you have some ID?' I picked up one of the books, turned it over to the author photo and held it up next to my face. She said, 'But you could be a double.' Now, we've learned that booksellers can do no wrong, but you can't let people get away with things all the time, so I asked her, 'So... author impersonation is a big problem up here?'"

The brilliant things I would miss by not going to author events at The Poisoned Pen!


  1. I do love the title of that book! And as ever, it's so nice to know you had a good visit to the PP, Cathy. I like the variety of different crime fiction authors they host (i.e. not just one sub-genre).

    1. The title of the book is even more meaningful when you learn its origin, Margot.

      Variety/diversity is something Barbara Peters believes in. She's never really wanted her bookstore to focus solely on one thing, which is why she has events for SciFi, women's fiction, and other genres as well.

  2. What a lovely event! I definitely want to read the Fleming book. And I think I had known that Francine Mathews was also Stephanie Barron, but I had forgotten it. As she talked about the women in the CIA, I kept seeing those Bletchley Park women on that TV show and thinking about the other women who actually worked there during WWII. Women have had much more of an impact that many people realize during war time. Thanks for being our eyes and ears at these events!

    1. I thought of the Bletchley Park women as well, Kay!

  3. Thanks for all your great reviews of mysteries. I have been making a list of your favorites in an attempt to find audio books that both my DH and I can listen to while in the car. We are coming to the Phoenix area, we leave this Wednesday. Hopefully, while visiting our son and family, I can entice them to visit The Poisoned Pen. It is a bit of a drive, but if we get to that part of the city I am going to try to stop in there.

    1. Safe travels, and I certainly hope you can visit The Poisoned Pen!

  4. Another fun evening at PP! I'm green with envy.
    Sounds like a lot of humor flew around the room with such quick-witted authors.
    Author impersonation! Great line.

    I, too, thought about the Bletchley women while reading your post, and I thought of a recent book out about some of those women. There were really 8,000 women who worked at Bletchley doing a wide variety of jobs, from the mundane to the brilliant.

    1. And to have done what they did only to go home, clean house, cook meals, and never be able to say what they did for the war effort. What incredible women!


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!