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INTERVIEW: Francine Mathews aka Stephanie Barron, A Matchless Storyteller and Researcher

Updated: Aug 30

Over a dozen years ago, when I was first obsessed with Jane Austen fanfiction, a friend sent me a few hardback copies of Stephanie Barron's "Being a Jane Austen Mystery" series. I regret that they sat on the nightstand for months...because I did not like the initial covers. But my dear MrB had no such prejudices and read them all, one after the other, raving about the gifted storyteller Stephanie Barron. I think it was somewhere around his reading of Book 4 that I picked up the first in the series, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.

Dark haired woman (me, Christina Boyd) holding a stack of Stephanie Barron novels. A short darkhaired white woman with glasses also holds the stack.
Christina Boyd waiting in line for Stephanie Barron to sign first nine novels in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery series at the 2010 Portland Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting.

And I was hooked. I inhaled the entire series to that point within a month and have since reviewed each new release at Amazon, Austenprose, and or Goodreads. When I finally met the incomparable author at the 2010 Portland Jane Austen Society of North America's Annual General Meeting, Stephanie Barron graciously signed my entire stack "to Mr B," her first fan in our household. The rest is history. Whether writing her detective mysteries as Francine Mathews or her historical fiction nom de plume, Stephanie Barron, I'm first in line to read.

CHRISTINA: How has the publishing industry changed since you started?

FRANCINE MATHEWS: I’ve published thirty novels over the past twenty-nine years, and the transformation of the industry since my first book appeared in 1994 is profound and complete. I liken it to the transformation of the television, film and music industries during the same period, and the principal driver of change is digital streaming. When creative content is instantly downloadable, everything about its production and consumption alters: the way it’s constructed and edited; the way it’s delivered; the way it’s selected by audiences and the way it’s both priced and paid for.

Death on Tucker Nuck by Francine Mathews book lying on a wood deck
Death on Tucker Nuck, #6 in the Merry Folger Mystery series

In the case of books, most of us consume them digitally on screens. We purchase them that way, too. As a writer, I compose and edit my novels almost entirely without printing them, and if a print edition weren’t part of the process, the book could be available within days of my editor approving the final draft. My first fifteen or so novels were composed in hard copy, redlined by my editor in hard copy, and the entire bulky package copyedited with sticky notes, the ballooning ream of paper mailed laboriously by the US Postal Service or Fedex back and forth between Denver and New York. That’s an inconceivable process now, and the concept of a “foul matter” manuscript being returned for an author’s archives is obsolete.

Needless to say, the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstores is commensurate with the change in production and consumption. We no longer browse for books in the same way, picking up one serendipitously because we’re intrigued by the display; we scan screens. That’s profoundly altered cover art: where once publishers commissioned actual art for cover images and photographed it in their design departments, now most covers use digital images and are primarily font-based, intended to appear effective in thumbnail-size on a screen. And finally, the perception of authors has changed—my son, for example, refers to me as a “content provider” rather than a writer. I think that correlates with an increasing perception of creative content as something that ought to be free and universally accessible, rather than intellectual property—an attitude I abhor.

CHRISTINA: Too true. I don't understand why creative work should be free. Makes no sense.

And... If the cover doesn't "read well," especially now as a thumbnail, it certainly won't get much notice by readers. By the way, That Churchill Woman book cover is a favorite of mine.

What is your favorite of your own novels?

FRANCINE MATHEWS: Jack 1939, a spy novel about 22-year-old Jack Kennedy based on the six months he spent traveling alone through Europe, researching his Harvard senior thesis, as Hitler was about to invade Poland; my latest Nantucket mystery, Death on a Winter Stroll; a book about Winston Churchill’s American mother, That Churchill Woman; and my entire Jane Austen mystery series. I can’t pick a favorite Jane.

CHRISTINA: I've read all your "Jane" books and loved. #7 is my favorite. Though it left me gutted. And I love That Churchill Woman. Love.

If you were to revise any of your books, which would you choose and why?

FRANCINE MATHEWS: I did, in fact, revise four of them—the first four novels in my mystery series set on Nantucket, which had gone out of print and were purchased for reissue by Soho Crime. Twenty years had fallen between the books and the next, fifth novel in the series Soho asked me to write. I agreed to continue the series only if I could rewrite the first four novels and bring them up to the present before embarking on book five. That was a labor of love and a fascinating exercise in the writer’s craft; we really do acquire greater expertise over time. I was appalled by the florid and prolix nature of my early work, by the weakness of my female characters, and by the obsolescence of many contemporary details. Revision is a skill that demands to be honed. I’m sure every one of my books would benefit from it, regardless of how accomplished I felt when I wrote them.

CHRISTINA: So far, what is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?

FRANCINE MATHEWS: Endurance. I’ll never be rich or famous, but I’ve been consistently published for thirty years, and that in itself is remarkable.

CHRISTINA: I think any one of your novels would translate well to film. Hollywood, can you hear me?

Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip? Where and what was the most memorable moment?

FRANCINE MATHEWS: I try never to write a book without visiting the setting during the research phase, because a familiarity with the terrain offers details impossible to conjure from the imagination alone. For example, while in Vietnam researching my espionage novel The Secret Agent, I was trapped in flooding for five days due to a typhoon and airlifted out by the Royal Thai Air Force in a C-130 transport plane. Witnessing the force and destruction of the storm, plus the utter lack of response from the Vietnamese government, was fascinating, as was strapping into the jump seats of the cargo plane—clearly a repurposed American one dating to the Vietnam war period. I could never have invented that episode, but once I’d lived it, I incorporated aspects into the resulting novel. Research travel is tax-deductible, so never pass up an opportunity to do research when you can.

CHRISTINA: What a wild experience! I shake my head imagining the typhoon and rescue play out. I'll have to read The Secret Agent now indeed.

It is bittersweet that your upcoming release, Jane and the Final Mystery, October 24, 2023 from Soho Press, is the final installment in your Jane Austen mysteries. I anticipate needing a box of tissues beside me as I turn the pages, just because we all know the inevitable. I do hope that you will continue to write. When you are ready, when you have a story to tell, your fans from the last two decades will be all anticipation. (I still want you to write a dual era series, titled "The Gentleman Rogue." A contemporary woman discovers a trunk of Lord Harold's papers and...) Thank you, Francine, for sharing your fascinating stories from your real life and your journey as a writer. I wish you much success with this coming book launch. I am presently reading an advance copy via NetGalley, and this novel deserves every good thing.


Francine Stephanie Barron Mathews was born in Binghamton, NY in 1963, the last of six girls. The family spent their summers on Cape Cod; Francine’s passion for Nantucket and the New England shoreline dates from her earliest memories. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where she attended Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School.

In 1981, she started college at Princeton, where she walked on to the women’s fencing team and joined the staff of The Daily Princetonian. Journalism eventually led to reporting stints on The Miami Herald and The San Jose Mercury News. Francine majored in European History at Princeton, studying Napoleonic France, and won an Arthur W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities in her senior year. But the course she remembers most vividly is “The Literature of Fact,” taught by John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and staff writer for The New Yorker. John’s work and enduring lessons in craft remain touchstones for her writing life.

Francine spent three years at Stanford pursuing a doctorate in history; she failed to write her dissertation (on the Brazilian Bar Association under authoritarianism; can you blame her?) and left with a Masters. She applied to the CIA, spent a year temping in Northern Virginia while the FBI asked inconvenient questions of everyone she had ever known, passed a polygraph test on her twenty-sixth birthday, and was immediately thrown into the Career Trainee program: Boot Camp for the Agency’s Best and Brightest. Four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA were profoundly fulfilling, the highlights being Francine’s work on the Counterterrorism Center’s investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and sleeping on a horsehair mattress in a Spectre-era casino in the middle of Bratislava. Another peak moment was her chance to debrief ex-President George Bush in Houston in 1993. But what she remembers most about the place are the extraordinary intelligence and dedication of most of the staff—many of them women—many of whom cannot be named.

Francine’s first novel was published in 1993, the year she left the CIA and moved with her husband to Colorado. When she’s not writing, she likes to ski, garden, needlepoint, cook, and travel. She has two sons and a number of dogs, all of them terriers.

You can connect with Francine via her website Facebook Instagram.

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