DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jack 1939

The year is 1939. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is trying to prepare America for a war with Nazi Germany which he believes is inevitable. But, with no foreign intelligence agency, he needs a way to determine true conditions in Europe. He begins asking associates to secretly spy for him. In that same year, 22-year-old Jack Kennedy is planning a trip to Europe. Now what if Roosevelt met with the young Kennedy and recruited him for his informal spy ring?

That what if propels the plot of Francine Matthews' newest novel, Jack 1939.  Matthews, who spent 4 years as an analyst/writer for the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared at Politics and Prose yesterday to discuss her new book.

"I love 'what if moments,'" said Matthews, pointing out that Roosevelt did have his spy ring and young Kennedy did tour Europe. "There are those moments in life where events could have gone another way."

Matthews said she did extensive research for the novel to give it a feel of authenticity, pouring over Kennedy letters and government documents. She also populated the novel with real characters like J. Edgar Hoover, members of the Kennedy clan, and even one of JFK's professors.

She said the idea for the novel came to life when she ran across a picture of Kennedy as she was doing research for another book. "The photo just grabbed me," Matthews said. "It was a person I had never seen before. He was wearing mismatched clothes. He was bumming his way through Europe. He was so thin, grinning and juggling oranges. I thought 'Oh my God, he was a kid'. I think for us Kennedy is frozen in the amber of the 1960s. I really wanted to know who that kid was."

During her research, Matthews said she was struck by the massive degree of illness Kennedy faced growing up, He was forced to drop out of school on several occasions for long periods of hospitalization and convalescence. "There's certain costs to that kind of isolation when you are young," Matthews said.

But where did JFK, young spy come from? Roosevelt did ask for volunteer spies and "it occurred to me Jack Kennedy would be perfect for that," Matthews explained. "He was a risk taker who wanted to live every day with intensity and he did."

Obviously, as with all speculative historical fiction, Matthews' book contains real people and real places and is sprinkled with actual dialog taken from  records. But there are fictional people, conversations, and actions, too. But what is real and what is fiction in her book? "I think you can try to figure that out for yourself," Matthews said with a laugh. "I'm hoping some people will return to the actual record to see when it differs from what I wrote."

In the end, any novel about Europe in 1939 must include some speculation. "It's an act of imagination to visit Europe in 1939. Most of World War II Europe is gone. But I think there were these kind of losses that makes that war period interesting and energizing for a writer," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Jack, 1939 is Matthews' 20th novel of history, mystery, and suspense. She says she had been writing since her high school days, but her actual career came as the result of a kind of bet with her husband. She was writing analytical pieces for the CIA. "I didn't want to have to be somewhere everyday at 8 a.m. I wanted to be able to stay home and write in my sweats. I thought about Jane Austen (Matthews has written about the British author frequently). I wanted to be like her. My husband said 'OK, try a book and if you finish it and get it published, we'll see." Matthews has some advice for beginning writers. "They say write about what you know. That's crap. Write about something you want to learn about and then teach yourself to write about what you now know," she said.

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