by | Jul 8, 2016 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Madonna, and Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day

By Francine Mathews

A few days ago, I was sitting in Dallas while my son fenced in Division 1 Saber at US Fencing Summer Nationals. I don’t know why we got on the topic, but at a certain point–we were crossing a street, as I recall–Stephen said, “So, Mom. You can break down an AK in the dark, right?”

And I replied, “Anybody can break down an AK-47 in the dark, Steve. That’s the point. They’re the weapon of choice among Third World insurgencies because they’re incredibly forgiving. They have only a few moveable parts, they don’t jam, and you can clean them if necessary from the inside of a storm drain, or a safehouse closet, while tanks are crossing overhead. Can’t do that with an M16, buddy. The sophistication of American weaponry was undercut by Soviet common sense. Which is why Russian product rules the gray arms markets of the world.”

I don’t own an AK or any other kind of gun. Truth be told, I think weapons belong solely in the hands of professionals. I simply learned to operate a variety of them while training with the CIA. My boys regard me as a font of privileged information. It gives me leverage. If you’ve ever raised teenaged boys, you know how precious leverage is.

This is part of why I enjoy my guys. They ask different questions, quite often, than girls do. I have two sons, aged twenty-two and eighteen, and they were as alien to me when I gave birth to them as though I’d hatched starfish. I am the last of six daughters. Our Catholic family was a matriarchy in thrall to a father who died too young. Under my other incarnation, as the writer Stephanie Barron, I devote myself to Jane Austen’s world–because that is the dulcet sphere in which I  grew up: tea and conversation, elaborate patterns of dance and conversation, flirtation and conversation. But then I went Rogue and joined the CIA, where all kinds of personal revelations about my own capabilties abounded. They did not end with motherhood. When I realized I was pregnant with a boy, I absolutely panicked. Who would I teach to needlepoint? Who would garden or cook with me? You can laugh at my gender stereotypes if you wish, but the thoughts recurred. 

The truth is, I learned quite fast that parenting wasn’t about what I had to teach my sons. As with all children, it was about what they had to teach me.

From my boys I learned about dinosaurs and mass excavators, jet engines and pandemics, World War II tanks and cyber-security, Roman civilization and Magic: The Gathering. I learned about the fear of peer criticism and low self-esteem. About sports rivalry and fantasy leagues and tentative forays into the emotional world of women they understood less well than I understood men. We had much to teach other; we always will. But I think of them most often, surprisingly, when I write.

At least every other year, I set out to frame a spy story, often in a historical context, and most often with male protagonists. I’ve written about Jack Kennedy, Ian Fleming, Allen Dulles and (under a different character name) the extraordinary silk trader and CIA NOC, Jim Thompson, who disappeared without a trace in 1967. When I write about men, I find that I am constantly searching for the boy in each of them–the tentative, unschooled, self-conscious and vulnerable creature on the verge of discovering a powerful male self. 

Look at the picture of Jack Kennedy that inspired my novel–he was 20 when it was taken in 1937, a street busker juggling oranges in Nuremberg, Germany, in the height of the Nazi buildup.

From the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

In his face is a crazy youth, a belief in his own immortality, and a gawky unrealized maturity that is poignant even as he grins. This is the character that spoke to me, the one I had to find. My own sons have been my guides, in an important sense; but I realize, as I write, that I am striving for something more universal–an essential portrait of what it means to be human: to suffer, to rise to a challenge, to overcome vicious odds, to grieve and to triumph. I find all those emotions in espionage stories, regardless of whether I’m speaking with a male or female voice; and I hope that my readers do, too.

At this point in the summer, I have just arrived in New York at ThrillerFest 2016, the annual gathering sponsored by the International Thriller Writers. ITW is a conclave of storytellers, male and female, who revel in a sense of jeopardy. One of the side aspects of this yearly meeting is the joy of connecting with my fellow Rogue Women Writers, all of us spinning tales in a genre generally regarded as the province of men. Most writers of international thrillers like to set traps for readers–traps of intrigue, deceit, doublecross and revelation. There’s a fascination to that game. I like to think it’s gender-neutral.  

But I have a question for all of you:
What do you readers, men and women alike, crave in your spy novels, international intrigue, or historical espionage? Do you love strong male characters? Do you look for great women, too? Are you engaged by the political drama or the sense of peril? Do you want romance? Character development? Is it solely jeopardy you’re looking for? A twisting, puzzle plot that upends your expectations?

We Rogue Women are gathering on a panel at ThrillerFest today to talk about all of this. We’d love your input. So set down your thoughts in the Comments section–and we’ll gladly plunge into the conversation.

All the best,


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  1. Chris Goff

    I love the picture of Jack Kennedy, and your description of raising boys. I think I loved reading about heroes. It takes extraordinary people to put their own lives in danger to help right the wrongs in the world. I lived vicariously through the books I devoured. Great blog!

  2. Francine Mathews

    Thanks, Chris.
    THe pictures of Jack Kennedy at this age are all memorable, because he is so skinny, so incredibly young, so incredibly free. When I first saw them I thought: Who is that kid? I'd never seen Jack look so unselfconscious. I remember him as JFK–a different person, a totally different PERSONA, rigid in the back brace that kept him upright in his suit. This picture in particular could be any kid bumming his way around Europe on a summer trip, sleeping in his car with his best friend, sleeping n his clothes, actually–except you suddenly realize it's Germany, in 1937, and that he was deliberately teasing the jackboots outside the camera frame. He liked to do that. It's part of what made him so interesting as a character.

  3. Karna Bodman

    How interesting to read your experiences raising two sons (I raised two as well — 22 months apart — and find myself analyzing just what they would say and how they would say it when writing dialogue in my own novels). I also liked seeing that photo of Jack Kennedy — and reading your fabulous book JACK 1939 about his European travels pre-WWII. What a great story, full of tension, intrigue, plotting, and even a bit of romance (and yes, I do enjoy having a "relationship" develop in thrillers. So thanks for this great article!

  4. Sonja Stone

    Francine, I love the interactions with your children. My father's words of wisdom to his derelict daughter: Don't get arrested in a foreign country. Your motherly advice: You can't do that with an M16.

  5. Francine Mathews

    Particularly in a foreign country, Sonja 🙂
    Hey, we all make this parenting stuff up as we go, right?