Interview with Jane Elizabeth Hughes, Author of The Long-Lost Jules

The Long Lost Jules is an immersive royal mystery braiding a long-lost descendant of Queen Katharine Parr, espionage, and love. Amy’s life of quiet solitude as a London private banker is upended by the appearance of Leo, an Oxford don. The two join forces to investigate the mystery of Queen Katharine’s lost baby. As they criss-cross Europe in a quest for answers, Amy and Leo find themselves in danger of losing control of their secrets, their hearts—and maybe even their lives.

The Long-Lost Jules has the pacing of a thriller and all the rich detail of an historical novel.

For readers craving a lively tour through Europe without ever having to put their seatback upright, secure a tray table, or get a COVID test, this novel’s for you.

As Kirkus Review says, “a contemporary mystery/thriller with a strong helping of historical fiction and romance… Hughes takes readers on a glamorous escapade.”

It was a delight to speak with Jane Elizabeth Hughes about her new novel, Long Lost Jules, for Dead Darlings.

Liesl Swogger: The novel takes place in the UK and has such a strong sense of place. Sometimes it’s not always possible for writers to visit the places we’re writing about (especially during a pandemic!) What are the elements of setting that were most important for you in writing this novel, and do you have any suggestions for writers unable to travel to the locations in their books? 

Jane Elizabeth Hughes: The most important elements of setting for me were London (for Amy and Leo); and castles that Katherine Parr would have visited, especially her own Sudeley Castle. I’ve spent a lot of time in London related to my international finance career, and it’s such an inspirational place – where history and modern business intertwine, and sometimes you could shut out the present and see kings and queens treading the ancient cobblestones. In fact, my business-related international travels helped me create the lush background for Amy and Leo’s travels; I’ve been everywhere that they visited, from Prague to Carcassonne to Berlin. When I travel, I let my imagination fly loose and I keep a journal with jottings about what might have happened in some of those spots – I saw Leo transfixed in front of a museum exhibit, for example, and Amy and Leo taking shelter in an ancient, crumbling castle niche

In particular, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit England while I was researching Jules, and even more fortunate to have senior curators at the Tower of London and Sudeley Castle agree to give me private, behind-the-scenes tours. So when I visited Queen Katherine Parr’s castle of Sudeley, for example, I jotted the following notes:

“Big gray ugly was she scared? Scary was it gray or color? Gargoyles? Minstrels strutting. Why chapel so small? Henry a schmuck? Birth coil poor thing.  KP running to old H. QEI here? J &  L here? Gun fight!! Darting through abbey! (But why??)”

And when that wonderful Sudeley curator confided, “I always believed that Katherine’s daughter may have survived,” all of my dreams came together and I had the basic outline of my book.

What if you can’t actually visit these sites? That’s okay too; you can visit them in your imagination. Google is a writer’s best friend, especially Google images and street views. It’s easier now than ever to travel around the world from your armchair or your writing desk! I love thinking of my readers, stuck at home due to the pandemic, traveling to all of these wonderful places through my book.

Amy is a tricky character because she’s hiding a secret from the reader that she has to let us in on gradually. And yet she narrates the story in the first person. How did you figure out the right balance between keeping Amy’s reactions to certain situations true to character and yet not revealing the secret to the reader right away? Did you ever debate using a different POV to tell the story?

To answer your last Q first, yes – especially since my agent commented that readers don’t always like first-person narration. But I just couldn’t get out of Amy’s head…and the truth is that I personally love reading first-person books.

It was certainly tricky to keep her secrets, though, while having her narrate the book, and I used up a lot of energy figuring out how to drop bread crumbs along the way without giving everything away. The best Reveal I ever read was in Mary Stewart’s classic, The Ivy Tree. (Spoiler alert: If you plan to read this marvelous book, skip to the next paragraph.) The plot revolves around a heroine who is impersonating a lost heiress who had the ability to “whisper” to horses. Around two-thirds of the way through the book, she slips away to the stables and calms a restive horse and all of a sudden – bang! – I realized that she actually was the heiress!

It’s the perfect Reveal because you shiver with pleasure, but also because it resonates perfectly with every other tiny piece of the puzzle. You recall previous moments in the book that now fit together seamlessly. Oh, so that’s why she did that…said that…knew that. But then why is she…? Stewart ties up lots of loose ends with the Reveal, but raises even more questions. I dare even the most languid reader to put down the book at this point!

Even with Mary Stewart as my inspiration, Amy was challenging to write. I relied heavily on my early readers group, and kept asking them, “Did you figure it out? What do you think is happening? What are your theories?” Early readers are a writer’s best friend!

Over the course of the book one of the shifts we see happen in Amy is her understanding of her father. She moves from idolizing him to seeing him as a bit of a bully. Can you talk about how you use wounds that occur before the story starts to shape characters we meet on the page?

Yes – Amy’s shifting understanding of her relationship with her father is a critical piece of her development as a person. I think a lot about my characters before I begin my book outline, let alone before I put pen to page (or fingers to computer). I had also gone through a shifting relationship with my own father, but the reverse of Amy’s. My dad was a brilliant but deeply flawed man, whom I resented for much of my life. It was only later in life – as I began my Second Chapter as a novelist  – that I came to respect his determination to keep forging ahead, no matter how many strikes he accumulated. He lost money, he went bankrupt, he started a new business, he lost that business, he got sued and lost; he even got trapped in a nearly-lethal hotel fire. But each time he found his way out, and kept going. In his seventies, bankrupt and living on handouts from me and my sisters, he started his Second Chapter (or Third, or Fourth; I lost count) writing a series of features for a local newspaper on people starting Second Chapters of their lives post-retirement. He wrote about business executives who were selling handmade handbags, and math teachers who were driving taxis, and auto mechanics who were teaching preschoolers  – and the column was wildly successful. He liked to say that he was the “oldest cub reporter in the world.”

So Amy and her father are an homage to my re-imagining of my own father, and a comment on how much our pictures of our family can evolve over time.

This blog is called Dead Darlings. Did you have any ‘darlings’ you had to cut, and if so can you share a few of them? Did you cut them with secret plans to resurrect them elsewhere?

Yikes, I’ve had to cut some of my favorite people from my books – but I do indeed plan to resurrect them. The most painful cutting I had to do was for The Spy’s Wife (forthcoming June 2022). In my original manuscript, the leading couple had four children; as the mother of four myself, I poured a lot of energy into creating these kids and even used a few vignettes from my own children’s lives (sorry, guys). But my agent and professional editor both felt that all the children muddied things up, and that the book was in danger of becoming too long and too character-heavy. So out they went (well, two of them anyway). I put all of those dead scenes into a file and hope to use them in another book.

Honestly, I’m still not sure if my agent and editor were right. I loved those kids!

You’ve had a fascinating career—you’ve worked on Wall Street, for the CIA, you’re currently a professor in international finance at Simmons College. Elements from each of these experiences show up in your new novel, and really belie the idea of the writers shutting themselves off and plucking their story ideas from thin air. And yet fiction is not real life. Can you talk about this a bit? Were there aspects of the story that were difficult to fictionalize or perhaps get across to the reader simply because you know so much about how, for example, money laundering really works? 

People insist on believing that my books are semi-autobiographical and trying to figure out who is who in real life. “Were your co-workers at the bank really so mean?” (no, this is fiction). “I’m nothing like the sister in your book!” (well, duh). “Did you really get chased by gangsters in Europe?” (what do you think?!) And worst of all, “Wow, you and your husband really have a hot sex life! I’m so jealous!” (no comment).

You’re right, it can be challenging to remember that my readers are not my finance students, and that I have to make the financial aspects of the plot both interesting and understandable to a wide audience. That problem is doubled because in The Long-Lost Jules, I also had to engage readers in the historical mystery aspect of the plot. I started an early chapter with the old English schoolkids’ chant about Henry VIII’s six wives – Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. That chapter, in which I explained who Katherine Parr was (the survivor), turned out to be one of my absolute faves. Such fun bringing these long-dead women to life again for my readers!

In previous interviews, you’ve said when you were young you wanted to be a ballerina. I teach ballet and often think that the two arts are very similar – both take a lot of discipline and you just have to show up, either at the barre or in front of your computer, whether you feel like it or not. Can you share a bit about your daily writing practice and how you approach it? Also, music while writing—yay or nay?

Wow, that’s amazing that you teach ballet! I’m so jealous! In fact, I’m super-disciplined about writing, and I suspect that all those ballet classes helped me develop that mindset. I’ve figured out that I have to treat writing like any other job; I can’t wait for the Muse to be with me or for inspiration to strike. So I write for three-four hours per day (more than that seems to fry my brain), whether or not I’m “in the mood.” When I hit a rough patch — when my characters just won’t behave and the plot seems hopelessly tangled – I make myself keep writing; I’ll go back later and fix the bad parts.

My writing process is dominated by characters and outlines –I outline maniacally! But even before that, I start with character sketches, which help me really get to know my characters – where they grew up and went to school, what books and movies they like, how they got along with their parents and siblings, and much much more. A lot of this info will never make it into the book; it’s just the foundation for my character-building.

And then I start to outline. I put together a broad outline first, then move on to a more detailed “Plot Plan,” which provides a chapter-by-chapter framework. Of course, I often have to go back and edit the Plot Plan once I’m into the book, since things never happen quite as I expected them to; and sometimes my characters refuse to do what I want.

If I’m not writing a super-intense scene, I do listen to music – mostly The Boss! Nothing gets the juices flowing like “Born To Run!” Then there’s the Beatles, of course, the Cranberries, Chicago, the Moody Blues – and Ariana Grande to prove I’m not hopelessly old-fashioned.

You write both fiction and non-fiction. You have a non-fiction book, Greed Gone Good, coming out next summer. Judging by the title, I see some crossover between Leo’s character, who is trying to prevent Sudeley Castle from being bulldozed and replaced with McMansions, and the subject of your non-fiction book. In working in both fiction and non-fiction do your projects inform one another? What is your process for working on books in different genres and do you write them simultaneously?

Everything that I do informs my writing and my characters. Sometimes it might be a stranger on a train; sometimes it might be a chance remark by a friend or colleague – but everything eventually inspires my books. I’m a secret-keeper, which helped to find its way into both Amy and Leo; just like them, it’s been a long and challenging journey for me to let loose some of my secrets. I’ve worked in international banking, so I channeled some of that fiercely competitive and high-stakes atmosphere into Amy’s office.

My academic career really helped me transition into my novelist career. Writing business books taught me the process of writing a book – and taught me how to overcome some of the pitfalls along the way. I never allowed myself to have writer’s block. Whether I was writing an article for a newspaper, a textbook on international banking, or a novel about a spy’s wife, I learned to keep slogging away and trust the process: Draw up the outline, follow the outline, revise the outline…put your head down and keep going whether it feels good or not.

Writing and publishing both books simultaneously was both a challenge and a gift. Yes, both Leo and I deeply believe that people should use their money to do good for the world. Whenever and wherever you invest your money – in a pension fund, in a company, in a stock or bond – please investigate whether your money will produce good for society and environment as well as produce good returns for you. Find out how many women are on the Board of Directors or the executive team. Think about whether your company sells cigarettes or clean-energy cars. Remember that greed really can be good – your investments can be profitable for you, and beneficial to society. I wanted Leo to be an ambassador of these beliefs to my fiction readers.

You’re a voracious reader, so much so that Amazon sends YOU a thank you each year. So I have to ask, what are you reading now? Any recommendations? 

Yup, I was that little short kid who read all the time. And I mean, all the time. At the dentist, during math class, at the dinner table, even at eye doctor appointments (which was problematic). I was always the last kid picked for teams at recess, but I didn’t care because I could curl up in a corner of the courtyard and read.

My taste in books is – well – eclectic. I wrote my thesis on 19th century novelists, and George Eliot is my hero – she raised writing about everyday life to a true art form. I love authors who often use historical mysteries as a backdrop to their plots, like Elizabeth Peters and Mary Stewart. And I love authors whose work is humorous rather than brooding; witty rather than dark.

I’m usually reading several books at once. On one Kindle I’m rereading one of the Stephanie Plum mysteries by Janet Evanovich, and on the other I’m reading Sheila O’Flanagan’s The Women Who Ran Away. My favorite authors these days are Jennifer Weiner, Susan Isaacs, Karen Swan, Michelle Gable, and Chanel Cleeton. I’m listening to a real nail-biter about climbers on Mount Everest in my car. And then there are all the Peppa Pigs and Daniel Tigers that I’m reading to my grandchildren!

Jane Elizabeth Hughes is an obsessive reader with two fully-loaded Kindles; she buys so many books that Amazon sends her a gift every year for the holidays. Unfortunately, reading novels all day is not an easy career path, so Jane has a day job as professor of international finance, first at Brandeis University, then at Simmons College School of Business, and currently at Harvard Extension School. She has also consulted with multinational corporations and governments for nearly three decades, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Inter-American Development Bank, and Asian Development Bank. An engaging and accomplished public speaker, Professor Hughes has written and lectured widely about international finance throughout the world. Her book Greed Gone Good: A Roadmap to Creating Social and Financial Value (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) came out in September 2021.

She began to pursue her life’s dream of seriously writing fiction during an academic sabbatical. With the help of her brilliant agent, Marcy Posner, she published her first novel, Nannyland, with Simon & Schuster Pocket Star Books in 2016 and joined the SparkPress family with the publication of The Long-Lost Jules (August 2021). A mother of four and granny of eight (the eldest is only seven, so she’s a very busy granny), she is fortunate enough to live on beautiful Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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