One of the most exciting things about books is that they can take you somewhere you never thought you’d be able to go. They can take you to faraway lands, years into the future, to different planets. They can also take you back in time through history, which is what Jeannie Mobley does exceptionally well in her new novel The Jewel Thief.
Set in France during the rule of King Louis XIV, The Jewel Thief begins on the day that Juliette is in front of the king. Of course, she thought that this day would be a day of celebration, but instead of being in front of him in her finery, the former royal jeweler’s daughter is presented bruised, beaten and in chains. It would seem that her scheming to steal the king’s most precious diamond has finally caught up with her. If she can produce the diamond by the next day, she may be able to live. If not, well, Louis XIV is not known for being so forgiving when he has been made a fool of.
What follows is the breakneck story of the last few years of Juliette’s life; how her father was chosen as the king’s royal jeweler, how her life had changed, how the king had acquired one of the most beautiful blue diamonds from India and how that one, blue diamond would set her on a course she could have never foreseen.
It’s a mystery and a love story, a history lesson and a delicious tale all wrapped up into one. Here, we talked to Mobley about her amazing new book.
Congratulations on The Jewel Thief! How does it feel?
It always feels wonderful when a book comes out, but this book is especially near to my heart. I’ve always loved European history more than American history, but strangely enough, my first three books were all set in early 20th century America, which is my least favorite part of history to study. So, it was great to finally get a chance to write a book where the research was more my thing.
I want to first mention that cover, that GORGEOUS cover! How did you land on that sparkly image?
I didn’t actually have anything to do with the cover—the credit for all that gorgeousness goes to the team of designers at Viking Books. It was nearly complete when I first saw it. It took my breath away when I first saw it—it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was so much better!
The story is set in Paris of Louis XIV. That time is ripe with stories. What made you decide to set your story then?
When I first thought about writing a story around the Hope Diamond, I thought it would be about the legendary curse and the family that owned it in the early 20th century (20th Century America, again! Sigh!) But almost as soon as I started researching it, I stumbled across the story of Louis XIV commanding it be cut in a style that was brand new and that wasn’t a good fit for the diamond, and I found that so much more interesting. And I’ve always thought Louis XIV is an interesting character, so how could I resist?
The Jewel Thief is so luscious and luxurious. What was the research like for the detailing of the story; from the Louvre at its most grand, down the style of the time?
I do a lot of visual research to get the details of the story. This is easy to do for a story set at court, because so many nobles had their portraits painted, but there are also street scenes of Paris and sketches of peasants from that era. And of course, much of the architecture of the era still stands—from the Morais district to the Louvre. In writing historical fiction, I think it is important to focus on the details that feel iconic, (the gowns, the wigs, the noble men in high heeled shoes and silk stockings). It is easier to focus on the lush details when the scenes are being reported through the eyes of a child or a person who is an outsider to court, because that person would really notice and be awed by the same things a modern tourist would be, so the details can be infused with that sense of wonder.
How much did you know about diamonds and jewelry making before writing this book?
I knew that they were sparkly! Seriously, I knew very little about diamonds or jewelry making. One of the first books I got from the library when I was considering writing this story was a big, fat coffee table book on the history of gems and jewelry, and I found it fascinating enough to feel like I could dive in and learn what I needed to know. Fortunately, craft guilds kept good records, including engravings of gem cutters at work and the tools they used, so I was able to do that visual research I love to do.
I love how fast this reads because at its core, it’s almost a mystery: will Juliette survive and win back the favor of the king for both herself and for her father? How did she get here in the first place? Was that intentional
Yes—I love intricately plotted books, and I wanted this to have that fast pace of adventure and intrigue, so I’m glad you enjoyed that!
It’s interesting that René, the man she’s in love with and hoped to marry, is delegated to take down her confession of the missing hope diamond. So, you’re giving us two parts of the story simultaneously: her confession of what happened and this love story that’s still going at the same time. Did that storytelling just sort of happen organically?
I think it would be a stretch to say it happened entirely organically, but it started that way. I was struggling with finding Juliette’s voice until I wrote some opening pages that read like a confession, and then it flowed from there, so the structure of telling the story as a confession arose organically. In the earliest draft, however, she didn’t know Rene, and they fall in love while she’s telling the story to him. That felt a little implausible, so I reframed it as them having a relationship before the confession. The non-organic part came when I signed with my editor, who really challenged me to expand the romance between them well beyond the simple framing device I had going. My editor is pretty brilliant.
A common theme amongst the characters is ambition; Juliette, her mother, the Valins, André, the king, of course. Were you hoping to show that ambition doesn’t always yield the results you want, but can easily turn negative?
You are a very astute reader! Yes, ambition runs through the story for just about everyone. I don’t think I was trying to frame it as something that can turn negative so much as exploring my own fascination with how the very things that can push us to succeed can also push us to damn ourselves, and there is a fine line between the two. I am fascinated with historical characters like Anne Boleyn, who were both made and destroyed by the very same ambition, so I had to have Juliette walk that same line.
One of the harder things to read about was the conversation surrounding Abraão Benzacar, the Jewish jeweler who fled Portugal. While he’s fictional, what made you want to tie in the treatment of Jewish people at the time? I imagine it was difficult to write something like René’s reaction to Juliette working with them or virtually anything André said.
One of the hardest things about setting stories in the past is finding the balance between a realistic presentation of social values while also maintaining likable characters with a modern sensibility. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a Jewish family in the story, because I knew something of the plight of Sephardic Jews, and I learned more about families like the Benzacars as I researched gem cutting. It felt like a little-known element of history that should be remembered. When I’m not writing fiction, I’m teaching anthropology, and so I have an interest in social issues and cultural interactions and try to include something of them in my books.
Did you visit France or the diamond itself to help with the writing process?
Sadly, no. I have been to France and I have seen the Hope Diamond, but not recently, so I had to do my research of both on the internet and draw on old memories. I had hoped to go to France this summer to research an upcoming book (the sequel) but alas, no international travel this year!
If this were to get turned into a movie (or a miniseries!), who would your dream cast be?
When I hear Louis XIV speaking in my head, it is in that cool, smooth voice of Alan Rickman, so in my dream cast, I would bring him back to life and cast him as Louis. Casting it with people who are actual possibilities, though, I think Aiden Turner would be a fascinating Louis XIV—he has the charisma for it.
The absolutely perfect actor for René would be Timothée Chalamet, who has René’s youth and sweetness, and is also quite nice to look at. He also has really interesting hands, so since Juliette fixates on his hands now and then, I think that’s a plus.
Strange as it sounds, Juliette would be the hardest for me to cast. Because I see the main character from the inside out when I write, as if I’m looking through her eyes at the world, I often don’t have a clear mental picture of what that person looks like so much as how they think. So rather than giving you a name, I’d really love to hear who YOU would cast—it’s interesting for me to hear how other people see the characters.
What books are you looking forward to in the back half of 2020?
The first half of 2020 has been so crazy busy for me, I’ve hardly had time to keep up with what’s coming out in the fiction world, so I’m still “looking forward” to a lot of the books that came out in late 2019 and will come out in 2020. There is a book called Cartier’s Hope by M.J. Rose, which, of course, I have to read, since it is about that third story I’m fascinated by—the Hope Diamond in the early 20th century. A couple that are coming out soon that sound interesting: Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, about a cemetery keeper, and The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs (she had me at Bookshop!) I’m also excited to see All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat, about the Thai cave rescue, and since I read and write middle grade as well, The Artifact Hunters by Janet Fox ( a sequel to her fun Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.) I’m also thrilled to see Nikki Grimes coming out with a biography for younger readers: Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice—not so much as reading I want to escape into, but it is great to see the book world embracing authors and subjects relevant to our current social and political moment. Seeing young people getting engaged gives me hope for a better future.
And finally, what are you reading now?
I can’t seem to just read one thing at a time, so I’m currently reading three books: Lovely War by Julie Berry on paper, Spindle and Dagger, by J. Anderson Coats on audio, and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson on Kindle.
The Jewel Thief by Jeannie Mobley is out NOW! Pick up a copy today!