Jenny Judson & Danielle Mahfood, THE LAST SEASON

Jenny Judson & Danielle Mahfood, THE LAST SEASON

After five years of working on their debut novel, The Last Season, Jenny Judson and Danielle Mahfood have officially gone from high school best friends to published co-authors. Jenny and Danielle join Zibby to discuss how they managed to write in one cohesive voice despite being both geographically distant and two individual people, the way in which their partnership held them accountable to the work over the course of many years, and why their differences in taste only served to make their story stronger.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jenny and Danielle, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am mortified because — first of all, Jenny and Danielle, I have known for decades at this point. I have been so looking forward to this podcast. I enthusiastically jumped in and realized after ten minutes that I never pressed record, which has only happened to me once before in nine hundred episodes. I am mortified. We had a really great conversation. I’m going to summarize a few things. Then we’re going to delve into it. They’re going to tell you more about their book. Their book is called The Last Season, which I said in the bio. I’m going to ask the opening questions. Then I’m going to summarize some of the stuff we talked about. Jenny and Danielle, tell me what this book is about and what inspired you to write it. Tell us about the eleven years it took for you guys to write this together. I’m sorry.

Jenny Judson: It’s a work of historical fiction. It is a novel about two people from very different stations in life set in the 1860s and 1870s. It revolves around a financial crisis. It is a story of rising and falling fortunes. At its core, it is a love story.

Danielle Mahfood: Our inspiration began a very, very long time ago. Jenny and I went to high school together. We took a particular class called Human Physiology where we dissected hearts and took blood pressure. In the class, we might have gotten a little bit bored. When we got bored, Jenny actually, one day, decided to write me a note, but it wasn’t a regular note. It was a little novella which featured me as the heroine. The guy I had a crush on at the time was the hero. There was a beach. There were horses. It was amazing. It ended up in a boy’s dorm eventually. That’s kind of how it all began. That was the joke between us, that we would write a romance novel together. Fast-forward many, many years later. We went to go see The Young Victoria. When we walked out of the movie, I said, “We are doing it. We’re writing our book.” We marched right over to a bookstore, took a look at the novels on the shelves, and saw that the Victorian period wasn’t well-written about and decided that was the beginning of our journey. That was, as you said Zibby, eleven years ago, which we can’t believe.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I mentioned before, but no matter what you guys were doing, you were so committed to the times that you blocked off with each other. Now I’m going to do this. Now Jenny and I are going to work on this. I was saying I felt this sense of pride because I’ve watched you guys. I’ve heard about it for so long now. Now the fact that you have it and it’s out and that it’s good is amazing. I was joking with you earlier that I was so afraid when I got the book that it wouldn’t be good or I wouldn’t like it. What would I do then? Thank god it’s really good. I wasn’t really worried. I assumed it would be good, but you never know. It was good. One thing that I thought you did so well is — obviously, you guys are super smart. You went to Yale and Harvard. You just happen to be smart, amazing, accomplished women and have other jobs and all this stuff. You have all the background and all the history, but you didn’t overly share it, and so it didn’t take the reader, ever, out of the narrative. Tell me a little bit about the research and how you got it to this point where nothing was thrown in gratuitously and there were no distractions.

Jenny: We did a fair amount of research along the way. There’s great material for the Victorian era. Lots of documents are still out there. So much of it is online now that you can really access it. We had maps. We had primary documents. Danielle found this prospectus for an investment. That investment kind of becomes the center of the financial turn. It’s the investment on which the plot pivots. When Danielle found it, she was like, “Look at this.” I looked at it. I was like, “This sounds like a great investment.” She was like, “No, this is terrible.”

Danielle: I’m in financial services, so I was like, “Can you believe the way they wrote this? It actually says you can’t lose your money.” Jenny was like, “I wouldn’t be able to lose my money. This is awesome.” I was like, “No, .”

Zibby: Wow, that is crazy.

Danielle: That was really fun to do all that research and bring the reader into the period.

Zibby: How did you two work together so well to make the voice not seem like it was you or — I know you mentioned that, originally, you each took a piece. I was trying to guess at which characters you each wrote originally. How did you get it to this point where it’s so seamless?

Danielle: We originally conceived of the novel as a first-person narrative from three perspectives. I was the governess, Miss Fairfax, which I think was in keeping with who I was at the time. Jenny was Cassandra. We both split Crispin’s character. It really helped. We assigned sections, assigned scenes, went off, did our homework, wrote the scenes, and brought it back together. Then we would use Skype or Zoom — eventually, Zoom; first, Skype, then Zoom — to talk it out and read it to each other. By doing that, we were able to really smooth out the voice. Even our first readers said, wow, it absolutely feels like it’s the same person writing it. That’s what helped us, that reading it aloud.

Zibby: Do you both read a lot of historical fiction? Have you always loved historical fiction? Why this genre?

Jenny: Both of us are avid readers. We have slightly different tastes in our reading. Although, there are some major overlaps. We’re huge Jane Austen fans. She’s like heroin for both of us. I tend to read a lot of historical fiction. I’m very much a fiction reader. If I’m at a bookstore, I always gravitate towards the fiction section. I love the classics too, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, those types of doorstopper books. We love romance, but Danielle is a little bit more the romance expert.

Danielle: I am the romance expert. Basically, Jenny is on the high literary fiction. I obviously love Jane Austen. I reread and rewatch the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice at least once or twice a year. It’s phenomenal. Yes, I have definitely been known to read some of the bodice-rippers, as they’re called, in the past. What’s interesting about our book is people kind of can’t really pin it down. Sometimes it feels like a romance. Sometimes it feels like historical fiction. We really feel that it is the kind of book we want to read. We wrote the book we would want to read. Not too much of the bodice-ripper. Enough of a light read to be sitting on a beach and enjoying it. That’s really what we wrote. I read a lot. Although, I think Jenny and I have slightly different tastes, but we’re both big readers.

Jenny: We’ll try to persuade each other to read these books. There’s this book, Katherine, that Danielle has been trying to get me to read forever. She’s like, “It’s the most romantic book.” We’ll have these conversations back and forth about, you should read this. No, you should read that.

Danielle: Yes, but she still won’t read it. It’s okay.

Jenny: I will eventually. I will.

Danielle: Maybe you’ll listen to it one day.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I feel like you should have your own podcast, Danielle, called “I am the Romance Expert.” That’s so great. You could talk about romance books, but you could really just interview people or you could read — I don’t know. I think you should think about it. It’s hilarious. It’s great. You have a great voice for it too. In your spare time when you’re not raising your children and working your day job and selling a book. Tell me a little bit about the publication. You talked about working with an editor to fine-tune the book. When did you know you were even ready to try to sell it? How do you feel now that you’re on the other side of things?

Danielle: I think what’s funny is when we started writing this book, it was just when digital publishing was even coming out. People were finally even looking at Kindles or even knowing what a Kindle was right when we started writing the book. I think I had always thought to myself, we’ll just probably e-publish because, are we really ever going to get an agent and have to go through this process which is pretty overwhelming? As you know, Zibby, as we’ve discussed, it’s a really overwhelming process. We finished the book. We were given the advice that since we were first-time authors, we might want to look at getting an editor to read it at The Book Doctors, so we did. We worked with a book doctor to help us smooth it out. Then after that, we were ready to go for an agent. We were really lucky in finding an agent. Through friends, we went out to four different people. One of them took a chance on us. Kimberly’s amazing. We worked with her a lot on the book and getting it ready for publication. Then there was that process where it was completely out of our hands. She’s shopping it around to whoever she’s shopping it around to. Jenny and I joke that — she definitely sent us some rejections. We think maybe there was a lot more that probably came in that she didn’t send us.

Jenny: We think she protected us a little bit from the bad news. She’s so sweet. She’s been truly amazing. It’s interesting to me, in the process of writing a book — we had a full manuscript. It’s taken us essentially eleven years, as you said, but we had a full manuscript probably at year six. Then a lot of that is, there’s a huge editing process. There’s a huge amount of time spent trying to figure out who your — can you get an editor? Can you get a publisher? That took time.

Danielle: The moment we found out, Jenny and I will never forget. Kimberly sent us this cryptic email. We were both in Nantucket for the summer. It was just like, “I might have good news for you. Wait until next week.” Then that was when it all began. Then the following week, she called us and was like, “We have a book deal.” It was just absolutely so exciting. I think I texted you right then, Zibby, to be like, “We have a book deal.”

Zibby: I was so excited. I have been so excited about every step of your journey. It’s just been so neat, as I said, seeing all the hard work pay off and that you didn’t give up when you so easily could have. You so easily could have just said, that was really fun, but now life has gotten in the way, or whatever. You just stayed so committed to your project together. Do you feel like it’s enhanced your friendship too? Don’t you feel like there’s some ancillary benefits to it?

Jenny: Oh, my god, absolutely. There were times that we both sort of fell away from it and then brought each other back to it, me probably more than Danielle. I was like, “Ooh, are we really going to do this?” She was like, “No, we’re going to do this. Here’s the calendar. We’re going to stick to it.” I actually remember at my wedding, Danielle mentioned this book in the toast. I was sort of cringing because I thought, oh, gosh, now she’s announced it to all these people. We have to do it. Are we really going to do this? She kept us going. It’s been great. It has been so much fun. It’s been an escape from time to time, a needed escape. It’s also been just a pleasure. All in all, we have kept it as a fun thing to do. I think that’s really important. It’s a fun project.

Danielle: The escape factor for us has helped us keep it light and not take ourselves too seriously. What’s happened, absolutely, our friendship has grown so much from this. In addition, I think that the people that kept us going along the way were people like you, Zibby, people who were like, that’s great. How’s the project going? How’s this going? You’re at a cocktail party and someone’s like, oh, I remember you told me last time I saw you six months ago that you were working on a book. How’s that going? Just the fact that we talked about it and got people talk about it helped us keep going. That’s what’s made it so much better to have these people like — I don’t know if I mentioned earlier, a friend sitting on a beach in Mexico sending us a photo of her reading the book and saying how much she’s enjoying it, that’s been such an amazing feeling, to hear that and see that from our friends.

Jenny: It’s been a little bit of peer pressure and cheerleading. They kind of come together.

Zibby: It’s almost like you get a leg up when you do it together. I was just listening to what you were saying, how hard it is for people to stay committed to a project when it’s just something you’re trying to do. It’s so easy to put that aside. I feel like there’s so many creative things we all want to do. It’s hard to justify making the time for these intellectual, creative pursuits when life is so busy. For people listening, if you’re following what I’m saying even though I’m not making any sense, if the thing you need to do is the commitment level, if you get a friend, even if nothing happens with the book, you’re going to have fun with your friend. You’re going to be doing something with your mind. There’s no downside to it, right?

Danielle: Absolutely, no downside. For years, Jenny and I would, as you know Zibby, we would be writing, go off the next morning. I’d be out late one night. The next morning, ten AM, I got to work with Jenny and do my writing. We would actually, for years, be away together on a trip and take photos. I’m talking five years ago. We’d take pictures of ourselves together being like, one day, we’ll be published authors and we’ll use this photo. It was a joke. What I think is so funny, Jenny said earlier that she kind of was like, I don’t believe this. Are we really going to do this? I was pushing her the whole way through. Now I’m like, did we really do this? For me, when it’s a reality, I can’t believe it. When it was just a dream, I could get behind it. I’m still behind it, but now I can’t believe it. I’m wrapping my own head around the fact that we’re the authors now. We’re the people some people want to talk about, about our content, about our book, about our story. It’s been really fun.

Zibby: That’s so cool. It’s just the coolest. Are you going to keep going? Are you going to write another book together? What are you thinking?

Jenny: I think we are. I think we’ve been bitten by this bug, the writing bug, let’s call it. At about year four, we were writing. There was a character, Archie, who’s a side character, a friend. Both of us kind of developed a crush on him. I was like, “If we write another one, we’re going to write about Archie.” Now that we’ve come to this point in the process, a number of people have asked, are you going to write another one? We’ve been talking about it. Again, it now feels a little more real. Oh, yeah, I think we can. I think we will.

Danielle: We have ideas for it. Actually, last week, we were up in Nantucket doing a signing at Mitchell’s bookstore. We were having dinner, having a few glasses of wine. We started talking through exactly how Archie’s story will begin. We’ve been talking about this for probably the last two months. For me, it became real in that moment. I started to envision the scenes. That, to me, is actually the most fun part of the writing process, is where you have your idea and, in your head, you start to think of the way the scene’s going to play out and then just sit down and write. It’s a tremendous escape. It got me excited again. I’m sure you know this, Zibby, editing is not that fun, but writing is really fun. It’s been this great moment for us to come to this point to think, oh, my gosh, we’re going to take this character and follow his story.

Jenny: Yesterday morning, I woke up to text messages from two of my close college friends who had just finished the book. They were giving me ideas. They were like, oh, you should do this. You should do this. It’s great to hear from readers, particularly friends who are readers, saying, I want you to take this character. How about this storyline?

Zibby: You know how they say when people are cooking, you can tell the emotion that they have while they’re cooking? If people are in a horrible mood trying to make you a meal and they serve it to you, the food’s just not going to taste as good as if they’re laughing and joking and in the best mood and they make you a meal. The food itself is going to feel different. I feel like that’s like with this book. You two had fun doing it. When you read it, you feel a little bit of that. You feel the fun and the playfulness and the joy. It’s contagious. You feel a part of something. I’m glad you guys had fun doing it. I hope you have fun doing another book. I love it. I want to watch the movie of this. I want this to be a — or a series — another Downton Abbey-ish series. I’m very excited. I wanted more details on the accident. I wanted a medical diagnosis and the full-on medical report. In the movie, I want the medical lingo or something. I need more. I feel like that needs to happen as well. Congratulations. I’m so excited for you. I hope everybody reads The Last Season and takes it on vacation and uses it as a vacation no matter where you are in life because it’s really great. Just so exciting to support you guys after all you’ve gone through to get this out in the world.

Danielle: Thank you so much.

Jenny: I feel like we’re talking over each other. Thank you so much.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Bye, ladies.

Jenny: Bye.

Zibby: Sorry for being unprofessional and missing the first ten minutes the first time, but we got different places this time, so all good.

Jenny: It was awesome. Thank you.

Danielle: Thank you for having us.

Zibby: Bye, guys.

Jenny Judson & Danielle Mahfood, THE LAST SEASON

THE LAST SEASON by Jenny Judson & Danielle Mahfood

Purchase your copy on Amazon!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts