What a treat to host Libby Fischer Hellmann for Authors @ The Teague! After I introduced Libby to the audience, she reintroduced herself as "The best author you've never heard of."
Libby told us about the first four books in her Ellie Foreman mystery series. The books are Chicago-based. Ellie is a video producer, a single mother of a teenage daughter, who has a senior father. These books are not cozies. Hellmann said she wanted to write suspense. She loves staying up late, reading suspenseful, fast-paced books.
In her third book, An Image of Death, a character popped up that Libby knew she wanted to write about again. Ellie is outgoing, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, and, if you went to lunch with her, she'd tell you everything about her life. Georgia Davis is just the opposite. She was a cop, with serious baggage. Hellmann said she's still learning about Georgia's baggage. But, she's a darker character, and Libby waited to write more about her, wanting the right story.
Libby said she found Georgia's story about five years ago, an incident that led to the first Georgia Davis book, Easy Innocence. Five years ago, there was a hazing at Glenbrook High School, in a suburb of Chicago. Senior girls were hazing junior girls, and six of them ended up in the emergency room. This resulted in all kinds of lawsuits, parents suing each other, the school, the police. Hellmann said mystery writers play a what if game. What if this happened? That hazing incident took place in a forest preserve less than one mile from Libby's house. And, she had a daughter in high school. So, it led her to play the what if game. What if a girl was murdered? Who would have done it? Was it another girl? Was it someone else? This was the perfect vehicle for Georgia.
According to Libby, she's made a number of mistakes in her career, but she did one smart thing. At the end of An Image of Death, she suspended Georgia from the police force. Hellmann said she didn't think she could continue writing about Georgia as a cop. In Easy Innocence, she's a private investigator. It did well, and it went into three reprints. It's a book that peels the layers off North Shore society. There are two groups of North Shore residents. There are the affluent parents whose daughters can get everything they want as to cars and phones and other toys. But, there's an equal number of families who moved there for good schools and good neighborhoods, and those families can't afford all of the toys for their daughters, all of the toys that are badges of acceptance for teenage girls. So, what do those girls do to get money? Libby wouldn't tell the audience what they do in Easy Innocence, but said they go to absurd lengths to get the money to buy the things to be accepted by their peers.
Hellmann's latest book, Doubleback, is the sequel to Easy Innocence. The realism factor forced her to write a new series. By the fourth book in the Ellie Foreman series, Libby knew she was running out of credible reasons for Ellie to get involved in murder investigations. But, it's a lot easier to write about a private investigator as the main character.
There's an implicit contract between writers and readers, according to Hellmann. Whether it's an Ellie book or a Georgia one, readers suspend disbelief, and accept the fact of the murder or crime. In exchange, Libby promises to give readers the most credible, realistic read. The setting and location will be accurate. The motivation of the characters will be realistic. There will be logical development of the plot. She takes that contract seriously. She will research so her facts are correct, and her characters do the logical thing.
In Doubleback, Hellmann gives Ellie a rest as the sleuth. Ellie and Georgia were friends, and she brings the two characters together in this book, but Georgia's the one with the active case.
Libby said if we knew her better, we'd know she's neurotic. She hates to fly. She hates bees. And, she hates the idea of being stuck in elevators. So, the first chapter of Doubleback opens with six people stuck in an elevator in an office building on the Loop in Chicago. It stops abruptly; there's chaos in the elevator, and then a minute later the gears grind, and the elevator starts up. When it arrives at the ground floor, people are still afraid and angry. But, the last man out looks at his watch, and says, "Right on schedule."
Hellmann started to get the idea for this book when Blackwater was all over the news. The head of Blackwater claimed his employees, mercenaries, were not really military personnel, so they weren't responsive to military law. But, they were not really civilians, so they were not accountable to civilian laws. Libby said she was angry, and then she discovered that private security firms were often hired to protect the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Private security firms were hired by some of the towns. And, the borders in Arizona re the most porous. So, she created a border town in Arizona that looks a lot like Douglas. She changed the name to Stevens, and made its Mexican sister city Esteban. Douglas was the perfect town because there had been rumors in Douglas that the brother of the mayor had a drug tunnel under his property.
The story has drug smuggling, and mercenaries who are supposed to be guarding the boarder. But, what if those mercenaries were available to the highest bidder? It was an interesting subject, with great opportunities for conflict and danger. That opening scene with the elevator is linked to the contractors.
Doubleback starts in Chicago, goes to Wisconsin, back to Chicago, and the last third of the book is set in Arizona. Ellie's in the book, but Georgia does the "heavy lifting." Ellie's learned not to endanger herself, because she has a family.
When asked, Libby said she doesn't outline. She did three practice novels that she outlined, and they were never published. She thinks she was writing the outline instead of backing off, and letting the characters lead the story. That might sound spooky. But, Hellmann said she has to get out of the way, and let the characters tell the story.
She does have 10-pole scenes, important scenes where she thinks things will happen. But, Libby said she has the most fun when the character does or says something, and she doesn't know why the character is doing that. It's like magic when, 100 pages later, she realizes why the character did what she did.
She also finds the research fun. It gives her story an angle, such as when she discovered that security contracting firms were hired domestically. She's now writing a book that takes place in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, in 1979 and 1980.
When writing An Image of Death, she knew there was a woman murdered, but she didn't know who that woman was. She decided she was Armenian, and had to research Armenia. In 1988, 20,000 people died in an earthquake in Armenia. Russian troops were sent in on a humanitarian effort, but the troops that went in got sick. The rescuers had to be rescued. So, she decided the woman met a Russian soldier in the hospital, moved with him to Georgia, in the Soviet Union, and was caught up in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Hellmann admitted she has changed her mind as to the ending of books. While writing both Easy Innocence and Doubleback, she changed her mind as to who did it. In her Iran book, a woman falls in love with an Iranian student, moves back to Iran with him, and he's murdered. She's the primary suspect. Hellmann originally planned to have the student's first girl friend as the killer, a woman whose engagement had been arranged, and he broke it off. But, Libby started to like that character, and changed who the killer was.
Libby said her craft just wasn't ready when she wrote her first three books. She hadn't elevated the craft yet. She was telling, and not showing. Her pacing and dialogue weren't right. It takes time to refine it. So, her fourth book was her first one published.
Hellmann said she never thought she'd be a writer. She wanted to be a filmmaker, and her graduate degree is in film production. But, she discovered she wasn't going to make a name for herself there, and she didn't want to be a starving artist in a garret. So, she worked in TV news, since she'd been a history major. If you grow up in D.C., as she did, the national news is about your neighborhood. She worked eight years at different networks. But, when she was forced to work the overnight shift at NBC news, she quit, and moved to Chicago. She worked for a PR firm for eight years to prove she could stay in one job. By then, she had married and had a son, and went freelance, but kept her hand in the film business.
At the time, Libby was reading thrillers, suspense and espionage - Ludlum, Len Deighton, le Carré, but they started to all seem the same. She complained to her mom, who at 90 is still an avid mystery reader, and her mother gave her Jeremiah Healy's The Staked Goat, and said, try this. She loved it. Fifteen years ago, Healy was popular. He wrote about issues, and the Vietnam war. He had a "ballsy" character, John Cuddy. Now, Libby's writing an article for January Magazine's The Rap Sheet about a forgotten mystery that shouldn't be forgotten, and she's writing about The Staked Goat.
So, Hellmann read widely in the mystery field, finding books she loved, such as ones by James Lee Burke, and she said she couldn't ever write a paragraph as well as he did. Then there were the books she threw across the room, saying I can write better than that. So, four months after father died, she emerged from the basement with the worst mystery novel ever written. But, she joined a writers' group, and twelve years later, she's still in it. Most of the writers are published, and most are mystery writers. She will never leave that group.
With her second novel, Hellmann was accepted by a New York agent. By the time she started her third novel, he told her she needed to change voices, plots and agents because he couldn't represent her anymore. So, she did what anyone else would do, cried and drank a lot of wine. She also wrote short stories, which she really likes. Libby said short stories are like an affair, and a novel is a like a marriage. She wrote a short story set in the 1930s in a thriving Jewish Chicago community. It was about a boy with eyes only for an actress who had a thing for a man who might or might not have been a gangster. The story was called "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared," and the story won awards and was published. It was set in 1938.
Then, Libby had her Eureka moment. What if she moved the characters ahead in time. The boy, Jake, would be in his 70s. His daughter, Ellie, would be a video producer with a daughter, and live in the suburbs. Libby lived in the suburbs, was a video producer, and had a daughter. This sequel to the short story became the novel An Eye for Murder. Hellmann rewrote it three times, then sent a query letter. She found a new agent who sold the book ten days later to Berkley. But, she had a very savvy editor there, who contacted Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen Press, and suggested they publish the hardcover, and a month later, Berkley would come out with the book in paperback. All four of the Ellie books were published that way, and then Berkley dropped them. But, Barbara Peters kept her in print, and reprinted Ellie in trade paperback. Now, Hellmann is with Bleak House, and they publish both a hardcover and a trade paperback at the same time.
Hellmann said writing is the hardest thing she's ever done. She loves writing dialogue, and has an ear for people talking. She should be writing plays. She said she's good at pacing. But, she struggles with narrative. But, she's just learned to write ugly, and dribble it. She quoted Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott about writing, about writing "Shitty first drafts." It gave her permission to write ugly. Libby said she hates to write, but loves to edit. So she writes ugly, and now edits it six or seven times. If there wasn't a deadline, she would always be editing. She rewrote her fourth book three times, and that was the first one published.
In Doubleback, Hellmann writes Ellie in first person, and Georgia in third person, because that's how the characters came to her. Some readers have problems with that, but she said Robert Crais did it in LA Requiem, and won an Edgar.
She was asked about sources for her research, and Hellmann said she does a workshop on research. She uses primary sources, such as interviews, field trips, and conversations with people. When she wrote her first book, she took an Armenian family to breakfast, and had a list of questions about growing up in Armenia in the 1970s under Russian occupation. Then, the grandma told about the Armenians and Turks in the country, and having to do a forced march on foot across Armenia, and that's where she met her husband. She also uses the Internet for research. There are good sources there, but you have to check their authority. In preparing for her Iran book, Libby read 12-14 books, fiction and nonfiction, about the Iranian Revolution. She also has five Iranian friends who she emails with questions.
Hellmann said she did go to Douglas to research Doubleback. She and a friend stayed at the Gadsden Hotel, went to the border, crossed over and back, and took pictures. She also has a friend who moved to Douglas who is a big help, and read the parts set there.
It takes Hellmann about a year to write a book. She gets distracted, with writing, promoting, her family, and an occasional day job. In her day job, she trains people for better presentations, to be better speakers, and consults, but she doesn't market that anymore, and her client base has dropped off.
Libby just got back from Bouchercon, an annual mystery convention. She said last year when she was there, she got the idea for her Iran novel. When she's sixty to seventy pages from the end of the book, she gets antsy for her next idea. This year, at Bouchercon, she got the idea for her next Georgia book. In An Image of Death, she left one thing pending, and the book stems from that. It's going to be a dark novel.
When asked her favorite books, she said that's like choosing between your children. But, An Image of Death is her favorite Ellie book. She's happy with both Georgia books, Easy Innocence and Doubleback.
Libby was asked her favorite mystery novels, and she answered with William Kent Krueger, Dennis Lehane, C.J. Box, Zoë Sharp, Jerry Healy. She loves them. Hellmann said she likes darker stuff.
Libby Fischer Hellmann ended her program by saying when she starts a book, the world is in order. A murder, or other crime causes the world to go into chaos. The sleuth brings the world back into order. The book may not have a happy ending, but justice is served.
I have been a library manager/administrator for over 30 years, in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, now, Indiana. Winner of the 2011 Arizona Library Association Outstanding Library Service Award. I am a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery Readers Journal, ReadertoReader.com and VibrantNation.com. Winner of the 2009 and 2010 Spinetingler Awards for Best Reviewer. First Fan Guest of Honor for Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Write Now! Conference.
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