Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Interview with SinC President and Mystery Writer Libby Hellmann

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Let's start by talking about your new blog, "The Outfit," which you share with Chicago writers Sara Paretsky, Barbara D'Amato, Marcus Sakey, Kevin Guilfoyle, Sean Chercover and Michael Allen Dymmoch. Wow! What an august group. How did you all happen to agree to share a blog? Were you all just having coffee one day?
Actually, it was rather cosmic. I’d been mulling over whether to start a blog– I was hesitant because I didn’t want to go it alone. I also knew I didn’t want to blog more than once every couple of weeks. I happened to be talking to Jon Jordan (editor of CrimeSpree Magazine) and wondered out loud what he thought of a Chicago Crime Fiction blog. He thought the idea rocked, and suggested a few people who he thought might be interested in joining in. I followed his suggestions, threw in a couple of my own, and we were off and running! I still can’t believe it was that easy.

Which day of the week will you be blogging?
We have a rotation, which basically gives us one blog post every two weeks. We’re not updating it every day--that’s too much. I don’t think any of us wants to feel chained to it or feel like it’s a burden. Plus, we’re all still learning what works and what doesn’t. And we’re dealing with the inevitable technical glitches (for example, I posted for the first time, got very few responses, figured I’d ticked off the world, then learned something was wrong at the end).

You seem to have limitless energy. I base this on the following: you make many public appearances, you write novels, you are currently National President of Sisters in Crime. When not writing fiction, you conduct executive training programs in presentation skills, speech delivery, and media interviews. You also write video scripts, articles, and speeches. Oh, and you have a family. How do you do it? Do you just naturally have lots of energy?
I guess I compartmentalize pretty well. Although something always suffers. Right now it’s my writing. Sisters in Crime has taken up enormous chunks of time and energy. And my daughter is getting ready to apply to colleges, another huge investment of time, travel, and “household management.” And I’ve pretty much let my day job(s) fall by the wayside. If someone – an old client, or a referral – comes to me, I’ll do the training or the script, but I’m not marketing myself anymore. The one thing I do want to do is get closer to the writing again, and I plan to edit an anthology over the next year, instead of getting involved in organizations.

There is a photo of you on your website at the Ellsworth Correctional Center in Racine, Wisconsin. How did you end up speaking at a prison? Was the audience receptive? Did you speak about writing, or about crime?
That was one of the most interesting – and rewarding - experiences I’ve had as an author. It actually came about through the CRM of a Barnes and Noble in Racine. Two members of the Racine book group worked at the facility, and they thought my 3rd book, AN IMAGE OF DEATH, would resonate with the women… the subject matter explores what happens to women who have no options, who are desperate, and yet have to survive. These are issues the inmates are familiar with. I must admit I was scared out of my mind when I started . . . but after five minutes, I relaxed. They’d all read the book, loved it, and we shared a very special hour or two together. I would go back in a New York minute, but only if I have the right book to share with them. Which hopefully I will in another year.

Your most recent book, A Shot to Die For, starts with a murder. Do you generally try to begin your books with action?
I do. I believe a murder is the catalyst through which the world of the book falls out of harmony and into chaos. It’s then the job of the sleuth to restore order and see that justice is served. In that respect, mysteries are quite structured. I like that.

How did you happen to create Ellie Foreman? Did she come to you fully formed, or a little at a time?
Ellie came to life in my fourth book. I’d written three previously, none of which were ever published. In fact, in two of the three, the protagonists were male cops, even though I knew nothing about police procedure, nor very much about being a man. When I finally “found” Ellie, by way of a short story that featured her father, she did “spring” fully formed onto the page. It was as if she was waiting for me, rather impatiently, wondering when I was going to find her. I’ll never forget reading the first chapter of the book that became AN EYE FOR MURDER to my writing group: a scene between Ellie and her daughter. When I’d finished, they were all very quiet. Then one member said, “You found your voice.” What a thrilling moment that was!

What's your latest writing project?
I just finished a PI book that’s really a spin off from the Ellie series. I had a character in AN IMAGE OF DEATH, a female cop, who was working the case along with Ellie in a kind of parallel play. Her name was Georgia Davis, and I knew she wasn’t finished with me. She became the protagonist of EASY INNOCENCE. I just finished the revisions and it’s with my agent now. And now, I’ve just started a thriller that goes back to the late ‘60s in Chicago.

You have a beagle named Shiloh. I have a beagle named Simon. Does your beagle howl? Does he ever accompany you when you're researching a book?
He’s a pretty laid back Beagle. He rarely howls. Unless he’s chasing rabbits or possums. I remember when we got him, we specifically asked the breeder for the most laid back of the litter. He was… and is!

Do your family members ever ask you to put them in your books?
All the time. In fact, I’m originally from Washington DC, and my family kept wanting me to set a book in DC. So I decided that AN IMAGE OF DEATH would take Ellie to DC to visit a “cousin” and the plot would develop from there. Except when it was time to take her there, I got writers’ block. I couldn’t write. I did laundry, cleaned the house, went shopping, paid attention to my family. It turned out that Ellie didn’t want to go to DC. She had no reason to, and she was letting me know. I ended up not setting the book in DC. So much for family in books. (Except Rachel, Ellie’s daughter, who might be based on my daughter. Then again, maybe she’s not. I’m not telling.)

You used to work in television news. What is more stressful: news production, or mystery writing? Do you use your news experience to create the details of Ellie Foreman's profession?
Interesting question, Julia. I would say mystery writing is more stressful, because it’s my own work. With news, I was reporting on a third party, and though I created the story, it’s still based on someone else or some external issue. With my own writing, I’m exposing myself, my talent (or lack of it), and, to some extent, my sensibilities to the world. That’s scary. I try not to think about it.

It’s funny… when I decided that Ellie would be a video producer with a news background, I figured that would be one less thing I’d have to research. Of course, I was wrong. I left production just when digital systems were arriving, so I had to bone up on the new technology and what it’s meant for producers, crew members, and their clients. Still, to answer your question, of course I use my experience to help define and create Ellie. She is always producing a video of some sort in each book, and sometimes the issues inherent in those videos actually help drive the plot.

Do you ever give yourself a vacation? Or are you always working a little bit?
Vacation for me is not writing and reading other peoples’ work. I love it. I try to take as many vacations as possible. Daily, in fact.

Tell us about Sex, Lies and Videotape. (Not the movie. Unless you want to.)
When I was first published, I toured with two other first-time authors, Deborah Donnelly and Roberta Isleib. Deborah wrote a wedding planner series, Roberta a golfing series, and Ellie, of course, was a video producer. Hence, the name. They continue to be blood sisters… although all three of us are in the process of moving on to other series and projects. We’re in touch almost daily, and we share everything. They are two of my closest friends, and I’ll never forget the great time we had touring. They literally changed my life. (More about that later. Maybe).

How can your fans find out more about you?
What a wonderful question! Go to my website: and if you STILL haven’t had enough, email me.

You were on four panels at ConMysterio. One was "Promotions: What Works and Why." I wasn’t there, but I'd love to hear this speech. Will you blog about it some time at "The Outfit?"
Sure. Stay tuned.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Libby!


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the interview with Libby Hellman very much, as I have all of your other interviews. It's great to see what the authors have to say about their writing. Sorry, I wasn't able to make your signing at "Centuries and Sleuths." Had a conflict. The store is a great resource for west suburban Chicago.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Margaret! It's nice to know you're reading them, and I appreciate the thought about the signing. There will be more . . .

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