Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Talking with Libby Fischer Hellmann

by Sandra Parshall

Libby Fischer Hellmann is a woman of many talents who has published seven crime novels and numerous short stories, served as national president of Sisters in Crime, and pursued a career in broadcast news before founding Fischer Hellman Communications, to provide speaking, presentation, and media training. She also writes and produces video. A transplant from Washington, DC, she lives and works in Chicago and sets most of her fiction there.

Crime fiction readers know Libby as the author of the Ellie Forman mysteries and two novels featuring Georgia Davis, a hardboiled female PI in Chicago. She has also edited an acclaimed crime fiction anthology, Chicago Blues, and published an e-collection of her own short stories called Nice Girl Does Noir. Her seventh novel, Set the Night on Fire (December, 2010), is a standalone thriller that goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago. Publishers Weekly describes it as “top-rate” and says, “A jazzy fusion of past and present, Hellman's insightful, politically charged whodunit explores a fascinating period in American history.”

Q. Please tell us a little about Set the Night on Fire.

A. Set the Night on Fire is my first stand-alone novel. I wanted to write something different; namely, an adrenaline-fueled thriller with a female protagonist. The final product is a three-part story that takes place mostly in the present, except for the middle, which goes back to 1968-1970.
It begins with the premise of the most frightening thing that could happen to a woman. Barring anything that involves children, I decided that being targeted for murder by someone you don’t know, for a reason you don’t understand is the most frightening. So that’s exactly what happens to my 30-something protagonist, Lila Hilliard.

Q. You've said this is a story you've wanted to write for a long time. What do you find compelling about the Vietnam era and the people whose lives were changed by it?

A. I’ve always had unresolved feelings about the ‘60s. 1968 was the turning point in my political  “coming of age,” and while the ensuing years were ones of passion, commitment, and energy, we didn’t change the world. It changed us. I’ve often wondered why, whether it was destined to happen, or whether we could have done anything differently. Why were the institutions of our politics and society so resilient? Was that a good thing or not? And so I decided to explore the era again, from the perspective of six young people who lived through it as I did.

Q. Where did Dar come from? Is he based on a real person?

A. Not really. The thought occurred that he might be a young Tom Hayden when I started, but he turned out to be his own person.

Q. How involved were you in the youth protest movement of the late 60s?

A. I worked for an underground newspaper, Quicksilver Times, in Washington, DC for a few months, and I took part in a number of anti-war activities in college.

Q. You move between past and present in the book, and the contrast in attitudes of young people is striking. Was it easy or difficult to make the mental switch as you wrote the different sections?

A. It was easy. It just seemed to flow. The attitudes of the characters came from people that I met and interacted with during those times. Some were “straights”; others were “freaks”; and some defied any categorization. The characters in the present were shaped by their experiences as well, which made them all very different people. At least to me.

Q. With all that you've lived through since then, and the changes you've seen in society, did you have any trouble putting yourself into the mindset of the anti-war protesters who thought they were going to bring about a social revolution? Looking back on that era, do they seem naive or misguided to you now? 

A. Na├»ve, certainly. And arrogant, to a degree. But not misguided. I still believe in most of the ideas I did back then: Stop war. Fix the culture. Bring true equality to society. Let the earth sustain us rather than exploiting it. We really did think we could change the world, and not to be trite, we were convinced “The Whole World Was Watching.” The problems resulted when the world didn’t respond the way we thought they should. Eventually, that conflict turned into violence, which, after a time, gave way to apathy.

Q. In the course of your research, did you talk to any of the people involved in the late 60s protests, or read what they've written about their pasts?

A. I didn’t have to. I was there, and I’m aware of the evolution that I’ve gone through. I’ve also had lots of time to mull over the changes that other people, who didn’t share my beliefs and philosophies, went through as well.  I did read the Port Huron statement all the way through, and I read most of the transcript of the Chicago 7 trial. Given a 40 year perspective, they were fascinating. 

Q. Do you believe young readers today will understand your characters?

A. Absolutely. Young people haven’t changed. Neither have the issues. Most of them still plague our planet. Some of the philosophies of the Sixties are now embedded in the Progressive movement; others are part of the so-called Tea Party, although I’m skeptical that those folks are a true grass-roots organization. Nonetheless, the conflict between the political parties today isn’t all that different from the conflict between the activists and people who thought government should get out of their lives.

Q. Does this book mark a departure for you, a new direction in your writing? Will you go back to series mysteries, or would you like to continue writing stand-alones?

A. I left Georgia Davis on page 60 of her third outing, so I will be going back to her. However, I do admit to being “seduced” by the concept of stand-alone thrillers with a historical component. So I’ve written another, and am part way through a third. But I have every intention of going back to Georgia. She’s just too good a character to leave in the dust. Ellie Foreman, too. I actually miss her sometimes.

Q. What kind of books do you read for pleasure? As a writer, do you find yourself learning from everything you read, even when you’re reading purely for recreation?

A. My reading is eclectic. I used to read crime fiction almost exclusively. That’s changed recently. I’m reading all sorts of fiction and, increasingly, non-fiction, which I used to do years ago. For example, I’m almost done with Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy, a wonderful account of the history and growth of corporate espionage. And I’m also reading The Heights, a novel about a family in New York, in which the wife goes back to work.

Q. Can you name authors who have had an impact on your writing – writers you've learned from – and tell us what you learned from reading their work?

A. That would take an entire blog post, Sandy. I’ve learned from every author I read. Sometimes it’s what not to do, but more often reading others helps me stretch as a writer. When I began to take writing seriously, I read widely in the genre, and learned the “structure” of a mystery. I also read thrillers and was able to see the contrasts between the two. I also feel it’s important to read literary fiction, although I’m not reading as much as I’d like, because of time constraints. I would be very happy on a desert island, as long as I could have access to books.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m working on a three-generational thriller that spans three continents. It’s probably my most ambitious work ever. So we’ll see if it pans out.

Q. Finally, what are your views on e-publishing? Would you advise unpublished writers to continue seeking traditional publication, or do you think e-book self-publishing is gaining a degree of respectability?

A. You want to put me on the spot, don’t you?

No, I don’t think unpublished writers should leap to e-books, and yes, I think  they should continue to seek traditional venues, simply because those venues are the filters we need, regardless of format or delivery system. Having said that, though, I am aware that publishers are much more cautious now than ever. (Would we be published today if we hadn’t been years ago?) So I’m willing to admit there are some authors and some books that have slipped through the cracks and deserve a wider readership.

What I’d like to see happen are more filters and/or guidance as we navigate through the sea of e-publishing. We need to know which books are worth it and which are not. It’s still the Wild West out there. 

For more information, visit Libby's website. She blogs with “The Outfit Collective” at


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, wonderful interview, terrific book!

Libby, I think even participating in marches and rallies is a life-changing thing--an experience that so many of a different (younger!) generation simply never have.

The idea of committing to something is almost an alien concept these days, you know?

I'm so grateful to have been a part of the 60's--I know it changed me. And for the better.
And your book gives an insight into how and why that can happen..even for readers who didn't experience it themselves.

And now I'm humming Light My Fire!

Janet C said...

I read this book yesterday in one big gulp. I couldn't put it down until I made my way through all the twists and turns. As a boomer who also lived through the era, it brought back tons of memories.

Sandy Cody said...

"Set the Night on Fire" sounds like a fascinating read. Great interview. Good questions, good answers. Kudos, Ladies.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, Hank, for your comment. I'm still not sure about our legacy. All I do know is that when I started the book I had unresolved feelings about the '60s but when I finished, I knew I was finally "over" them. In some ways, the story WAS an elegy for the times.

Thanks, Janet. That's about the nicest thing you could possibly say!

Btw, Shelf Awareness is featuring the book trailer we did, which includes actual color footage of the '68 Democratic Convention. You can see it at my website:

And thanks, Sandy for hosting me.

Julia Buckley said...

Great interview! Thanks for sharing, Libby.