Friday, September 25, 2009

I Stole Libby Fischer Hellmann...

from The Outfit. Well, O.k., I just borrowed her for today. But still she's here with me at Jen's Book Thoughts today and we're just chatting up a storm. So pull up a chair and join me for a little tête-à-tête with one of my favorite crime fiction writers. As you know from my review Tuesday, Libby is preparing to release the second book in her Georgia Davis series, DOUBLEBACK, which teams Georgia up with Libby's long time protagonist, Ellie Foreman. Both DOUBLEBACK and Georgia's first solo novel, EASY INNOCENCE, will be vying for spots on my top reads of 2009 list. Yep! Libby Fischer Hellmann knows how to write crime fiction! So I'm ecstatic to have her here today to talk to us. What do you say we get started?

Q: Published book number five for you is Easy Innocence. Georgia Davis is the main protagonist, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Georgia. She was a supporting character in An Image of Death (the third book in the Ellie Foreman series). In addition, Georgia was the main protagonist in two books you wrote prior to An Eye for Murder (your first published novel). Whew! Is there a question coming or what? Yes! What made you decide on switching to Ellie Foreman for An Eye for Murder? Then, what made you come full circle back to Georgia in Easy Innocence?

Libby: Once I realized that the three novels I wrote before EYE were never going to be published, I decided to change everything… voice, plots, characters, even agents (although that wasn’t my choice, and yes, it’s another story)… Basically, I wiped the slate clean and started fresh with Ellie. But Georgia wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept telling me we weren’t done. I included her briefly in A PICTURE OF GUILT, expanded her role in IMAGE, and even wrote a couple of short stories with her as the protagonist. So clearly, it was only a matter of time until she took center stage. Which happened in EASY INNOCENCE.

Q: Ellie Foreman is an amateur sleuth, whereas Georgia is a former cop turned P.I. Can you talk a little about the differences involved when writing for these two different types of protagonists? How do you research for each? What kinds of mindset changes do you have to make? Do you find one to be easier to write than the other?

Libby: It’s a different mindset. Which I try to respect by writing them in different voices. Ellie is always first person; Georgia is third. It seems to fit their personalities – Ellie likes to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about her, so an “up close and personal” voice works well for her. But Georgia is cautious and aloof. She doesn’t want you to get to know her. So I keep my distance a bit by writing her in third person.

There’s also the issue of professional vs. amateur. After four Ellie novels, it was getting difficult to find a credible reason for Ellie to keep getting involved in murder investigations. Let’s face it, a video producer just doesn’t bump into dead bodies as a matter of course, and I was turning backflips trying to find persuasive motivations. For Georgia, it doesn’t matter. This is her JOB! She’s paid to investigate murders. It’s a tremendous relief.

As for easier, in a way, it’s probably easier to write Ellie, because she shares my sensibility more than Georgia. But Georgia keeps surprising me, so I love writing her as well. In both cases, though, I do a lot of research on the latest video techniques, Investigations, and police procedure. In fact, I regularly call PIs I know to make sure I get it right.

Q: Libby, you have created two strong, realistic, female protagonists. Where did your ideas stem from for their creations? Was there anyone who you say you modeled either character after? How about yourself? Do you share traits with either Ellie or Georgia?

Libby: As I said, I probably lean a little more toward Ellie, but there’s a part of me that’s Georgia, too. So I draw on different aspects of my personality when I’m writing each woman. Their “births” were not calculated; I just started writing, and both of them emerged (at different times, of course). That’s probably the best part of the writing process… when a character surprises you by appearing on the page, and in their cases, takes over.

Q: Both ladies will be starring in the next book, Doubleback due out in October. Can you tell us a little about this new book? Are both women going to have equal billing in this novel or is one a little more prominent then the other?

Libby: I started with the idea that they would be equal, but I also knew that Georgia would be doing most of the “heavy lifting.” So Georgia is slightly more prominent than Ellie.

Q: You give your readers access to some anecdotal research you used when writing Easy Innocence and you acknowledged a segment from the Oprah Winfrey show. Is there an event or specific story that ignited the idea for Doubleback? What kind of research was involved for you in this new book?

Libby: Like many others, I was curious – and alarmed – at the role companies like Blackwater are and were playing in conjunction with our military. The fact that Blackwater considered itself exempt from military as well as civilian oversight was quite dangerous, I thought. So I began to read more about the company… LICENSED TO KILL, and BLACKWATER are two very good books on the subject. After reading those, I knew I wanted to explore the possibilities of a fictitious security company. Around the same time, I got the idea for the first chapter (the elevator scene). I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I had no idea what it meant, or how I would use it, but I knew it had to be in the book. So my challenge was to link the two ideas. Ultimately, what evolved was DOUBLEBACK.

Q: While Ellie and Georgia are both strong female protagonists, they are also quite different. Their co-existence in Doubleback had a strong effect on the novel, do you have plans to continue writing with both of them or will you return to focus on one or the other? What is in store for your heroines after Doubleback? Any new characters from Doubleback going to make appearances in the future? (There’s one I kinda wondered about.)

Libby: I’m not sure whether I’ll continue the “partnership” – it all depends on the story. I’d like to, but, again, I don’t want to strain credibility. If it works, I will. If not, it will be a Georgia Davis book.

Funny you should mention new characters. I have plans for one of the characters who surfaces in DOUBLEBACK in the next book, although he isn’t really new. He was in A SHOT TO DIE FOR. Can you guess who it is?

Q: In some previous interviews you mentioned a stand-alone novel, Set the Night on Fire. Can you share a little about it?

Libby: This was a book I had to write. The first and third parts take place in the present. The second part goes back to the late ‘60s in Chicago. (The Democratic Convention through Kent State). The premise is that a young woman is being stalked… she doesn’t know who, and she doesn’t know why. She finds out in the course of the book. In a way, this book was a catharsis for me. I loved writing about the ‘60s (I actually do remember them), but I loved finishing that part even more. It was as if I’d finally put the ‘60s behind me.

Q: In addition to all this novel writing, you also are quite prolific when it comes to the short story format. You’ve published over a dozen short stories! When you start to formulate an idea, how do you decide which format you’re going to use? Do you prefer one over the other?

Libby: I pretty much know before I start whether I’m writing a short story or novel. The concept of a short story has to be more contained, more limited. The language, too, needs to be more concise. I like writing both formats… I usually say a short story is like an affair: hot and passionate, while a novel is like a marriage: it takes patience but can be immensely satisfying.

Q: What is the greatest challenge or struggle for you when writing a novel? When writing a short story?

Libby: It’s the same for both – narrative. I’m pretty good at dialogue, and my film editor instincts tell me when and how to start and end a scene, but I’m totally insecure about language. I’m always trying to elevate my prose from “workmanlike” to something beautiful. Sometimes I succeed; often I don’t. So that’s the biggest challenge for me.

Q: I love character, so I’m always intrigued by the role characters play in the writing process. Have you ever had a character surprise you or change your “planned direction” while writing?

Libby: All the time. It’s usually characters that I’ve only conceptualized as two-dimensional. When it’s time to give them their time in the spotlight, they end up doing and saying things I had no idea were in their brains. They turn into real people with complex motivations and behavior. As I said before, I love when that happens. It’s happened in almost every book I’ve written, and I hope it keeps up.

Q: In the past you’ve commented that you often visualize a lot of what is going on with the characters and plot due to your background in television production. If that’s the case, who – if anyone - would you visualize playing the role of Ellie and who would play the role of Georgia in a television series or movie?

Libby: In a perfect world, I see Marisa Tomei as Ellie. Or Sandra Bullock. Kate Winslet wouldn’t be half bad either. Or Kathryn Keenan. I think Scarlet Johannsen would make a great Georgia. Or Gwyneth Paltrow.

Q: Your Chicago setting plays quite a significant role in your books, and you’re not a native of Chicago. But you have been living in Chicago for thirty years. Do you think there are advantages you have over a native Chicagoian (is that what folks from Chicago are?) when you write? Disadvantages?

Libby: I think people who have always lived in one place do have an advantage over “transplants,” simply because of osmosis. They’ve absorbed the culture, the patois, the mannerisms for a lot longer. But I think being an “outsider” has benefits too. The detachment from the setting, the ability to see a place, warts and all, can only help a writer. And I still am learning about my “new” hometown…the neighborhoods, the history, the places to go or never to show one’s face… I love discovering it all.

And obviously, Chicago has a rich crime history to enhance it as a great city to set crime novels. What are some of the ways Chicago is different from other cities that you’ve discovered you need to be acutely aware of as you write?

I grew up in Washington, DC, and when you were talking about the neighbors at the dinner table, you were talking politics. DC is basically a one-industry town, and it’s hard when you’re not involved in that industry. Chicago, on the other hand, is so diverse: in its industries, its class structure, its customs, its sports teams. It’s a real city, with real corruption, real politics, real graft. I love its parochialism... the fact that everything is local. Tip O’Neill (a former Speaker of the House) said “all politics is local.” I now know what he meant.

Q: Libby, you have a graduate degree from New York University in Film Production, and you did work in television for awhile. Was writing always an ambition for you or did it evolve from the film work? When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? And why crime fiction; what drew you to the genre?

Libby: Writing was an accident. It was never in my master plan. I was going to be a film-maker in the style of Lina Wertmuller – Ingmar Bergman and I were going to ride into the sunset together. Of course, that didn’t happen. I only worked on a couple of feature films as a production assistant before I realized that type of career just wasn’t very stable. So I moved into TV news, (politics and current events have always been one of my passions too)… which of course was just as unstable. I think I had 6 jobs in 8 years. I ultimately left TV news, joined a PR firm, which brought me to Chicago. I stayed there for 8 years, just to prove to myself I could stay in one job. During all of this I was-- and continue to be -- a voracious reader. I started with thrillers, moved to mysteries, and after a while, decided I should give it a try. That was about 13 years ago.

Q: Are there any writers that you feel influenced your style?

Libby: I’m influenced by everyone, good and bad. Sometimes I think to myself, “if I could write a paragraph as beautifully as James Lee Burke, I’ll die happy.” Other times, I throw a book across the room, thinking “I can do better than that.”

Q: So between your novel writing, short story writing, blogging with The Outfit, involvement in professional organizations and your freelance work, do you have any time for additional hobbies? What do you like to do in your spare time?

Libby: I read in my spare time. I also work out, listen to Blues, am an “irregular” gardener, love to go to films, and spend altogether too much time playing online Scrabble.

I feel like that's such an abrupt end. I'm thinking I need to come up with a new signature end question now that I've used my six-word memoir question in the series project. But regardless, I'm so happy that Libby could be so generous with her time and share some insider details with us! ;) You can also find out more about Libby at her website and you can follow her blogging over at The Outfit with the rest of the Chicago gang.

Remember that today is the last day to enter the contest to win a limited edition copy of Libby's short story "The Murder of Katie Boyle" which was written to celebrate the release of DOUBLEBACK and the re-release of AN IMAGE OF DEATH. The details for entry are here. I'll be drawing three lucky winners tomorrow for copy numbers 56 through 58. And also, DOUBLEBACK will be available in bookstores next month!

Many, many thanks to Libby. I'm looking forward to meeting Libby in person next month, as can any of you who are headed out to Indianapolis for Bouchercon. And given my love of this talented lady's writing, I'm certainly hoping this isn't the last time we will see Libby here. But I better let her return to The Outfit before they come hunting me down!

Happy Reading everyone!


Kaye Barley September 25, 2009 at 10:49 AM  

Terrific Interview!!!!!
DOUBLEBACK sounds fascinating, and I can't wait to read it!

Libby Hellmann September 25, 2009 at 11:53 AM  

Thanks, Kaye... It's appreciated. And Jen, how can I thank you? You're the best friend a crime fiction author could ask for. Drinks on me at Bcon! And anyone else who comments here (um... do I really want to do that? Oh sure. Why not?).

le0pard13 September 25, 2009 at 11:58 AM  

Wonderful interview, Jen. Plus, any author capable of producing strong, realistic, female protagonists is one that draws my attention. And I get the feeling this is one of your recommendations for more of the great Chicago crime fiction you've mentioned. Great stuff. Thanks, Jen.

♥Jen♥ September 25, 2009 at 12:22 PM  

Libby, so happy to have you today. Chatting and learning more about you has been so much fun. Can't wait to do it in person next month!!

Thanks Kaye and Michael for dropping by. Michael just did a nice post on Chicago film and literature not too long ago. We must be having a theme going! :)

Corey Wilde September 25, 2009 at 1:00 PM  

“if I could write a paragraph as beautifully as James Lee Burke, I’ll die happy.” Yep, sometimes just reading JLB I think I could die happy with his words in my head.

Good interview, Jen. I have Ms Hellman's Easy Innocence in my TBR stack. Looks like I need to bump it up to the top.

beauvallet September 25, 2009 at 1:43 PM  

Is it just me, or do Chicago crime fic writers like Hellmann and Chercover and Sakey seem to have more of a 'finger on the pulse' of crime and corruption? I know the LA writers get a lot of acclaim (and I personally think Robert Crais walks on water), but it seems to me that the Chicago writers bring more of a journalistic aspect to their topics and themes, reminding all of us of important issues that often go unnoticed, e.g. that outfits like Blackwater didn't just go away because Bush and Cheney left the White House.

Libby Hellmann September 25, 2009 at 2:35 PM  

That's a very interesting observation, Beauvallet (hope I got that right). A good many of us actually have been or still are journalists.. or working in the political arena. At least 4 of us on The Outfit (our blog) were or still are.

I also think the various corruption probes are so active these days, particularly in Illinois, (thanks to Blago) that it's hard not to use/adapt the material fictionally.

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