Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sharp, Hellmann and Black in Arizona

Left to right - Cara Black, Libby Hellmann and Zoë Sharp
Usually, that heading says for Authors @ The Teague or at The Poisoned Pen, but since I not only hosted Zoë Sharp, Libby Hellmann and Cara Black at the library, but also went to see them at The Poisoned Pen, this is a lengthy combined post.

Libby Hellmann acted as panel moderator, saying when she and Cara toured together, they usually referred to it as the Thelma and Louise tour.  But, Zoë said she really didn't want to play the Brad Pitt role.

Cara Black started by discussing her new book, Murder in Passy, the eleventh book in the Aimée Leduc series. All of her books are set in Paris. This one is set in the 16th arrondissement, a neighborhood so large it has two zip codes.  And, it's so chic that the maids wear pearls. 

Cara picked this arrondissement because of her interest in the Basques. She lives in San Francisco, near a Basque center. When Black's son was young, the family did a house exchange and went to France. They stayed in Basque country, and found everyone warm and welcoming. But, then they decided to go to Spain for a day to have tapas. And, they became lost in the Pyrenees in the days before GPS. All the street signs in that area had been defaced by Basque nationalists. And, they came across the rubble of a house that had been bombed by the ETA, the Basque nationalist and socialist group. The signs of violence in such a peaceful setting was disturbing. When Cara learned there had once been a Basque cultural center in the 16th arrondissement, she knew she had found her next story. She wanted to write about overtones of Basque terrorism in the elite neighborhood. 

Zoë Sharp was next to discuss her latest book, Fourth Day. That's the eighth book in the Charlie Fox series, featuring the female bodyguard. This one is set in California. Sharp wanted to do a book about cults. But, she wanted to twist expectations as to what a novel about cults would be. The cult in this book isn't a normal cult. And, she went at the story from a different angle.  Sharp read about Waco and Ruby Ridge. And, she talked to law enforcement about those places, asking what they would have done.

 Zoë picked California for her setting because it had the type of geography she wanted. It's partially set in a desert location. It's a story about Charlie's search for redemption. The Fourth Day cult believes that people can't be rebuilt until they're broken. And, Charlie's searching for answers. Sharp mixed all of this into her book.

Libby Hellmann told us Set the Night on Fire is her seventh novel. She writes two series. They feature Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis. Libby wanted to write a standalone thriller, an adrenaline filled book. So, she tried to think of the most frightening thing that could happen to people, while avoiding threats to children and pets. What if you were being followed and someone was trying to kill you, and you don't know who or why? That's what happens to Lila Hilliard. While she tries to answer that question, she uncovers information about her parents' past that she never knew.

Lila's parents' story goes back to the '60s in Chicago, including 1968 and the Democratic convention. There were six young people who lived together. The story of what happened then is the mid-section of the book. Two parts are set in the present, and one part of the book in the past. Hellmann said she found it most exciting that she had permission to use four lines from the Doors' Light My Fire as the epigraph, and it didn't cost her a fortune.

Libby asked the authors to tell us about their latest books. Cara started with Murder in Passy. Aimée's relationship with her godfather, Morbier, has always been uneasy. He keeps secrets from her about her family's past, including stories of her mother as a terrorist. In this book, Morbier is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Aimée doesn't know if she trusts him to tell her the truth. This book explores the issues of trust.

Black said Passy was a village until 1860 when it became part of Paris. Empress Eugénie III, wife of Napoleon III, used to go to Passy to take the waters. Balzac hid there to escape his creditors, drinking fifty cups of coffee a day as he frantically wrote. The village feeling still exists in Passy. Cara has a friend whose great aunt was a maid in village. When they picked her up to take her to a retirement home, she was crying, "I want to die in Passy!" She didn't want to leave the village. Asked why there was a Basque cultural center there, Cara answered that it wasn't always expensive to live in Passy. It had proletarian roots.

In Fourth Day, Sharp's novel, Charlie and her partner, Sean, are hired to go into Fourth Day to extract Thomas Witney who went in five years earlier to prove that Randall Bane, the charismatic leader, murdered Witney's son. Now, Thomas says Randall didn't kill his son. But, soon after Witney comes out, he meets a tragic end. So, his ex-wife wants to know if he was brainwashed. What happened to Witney while he was there? And, she wants to know if a child in there is Thomas' grandson.

So, Charlie goes in to Fourth Day. She's looking for redemption, and thinks she might be able to find the truth if she goes into that environment. What is the truth? The book goes against preconceptions.

Zoë did a great deal of research about Waco and Ruby Ridge. She enjoys doing research, but then you throw 90% of it away when you write. She learned little points. There were hundreds of federal agents at Waco. There were also two members of the British SAS there as observers. When the ATF agents prepared to go in, the military knew they weren't suited for the job. So, they told them to write their blood group on their neck or forearm. Can you imagine a job so dangerous, you had to write that on your body? Sharp used that in her book.

Libby Hellmann said people ask her why she wrote about the '60s. She's originally from D.C., although she's lived in Chicago for the last thirty years. But, when you grow up in D.C., and talk about the neighbors, you're talking politics. Libby was in college in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, her college boyfriend had been tapped to head the youth for Robert Kennedy campaign. So, Libby planned to drop out of college in the fall, and work for him. She was home for the summer, and turned on the TV to learn Kennedy was shot. Her friends were being drafted. She thought, why work through the system if it didn't work for us. So, writing about those two years was an exorcism for Hellmann.

Libby said she and her friends didn't succeed or change anything. The system and the government are what it always was. But, she's not the person she was at that time. She loved writing about the '60s, finishing the book, and putting it behind her. It was an exorcism. Zoë said someone said, "Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in."

Cara said when she told Libby she was writing about the Basques, Libby said she'd been friends with a Basque exchange student in D.C. Elizabeta spent the '60s in Spain under Franco. She was part of the protests, and spent time in prison for protesting. The Basques wanted to keep their own language. Eventually, she fled to France by boat to hide out. Sharp said there's no substitute for finding a person who was there, even in the days of the Internet.

The authors were asked how they keep their series fresh. Zoë answered that you take characters you care for, and create conflict. There's pressure testing the character. So, she takes Charlie Fox and tests her, or creates conflict. Charlie taught self-defense. So, in Second Shot, Sharp had her shot twice on the first page. She doesn't have her physical self-assurance. She spends half the book on crutches. Each of Sharp's books is a standalone with the story of that book. At the same time, she's relating the journey of the character in the series. The individual story is the length of one book, but the character's journey goes on.

In Murder in the Bastille, Cara Black asked how she could hobble Aimée Leduc, and still allow her to do her job. Cara said a woman in her writing group was blinded for eight months because of a virus. She eventually got her eyesight back. So, in this book, Aimée is blinded. But, Black was thirty pages into the writing of it, and felt like a fraud. How can she describe Paris when Aimée can't see it? So, René, a dwarf, and Aimée's business partner, had lots of pages seen through his eyes.

Black's character continues to grow. She's searching for her mother. What happened to her father. In Murder in Passy, she's pulled into defending her godfather, Morbier, because no one else will.

Libby said she keeps her series fresh by starting new ones. She calls her four Ellie Foreman books a cross between Desperate Housewives and 24. Ellie was a video producer, as Hellmann was. And, after a while, Libby was having a hard time finding credible reasons for a video producer to be involved in murder investigations.

But, in book two in the Ellie Foreman series, Hellmann introduced a cop named Georgia Davis. And, she knew Georgia would have her own book someday. That book became Easy Innocence. Georgia had been suspended at the end of book three. She became a private investigator in Easy Innocence. Doubleback brings Ellie and Georgia together. Readers don't know Georgia as well as Ellie. Georgia has baggage. Ellie's the type that will tell you everything. But, it is Georgia's job to investigate crimes. Readers do find out a little more about her background in the third book. Hellmann will be going back to Georgia eventually.

An audience member asked the women what they're background was before they started writing. Hellmann went to grad school in film, but ended up working in network news. Her last job in news was at the overnight desk at NBC News in D.C. She quit that to take a job in P.R. in Chicago. She did that for eight years, and fell into writing. It took her four months to write her first book, the worst book ever written. Now, it takes her eighteen months to write a book. She has more control over words than she did film.

Cara Black came from a family of readers. They went to the library every Saturday morning. Even at the end of his life, when her father had Alzheimer's, Cara's father read seven books a week. Her father once suggested she read P.D. James, and she kept saying no. After school, Black went to Europe, and backpacked. When she came home, she became a preschool teacher. Then, she stayed home with her son.

Why write? A friend took Cara to an apartment in the Marais in Paris, and told her that was where her mother lived during the German occupation. She wore a yellow star, and lived there alone, since her parents had been taken. She later learned her parents had died in Auschwitz. Black wanted to tell that story.

Once Black put her son in preschool for two hours a week, her husband said she should take that extra time to take writing classes. She learned the detective novel provided a great structure for her to tell her story. It took her 3 1/2 years to write her first book, Murder in the Marais.

Zoë told us she was embarrassed to say she opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve. Then, she decided at fifteen that it was time to get a job. She did everything, including delivering yachts. Sharp did lots of strange stuff, but nothing is ever wasted as a writer. For example, they were in New York at Christmas, and she cut her finger with a knife. It was a deep cut that bled all over. She realized how hot blood is, and that she must use that experience some day.

Sharp had a short lived job selling advertising for a newspaper. She hated the job, and asked if she could write for the newspaper. They said no, she wasn't qualified, so she became a freelancer, and was paid to write for four years. She wrote for magazines. When she writing freelance for one job, there was a time whenever her photo would appear that she would get death threats. The police never found who sent them. So, Zoë decided to take it a step further. What would it be like to be followed whenever you went out? That scenario became the idea for Charlie Fox, and the first book, Killer Instinct.

Libby's first book published was actually her fourth written. After the second book, she got an agent in New York, and thought she was on her way. Six months later, he told her he couldn't sell her book. He suggested she change the voice, her plots, her characters, and, by the way, her agent. He didn't want to represent her anymore. But, then one short story she wrote did well.  It was set in the 1930s, so she thought maybe she could do something with that. But, she didn't want to write about the '30s, so she took the story, moved it sixty years in the future, and made it about her character's daughter, Ellie Foreman. So, she really needs to thank that literary agent who dropped her for starting her literary career.

Sharp said the editor who refused to take her on at the newspaper because she wasn't qualified, later took her to an expensive lunch and offered her the editorship of a newspaper. After enjoying the lunch, she told him he couldn't afford her.

Asked about the writing process and writer's block, Zoë answered that she doesn't get it. She often finds solutions to problems in the shower. She does outline her books, and uses those outlines as a road map. She knows her destination. Then, she can enjoy the journey.

Sharp's books are a first person narrative. She has to get inside Charlie's head. So, she writes the jacket copy first, and tells her agent what it says to see if she likes the idea. That jacket copy provides the focus of the book, and helps Sharp pull the book back into focus if she gets lost half way. She does a huge outline, writing everything from everyone's point of view. Then, she does an outline only from Charlie's point of view, showing just what Charlie knows.

Cara is a seat of the pantser writer. She has to find a part of Paris that intrigues her, bothers her. She starts with a sense of place. What makes that area unique? Why would a crime happen here? Black mentally "Lives there for a year." Why would Aimée Leduc be involved? It's more important that Aimée be personally involved. Why would she be involved?

After finding that sense of place, Cara goes back to her preschool days, and does a timeline on butcher paper. The timeline begins with Monday, and where her characters are. She uses post-its on the butcher paper. By page 100, she needs to know who the most important character is, the villain. When the villain enters the story, a crime happens. Why is the villain doing this? Learning all of that is like peeling an onion.

Libby is also a seat of the pantser. She uses notes. She thinks she knows who did it, but there may be changes. She's had a person she thought did it, but he didn't because he was just too good. She couldn't have that person do it. So, she called Cara, and talked through her characters until she discovered who did it.  Hellmann knows her characters. She knows them well because she wrote backstories for them. The plot sort of falls into place. There's conflict and action. Libby has an innate sense of pacing that comes from her film background.

 Zoë outlines to know the structure of the plot. She doesn't plan the reactions of her characters, though. She said there is no secret to writing. Everyone does it differently. Sharp's characters surprise her. New characters introduce themselves to Charlie. Sharp doesn't do backstory for her characters.

Black said she's a tactile person, and needs materials. She goes to flea markets and picks up items, or brings back napkins from restaurants. Those help her to bring back the time and place in Paris. She mentioned that Elizabeth George does chapters of backstory for her characters. Cara gave us an example of using tactile materials. She found an old wallet in a thrift shop, and she sees it as Morbier's. She put things in it that Morbier would carry.

As to voice, Zoë said she tried writing Charlie in third person, and it just wouldn't come. Libby wrote the Ellie books in first person, and that provided an intimacy. Now, she mostly uses third person. Cara uses third person and multiple points of view. But, it's a close third person. Sharp experiments with voice in short stories. She has a story set in second and third person, present tense, for the next Mystery Writers' of America anthology.

Do they become better writers over time? They said their craft gets better. Zoë said when her first book was reissued, she could have made changes, but decided not to, since she would have entirely rewritten the book. She wouldn't have used foreshadowing in the book, that "Had I but known."

Cara admitted she did get to change things in Murder in the Marais, for the twenty-fifth anniversary publication. After that book came out, she had a man come up to her, tell her he liked her book, but he was a Baudelaire scholar, and she had Baudelaire buried in the wrong cemetery. So, she changed it in the new edition. When she first wrote the book, she told Aimée's age on the first page. But, French women don't tell their age. She thinks of Aimée as ageless. So, she got to change that. She's written eleven books, and only covered four years.

Sharp mentioned that when Robert B. Parker first wrote the Spenser books, he made Spenser a veteran of the Korean War. As the series went on, he never mentioned that in later books.

Asked how they got started, and how they first published, Libby said it's important to get an agent first. After she wrote the first Ellie book, she revised and revised it. She's been with the same writers' group for fifteen years. She found a new agent, and that agent sold the first Ellie book in a three book deal. Hellmann had been writing for five years at that point, building her craft. She said it was important to find a writing group. Her group meets weekly, and they read out loud, seven or eight pages. But, you have to have a thick skin. Libby said when she was the new person in the group, she felt as if they went after her.All three authors are in writing groups. Zoë said someone once said, "Writers have to take more criticism in a year than most people take in a lifetime." And, she closed the program on the perfect note, saying a writer has to be passionate to tell the story.

Left to right - Cara Black, Libby Hellmann, Lesa Holstine, and Zoë Sharp at the Velma Teague Library (photo by Andy Butler)

After dinner with Zoë and her husband, Andy, I was in the audience at the Poisoned Pen for the evening program, when Barbara Peters interviewed Black, Hellmann and Sharp. She started out by asking the audience how they learned of the program, and most people answered through the newspaper. Peters said they had some good reaction to social media, such as Facebook.

Because much of the material was covered in the morning, the Poisoned Pen recap will touch on highlights, topics not covered earlier in the day.

Peters and Cara Black share a French connection. Peters studied French at Stanford, and corresponds with Cara in French. Cara's first book, Murder in the Marais, was set in November 1993. Eleven books later, Murder in Passy, is set in November 1997. It's Aimée Leduc's first day back to work after the ending of Murder in the Palais Royal. Her godfather, Morbier, asks a favor of her. He's a suspect in his girlfriend's murder, and no one believes he's innocent. This novel has everything from a Basque connection to a Spanish princess. In 1997, the Basque ETA were in the news. Now, most people who were in the ETA live in Bilbao, Spain.

Peters said one problem with police sleuths is that they are limited to one area. By writing about private eyes, these authors' characters can go anyplace.

Zoë Sharp's Charlie Fox is British ex-army. She's a bodyguard who works for a firm out of New York. She chose California as a setting for Fourth Day because she wanted to subvert people's expectations of a cult. She went at it from a different angle. This story works on several levels. Charlie and Sean are asked to do a straightforward extraction, taking Thomas Witney out of the Fourth Day cult five years after he went in to try to prove that Randall Bane killed his son. This book strips Charlie back to her roots to find out what she's made of. She has to go out into the desert to do that. The basic tenet of Fourth Day is that you can't be rebuilt until you're broken.

Peters mentioned that Sharp's books were supposed to come out from Busted Press, but that was dissolved on the death of the owner. The books are tied up in probate, and no one knows what will happen. She said that is one role e-books can play, when publication of books are held up or the books disappear. For instance, the leading e-book title for Poisoned Pen Press is Monkey on a Chain by Harlen Campbell, a book that disappeared after it was published.

Peters went on to say that in the 1990s, mysteries were big. And, there's an inevitable cycle. They're coming back, but many of the books are in different forms. Following a little industry talk, Hellmann said all of her books are on ebooks. In talking about her characters, Libby said Ellie Hatcher is an amateur sleuth, who was a film producer as Libby was. She lives in a suburb of Chicago, as does Hellmann. Ellie has a teenage daughter, as Libby did at the time. There are four books in that series. Now, Hellmann is writing historical thrillers. She said she was a history major, and there is history in all of her books.

Cara Black mentioned that Soho Press actually has The Aimée Leduc Companion to download. It includes maps of the district, a glossary, and a list of characters. She said her next book will be set in a small Chinatonw in Paris. Rhys Bowen, who was in the audience, just set her most recent Molly Murphy book, Bless the Bride, in Chinatown in New York. Black said there are four Chinatowns in Paris. The people that live in the three to four blocks Black is writing about are not political exiles, but business people.

When Peters said Paris and London aren't recognizable as the same cities they were, with the large influx of immigrants, Zoë said she still lives in a place that is British, but it's 300 miles north of London. It's countryside, and you can still see the stars there at night.

Cara was asked about Morbier's name. It seems Morbier is a famous cheese. She laughed and said Morbier is the "Big Cheese" at the police station. Then, she was asked about René, the dwarf who is Aimée's business partner. Black said he's a brilliant computer hacker. But, people only notice his size. She wanted to play with what people can do. She had such an experience when she was on a hiring committee, and failed to hire a woman. She realized later she was looking at her disabilities, and not her abilties.

Zoë Sharp's Charlie Fox has been compared to a female Jack Reacher. She's smart, tough, and combat ready. Sharp loved reading thrillers, such as Alistair MacLean. But, the only women in those books fainted, or were weak traitors. Zoë wanted to write about a woman who was in the rescue party, not needing rescuing.

Sharp wrote her first book at fifteen, and it received rave rejections. Her father typed it on his electric typewriter, and he still threatens to get it out and put it online. But, what she really wanted to write was nonfiction. Zoë became a freelance writer, but she started to receive death threats cut out of newspapers. That was scary. But, although the notes said they knew where she lived, the letters went to the magazine's address in London. The first Charlie Fox book came from that.

 Asked if the SAS trained women, Sharp responded that she never said Charlie was SAS. Charlie was Special Forces. Speicial Forces were undercover in northern Ireland, but not the SAS. She said the SAS places a high value on the mercenary market. There was discussion of domestic terrorism that led to Libby Hellmann's comment that she has a trailer on her website, thirty seconds of footage from the Democratic National Convention that she was allowed to use by the artist.

In speaking of 1968, Sharp said her father was a textile consultant who traveled all over the world. He was sitting in a New York diner when the news flashed up, "King assassinated." And, he asked, "King of where?"

Peters said anyone who saw The King's Speech knows that those speeches on the radio were a major rallying point for the country. Now radio technology is so old. The discussion of technology led to an enthusiastic discusson of ebooks. Peters concluded the program by reminding the audience that all of the authors, along from staff from the Poisoned Pen, would be at the Tucson Festival of Books over the weekend.

Cara Black's website is

Libby Hellmann's website is

Zoë Sharp's website is


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Thanks so much, Lesa! These are books that I'm excited about reading and it was so fun to read a little background on the books and the writers. As always, you help me feel like I'm actually at the events, taking part. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that post, Lesa. I felt as if I was there!

After reading Sharp's Fourth Day I couldn't wait for Fifth Victim so I ordered it from a UK bookseller.

Zoe is sure putting poor Charlie on a journey, alright.

Wonderful books.


Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth. These authors are always fascinating to listen to. I'm glad I could hold the event, and invite readers via my blog.

Lesa said...

Zoe will be very happy, Judith, that you followed up immediately with the next book. She does put poor Charlie through a lot.

punuhula said...

Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.

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Lesa said...

Thank you, Punuhula.