Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Libby Fischer Hellmann recently appeared at the library to talk about her writing and her books. And, I bought a copy of one of her books to give away, so don't forget to check out the details at the end of this piece.

Libby started out by telling the audience that she wrote her first book about two male cops. She found a New York agent while writing her second book, and thought she was hot stuff with a New York agent. But, he couldn't sell her first book. She said, wait, I'm writing a sequel. He answered that that didn't make it any better. He couldn't sell a book with those characters. He advised her to change her voice, her characters, her plot. And, while she was at it, she should chagne agents because he didn't want to represent her anymore. She sat and cried.

But, Libby had sold some short stories, including "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared". That story, set in 1938 in Lawndale, featured a young Jake Foreman who had a crush on a woman in the Yiddish theater. The story won a couple contests, and Hellmann thought maybe she should expand it. That was her Eureka moment. She moved the characters ahead sixty years. Jake is in his seventies. He has a daughter, Ellie, who is a video producer. (Libby was a video producer.) Ellie had a daughter. (Libby had a daughter.) They both lived in the northern suburbs of Chicago. She wrote An Eye for Murder. Four weeks later, she had an agent. The agent sold it four weeks later with a three book contract.

Hellmann's in a writing group, and she had been in it for two years when she wrote An Eye for Murder. Everyone read their pieces, and sometimes they red-lined everything Libby wrote. Then, she read Ellie. There was silence in the room, and finally the woman who had been the toughest on her said, "You found your voice. That was spectacular." Once she was published, her agent told her to get writing because she had another book coming out in nine months. She was writing that book, A Picture of Guilt, when 9/11 happened, and then no one could write. She's not as found of that book. It's her "black sheep book". The next one, An Image of Death, is her favorite.

The last Ellie book, A Shot to Die For, came out in 2005, although Ellie and Hellmann's other character, Georgia Davis, shared a book in 2009, Doubleback. Libby can't wait to get back to writing about Ellie. She likes her voice; her wry, deadpan humor, and her vulnerability. She's finishing a Georgia book, and then she'll write the next Ellie one.

Hellmann said she likes to do research. She was a history major, and she can get lost in the research. She had to do research for what she calls her three revolution books, Set the Night on Fire, A Bitter Veil, and Havana Lost. She said she loves suspense. There's a lot at stake in her books, not just a puzzle to be solved.

When she worked in film, Hellmann loved to edit film. Now, she hates to write, but loves the editing. As a self-published author, now, she's responsible for all her promotion and marketing. She writes a blog every week. She also writes the book and movie column called "Backstories" for a women's magazine, "Women's Voices". She gets itchy, and has to write.

Over the years, Hellmann's books have gotten darker as she writes more. The new Georgia is dark. Havana Lost is dark.

Hellmann told us she had written a short story that takes place in Pendleton, Indiana. It's set in the '60s, and it's based on a true story that was told to her.  The true story is that a Ku Klux Klan member participated in a lynching. He was caught and convicted to stay in jail for the rest of his life. After six or seven years, a young African-American guy was railroaded for killing a white woman. He was mentally inflicted. When he was imprisoned, he was put in with the general population, and ended up sharing a cell in Birmingham, Alabama with the Ku Klux Klan member, and they became friends. Someone told Libby the story, and then said it was hers to write.

Libby wanted to write the story, but wanted some background, so she put it out on the Internet that she was looking for someone to tell her how prisons worked in Indiana. Everyone suggested the author Les Edgerton because he'd been in prison for drugs in the '60s. He told her there were white dorms and black dorms, and the two inmates never would have been together in Pendleton. So, she asked if they ever would have come together anyplace, like the library. When he said yes, she decided to have the white guy teaching the black guy to read in the library at Pendleton. The story comes out in an anthology next March, and has a noir ending. Two of her recent books, A Bitter Veil, and Set the Night on Fire do have happy endings.

Set the Night on Fire deals with the '60s. A young girl is being stalked, and she doesn't know who or why. While trying to figure that out, she uncovers information on the computer that indicates her parents aren't really her parents. From there, the book goes back to the 1968 Democratic Convention where six people got together. They lived together for the next two years. And, that story leads to why the young girl might have been stalked.

Hellmann said she never got over the '60s. Young people thought they'd change the world, and they didn't. Why not? Where they naive? Facing entrenched power? Libby needed to write about it to get it out of her system. The middle part of the book doesn't end well, and then she goes back to the present. She got the '60s out of her system.

Hellmann once worked for an underground newspaper in D.C., and Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Rubin's girlfriend, Nancy, stopped in. The girlfriend was sweet, and thought that revolution could be fun. When Libby wrote Set the Night on Fire, she looked Nancy up and found her living in Chicago. Six months ago, there was a docudrama about the Chicago 7 that premiered in Chicago, and Libby went to the movie. Rubin's girlfriend talked after the movie, and LIbby gave her a copy of the book. Then, one day Hellmann received an email from her, with the ultimate compliment, "You nailed it."

A Bitter Veil was written after a conversation with author William Kent Krueger. Libby was talking to him at Bouchercon, and said she was drawn to stories about women who were up against the wall, and had their options taken away from them. A few years earlier, she had run into a woman at a high school reunion who told her a story about falling in love and moving to Tehran. Four months later, the Shah was deposed, and the Ayatollah came to power. She went from living in luxury, to losing everything. Finally, she had to come back to the U.S., and she got a divorce. Libby told Krueger that she couldn't write that story. It wasn't fiction, and there wasn't a crime. He said to her, "Find one." Hellmann researched and wrote the book, and then tracked down her friend because she wanted to dedicate the book to her. The friend responded that it wasn't Iran. It was India, because the Punjab area of India went through some of the same experiences as Iran. Hellmann did leave a loose end in A Bitter Veil. That loose end is wrapped up in a short story, "War Secrets" in an anthology called The Mystery Box.

Libby Fischer Hellmann's parents set her on the path to writing Havana Lost. They used to vacation in Cuba and gamble. Libby thought that was exotic. And, then Batista was overthrown and Castro came into power. The mysterious, evil place attracted her. She thought she had to go to Cuba someday. Then, she was fascinated by the Mafia and organized crime. The Mafia ran Cuba under Batista.

Hellmann brought Cuba and the Mafia together in Havana Lost. It's about a young Mafia princess, Francesca,  whose father ran a casino in Cuba before the revolution. She meets a rebel, falls in love, and runs away with him. Flash forward to the '80s. The Cubans are in Angola, which was their Vietnam. Then, back to Cuba. The Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba's economy tanked. Agriculture, industry, and transportation all fell apart. Fidel (only the U.S. calls him Castro; to the rest of the world, he's Fidel) couldn't even make those years look good. they call the years "The Special Period" when there was no food. Some say Cuba really hasn't come out of it. In the '90s Fidel decided to open Cuba to tourism, and allow Europeans to build resorts there. The third part of the book is Chicago at the present time. Francesca is in her seventies in the third part. Havana Lost is a book about Cuba, family, lawlessness, and nobility.

Because Hellmann was at the library on November 21, we talked about Kennedy's assassination. She said Fidel testified to the Warren Commission because he wanted to clear his name. Libby believes Fidel didn't have anything to do with JFK's death. She does believe the CIA and Mafia worked together. The CIA was furious that Kennedy didn't back them in the Bay of Pigs. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK changed. He distrusted the military and the CIA. Bobby was going after the Mafia. Their father, Joe, was a bootlegger, and did business with the Mafia. Now, his sons were after them.

Then, there were the three tramps in Dallas. According to Hellmann, they were Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis, and Woody Harrelson's father, Charles, a hired killer. She believes Oswald was set up, and he was a patsy. There's a theory that Watergate actually happened because Nixon wanted to find out what the Democrats knew about the tramps.

Libby ended by saying fifty years ago on November 22, she was in school. Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ's daughter, went to the same school, and sat together in study hall because they sat in alphabetical order. They were in study hall, and already knew JFK had been shot. In the middle of study hall, the principal walked in and gestured to Luci. That's when they knew Kennedy had died. She left, and came back on Monday with a Secret Service agent.

It was a terrific visit by Libby. It gave me the opportunity to buy a copy of Set the Night on Fire and have it autographed. And, I'm giving it away. If you'd like to win a copy, email me at Lesa.Holstine@gmail.com. Your subject heading should read "Win Set the Night on Fire." Please include your name and mailing address. The giveaway will end Sunday night, Dec. 1 at 6 PM CT.

Libby Fischer Hellman's website is www.libbyhellmann.com





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