For someone who never intended to become a writer, Chicago-based Libby Fischer Hellmann has done a pretty good job of it. After years in TV news and then public relations, Hellman penned her first novel in 2002, “An Eye for Murder,” the first in the Ellie Foreman series. The book was nominated for several awards, and it set Hellmann off on a whole new path. Fourteen more books followed, as have many more awards and nominations. In recent years she has also significantly grown her profile in the crime fiction world, hosting writing-centric radio and television shows and serving a term as president of Sisters in Crime, a national organization dedicated to supporting the growing number of women who write crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers. We sat down recently to talk about her work and the changing nature of the publishing industry.
Open Mic: Many writers these days are avoiding anything political both in their writing and in their public commentary out of concern it might cost them half their potential audience before they even read it. But your new book “High Crimes” gets right into the heart of the current political environment. What is the motivation behind the book’s theme?
Hellmann: I know it was risky to write a political book in the middle of a volatile political climate, but I had to do it – I had to write this book. The reason is that I went into a period of rage after the 2016 election. Especially as we found out more and more about Russian interference, what kind of man Trump was, and how he intended to lead the government.
In fact, the day after the election – like the rest of the world – I was in shock. At the same time I knew that something fishy had been going on in Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio. I didn’t know what and I didn’t know how and I don’t know if we’ll ever find out. But it was clear that votes were manipulated. Whether it was Russians or the Republican Secretaries of State I don’t know. I am not really a conspiracy theorist, but in this day and age with the ease and the lack of security over the voting systems, anything was possible, and that infuriated me. Unfortunately my days of rage lasted a year. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything. Part of my not being able to do anything and feeling semi-paralyzed was that I was listening to people who said don’t write about it. Don’t jump into the fray.
However, a couple of days after the election I’d joined a Facebook resistance group that exploded up to 42,000 people in three months. The founder is a woman named Suzy Fischer, and she shared my rage. A year after that I was looking over some of the posts on the website and it suddenly came to me: what if the founder of a resistance group was assassinated? Who would have done it and why? Was it a cover up? Was it a conspiracy? And that sparked the feeling I get when I know “this is the book I need to write.”
Open Mic: Did you speak with her first?
Hellmann: Yes. I asked if I could write about her, even though she dies in the first chapter. She said it was fine. I changed her name, but I did dedicate the book to her because the website is still active. Even so, I knew some people would object, and they have. People have said they don’t like politics in their books, or that they read for escape. Somebody else said I wrote a screed, which isn’t true because one of the things I tried hard to do was to make the characters even-handed. There are no heroes in this book, either on the left or on the right. Everybody is flawed.
Open Mic: Did it concern you that your theme would harm the book’s sales?
Hellmann: Of course it did. But I realized I had been giving him too much power over me. And once I got the premise and I knew what was going to happen, the story flowed. Generally, reviewers have been kind. Publishers Weekly wrote a great review, and Library Journal said “fans of every political stripe will love reading this book.” Other people have weighed in saying “it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, you’ll enjoy the book.”
Open Mic: You have a video series offering “light bulb moments” to aspiring crime writers. What prompted you to do this?
Hellmann: I’ve created a full-day craft-oriented workshop for aspiring writers, so Writing Lite was a natural extension of the workshop. Essentially, I took some of the tips and edited them down into bite-sized videos. I also have similar tips on Pinterest. And when NanoWriMo became big I decided to retarget them towards NanoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month].
Open Mic: Your protagonists are generally all strong, resourceful women. How has the market evolved over the years for books featuring strong female leads?
Hellmann: It’s been a roller coaster. When I started I knew that I wasn’t going to be writing cozies. But Berkley Prime Crime picked me up, and I was kind of a fish out of water in their ocean. That became more and more evident as time went on, as I became darker and a lot of the other female mystery writers were writing cozies. In the 2000s, after 9-11, female thriller writers picked up, but over the last six or seven years there has been a cozy revival, which has tamped down sales of thrilleresque novels by women.
Actually I’m not sure what’s going on because Berkley basically cleaned house a couple of years ago and dropped, I think, nearly a hundred authors. My take from that is that cozies must be selling better in e-book than print. But there is a slice of the market for women who write darker. One thing that’s helping is the whole new focus on what they call psychological suspense or domestic noir, which started with Gillian Flynn and “Gone Girl.” Now Lisa Unger is writing them. Lisa Jackson and Paula Hawkins as well. In fact, there are now a bunch of authors who aren’t afraid to plumb the dark depths. I consider myself part of that even though I write a more specific genre.
Open Mic: I could ask the same question about women who write noir, which was seen for a long time as the bastion of male writers.
Hellmann: Absolutely. When you think about a noir novel written by a man, you often think about the protagonist as wanting redemption for some kind of past mistake or moral failing. But I don’t think female protagonists want redemption – they want recognition and respect. And that motivation is just as powerful for females as redemption is for men. Unfortunately, though, the pursuit of respect can go awry and a character can get into a lot of trouble. So I think there’s definitely a space for females who want the recognition they deserve but bad things happen.
Open Mic: It sure seems that “Gone Girl” inspired a lot of imitation, which is allegedly the sincerest form of flattery. But I think it could also be frustrating because while I’m sure most authors aren’t intentionally copying that author, the marketing folks are probably thrilled to have that kind of tie in.
Hellmann: Here’s another thing that separates some of us from “Gone Girl.” Many women in the domestic noir have to be rescued. In my books, the woman rescues herself. In my Ellie foreman series, Ellie gets in over her head and often does needs help, but for the most part in the Georgia Davis books she rescues herself.
Open Mic: Some mystery and suspense writers make great use of humor, even in otherwise gritty storylines. You do as well. What is your thought on the use of humor in noir and suspense? Is there a rule you follow in how you interject humor into dark or serious storylines?
Hellmann: I’m not aware of any rules, except that when I started publishers would say don’t kill pets or children. As far as humor is concerned, if the situation calls for it and I’m seeing a dark humor, or a cynical type of humor, I’ll let it out. I don’t do it consciously, it just kind of emerges organically from the situation the character is in and the type of person that character is. Humor is also a unifying force. If you get the joke, you’re part of the gang. Cops, nurses and detectives get it, and it’s a nice when a reader gets it too. It makes them feel they are a part of the action even if they’re only reading.
Open Mic: The city of Chicago is as much a part of your stories as are the characters themselves. But you are originally from the D.C. area, which has its own rich history and intrigue. Why did you choose Chicago as the base for so many of your stories instead of D.C.?
Hellmann: Because I don’t like D.C. Actually, “High Crimes” is the first time I’ve ever set a number of chapters in Washington. And I think when people read it they will pick up what my attitude is toward the city. When I first moved to Chicago I was an outsider, and I looked at everything with the outsider’s eyes. I hadn’t started writing, and never thought I was going to be a writer. Still I really enjoyed the fact that Chicago was kind of like home base for corruption, graft, and political influence. There’s sort of a brazen quality to it like, “Yeah we know we’re corrupt. So what? Go Cubs or go Bears,” you know? It’s a simmering pot of corruption.
Open Mic: You write multiple series as well as standalones and short stories. How do you keep your characters from becoming too similar? Do you ever catch yourself maybe having one character be a little too similar to another? How do you keep those characters with traits that you like separated enough to have them be fully realized on their own?
Hellmann: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but I think it has to do with the circumstances into which I throw them. I know they’re going to be dealing with conflict, I know they’re going to be prevented from getting what they want or what they think they want, and that it’s only going to be with a lot of effort and thought and luck that they’re going to succeed. As an example, one character I thought was going to break the mold was Anna in “A Bitter Veil,” my historical standalone that deals with an American girl who falls in love with an Iranian boy and moves to Iran. Three months later the Shah is deposed and sharia law goes into effect. I thought Anna was going to collapse under the pressure. She had been submissive and cooperative at first, but then she found some steel inside her that she didn’t know she had. So I think it has to do with the extent of conflict and obstacles I throw at them. I’m always eager to see how they’re going to react. And since we were talking about noir, I have one very noir woman in “War, Spies, and Bobby Sox,” which came out in 2017. It’s a story about German POWs held in the US during World War II and a farm girl that gets mixed up with them. She’s different; selfish and self-indulgent. She ends up paying a price.
Open Mic: The business of writing and publishing is really tough. Most people that seek out writing advice want to know how to write better or to get an agent. But what is the one piece of business advice you would have for an aspiring writer?
Hellmann: Save your money because you’re going to need it. Whether you are traditionally published or whether you end up self-publishing or something in between, you’re going to need a lot of money to make a splash with promotion and marketing. I’m talking thousands of dollars. It’s not just throwing something up on Amazon and seeing how it does. Those days are over. If you’re serious about writing, and if you’ve honed your craft, and if you know a little bit about the process, you need money. It sounds crass but don’t quit the day job. Save your money.
Open Mic: Even very successful writers these days have to do most of their own marketing. How do you approach this end of the business? Do you handle most of it yourself or do you work with an outside professional?
Hellmann: I basically run a small business, so I use vendors as I need them. For example, I wanted to make a splash with “High Crimes,” so I hired a publicity person. I don’t do that with every book. I also have a virtual assistant who helps me with my social media, but basically I call the shots on what we’re going to do. And I have a webmistress, too. But as anyone who’s been doing this for a while knows, marketing is a black hole. You can’t measure it specifically. I suppose you can tally up sales, but you never know what’s working when. BookBub ads? Facebook Ads? Amazon ads? Instagram or Twitter? Pinterest? Plus, there are a lot of charlatans willing to take your money and promise you the world, but most of what they offer is probably stuff you can do yourself. Still, it’s increasingly difficult even for established writers to break through. If I had not been traditionally published and nominated for a bunch of awards, I doubt I would be here.
I did it by the book: I started with short stories. I got better, so I wrote a novel. It was terrible, I wrote another one, it was better, I wrote a third one, it was even better. It wasn’t until my fourth novel that I was published, so I was constantly learning and honing my craft. I also volunteered to help some of the writing organizations to meet people and make connections. But those days are long gone.
Open Mic: And now you self-publish, correct?
Hellmann: I go back and forth. “High Crimes” is self-published. Of the 15 books I’ve written, I’ve self-published about six. The rest are traditionally published.
Open Mic: Well, in theory that’s the new model, right? Build up an audience and then go to self-publishing.
Hellmann: Theoretically. I do confess to becoming more of a type-A person. I like having control over publication, marketing and promotion. I always did a lot of marketing and promotion when I was traditionally published. I did the book tours, all of it. I recently decided not to do book tours anymore because it doesn’t make much of a difference. People aren’t going to signings. You can’t count on them like 15 years ago when you would see the same people at signings every year. You would go to St. Louis, you would go to Tucson, you’d go to LA and see the same faces, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
That’s one of the reasons I host a streaming TV interview show called Solved! I interview both upcoming and established crime fiction authors once a month on Facebook Live through an organization called Author’s Voice. They have four or five different shows, all of them different genres, and each of us does a half-hour interview. For example, I’m going to be interviewing Sara Paretsky in a couple of weeks and then Lori Rader-Day. So that’s a way for people to watch online and see if they like the person and the author without going to a signing. Of course, then we sell their books as well. It’s connected to a bookstore so it’s truly a virtual signing.
Open Mic: What is the biggest mistake you have made as a writer? Conversely, what is maybe the best move you’ve made?
Hellmann: Ooh, that’s a really good question. I think I burned a few bridges that I didn’t have to when I was starting out because I thought I was more important than I was. I had a contentious relationship with an agent at one point and we separated, but strangely enough we mended fences and she may well be representing me again. But it took about ten years for that to happen. The mistake was thinking that I deserved more than I did.
Another possible mistake was switching genres by going into historical fiction as well as contemporary. Many people thought that wasn’t such a great idea because it interfered with my “brand.” However, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think actually it’s helped me because some of the people who read the historicals will read the contemporaries and vice versa.
The best move would be my perseverance. My mom always used to say “they can knock you down but you get right back up again.” I don’t always get right back up, but after I lick my wounds I do say ‘okay, let’s give it one more try.’ Maybe that’s not a strength, I don’t know.
Open Mic: I think it is.
Hellmann: Maybe I’m a masochist. I don’t know.
Open Mic: That’s part of being entrepreneurial, right? You’ve got to be a masochist. Anyway, the industry has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Do you think things are better now for writers or worse?
Hellmann: Worse. No question. I mean, they’re better in that every writer can get their story out there. In that way it’s much more democratic. But it’s also worse because – and I wrote about this about six or seven years ago and was slammed from one end of the writing community to the other – there’s now a glut of books. This was when Amazon’s KDP began and people said “oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Well, today over 57,000 books are published every day. You’re down there in a swamp with everybody, and it’s tough.
Still, it’s easier than getting a movie option, which was my first love. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. So it was easier for me to get published in book form, than a screenplay. It’s the worst. People in Hollywood are very nice to you and give you false hope whereas people in New York will tell you, “This sucks, I’m never going to publish it.”
Open Mic: Do you predominantly start with characters first or plot?
Hellmann: I usually start with the plot and then decide if it is going to be a series book, a standalone or a short story. Then I work with the characters.
Open Mic: Do you outline or do you go seat of the pants?
Hellmann: I do both. I brainstorm until I have tent-pole scenes and the turning point scene in my head. I write them down but that doesn’t mean I know how to get from chapter two to chapter seven. That’s completely seat of my pants. As the book coalesces, and as I understand the story better, I come up with ideas for chapters or complications or obstacles or solutions to problems and write them down. As I’m writing I create what I call my “go-back” file. As things change and I know that I’m going to have to go back – I’m on page 120 but I’m going to have to go back to page 60 and change something – I make a note in the go-back file to change such and such. I also have a “put-in” file where I make a note that says put in the fact that she was wearing a red dress when that happened. Very sophisticated, huh?
Open Mic: Hey, everyone’s got a system. So what is your writing space like? What must you have to be able to get into the groove? Coffee? Music? Silence?
Hellmann: I’ve become incredibly distracted over the past few years so I’m not a good person to ask. I used to be disciplined once upon a time. The best thing to get me going in the morning is to reread the last two pages I wrote. That gets me into the groove. And I need silence or I can’t concentrate. I have now moved my office into my living room because it’s more comfortable and I don’t like being cooped up at a desk. I write in spurts. I’ll write for a half an hour, take a break, and then write for another half an hour. I create little rewards for myself. For example, when I finish a chapter I can go check Twitter. If I finish three pages of the next chapter I can check my email. Things like that.
Open Mic: Do you write every day? Do you have a daily page or word count?
Hellmann: I would like to write three to four pages a day. So anywhere around a thousand words a day is great, but it never happens.
Open Mic: I like to end on what I hope is a fun question. If I could put you together with just one of the following three people for dinner and a great conversation, which one would you choose and why? Your options are: Al Capone, Lizzie Borden or Mary Shelley.
Hellmann: I think I would have to go with Capone. I would want to ask him all about the inner workings of the mafia and who he reported to and what Lucky Luciano and what Vito Genovese were like. I’m entranced with the Italian mafia, particularly in the 1940s and 50s. I wrote a book about the mafia, “Havana Lost,” at least the part of the mafia that invested in casinos in Havana under Batista, before Fidel took over. I did a ton of research for that, and I still enjoy doing research on the mafia. Now it’s all the Russian mafia because they decimated the Italians. “Nobody’s Child” explored the Russian mafia. Oh, and there’s a scene in “High Crimes” at the Green Mill Lounge, a jazz bar in Chicago. It’s been around forever, and Capone used to go to it. When he would see the cops coming or people he didn’t want to see, he would go behind the bar where there’s a trap door and steps leading down to some tunnels that had been built before bootlegging was big. So Capone would disappear down the steps, and make his way through the tunnels, and emerge a block away, scot-free.
Hellmann’s latest book, High Crimes, is available wherever books are sold.