ROBERTA: I've known Libby Hellmann since our first books were
published (almost a decade ago now!) and she's always been deeply
interested in the life-changing events of the sixties. Now she's taken
her interest in and experience with that time period and woven it into
her new thriller, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, published by Allium press, a boutique publisher in Chicago specializing in historical fiction. We're delighted to have her here today to talk about the new book.
Libby, let's start with your experience in the sixties. What do you
remember most vividly?
LIBBY: The most dramatic event was probably the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It became the turning point in my political "coming of age." I was in college, but was planning to drop out for the fall semester to work on his campaign - my college boyfriend had been tapped to be the head of the "Youth for Bobby Kennedy" organization. I was at home in DC that June night, and for some reason, I couldn't sleep. I turned on my radio and heard the news that he'd been shot just after winning the California primary. He died the next day, of course. So much for the Youth for Kennedy campaign. But the disappointment, sadness, and rage smouldered. He was the third iconic political figure to be murdered in 5 years, and I felt we were being robbed of men who had great potential to change the country. Clearly, I wasn't alone. The Movement, not all of them Kennedy fans in the first place, nonetheless gathered steam after that.
ROBERTA: It sure did! And now please tell us something about the book and how you wove the drama of the sixties into SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE? (which by the way, none other than bestselling author Lee Child called: "A tremendous book - sweeping but intimate, elegiac but urgent, subtle
but intense. This story really does set the night on fire."
LIBBY: The book came out of two motivations. The first was my desire to write a pure, adrenaline-fueled thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats throughout. So I tried to imagine the most terrifying situation a woman would ever face. Barring anything having to do with my children, I decided the idea that someone was trying to kill me, but I didn't know who, and I didn't know why, topped the list. So that's exactly what happens to my protagonist, 30-something Lila Hilliard, who comes home from New York to Chicago for the holidays.
Two thirds of the book takes place in the present, but the middle section begins in 1968 at the Chicago Democratic Convention and goes through 1970 (roughly around Kent State). Which brings up the other motivation for writing FIRE. I've always had unresolved feelings about the late Sixties. We thought we would change the world, but it changed us instead. I still wonder if we'd been less naïve, idealistic, and - yes-arrogant, whether we might have had a more significant impact. So I decided to explore those times by following six young people of varying backgrounds and attitudes who decide to live together in a Chicago apartment, just to see the possibilities. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is the result. And, as you might suspect, their actions forty years ago intersect with the woman who's being targeted in the present.
ROBERTA: Libby is always on the cutting edge of publishing trends and
a wizard at promotion. Please tell us about the experience of having
this book published by a small press and whether you've handled its
promotion differently than the other books you've written.
LIBBY: Promotion is changing dramatically, but I wouldn't call myself a wizard. Still, there's no question that the e-book market is growing more rapidly than anyone expected. And now with the entrance of Google ebooks, who is opening their door to independent booksellers, we probably will see even more explosive growth.
As the market goes, so goes the promotion. It's been steadily moving online over the past few years, and I think it will continue to. I love independent booksellers and libraries - they made my career what it is - but I can't help but wonder how long they'll be able to withstand the pressure. I fear that signings in the future will be limited to super-stars who are able to command the type of crowds that booksellers love and need. At the same time, I hope I'm wrong about that.
However, I have found some some good news in all this. First is that a small press like Allium has an equal footing with the big boys on the internet. FIRE is available at all the online retail outlets. And it is garnering some great online reviews. It is not, however, as widely distributed to bookstores and other venues as, say, a Penguin book would be. It's been released in hard cover, trade paperback, as well as ebook formats (all simultaneously, btw, which I think is a logical way to do it these days.) so I will be going on tour later this spring, but I do wonder if it might be one of the last I will do. I'm not sure.
The other good news is that a small press can focus on and support their authors in ways that large publishers can't. I have received more attention from Poisoned Pen, Bleak House, and now Allium, than I ever got from Penguin. Two reasons for that: 1) I'm in a much smaller stable, and 2) promotion now is largely time not money-driven. Because of that, small presses are more flexible when it comes to trying new things as well as forming a "partnership" with the author to do so. Whether it's buying banner ads for various blogsites, targeting specific blog reviewers, or sending targeted e-mail announcements.
Don't get me wrong -- I still believe in going to Book Festivals and libraries. But more and more, I'm noticing what can be done online, and I'm wondering what the next "big viral thing" will be. As I said, most of this takes time and effort more than money. Of course, it can be a black hole, just as traditional promotion is. And there's also that thing about writing the next book...
Anyway, thanks Roberta and Jungle Red! It's always a good time when I visit. (PS, Hank, I had a dream about you the other night...)
I hope your holidays are peaceful, warm, and safe.