Wednesday, September 25, 2013

You Say You Want A Revolution


LUCY BURDETTE: You all know Libby Hellman by now, right?--she's been around as long as I have, LOL. I admire how she's never afraid to stray into new territory, whether it's the subject matter of her books or the way she gets them published. She's got a new novel out that I'm dying to read because I'm insanely curious about Cuba. Libby not only went, she wrote a book about it. So here's Libby with her latest adventure!

LIBBY HELLMANN: Hi, Reds. Thanks for hosting me today. It’s great to be back.
As some of you know, my most recent three thrillers are all set in historical periods of extreme conflict, otherwise known as revolutions, (or in the case of FIRE, as close to a revolution as this country came since the Civil War). So, why did I create a “Revolution Trilogy?”

In fiction, they say, there must be conflict on every page, even if it's only someone wanting a glass of water that he or she can't get. Because I tend to overdo things in general, I asked myself what type of backdrop or setting would provide the most conflict in and of itself. The answer turned out to be  a revolution. Or war. Or strife within a culture. When characters’ lives unfold in an uncertain and potentially violent backdrop, almost anything can—and does—happen.

In fact, I can't imagine a more extreme conflict than a revolution. It affects everything and everyone: from individuals, to families, to neighborhoods, cities, countries, and regions. A revolution can transform a society’s culture and art, its food, education, personal freedoms, literature—the entire Zeitgeist. It affects whether people trust one another. It splits families in two. It makes everyday living dangerous. Essentially, it touches every aspect of life. 

When you superimpose extreme conflict on top of conflicts that already exist in a character’s life, those people become unpredictable. Some become heroes, while others turn into cowards. I love to explore those transformations in a character, and I love when I’m surprised by what happens. Just when I’m convinced a character is about to behave one way, they tak
e a different direction altogether. When that happens, it makes me feel more like an observer than a writer. I’m simply channeling an individual’s inner turmoil and decision-making process.

 Which, hopefully, makes my novels unpredictable as well. In too many crime novels the hero or heroine does the right thing, faultless in their judgement, usually emerging unharmed and victorious at the end. Not so much in my stories. I try to let my characters develop the way they indicate, and they don’t always win their battles. They might not even make it past the first few chapters if that’s the way the revolutionary cookie crumbles.

The ‘revolution trilogy’

My novel An Eye For Murder goes back to World War Two, which, although not technically a revolution, was indeed a period of extreme conflict. An Image of Death deals with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which I’d call a bloodless revolution. Set the Night on Fire took place during the troubled times of the late 1960s in the US. A Bitter Veil explores a family’s life during the Iranian revolution. And Havana Lost, my latest release, is set partially during the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. But there’s also action taking place in Angola – which was and still is an incredibly violent and lawless place— and Chicago, which some people would say is too. In fact, I’m now calling my latest three thrillers a “Revolution Trilogy.”

It doesn’t hurt that I'm a history major and I love research. It’s almost Pavlovian on my part. And I find it curious that although every revolution is different and has been fought for different ideological reasons, many end up being quite similar.

Revolution 101

Take the Russian revolution in 1917 or the French revolution or the Chinese ‘cultural’ revolution. It’s a common theme; people want to be free, but their leaders don't know what to do with that freedom when they get it. So it’s the ordinary people who suffer. Ironically, the only revolution that was different was the American. But that’s another blogpost.

When I put the characters in HAVANA LOST squarely into a revolution, the only thing that is certain is change. The way the characters face up to that change and handle its challenges is what makes writing so much fun. They all have minds of their own, and like the rest of us, they are essentially unpredictable, especially under stress. Also like most of us, their instinct for survival is what drives them to survive desperate circumstances.

So, Reds, that’s why I’m drawn to times of extreme conflict and strife. But what about you?
If you could choose a period of extreme conflict to write about, what would it be and why?


Joan Emerson said...

A period of extreme conflict? I think I might choose the time of the American Revolution when the people were fighting for their freedom and the establishment of a new country, when their hopes and dreams hung in the balance . . . .

Jack said...

I've always wanted to write a book set in 1935-36 when the second American Revolution was about to get started: The Wobblies were breaking into rich people's home in Washington State, killing, and taking whatever they could, and the rich people hired Pinkerton's to hang the Wobblie leaders and shoot into the crowds.

Everyone in America seems to have forgotten we came that close.

Rhys Bowen said...

Hi Libby! I've been dying to write about World War II because it was a time of such heightened danger and emotion and really the last clear time of a battle of good v. evil. Since then all wars have been dirty and unclear.

Rosemary Harris said...

Hi Libby,
Great to have you back! Daunting question...particulalry when they are so many terrific books set during periods of conflict..John Dos Passos - WWI, Boris Pasternak - Russian Revolution. Right now I'm reading The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis(and I will be for a's about 800 pages and my reading time is limited these days.) It's set during the one of the many conflicts in Haiti.
Every war is majuor to someone..there was a rather famous slave uprising in the Caribbean. That would be a intriguing setting for a novel..hmmm

Libby Hellmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Libby Hellmann said...

Sorry about deleting above. DIdnt see a way to edit the comment...

Rhys, WW2 also interests me, but I can't seem to think of anything that hasn't already been done by writers more accomplished than I am.

Jack: That's a fabulous period of time, and one that most Americans don't know enough about! Go for it.

Joan: I think the American Revolution was different in that it was first and foremost, fought over money. The colonists just didn't want to be taxed by Britain. But I'm not sure there was the same kind of overwhelming political oppression you see in other places. But I could be wrong. What do you think?

Ro: Haiti! I would never of thought of that. Great subject. Slave uprisings... violence... backlash. Yes...

Karen in Ohio said...

Right now there's enough extreme conflict, right here in the US. It's one of the reasons I read novels, especially of other times. It gives me some perspective, and helps to know it was ever thus.

Cuba is fascinating; it's sort of a lost country to Americans of the last two generations.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Yes Cuba, you were so clever about that Libby. Will you tell us a little about what things were like over there?

Deb said...

Fascinating, Libby! But isn't that the premise of most crime novels, which put characters in conflict, just carried further?

I've written around the edges of WWII in a couple of novels, incorporating past storylines into the contemporary ones. But I'm still fascinated. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

George R.R. Martin picked The War of the Roses....Seems to work for him :)

Libby Hellmann said...

Funny you should ask that, Roberta. What's struck me while I've been out and about is how little Americans know about Cuba. It's as if a Tropical curtain has been lowered in terms of our information and attitudes about Cuba. We know more about Iraq which is 6000 miles away than Cuba, which is 90 mies away. And shat we do know has been colored by conspiracy theorists, propaganda, and who knows what else.

So I've started a series of blogposts about CUba,.. it's culture, history, and people.I'm not an expert obviously, but I did a lot of research and I have some observations people might be interested in. The first blogpost is up todnight, and it's about Che Guevara. Who continues to be either an icon or the devil, depending on where you come from. You can find it at my website (

Thanks for this. Seems to me we have a lot to learn and share about Cuba.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Libby, Libby! So behind..running in to say hello..and congratulations on all the fabulous reviews!xoo