Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Libby Hellmann Sets the Night on Fire

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.


  1. Hi, Libby -

    Congratulations on the new book! Such an interesting observation: "I still wonder if we'd been less naïve, idealistic, and - yes-arrogant, whether we might have had a more significant impact."

    I was at Columbia during the riots of 1968. Vividly remember Kent State and the 3 assassinations, the Vietnam war.... It was like the world was coming to an end. I think *we* (whoever that is) did have an impact--not fast or well-defined enough to satisfy youthful expectations, but an impact nevertheless, and the ripples are still being felt.

  2. OH, yes, Libby,we're big big fans here at Jungle Red.

    First, the title is just GENIUS! I've been singing Light My Fire ever since you told me about it, and I think that was about a year ago, so thanks, sister. And the song as sound track is just perfect.

    I was/am the poster child 60's girl--Beatles, anti-war leafleting,rebellion restrained by a little common sense. After Kent State--I was done with "the establishment" (!!) and went into politics. That was my real life-changing moment. We really really thought we could change the world. And that's a feeling I hope I never forget.

    Go Libby! And can't wait til our paths cross in person--so you can tell me the DREAM!! (Or email, okay?)


    OH! my captcha word is: ecifirem
    Whoa. Psychedelic.

  3. Hi Libby,
    Roberta and I fought over who would have Libby as a guest...I lost, but I'm glad she's here. I hope you're still doing festivals and library gigs! That's where we met, Love is Murder and then Virginia Festival of the Book where we learned that we are both former video producers. I hope that part of the book business doesn't go away entirely. I know it's not cost efficient but it's so much fun. Are you going to Love is Murder?

  4. HI, all. Yes, Rosemary, I will be at Love is Murder. Thought I might be in Cuba but that trip isn't till the 12th. Yes, folks, I am going to Cuba! For 10 days to do research! And it's all legal. Amazing.

    Thanks for the kind words about FIRE. Hank, did I tell you I got permission to use the first 4 lines from Light My Fire for the epigraph? Took a while for it to go through, but how could I have anything else?

    I've also got a story that came up as a direct result of doing research for the book. It's kind of scary true -- eerie, to say the least. If you beg, I'll tell you about it.

  5. Yes of course we want to hear the story Libby--consider yourself begged!

  6. Begging!!! (And I wanted to host Libby, too....)

  7. Well, since you asked so nicely...

    Back then, the underground newspaper I worked for was worried they were being inflitrated by FBI and/or CIA types... it took them over a month to trust me, and I was just a low level flunkie. At the time, I thought it might have been an exaggerated sense of fear born out of self-importance and didn't really think much about it.

    However, there was a photographer for the paper who was in and out regularly. He wasnt quite staff, but he always popped up with photos during demonstrations and such. I actually liked him a lot. I left the paper at the end of a summer but heard he'd left rather suddenly a few months later.

    About a month ago I googled him and found out someone had written a large chunk of a book about him. The book is called SECRETS: THE CIA'S WAR AT HOME... turns out this photographer WAS in fact a CIA agent whose mission was to infiltrate the anti-war movement and report back.

    He left suddenly, because his identity was close to being compromised. He went to Paris where he buddied up with CIA whistleblower Philip Agee, again working undercover for the CIA. Philip Agee unmasked him and he eventually returned to the US and changed his name. Lives in Southern California now.

    True story. Eerie and weird.

  8. Wow that is a wild story! thanks for being here on JRW Libby and we wish you all the best with your book!

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