Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Say You Want A Revolution…

LUCY BURDETTE: Libby Fischer Hellmann was one of my earliest friends in the mystery business--energetic, talented, and indomitable. Since her first novel was published in 2002, she's never stopped stretching her writing muscles in different and interesting ways. Today we welcome her to talk about her new thriller, A BITTER VEIL.

LIBBY HELLMANN: As crime writers we learn early that “conflict” is the most essential ingredient of fiction. We learn that there must be conflict on every page, even if a character just wants a glass of water but can’t get it.  Over the years, I’ve taken that lesson to heart. I’m always looking for conflict, large or small. Recently I may have taken it to the extreme by writing about revolutions. In fact, my publisher says I’m in the midst of my “revolution trilogy.”  (She’s not far off—my next book will be set largely in Cuba.)

But I come by it more or less honestly—I was a history major in college, and I still love to examine the past and how it affects the present.  And what triggers more conflict than a revolution?  Whether it’s the French, Russian, Cuban, Chinese, American—well that one was a little different—or what we’re now calling the Arab Spring, nothing shakes the foundation of a society more than internal strife.

A revolution provides conflict that can affect an individual, a family, a village, a government, and its relation to the rest of the world…in a word, everything. It is a time where people can prove to be cowards or heroes, informants or patriots. People form unusual relationships, while others are torn apart. Love can flourish, but so can hate. A member of one family can be an enemy to the others—to the point of violence or death.

The rumbling of discontent always precedes the revolution, and there’s usually an overreaction afterwards. In the French, Russian, Cuban, and Chinese revolutions, a period of extremism followed the overthrow of the king, czar, or government. And those periods can prompt even more conflict and chaos. Even a revolution that didn’t quite make it—for example, the period of the late Sixties in the US, which was the setting for my previous thriller, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE—can be a powerful source of turmoil.

That was one of the reasons I chose to write about Iran. The Islamic Revolution profoundly changed the Iranian people and their culture. Persia has been invaded many times over the centuries, but invaders tended to assimilate the magnificent Persian culture rather than imposing their own on Persia. Not this time. Was it because the revolutionaries were insurgents and not foreign invaders? I’m not sure, but it was a compelling question. Plus, the revolution was relatively recent. Fortunately or not, the Iranian revolution has been of the best-covered revolutions in history. Most of us can remember TV news footage of the Shah piloting his plane out of Iran, and the return of Khomeini a few weeks later. It was not difficult to find films, books, articles, and other materials that made my research relatively easy.

The other reason I chose to write about Iran was personal. It’s a strange story, and I still am not sure how I got it wrong. I went to a high school reunion years ago, and one of my former classmates told me how she’d fallen in love after college with an Iranian and moved with him to Tehran before the Shah left. Afterwards her life became difficult and ultimately impossible, and she came back to the States. I decided to fictionalize her story and when it was done, I, of course, called her to let her know what I’d done. When we finally connected, it turned out that she hadn’t gone to Iran at all. She’d gone to India! My first reaction was disbelief…how had I screwed that up? Clearly, it was a subconscious error. After a while, though, I realized it didn’t matter. I’d written the story I was supposed to write.

However it developed, though, it’s never been my intention to write a political screed. For me story trumps everything, but if it can be enhanced by conflicts large and small, so much the better. That’s what I hoped to accomplish in A BITTER VEIL. I hope it works for you.
A BITTER VEIL -- April 2012

 Libby will be happy to take comments and questions. You can also like her on Facebook
and follow her on Twitter. :


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow.. thanks Alex... what a lovely comment to start the day with. It's appreciated.

  3. Hi Libby,
    What an inspiration you are. Flexing your muscles into a completely different culture.

    The book sounds awesome -- and interestingly, I missed the note it was a thriller, and read your whole post and thought: WOW what an awesome topic, completely compelling, no matter how you approached the story.

    I'd love to know more about your research, how you steeped yourself in the culture.


  4. Jan -- How long do you have?

    Actually, I started out by reading a lot of the literature that came out of that period... both fiction and nonfiction. In fact, I promised myself I wouldn't write the book unless I understood the dynamics and had enough information to feel comfortable writing about the period. I must have read at least 20 books -- a list of suggested readings is at the end of VEIL -- many of them so beautifully written it challenged me to elevate my own writing.

    Then I started poring over timelines and chronologies, many of which I found online. I separated out events that I thought were pivotal and tried to construct a narrative around them. Of course, tht required more research and reading. (But I love doing research... probably even more than writing, so I was a happy camper.)

    Finally I found 5 Iranian-Americans who lived in Iran during the early part of the revolution who talked to me about their experiences. One of them vetted the entire manuscript for me, a task for which I will be eternally grateful.

    I was always conscious of the fact that I wouldn't be going to Iran, and that I wasn't Iranian, and I tried to make that clear in an author's note at the end of the book. I realize some people might dismiss the book because of that, but I decided to go ahead anyway.

    TThere's a lot more to this, but that's the general idea. I did prepare a slide show, which I hope to use at libraries going forward, highlighting some of the things I learned about Iran which I thought were fascinating... we tend to forget what an incredible heritage (The Persian Empire) Iran has.

  5. Great topic and sounds like a great process.

  6. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was traveling on BART and there was a group of girls practicing their Farsi. They were born here, and we talked a lot about the long and great history of the Persian Empire. They seemed very pleased that I knew something about Iran than wasn't Ahmedinejad (sp). I look forward to your book.

  7. Love the revolution trilogy Libby! You have so much energy-- if I'd done that much research, I never would have written the book!

    Tell us about the reception you're getting--both from Iranians and Americans?

  8. Libby, I very much enjoyed your presentation in Tucson when you talked about writing about people in other countries and cultures. This is a topic of much discussion in indigenous communities here in the States. I think it can be well done, this crossing of boundaries, but it takes a great deal of knowledge and sensitivity. How did you develop your awareness of cultural perspective, inseparable from the theological traditions of the time and place where A BITTER VEIL was set?

  9. Lil:

    Thanks for that anecdote. It's important to remember that the media are just drumming up conflict -- sometimes where none exists -- just to boost sales and/or ratings. What we see on the news is so terribly out of context. And it seems to get worse every year.

  10. Lucy/Roberta:

    I'm particularly interested in what Iranians think of the book. A friend of mine (American) is married to an Iranian, and she's going to Iran this weekend! She's promised to take the book with her. So I might have some reaction. I've tried to be sensitive to the criticism that I'm not Iranian... so how do I have the nerve to write about Iran... how can I understand their heritage, their situation, their pain?

    I totally understand why some might say that. Which is what I tried to address in my author's note. So I guess the answer is that the jury is still out. We shall see.

    So far the reaction here at home has been amazing. I am overwhelmed. Really. Didn't expect this. All good. So far. (But you know how that goes...)

  11. Reine: I've always considered myself an outsider so I try to look at everything that way. In this instance, I think it worked pretty well. Remember, too, that I was looking at Revolutionary Iran through the eyes of a young American girl, who was used to having choices and making decisions on her own, and expected that to continue. Because her father was German and her mother French, she had an added "cosmopolitan" or "European" attitude toward the world. I think NOT being from the US gives most people more perspective on the differences between cultures. We tend to be rather myopic here.

    Given my character's sensibilties, it wasn't all that hard to look at Iranian culture and the upheaval it went through. As a born and bred American, in fact, I doubt I would have been as tolerant as Anna.

    But that's fiction for you! :)

  12. Thanks, Libby. Please do come back to Tucson. You and Cara Black were a wonderful "team."

  13. Thanks, Reine... we hope to be back next year. :)

  14. Hi, Libby! You are so brave!! Love the cover -- the woman with blue eyes in a burka.

  15. Never thought of myself as brave, Hallie... but if you say so.. .I just get bored writing the same old thing all the time...

    Are you at the Edgars?