Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ireland, horses, and a senseless fire fuel Connie Johnson Hambley's thrillers

HALLIE EPHRON: Talk about a circuitous path. Connie Johnson Hambley grew up on a dairy farm. She went on to have a successful career in law and banking. Now she’s about to release her second thriller featuring Jessica Wyeth, a New England horse trainer forced to come to terms with her own experiences in the war for reunification of Northern Ireland. Connie’s first book, The Charity, explores the impact of the business of terrorism on Jessica’s life in the States and its sequel, The Troubles, due out at the end of this year, picks up the story in Ireland.

Connie, were you drawing on dairy farming or law and banking when you wrote these books?

CONNIE HAMBLEY: Every family has its stories, and some of the best fiction begins with the nuggets of lore and truth picked up along the way. I grew up in New York State on a sprawling, picture-perfect farm filled with cows and horses. My grandparents were Irish immigrants who lived the American dream by starting a dairy delivering milk in a horse drawn wagon and growing it big enough to employ many men who worked hard to support their own families.

That bubble burst when the barn was burned down by one of
those men. You can imagine the tizzy my parents went through trying to make sense of that! It was my first real glimpse of the darker side of life.

The arsonist who threw the lit matches into our hayloft didn’t look like he could do such a thing. As I played with my Chatty Cathy doll in the middle of the kitchen floor, I listened to men in uniforms and suits ask my parents a lot of questions.

There was so much more going on than I could comprehend at the time, and it all has become fodder for different themes I incorporate into my books.

I learned he confessed, but was set free at trial because of procedural issues. Years later, he showed up on our back porch and knocked on our door. My mom didn’t recognize him at first, if she had she might have reached for a shotgun, but he introduced himself as the guy who burned down her daddy’s barn!

I think the injustice of that drew me into becoming a lawyer, and the incongruities of a bucolic life tinged with arson jarred the mental wheels into motion. The stories didn’t stop when I went into banking. The same type of gall that prompts someone to torch a cow barn ripples through all sorts of money laundering schemes. I really don’t have to dig that far to find a lot of great stuff for stories!

I’ve witnessed some incomprehensible things in real life, so why not have some fun with it by tweaking them in fiction?

HALLIE: Have you trained horses? Jumped? Competed? Or watched it mostly from the stands?

CONNIE: I’ve trained and competed on both hunters and jumpers, so I know the grit needed to get a half ton animal to respond to a pipsqueak kid on its back.

Don’t let their big brown eyes fool you. There’s a big, independent brain clicking away that’s trying to figure out a way around that obstacle, not over it. It’s an incredible feeling to sail over a fence astride a horse. I bring that essence of strength and awe into my character and it’s something my readers respond to.

I’ve been lucky enough to have owned six horses, but I’m currently a horse lover without a horse. I get my equine fix by volunteering to help folks with special needs learn how to ride at Windush Farms in North Andover, MA.

HALLIE: What’s your Irish connection?

CONNIE: Growing up, I was surrounded by brogues, pale skin and clergy. My ancestors hail from County Cork in the south and Drumshanbo in northwest Ireland, about twenty miles from the border of Northern Ireland.

HALLIE: I hope you had to travel to Ireland to research this book.

CONNIE: I traveled there a few years ago and can’t wait to go back. Everything you hear about the natural beauty and wonderful people in Ireland is true.

The most amazing experience I had was traveling down a narrow road near Kinsale on the southwestern coast and
coming across a stone circle, like Stonehenge, but this one was only about thirty feet in diameter. It was too small to be noted on any tourist map, and the locals didn’t want to talk about it.

Whoo, boy! That got me thinking! The boulders were lichen covered and mossy, just the way you’d want them to be! Maybe it was my writer’s imagination gone wild, but I could feel the difference in energy there.

The delicious tingling feeling of that discovery has stayed with me and is something I hope to impart to my readers.

HALLIE: We were in Ireland this summer and I felt that magic visiting a stone circle, too. 

Tell us what you’re working on next, and where our readers can meet you in person.

CONNIE: After The Troubles is launched, I’ll be able to focus on a memoir exploring the impact of the barn fire on my family. Then it’s back to work on the third book of the series.

September 26 will find me roaming the halls of my law school alma mater and Barrister’s Book Shop at Vermont Law School. October 19 – 21 I’ll be at the New England Library Association Conference in Boxborough, Massachusetts and on October 25 I’ll be at the Boston Book Festival. At BBF, for one special reader of this blog who mentions this post to me and the secret passphrase “Jungle Red Writers Rock,” I’ll have a signed copy of my book as a gift for him or her!

HALLIE: Connie will be checking in today and answering questions and comments. My question: How does travel fuel your imagination?

Coming Soon! The Troubles

    Jessica Wyeth is no longer a fugitive hiding under assumed identities. Through sheer grit, she has reclaimed her life only to find out that what she fought for was an illusion. She is not the child of a picture-perfect New England family, but an unwanted castaway.
    Broken, she tries to move forward by traveling to a remote town in northwest Ireland to train horses for a harrowing private jump race. Michael Conant, the rightful successor to his father’s dubious empire and the man she owes her life to, has set her up with everything she needs–world class horses, connections, and bodyguards.

    Michael and Jessica struggle with their pasts and wonder if they are collateral damage in the war for the reunification of Northern Ireland or an integral part of its troubles. Jessica immerses herself in learning about her mother, only to find betrayal in her mother’s truths. Michael rejects the legacy of his father and is tested on how far he will go to keep her.

    When attempts are made on her life, Jessica questions if it is her past that is catching up with her, or Michael's. Leaving the past buried could expose her to becoming another casualty of war.

   “The Troubles,” sequel to “The Charity” and second in a series, continues the story of Jessica Wyeth.


  1. Hhmm . . . that stone circle would certainly fuel my imagination! It’s interesting to hear how traveling to different places gives writers new ideas.

    Connie, how horrible about your family’s barn being burned down; I’m looking forward to checking out your books . . . .

  2. What a great interview with a wonderful budding author. My question is "What can your readers expect from your next book? Any sneak peaks, hints or themes you can share with us readers before it comes out?"

  3. What a fascinating story Connie! I love the stone circle that the locals didn't want to discuss...

    I'm afraid of horses--so big, and I have no idea how to connect with one. (I can do dogs or cats, no problem!) Would love to hear more about how you understand what they're thinking...

  4. Thanks, Joan! There is something about a writer physically standing in the places where characters are set that seeps into descriptions. Kathy will be glad to hear that Jessica continues her journey at the Beltany stone circle in Raphoe, Ireland. It's very similar to the one I visited, and the personal experience helped me write about how it felt to be there, not just how it looked. There was a mystical and timeless quality to it that was incredible.

    ...and Lucy! I've gotten my share of bruises for not reading horses as well as I should! They have their body language and tells just like people.

  5. I enjoyed your first book and I'm looking forward to "The Troubles". I'm curious . . . did you ever get an explanation from the arsonist as to why he returned to "the scene of the crime" to "re-introduce" himself to your family?

  6. Very glad you are writing about the barn fire. Barns were a major investment and key foundation in American farming life. They were especially essential to dairy farming.

    From a crime and justice standpoint, that story -- an act of vengeance by a jealous, disgruntled employee(?) -- needs telling. Were there ethnic overtones involved? And the fact the perpetrator escaped justice due to a procedural error?! Was it really an just an error, or was there collusion?

    And the impact on your family? They must have shown, as you say, real grit to overcome and get past the tragedy.

    I can see how such a tragedy could color a family's perspective for years.

    All families encounter ups and downs. But to come to a new country, work hard for 30 or 40 years to build a business, and then have a major part of it destroyed in an afternoon, must have been extremely traumatic.

    This story is intriguing. It could yield many useful life lessons.

    Looking forward to reading it!

  7. Looking forwrad to reading your new book Connie. I can't wait to hear what Jessica is up to.

  8. I am amazed at the meticulous detail in your book when it came to the crime scenes and the clues left behind. How did you research this?

  9. So excited to read Connie's next book! That little snippet you shared piqued my interest!

  10. Welcome, Connie! I got goosebumps when you talked about the stone circle... It's amazing when you can actually be in the place you're writing about. Looking forward to the new book!

  11. Connie, like George, I want to know why that man burned down the barn. Did he try to explain himself to your mom? Did he apologize? I can't imagine someone showing up like that just to brag about it.

    I MUST read your books, including the memoir you are planning.

  12. Every time I hear someone talk about visiting Ireland, I think, "I've got to go there some day."

    I, too, want to know what the arsonist said to your mom. I can't imagine what prompts someone to do that.

    Congrats on the new book!

  13. Bill - They way my Irish mom tells the story, the alleged arsonist was a bit "in his cups" when he came knocking. I can only imagine that as a man with nothing, burning down our barn was his big claim to fame. George, you're right about all the themes woven through the experience. It might have been one event impacting a single family, but the resilience needed to keep going is not unique. People put one foot in front of the other every day. I hope I can capture and express those little acts of heroism.

  14. Hi Connie! I am so honored to be speaking to you right now! I am almost entirely a chick lit reader, but a friend of mine asked me to read your book which I reluctantly did...and I loved it! What do you think your thriller provided for chick lit lovers like me that other thrillers haven't accomplished? I have tried to get through other thrillers but have quickly lost interest. Yours was different.

  15. What a great interview, Connie! And I love that you volunteer to work with horses and kids with special needs. Amazing how healing animals can be! You are a special soul to recognize this and help them connect. Really enjoyed this post!

  16. Okay, I have to know, Connie. What did the arsonist want when he came back? What was his motivation, and what did your parents do?

  17. I am an avid reader and I particularly enjoy mysteries. The Charity is up there with the best sellers. I can't wait for the sequel. I've passed my enthusiasm on to my friends and acquaintances... Northeast MA should be well covered!

    Linda Dallaire

  18. HI, Connie! Welcome!

    (SO funny, I grew up with horses and barns, too--and ours was also burned down. By Kevin the weird kid who lived next door. Long story. They soon moved.)

    Anyway, I agree it's so amazing how those things get embedded in our psyches, and then come out in fiction. That's why each of us would write a different book about the same incident, right?

    Will we see you at CrimeBAke?

  19. Thank you, everyone! I have to say that I'm having a lot of fun right now!

    No, Deb, he never apologized. One thing that amazes me is how my parents never spoke poorly of him and forgave him. He led a miserable life and they always felt that a higher power meted out his punishment.

    Tracy - I'm glad I've introduced you to the world of thrillers! Check out Jungle Reds' shelf and you'll be a convert forever!

  20. Connie, your research was impeccable. What was your process? It's not everyone who is knowledgeable of terrorist activities and crime scene logic.

  21. Hi Hank! We can share burning barn stories at CrimeBake. Who knows! Maybe we'll start a new tradition...

  22. How does your being a lawyer influence your writing the Charity?

  23. Connie , I so loved The Charity & can't wait to dive into The Troubles. You have often said ' everyone has a book in them to write ' ! When you wrote The Charity, did you know you had a second book to write ?

  24. wearGreetings, Connie! I found you on Twitter and read your book as I have many other self-published writers like yourself. I must be candid by admitting a great deal of these books have barely kept my attention beyond the first 10 pages. The Charity was not one of those books; it was a true delight and should be on the best seller list next to the established thriller writers like Louise Penny, Dan Brown, and Aleatha Romig. I look forward to reading your next book.

  25. Hi Laura and Ken - Thanks for your questions. I know my law school training was the best writing boot camp I ever had. Not a word gets written without it really meaning something. I'm cursed with a wild imagination combined with a dogged attention to detail. Facts and motivations have to knit together.

  26. Do you begin writing your books with a general outline of the story and how you want it to progress, or does the story evolve as you write it?

  27. Hi Connie,

    I caught your book reading at River Run bookstore and ended up buying "The Charity" and loved it. I couldn't put it down. My question to you is, when you wrote it, did you see it as a long story arc that might become a series, or did the success of the first book encourage you to continue on with it? I'm curious.

  28. Hi Chris and Laura - I thought Jessica's story would be only one book. Then my readers started asking questions about what happens to her next, I realized that not only did I have answers, but there was another book (or two!) that had to be written. Thank you for your support!

  29. I will look for your books Connie. They sound intriguing. I've been to Ireland a couple of times and loved it. Wonderful people and beautiful country. Good luck on getting the next book written as quickly as your fans want it!

  30. We were in Ireland this summer and visited stone circles. It's so easy to see how folklore and tales of magic thrive in that amazing landscape.

  31. Hi Connie! Welcome to JRW! Ireland? Horses? Just those two elements are enough to hook me. And I love the stone circle story. I've run across a few places in the UK that have made me feel the same way. So interesting.

    Oh, and by the way, our barn burned to the ground when I was a child, too. I was told that one of my uncles hadn't put out a cigarette properly, but now I can't imagine anyone would have been smoking in a barn...

    Off to look for The Charity, so I can start at the beginning!

  32. The Charity is a gripping, powerful story -- WOW!

  33. THREE burned barns? Whoa. That's pretty interesting.

    And Debs, your book arrived in my mailbox today! YAY!!

  34. Hi Susan, Hallie and Deborah, It's wonderful to be here with JRW and enjoy the 'craic.' You all should have a 'class trip' to Ireland. Now THAT would be something!

    So sorry about your family's barn, Deborah. I hope that story has a silver lining, too.

  35. Connie, our lives sound like dopplegangers - rural New York state, dairy country, law school in New England, and horses (through my husband Ross, who comes from a seriously horsey family.) Fortunately, I don't have a traumatic case of arson in my past.

    THE CHARITY sounds fascinating, and I look forward to meeting you at one of the many New England book events this fall!

  36. I lost a nights sleep unable to put down "the Charity" so I'm taking power naps getting ready for another page turner with The Troubles. Can't wait to see what happens to Jessica next-

  37. Love Connie's find where the locals had a secret they didn't want to tell. I might use that!

  38. The storylines and setting of both books have piqued my interest! Hope to meet you at an upcoming event.

  39. Wow! I was glued to reading this interview. If your books are only half as fascinating as your post here, Connie, then they must be amazing. Count me in as a new fan who will be putting your books on my wish list and TBR list. You have led such an interesting life, so much fodder for the writing grist mill. I would deem you the quintessential accomplished person.

    Connie, there are so many elements of intrigue in your life and your writing. The barn fire, the stones, the Irish heritage, the relationship between human and horse, the horse industry. I am imagining that you will never run out of material.

    Lucy, I, too, am somewhat afraid of horses. When I took my kids to the Kentucky Horse Park some years ago, I was determined to show the kids, who were not afraid, that I could ride a horse around the trail with them. I, of course, was put on a horse named Firey, who had a tendancy to stray off the trail. I kept one of the guides busy with my calls for help. Although completely inept at horse riding or anything to do with horses, being from Kentucky, I have a love for the great, beautiful beasts and certainly didn't want to pass on my fear to my children. So, my daughter took riding lessons and loved it, and now her older daughter is taking lessons. It is a great confidence builder. My son isn't afraid of horses and has ridden them, but he didn't take any lessons. My husband grew up with riding a horse on his grandfather's farm, so he is comfortable with them, too. I just look and admire.

    Connie, I'm still curious as to what the man who started the fire wanted when he showed up years later at your house. Was he in any way remorseful?

  40. Keeping up on all your exciting activities. You are amazing! Love,Pop

  41. Hank - No more barn fires for any of the least in real life. Totally go for it in your books!

    Julia - Amazing connections! I'm sure we'll meet sometime soon.

    Dale - No you can't. That's MINE! (Just kidding!)

    Hilary, Ron, Pat D. - Thanks for joining the conversation! Sorry for the lack of sleep, Hilary. And yes, Pat D, I hope the pages keep coming, too!

    Kathy - I nearly fell off my seat reading your comment! "The Charity" brings Jessica to Kentucky, too. I mean, could I really talk about horse racing in the U.S. without it? Love the fact you didn't let your fear of horses get in the way of your children learning to ride. Good for you!

    No, the man showed no remorse, only a misguided sense of pride. His motive was the well-worn on of being a disgruntled employee. It was a devastating loss for a farming family, and one that changed our hearts and shaped our futures. We all grew up and moved on.

  42. Hi Connie -- so great to meet you here! I'm a horse lover since girlhood, and also come from Cork roots.

    One of my trips to Ireland fueled my imagination so much that years later I have KILMOON (debut novel) -- amazing what comes when we travel, right? I can't wait to return either!

  43. Connie, I am surprised that a movie producer has not scooped up The Charity and done a movie on it yet! I was at the edge of my seat while reading the book. I'm looking forward to reading The Troubles.

  44. Connie, I second Kara's comment. Where is Hollywood?
    Loved the Charity, and looking forward to The Troubles.

  45. Lisa - A traveling Irish horse lover! A perfect combination!

    Kara and Gerry - Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed the first book. Jessica learns more about her mother in "The Troubles." It's enough to make an Irishman hit the pubs!

  46. I just wanted to let everyone here know that Connie's The Charity is only $3.99 on Amazon Kindle right now. Yes, of course, I bought it.

  47. I love horses. I never had one of my own but rode friends horses and at school. When I visited Vermont during the summer my friends and I practiced jumping hay bales. It was great.

  48. Have you considered writing any historical pieces now that you he done the research on the troubles?

  49. Hey Connie! Just bought The Charity for my Nook.

  50. Loved "The Charity"…gripping, fast-moving….drew you right into the fray! I, too, remember the red sky on the night of that fire…..very frightening.

  51. My new crush is JRW's blog! Love you all!

    Kathy R and Pat D - THANK YOU!

    Reine - I'll be in VT Friday! See you there?

    Anne - The Troubles in Northern Ireland has incredible themes running alongside its difficult history. I hope to bring this time to life for my readers with as much accuracy as possible. That said, I get to a point and the imagination kicks in!

    Margi - OMG!!! Yes! One of the silver linings of that day was how our small town gathered around us. We will never forget your family's kindness as my siblings and I were scooped up and protected by your family's love. Thank you!

  52. Hi Connie! Welcome to JRW. Wondering about the time in your novel. I remember the troubles. Did they have a peace treaty or something in 1996?

    I added your book to my TBR list.


  53. Congratulations on the upcoming release of your second book. It's such an accomplishment. It must take so much work and discipline. Loved reading about your family history. Sad to learn about the barn burning. Curious to learn about your mother's reaction once she learned who he was. Why did he come back? Wishing you much success with the new book.

  54. Connie - Love, love, love The Charity. Can't wait for Troubles. You've certainly created a world that I am unfamiliar with but enjoy dipping into in my fantasies. Just bought a Kindle so now I can read without glasses. So much more enjoyable. Still want to buy the book though if you'll autograph it for me. You won't be unknown long and I want to be able to say "I knew you when"!!

  55. The general dictionary type definitions do not give us much clue here either.