Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Libby Hellmann

Victoria Gotti w/Joe Dolci photo Mafiessa10ab.jpg

133x200_BitterVeilLibby Hellman is a crime fiction/thriller author with 8 novels. A BITTER VEIL, a literary thriller set largely in Revolutionary Iran, will be released April, 2012. It’s a stand-alone, but it follows last year’s SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, which goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago. Her publisher, Allium Press of Chicago, jokes that she’s writing a “revolutionary” trilogy, because the novel after VEIL will be set in Cuba and spans 3 generations of a Mafia family.

She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about politics and paranoia.

Do you think politics and crime are natural bed fellows?

If by crime you mean “crime fiction,” yes. If you mean “crime in general”, yes again. I grew up in Washington DC, and when we were sitting around the dinner table gossiping about the neighbors, we were essentially talking politics. The discussion unfailingly led to corruption of one sort or another. It can’t be avoided. Some politicians are tainted less than others, but no politician — on a local or national level — has clean hands.

The issue is whether or how much good comes from that corruption. I think we tend to turn a blind eye to some forms of corruption if, like Willy Stark in ALL THE KING’S MEN, some good comes from it. Especially some public good. What makes it fascinating to me, and what I love to write about, are the variables. Who becomes corrupt when, and why. How idealistic they were to begin with. What crimes were committed to cover up or broaden the corruption. What the effects are on loved ones, underlings, or the community at large. It’s one of my favorite topics — and probably for many crime fiction writers as well.

I’m not the first person to say this, but I believe the modern crime novel is the perfect template to explore social and political issues. The trick is not to preach or excoriate. We are storytellers and are expected to entertain. If we happen to set our stories within a political framework or even slip in a message or two, it’s okay — as long as we’re not spouting dogma.

How fertile is the soil of Iran for a good crime thriller and how much of a part does paranoia play in your novel?

I think any society that is swept up in conflict, whether it’s war, revolution, or oppression of one sort or another, is fertile ground for a crime thriller. I suspect there’s a natural inclination to treat crimes committed during these times as just another manifestation of the major conflict (ie the war or the uprising). Which means people who might not ordinarily commit a crime might see an opening to do so, hoping it will be overlooked or dealt with in a superficial way. I’d be interested to know what percentage of burglaries, sexual assaults, and other urban crimes were thoroughly investigated during the Nazi occupation of Paris, for example. (I don’t know the answer). What I like to do is place my characters in the middle of the turmoil and see how they react. Some become heroes, others cowards, and still others become opportunistic and/or evil. That’s the fun part. I’m never sure who is going to do what until I start writing. In fact,

As far as paranoia, that’s a great question. I’ve never really isolated it as a factor in and by itself. Although now that you raise it, I would have to admit that some of the characters probably do suffer from paranoia. In their cases, however, the paranoia was justified. In Iran the scales tipped so far in reaction to the Shah that everything and everyone was suspect. And encouraged to be.

Do you think there is less propaganda in the West or it is better hidden?

You made me laugh with this one. No, there is no less propaganda in the West. (By West, I’m confining myself to the US) Particularly now that the Supreme Court has sanctioned unlimited corporate contributions to political candidates, etc. And the Koch brothers along with a few others concocted the Tea Party. In fact, I wonder if corporations and wealthy individuals have taken a few lessons from oppressive governments like China, Iran, even Nazi Germany, watered them down, and are trying to apply them here. What makes the difference here, though, is the first ammendment. Thankfully — at least so far — people and the press can call out the behaviors for what they are. Which tends to weaken the propaganda, and in some cases, causes a backlash against it. I realize we’re talking in generalities here, btw.

Tell us about Set The Night On Fire.

133x200_STNOFI came of age during the Sixties. I remember the era and I’ve always had unresolved feelings about it. Namely, where did “we” go wrong? Were we too naive? Too arrogant? Or were there powers much stronger than we were that virtually assured our failure? I still don’t know the answer. But I wanted to explore the issue. At the same time, I also love thrillers and wanted to write a “pure” adrenaline-fueled thriller, as opposed to a mystery-thriller, a term that some critics have used to describe my other books. So I combined a story that, for the most part, takes place in the present. A young woman is being stalked by someone she doesn’t know for a reason she doesn’t understand. That, btw, is probably the most frightening thing I can imagine. As she tries to figure it out, the evidence leads back to her parents, who lived through the Sixties in Chicago. In the process, she discovers her parents were not the people she thought they were. Essentially, it’s a three act play with Acts One and Three in the present, and Act Two starting at the Democratic Convention in 1968 and continuing through Kent State.

Do you think the sixties was a sexual revolution and did it impact more on gender relations than feminism?

It’s interesting that you ask that question, because I’ve been thinking about it recently. Was there really more sex in the Sixties than in previous decades? Probably , although there’s always been a lot of sex going on. Certainly there was more conversation about sex during the Sixties, and whether you were having it or not, and why/how it was contributing to the liberation or the dissolution of society, depending on your point of view. But don’t forget that the birth control pill, more than the culture or laissez-faire attitudes of the time, made the “sexual revolution” possible. For the first time, women could have sex without fear of “payng a price.”

In fact, as far as feminism is concerned, I think the biggest impact on it has been the pill. Women could take charge of their bodies, and over time that take-charge attitude spread to other areas of their lives. The whole area of gender relations is the natural consequence of feminism. My kids’ generation has a decidedly casual attitude toward sex –even more than in the Sixties. It’s almost a non-issue. Not gender relations. Now everyone spends a lot of time talking about roles, disparities, and interaction between the sexes. Much more than we talk about sex itself.

The Jazz Age is analogous to the sixties. What do you think the reasons are for this and has the control of the female body been corrupted by the pharmaceutical companies?

Interesting question.

There were a lot of similarities between the two “ages” — the music, the rebelliousness, the independence of women (who in the Jazz Age smoked, did the Charleston, wore short skirts, bobbed their hair). Experimentation…pushing the envelope. There were economic similarities too — an age of prosperity, even affluence was dawning and young people were spearheading what was perceived to be valuable. But there were differences too. In the Jazz Age, the world had just emerged from a horrible war; there was no war in the early Sixties, unless you want to include the Korean War in the 50s and the civil rights battles in the early 60s. I think there was a perceived superficiality to the Jazz Age — people just wanted to have fun. They didn’t want to delve too deeply into their beliefs or other people or institutions.. . while in the Sixties, everyone — well — a lot of people at least — were searching for a deeper meaning to life. There was a strong current of going against the mainstream in the Sixties as well. A rebellion against crass materialism. A return to nature, to a holistic and spiritual place that didn’t exist in the Jazz Age. (Remember “Plastics” in The Graduate?)

Control of the female body by Big Pharma: Now that’s a subject worthy of a doctorate. Hell if I know. I tend to think not, though. The pills that I take (and I am a walking pharmacy) are pretty much all intended to make me feel good or keep me healthy. That would put me in control. What is disturbing, though, is the ease with which some meds get through the FDA when we know they haven’t been tested thoroughly. Which is why we have all these sudden scares and recalls. It didn’t used to be this way as I recall. But Big Pharma has big pockets and they too contribute to the process whenever they can. Would be interesting to see how much they contribute to the FDA oversight committees in the House and Senate. Actually, I don’t want to know. Leave me a little idealism.

Ancient Sparta had the most feared army in Greece, encouraged lesbianism, was the only State to allow women to own land, and removed sons from their mothers at an early age. What does that tell us about families as they exist today?

I thought the Jews always allowed women to own land in their own name. Before Sparta. But my knowledge of Greek (and Jewish) history is sketchy, so I might be off on which came first. The examples you cite seem schizophrenic. On the one hand, women are “allowed” to own land, encouraged to bond with other women, and give up nurturing their male children. In other words, they were being asked to deny or repress their femininity. For what? Why? So they could be ersatz men?

I could probably make the case that it presupposes a latent (or maybe not so latent) fear of women by the men of Sparta, to the point that they wanted women to behave like “men”. Again, why? Of course, it wouldn’t be the first — or last — time men have felt threatened by women. The Salem witch trials… the draconian restrictions on Islamic women… the prominence of male primogeniture… the “good little Maxwell Housewife…” It’s interesting how many ways men have used to keep women in their place. And how deeply women have acquiesced to it. But that’s an entirely different conversation, isn’t it?

As far as what that tells us about families today, I don’t know, Richard. It’s a stretch from Sparta to the white picket-fence land I live in. The roles of men and women are in flux.. have been for a hundred years. The old model of the nuclear Ozzie and Harriett family is dead; the new models include lots of single mothers, a few single fathers, extended families living together (especially in today’s economy.. which might not be such a bad thing in the long run)…I don’t really see a direct correlation to the past. I think family structures today are more dependent on economic factors.

Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?

Actually, there is. It’s why I started writing in the first place, but I didn’t realize it until ten years later.

Probably the most common question writers are asked is “what made you start writing crime fiction?” I’ve always answered that I could tell you how and when I started writing, but I was never exactly sure why. Thanks to events a few years ago, I finally got it. In fact, it was one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments. It was the OJ Simpson trial.

Back in 1995 I was free-lancing, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of the trial. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict—in other words, everything you could want in a crime novel.

First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor, the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone. The racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, and the avuncular king of defense lawyers.
Then there were the forensics. I knew nothing about police procedure — and less about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the footprints—all those issues opened up a new world for me. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled—maybe even manipulated—it played to all of my latent conspiracy theories.
Finally, of course, there was the denouement in October 1995. How absolutely noir an ending! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn’t have done it better.

By spring of 1996 I’d written my first mystery. It was a police procedural, btw, about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. It was never published, and it shouldn’t be. Still, I kept going and eventually published the first Ellie Foreman book.
Curiously, it wasn’t until 2007, when O.J. was arrested in Vegas for trying to steal his own memorabilia that the light bulb flashed. THAT’s why I’m writing crime fiction. Because he got away with it! The injustice – the unfairness of it all had percolated up from my subconscious.

In a way, I’ve been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? At the same time, though, I have to admit that OJ changed my life.

Do you feel fiction needs to be moral or does morality destroy a good story?

No. Morality is not a pre-requisite for a good story. “They” say, and I agree to some extent, that crime fiction is all about justice and restoring order. But I always think the more interesting stories are those where justice is denied at the end. And disorder reigns. If there is a compelling reason NOT to serve justice or restore order, I can live with it. Just makes the story more noir. However, there still needs to be some kind of resolution — so that the reader understands clearly why justice is not being served.

Having said that, I do admit that most of my books do have morally upright protagonists and justice is usually served. It’s the convention of the genre. In fact, the “Western” and crime fiction are closely related in those respects.

What are you working on now and what do you make of the rise of the E Book?

My ninth novel will be out in April. It’s called A BITTER VEIL and it’s set in Revolutionary Iran. (Did I already mention that? If so just delete this part..) Short version: American girl falls in love with Iranian boy. Moves to Tehran with him in 1978. The revolution erupts around them. He is subsequently killed, and she’s accused of killing him. It’s more of a literary thriller than I’ve previously written. (Happy to send you an ARC next month, if you want…).

Right now, I’m just finishing the third leg of my Revolution Trilogy (as my publisher calls it). This one, as yet untitled, is set in Cuba and spans three generations of an American mafia family, starting in 1958, then jumping to 1991, then to the present. I’m going to Cuba in February to fact check, and I can’t wait.

Speaking of revolutions, we are going through one now with the explosion of e-books. It is changing everything, and at an incredibly accelerated pace. What I thought 3 months ago has become obsolete today. However, I’m all for revolutions, (and all my books are available as e-books) although I don’t have a reader. I do have both Kindle and E-pub apps on my computers, though. So I do read them. The biggest problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. Gatekeepers have yet to emerge, although they will be different kinds of gatekeepers, which is probably good, because the Big Six were and continue to be more-of-the-same. I write about e-book issues on my blog, SAY THE WORD ( so that’s probably the best place to get more of my opinions, predictions, and rants.

Libby thank you for a great interview whose insights I hope will draw new readers to your work.



Everything Libby Hellmann is here. All her books are available in hard copy and multiple eBook formats – see the ‘Buy Libby’s Books’ page and take your pick.

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