Libby Fischer Hellmann has written fifteen mystery novels, won numerous awards, and been nominated for many more. She and I met in Tucson at the Southern California Mystery Writers of America booth at the Tucson Festival of Books. Her feisty nature was a breath of fresh air and her sales techniques admirable. In this interview, she gives her thoughts on writing.
What in your opinion makes writing fiction so difficult and different from writing nonfiction?
It’s an entirely different process. In nonfiction, you’re trying to analyze, perhaps provide historical, political or other frameworks, and generally appeal to the cerebral. I find that pretty easy. But fiction requires you appeal to emotions—throughout the story. That’s a lot more difficult and requires a wholly different style of prose. At least for me.
In your post “Writing Ugly”, you mentioned swimming. Do you still swim? Do you count strokes?
I do. I had to stop last year for a while because of problems with my rotator cuffs, but I got stem cell therapy, and I’m back swimming laps. And yes, I count my strokes.
You’ve written fifteen books, an extraordinary number. How do you look at success as a writer now and how do you define it?
I do not consider myself a successful writer. Probably because I always see the mistakes, the opportunities not taken. But thank you for thinking that!
You have gone on off in a new direction more than once. What prompts you to take that step?
The challenge. I like to try new things in my writing. I get bored easily.
How do you handle fans who say they wish you would return to what you were writing about before?
I thank them. The thing is, I usually do get around to what they’re asking for. After ten years, for example, I wrote a new Ellie Foreman mystery. And now I’m writing the 5th Georgia Davis novel after 4 years. A couple of friends wanted me to write a WW2 book – I was really scared and intimidated about doing it, but I finally did.
David Mamet, in his small book Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, mentions that when you see a writer who is lost in thought, troubled, twitchy, and tending to fly off the handle that he/she is experiencing a third act problem. How do you solve the backed-into-a corner-with-no-way-out type of issues?
First I cry. Then I get angry. Then I call a writer friend with whom I brainstorm all the time, and we thrash it out. That happened to me in A Bitter Veil, actually. I literally got to the part where it was time to reveal the villain, but I didn’t know who it was. I thought I did, but each time I thought Character A was the killer, A did something noble. Same with B, C, and D. I had REALLY written myself into a corner. So I called Cara Black who talked me off the ledge, helped me go through each character’s motivation, and slowly, the real killer emerged.
What do you like about the writing of Raymond Chandler?
Pretty much everything, but above all his ability to create the perfect “punch” to a sentence or paragraph. If you think of a sentence having three descriptors, one and two would be what you’d expect, but three, as written by Chandler, would be so pithy, intelligent, and unique that it would put an entirely different spin on the other two. He also has an instinctive rhythm in his writing that is lyrical and seductive. His characters are exceptional as well. I want to be Philip Marlowe.
In a 2012 article for the Chicago Tribune you mentioned having intense writing groups as a secret weapon. Can you tell me about that?
Here’s a blogpost I wrote several years ago explaining why I think writing groups are a necessity for authors.
War Spies and Bobby Sox is a collection of three novellas. You’ve mentioned in an article that writing short stories was an excellent way for writers to sharpen their skills. Novellas, it seems to me, are halfway between those and novels. What prompted you to move in that direction?
As I mentioned above, it was Intimidation. So many amazing stories have been written about WW2 over the years, I couldn’t possibly imagine what I had to offer that would be at all different or enlightening. But then a story came to me. And then another. And then a short story that I’d written years before demanded to be included. I made them novellas because I was afraid to expand them into novels. What if they didn’t work? This was a little safer.