Author Q&A with Libby Fischer Hellmann
Q: Could you tell us a little about your latest novel, DoubleBlind?
A: DoubleBlind is the sixth entry in my Georgia Davis PI series. If you’re a series reader, there are some fundamental changes in this book. There are two competing plots in the story. The first is that Georgia, a former Chicago cop now a PI, is asked to investigate the Covid death of a friend’s aunt. The aunt’s niece is sure that her aunt didn’t die from the vaccine. So Georgia starts an intense investigation. She takes a break from the case and goes to an Illinois city called Nauvoo, which happens to be the former center for Mormon life in the Midwest. It is no longer, but I decided there would be some fundamentalist Mormon families still living there. While she’s there, she is mistaken for another woman because they look almost identical.
This starts the danger in the story because her doppelgänger has run away from her abusive Mormon spouse. It’s important to remember that regular Mormons are wonderful people. Fundamentalists, like many extremist cults, are not so nice, and they come after Georgia. The two plots only intersect because Georgia happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and both of them end up turning dark. I can’t say much more about the changes in the book—it would be spoilers—but it’s not the end of the series.
In fact, I write two series; one is the Georgia Davis series. The other is the Ellie Foreman series. Ellie is a video producer on the North Shore of Chicago. There are six books in that series. Ellie has a daughter, who is now in her thirties, and she will be taking over the series because Ellie is getting a little long in the tooth. I’ve just begun writing that.
Q: What is your research process normally like for your stories?
A: I don’t do all my research in the beginning. I used to, but I found that when you do enormous amounts of research, you only use ten percent of what you’ve learned in the story itself. So, I decided I would wait until I need that ten percent and do the research specifically for that segment. For example, in DoubleBlind I didn’t know a thing about the Covid vaccines. I just knew that some people thought that they were the devil incarnate and other people thought they were the saving grace of this country’s health. So I started in on not so much how vaccines were produced, as how they were distributed and whether there was any chance that those vaccines could be manipulated from the time they were produced to the time the shot goes into somebody’s arm. I found several places where it seemed to me that they could be. So I talked to people from the Chicago Health Department, and I talked to some private people at Glenbrook hospital, which is the hospital nearest me. I couldn’t talk to any of the manufactures, but I did talk to the manufacturer’s association and they basically said, yeah, it’s feasible. So I knew that it was something I could work with.
Whenever you do the research, it’s important to do it properly. Take something as simple as police procedure or how guns work. If you make a mistake, anybody who knows more than you about guns or police procedure is going to throw the book across the room and say, “oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I don’t ever want that to happen to me, so I take a lot of pains to do my research and then check what I’ve learned with other sources. So at least I can say I checked with this source and this source and they said it was feasible. I’ve been very lucky and I haven’t had a lot of problems, except the one time I said there was a safety on Glock. I knew that wasn’t a safety on a Glock, but the mistake crept into the book anyway.
Q: Your writing often features strong female protagonists, like Georgia Davis and Ellie Foreman. In your eyes, what makes a female character strong, and why is it important to you to create these characters?
A: I know that women are the majority of mystery book buyers. Some say it is up to eighty percent. Whether they are buying for themselves or their spouses or their kids. So a part of it is honestly market focused; a lot of women buy mystery books. I do not write cozy mysteries. I like to write about women whose options are running out and they have to do what they have to do; whether that is taking a gun out and shooting somebody, or using their wits to get out of a situation that is dangerous. I choose women who are strong because I admire women who can think on their feet and keep their wits about them when they are in a really stressful situation.
I also try to create characters who are better than me. Ellie and Georgia are much braver than me. They may share the same curiosity, but they’ll realize there is something off in a situation and they’ll pursue it. Ellie is sometimes headstrong and finds herself in danger before she realizes she put herself there. Georgia, on the other hand, is very cautious. She knows when she is putting herself in danger, but she still does it when she thinks the stakes are high enough.
When we first meet Georgia, she is single. She’s recovering from a love affair gone bad, but she has a soft spot for children, particularly little girls and teenage girls. I’ve never really gotten Freudian about it, but I suppose it’s because of her own childhood. She wants them to have a better childhood than hers was. So when a case comes her way that involves a young female, she is more apt to get invested emotionally. That happens in a lot of her cases. She feels protective. Ellie is more cerebral but has a sense of humor. She can crack lines here and there, and I think they’re funny. Bottom line, I like women who take risks for the greater good or to prevent a greater evil.
Q: How do you think your background as a broadcaster has influenced the way that you write?
A: When you’re a broadcaster, there’s a different story every day and that was what I absolutely loved about being in it. I was learning so much about the world and the way the country functioned and the way our leaders function and the way other leaders function. I mean, it was like attending a seminar every day on how society works.
People say that the mystery novel is the modern sociological novel. The books that I’m thinking of are Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other books that had a sociological bent. That as long as we are entertaining readers, we can talk about an issue that is relevant today. As long as we don’t preach and as long as we explain it even-handedly in the same terms that you might use in broadcast news. In broadcast news, you can’t get too detailed about what you’re talking about, and the same is true in a mystery novel. But you have to do it in a way that readers will understand and accept. So every story that I write has a subtext of an issue that is current and that needs to be addressed. I can go through all seventeen books and tell you what the issue was, but I’m not going to do that. That aspect of being able to explore an issue has always attracted me. In fact, have you read anything by Jeremiah Healy? He has passed on now. He was a lawyer, and he was a mystery writer. I had been reading thrillers when I was a young adult and, at that time, the thriller was getting kind of old. The world was going to blow up; the hero saved the world from blowing up, and then he walks into the sunset, or not, with his girlfriend. I was complaining to my mother one day and she said, well, read this, and it was Jerry Healy’s Staked Goat. I started reading it and it wasn’t like a thriller. It was a very interesting story. I think it takes place in a veterinary hospital. But anyway, the subtext, the issue, ended up being the sale of unused armaments or used weapons from the Vietnam War in a secret underworld market. From that point on, I said, you know, if I ever write a mystery, I was not thinking of writing anything at that point, I’m going to do that too. So I did.
Q: In DoubleBlind and High Crimes, you face current events head on. Is this an important aspect of writing to you?
A: I never thought of it in those terms, but I guess in searching for the issue that I wanted to explore, they turned out to be current. High Crimes was different because I spent a whole year not writing after Trump was elected. I just kind of went off the deep end. My friends thought I was crazy. They wanted me to calm down. I finally realized that I couldn’t let this maniac have power over me, and I decided I would write about him. I don’t mention him more than once or twice in the whole book, but the story was basically about extremists whom he encouraged.
DoubleBlind was a bit different. I worked for a PR company during the Tylenol poisonings in the ’80s. We worked for Johnson and Johnson, which produced Tylenol. So I had an inside look at how the Tylenol poisoning was affecting the company, the people in the country, and the world. I decided to do something like that. There had been a few news stories about somebody tampering with the vaccines, so I said, hey, what if, which, by the way, those two words are the greatest words for a mystery writer. What if? Then you make it happen. So, what if someone tampered with the Moderna or the Covid vaccines? It just happened to be very current. In fact, I had to go back and change some things after I finished my first draft because more had come out about the vaccines and how they worked.
Q: You have written seventeen novels and even more short stories. Has your writing process changed over the course of writing all these stories, or has it stayed the same?
A: It stayed pretty much the same. Before I was published, I wrote a few novels, but they were not publishable. They were bad in so many ways. In fact, after I’d been published, I went back to one of them and I tried to rewrite it. I only got to page twenty-five before I realized I couldn’t do it. That’s when my process changed. I learned from an editor who told me, “Libby, you are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. You are trying to have your characters do what you want them to do, rather than what they would naturally do if left to their own devices. You’ve got to back off.” And I’m like, how do I do that? I don’t know how. I thought I was in control. The editor said, “Nope. You really aren’t. As soon as you create a character, that character should be three-dimensional enough to actually take over and do her own thing or his own thing.” She gave me some exercises: put two characters in a room, let them have an argument, and see what happens. And then she said, “Now have them resolve the argument.” I finally got what she was saying, and I stopped outlining. I have a premise. I have the first six or seven chapters in my head. I have what I think is the resolution, so I start writing. I love it because I don’t know much more than the reader does. Sometimes I go off into avenues that are dead ends and I have to backtrack but not often. The best times are when they surprise me and do things I never expected. That is a function of both knowing a character and pacing. I’ll write ten chapters and then I’ll say, okay, something really needs to happen now. What can happen? Oh, well, what if she’s not really doing that, but she’s doing something else? That would be cool. And what if that is just a red herring and potentially doesn’t amount to much in the long run, but the reader thinks it does? That’s misdirection, which we writers love to do. So, that’s kind of my process. It’s really fun. It’s putting together pieces of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I had when I began the book.
Q: In your writing, you don’t confine yourself to one genre, and you explore several. Do you find genres helpful or restrictive in your writing process?
A: A little of both. Many writers love the structure of the mystery novel because you can plot it out pretty easily. I know people who say, oh, it’s easy to write a mystery. Anybody can do it. But I also know other people that say writing a mystery is the hardest thing in the world. I like to break out of that structure, which is why I write my historical novels. I was a history major in college and I love, just like I did with the Vietnam War, to go back in time to see why things happened the way they did. You know, we are supposed to learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes. But we do. But we make them a little differently than we did because of history. Instead of a blue tank, we might ride a fuchsia tank, but it’s still a freakin’ tank. So I find the genre of mystery somewhat confining at times. At other times, it’s a relief. All I have to do is write the structure and get involved in interesting issues.
Q: What is an interesting fact that you learned while researching for your books?
A: This was from War, Spies, and Bobby Sox. I did not know that during World War II, after the US went into the war, they brought German and Italian prisoners of war to camps in the United States in 1942-3. There were five camps right around the Chicago area, and one of the camps was less than a mile from my neighborhood. So, I drove over to the camp—it’s now part of the Forest Preserve. A few months later, I bumped into an archeologist whose specialty was researching POW camps in Illinois. He was doing a presentation at a local library. So I went and took lots of notes and took pictures of his pictures. That’s how I got the framework for POW camps. But I had no idea these camps existed. A lot of people don’t. The Germans would often work on farms in the area and earn maybe a dollar a day. Many Americans thought the Germans were lovely people, and the Germans loved being in the US. Almost none of them wanted to go home at the end of the war. By the way, I wrote about a good German and a bad German POW. There were only four escapes in all the POW camps in the country. So that was something else that I didn’t know.
Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?
A: Write! Get butt in chair and write. Even if it’s terrible, it’s better than not having written at all. And if you enjoy it, then you will become a writer. You will polish your prose and you will learn the craft of writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But you can’t learn it until you have something to craft. Even if you write something that is trashy and terrible, you can probably salvage a few sentences and start to build something that is craft worthy. Annie Lamott says in Bird by Bird that the object of writing is to write a “shitty” first draft. That is the only way you’ll get better. So when you’re writing and you’re facing the “omigod, I can’t write. They’re going to see right through me” mantra, don’t worry about it. Don’t worry if it is terrible. You can edit it. Do it every day for at least half an hour.
With fiction, conflict is the main driver. When two people disagree or do different things, it’s worth exploring. What do they do? Are they reasonable people? Are they crazy? As you’re writing, the characters will sort of surface, and you’ll say, “wait a minute, that guy’s loony tunes”, or you might say, “she’s very controlled. I know there’s a fire in her, but she’s not letting it out.” Start with conflict. Put them in a room, like my editor made me do, and see what happens.
About Libby Fischer Hellmann
Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago a long time ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Seventeen novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery writing community and has even won a few.