By Denise Baton
I first became familiar with Libby Fischer Hellmann’s work when she submitted a beautifully crafted story to MYSTERICAL-E, entitled THE RAINFOREST MESSIAH. I had done a great deal of writing and research on the Yanomamo people in Venezuela and Brazil myself and was pleased by Libby’s thorough research. Her ability to address complex political issues and to weave them into provocative human dramas that fit into a mystery genre format was exceptional. I was immediately impressed by her ability to take on the responsibility of highly charged issues while crafting an entertaining and suspenseful read. THE RAINFOREST MESSIAH not only won special recognition from MYSTERICAL-E but also in England and it’s short-listed for a prestigious award recognizing the best literature in cyberspace. It certainly was no surprise to me when Libby informed me that her first novel, AN EYE FOR MURDER, had been snatched up by BERKELEY PRIME CRIME (ISBN: 0-425-18739-X) and was to also come out in hard copy from POISONED PEN PRESS.
Denise: Libby, your character, Ellie Foreman, is a documentary filmmaker. Do you have a background in filmmaking as well?
Libby: I do. I have an MFA in film production from NYU, and like Ellie, I once had dreams of becoming the American version of Lina Wertmiller. Unfortunately, there was the slight problem of earning a living, and I didn't really see myself as a starving artist. I'd been working part-time at NBC while I was in grad school, and I went to work for them full time when I finished. Those were in the days when news was still shot in film, and I was an assistant film editor, assigned mostly to Nightly News. I'd always been fascinated with journalism and politics anyway. No surprise when you're raised in Washington, DC. And it seemed like a good way to combine my interests. I went on to have about six jobs in eight years, (not all of them at NBC). My last job was manning the overnight desk for NBC in Washington -- and then I was laid off. Kind of like, "life's a bitch, and then you die..."
I moved to Chicago afterwards and started producing industrials. That's also when I started the training side of my business. My website, www.hellmann.com, provides information about Fischer Hellmann Communications.
Denise: The history of Chicago was so present in the story. Did you have to do a lot of research or were you already aware of much of the historical details?
Libby: Yes, I did and continue to do an enormous amount of research for all my books.
Denise: Are you involved with the politics of Chicago?
Libby: I'm not from Chicago and I'm not involved in Chicago politics... well, let me rephrase that... I'm only involved as a spectator…and it's a wonderful spectator sport, but I abandoned direct "involvement" in anything political when I left Washington. That was enough for a lifetime.
I do most of my research on the net, but I do want to mention one book that was both a real help and an inspiration. Irving Cutler's "The Jews of Chicago" is a thorough but easy to read compilation of Jewish history in this city and much of the information about Lawndale I originally read in his book. I've talked to him on the phone a couple of times as well, and he's been extremely helpful. In fact, it was his book that inspired me to write "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared" the award-winning short story that, in turn, inspired AN EYE FOR MURDER.
Denise: How did you discover that valuable resource?
Libby: The story of how I came across his book in the first place is kind of interesting -- it has to do with my son and his discovery of his own Judaism starting around the age of 11. To give him his due, it was Michael's journey that prompted the allusions to Judaism in my writing.
Denise: Now that Ellie Foreman has created such a wonderful love in her life, will David be returning as a character in the series? You do plan to create a series with this character, right?
Libby: Yes. This is a series, and David will definitely return. So do many of the characters in book one, including Jake, Fouad, Susan, and, of course, Rachel. Book Two, which is entitled A PICTURE OF GUILT will be released in July. And I'm currently working on the book three in the series.
Denise: How do you decide the strengths and weaknesses when you are developing a character like Ellie?
Libby: I didn't really "decide" on too much when I started. Ellie seemed to write herself, warts and all. It's as if she sprang onto the page, demanding that I write a story about her. The challenge now, as we, Ellie and I, move into book three, and hopefully beyond, is to show her maturity, self-knowledge, and deepening wisdom as she passes through middle-age. Without sacrificing her humor. It's not easy. I've also noticed that every time she starts to deal with her own character flaws, the plot seems to intervene and relieve her from the burden of too-much introspection. Funny about that.
Denise: What has most influenced your writing style?
Libby: Let me just say that after my first agent read through the manuscript I gave him, he said, “Gee.. the first few pages read just like a film script!”Unfortunately, he didn't seem to like that too much. I probably should have known right then it wasn't going to work between us, but clearly, the background I have in film, and particularly editing has had a large influence on my writing. I do tend to write visually. I try to see scenes as I’m writing, close ups and all. I probably rely too much on the "face" and all its different expressions. It's also affected my pacing. I have a decent overall sense of pacing both within chapters and major plot segments.
Denise: Your fine rhythm probably comes from long hours spent in the editing room.
Libby: Exactly, that must have come from so much time in the editing room… although I'm not sure how it was transposed into writing.
Denise: We can let that be a mystery, though I must say it’s a great asset and serves your stories well. By the way, did you hmmm and haw about the masturbation scene in AN EYE FOR MURDER or were you always clear that it should be in there?
Libby: I never thought about it until I wrote it. Truly, it just popped into my mind as the right thing for Ellie to do, given her state of mind. To tell you truth, I never realized so many people would comment on it. It just didn’t seem like a big deal. I guess I was wrong.
Denise: It probably draws comment because it is such an effective rendering of the character’s utter loneliness. Your prologue and epilogue are very satisfying how did you come to them?
Libby: The prologue was one of the first things I wrote. At one point, I considered setting the entire book in the 1930s and ‘40s, but realized that was just too daunting. The amount of research required was overwhelming, and I frankly didn’t think I could do it justice. Happily, after I came up with Ellie, it wasn’t necessary. Even then, though, I wanted to set some of the chapters back in time but apart from the prologue, I settled for Jake’s remembrances instead. The epilogue - like the masturbation scene - just kind of happened. It seemed like a nice way to end it to tie up the loose ends about Skull. I’m glad you liked it.
Denise: So, tell us about the next book in the Ellie Foreman series.
Libby: The next book, A PICTURE OF GUILT, will be out in July. In it Ellie finds she has outtakes of a man who was accused of murdering his girlfriend - but the outtakes were shot at the same time he was supposedly committing murder. In addition, Ellie’s daughter, Rachel, has turned 13, and is giving Ellie fits.
Denise: Was it easier to write?
Libby: Yes and no. It was easier in that I had a cast of characters that didn’t need to be introduced all over again. But it was harder in other ways - for example, the characters had to behave the way they wanted to, not the way I might have liked them to. Plus, because they had a history, I knew readers would be able to tell if I was pushing them in one direction or another. I was also conscious of not wanting to repeat anything that occurred in book one. I wanted to introduce new characters that would interact with Ellie and her universe in fresh ways. It was slow going.
Denise: Do you feel your character evolving?
Ellie: No question about it. I keep finding new facets of Ellie’s character, some of which turn out to be surprising. I also am exploring the people she loves more deeply. For example, in book three, we come to know David in a different way than we have before. I also build on a character that I introduced in book two.
Denise: How about her daughter?
Ellie: Rachel’s development may well be the key to a future series. It will be really interesting to see how she turns out. I have no clue.
Denise: MYSTERICAL-E wishes you a great send off regarding your book launching for your first mystery novel, AN EYE FOR MURDER. Do you have your book-signing schedule posted on your site?
Libby: Yes, just go to www.hellmann.com . Check the “Appearances” page. Thanks, Denise.