WRITING “SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE” – Libby Fisher Hellman

Those of us who are not writers are generally fascinated by those that do, especially how they decide on the subject of the next novel.  Libby Fischer Hellmann’s most recent book, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, is a riveting thriller set in the Chicago of 2010 and the Chicago of 1968.  That was not a very good year.  Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, immediately after winning the California primary that made it sure that he would be the nominee of the Democratic party for president.

This is Libby writing about writing.



by Libby Hellmann 

This appeared last week on Patti Abbott’s blog, but I thought I’d republish it here.

TRUE CONFESSION: I do remember the Sixties.

Especially 1968. That was the turning point in my political “coming of age.” I was in college in Philadelphia on April 4th when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I watched as riots consumed the inner cities. I was saddened and disappointed — as a teenager growing up in Washington DC, I’d gone to plenty of concerts at the Howard theater where blacks and whites grooved to Motown artists together. I actually thought we were moving towards a color-blind society — I was young and idealistic then). So the frustration and rage expressed through the riots was – in a way– confusing.

Two months later I understood. My college boyfriend had been tapped to head up the national “Youth for Bobby Kennedy” program. I was really excited; I planned on dropping out for a semester to work with him. For some reason I couldn’t sleep the night of June 5th and turned on my radio. Bobby had been shot just after winning the California Democratic primary. He died the next day. So much for the Youth for Kennedy campaign.

Sadness soon gave way to bitterness. The country was falling apart. Over the years some of our brightest lights had been snuffed out. Internationally our government seemed to be supporting the “bad guys.” And underlying it all was an unwinnable war that – perversely — was escalating and risking the lives of my peers. I began to question why I should work through the system, especially when the system wasn’t working for us.

I wasn’t alone. Plenty of others yearned for change. Fundamental change that would rebuild our society and culture. The next few years were tumultuous and volatile, but in the final analysis, we failed. Maybe the task was impossible — how many Utopias exist? Sure, there were cultural shifts. But political change, in the sense of what to expect from our leaders and our government? Not so much. The era left me with unresolved feelings. What should we have done differently? Are all progressive movements doomed to fail?

At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing a thriller. And you’d be right. It’s never been my intention to write a political screed. I am a storyteller whose stories, hopefully, you can’t put down. I realized that if I was going to write about the Sixties, I needed a premise that would hook readers in the present, regardless of how much they know or remembered about the Sixties.

I found that premise in a film. Do you remember SIGNS, starring Mel Gibson? It came out in 2002, and I thought the first half was the most riveting film I’d ever seen. Gibson’s family is being stalked, but they don’t know who and they don’t know why. The second half of the film, when we discover it’s just your garden variety aliens, was an enormous let down. Putting a face, an identity, on fear reduces its power. But NOT knowing who’s targeting you — or why — is the most frightening thing I can imagine.

So that’s what happens to Lila Hilliard, a thirty-something professional who’s come home to Chicago for the holidays. Someone has killed her family, and now they’re after her. She has no idea who or why. As she desperately tries to figure it out, she finds wisps of clues that lead back to her parents’ activities forty years ago. In the process she discovers that her parents were not the people she thought.

The relationship between the past and present, the consequences of events that occurred years ago fascinate me. I also love stories that plunge characters into danger and make them draw on resources they didn’t know they had. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE was the way to combine all those themes. Writing the book was an exorcism of sorts, a way to make peace with the past. And while I enjoyed reliving the past, I loved putting it behind me even more. I’m finally ready to move on.

I hope you enjoy the read.

I already posted about the book trailer — it has actual footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention which I re-edited into a montage. If you haven’t seen it, you can find it here.

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4 Responses to WRITING “SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE” – Libby Fisher Hellman

  1. Nice background from the author. If you want more information about the novel, you can find my review here: http://agora2.blogspot.com/

  2. kathy d. says:

    My only comment on the question of political movements and successes vs. disillusionment is “Egypt.” It is possible for people’s movements to be successful.
    This movement is eager, hopeful, well-organized, optimistic–and means business.
    They got the hated dictator out. That was the first step.
    Egyptians and people all over the world are cheering and celebrating, feeling that people’s power can move mountains.
    Now the next steps are crucial. They are hopeful, but realistic. These youth are the future.

  3. Beth says:

    Egypt, like many other countries, wants to implement democracy without having any experience of it. The United States had to have a revolution, a rea shooting war, in order to begin the process here. The founding fathers were not the brilliant saints they are, now, being said to be. They declared independence and then they didn’t know what to do. When the war ended they offered George Washington the title of “king”. He, fortunately, had sense and made them rethink the idea. The first government they established under the Articles of Confederation was a failure because the thirteen colonies saw themselves as thirteen separate countries.

    They tried again and the British tried again and there was another war. Then there was a civil war and, when that was over, the US was two countries, one not understanding the other.

    Now we are less one country than we are two political parties. And the colonists who started the whole thing had experience of limited democracy in the government of those colonies. The fuss started because the colonies were not represented in Parliament – “taxation without representation is tyranny.” When the revolution ended there was no leadership vacuum; the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence stayed on, at risk to themselves, to keep the movement moving.

    The Egyptians took to the streets, basked in the support of most of the world, accomplished their immediate goal, and now have to figure out what to do next. The “what to do next” is the problem; there is no coalition around whom the country can rally. So, the military have taken over, Parliament has been dissolved, the constitution has been suspended, and the military will govern the country for six months or until elections are held. In that those now in power will be deciding on the date for the elections, it is likely they will be later rather than sooner.

    Democracy is not pretty. Look at what happened in Iran recently when their young people took to the streets.

  4. kathy d. says:

    I agree that in Egypt the problem is what comes next. And the military is in control, the same people are the commanding officers who were with Mubarak. Many of the protesters are worried about military, rather than civilian government. I think they are right to worry. Martial law has been declared. Strikes have been outlawed.
    I sincerely hope that the protest leaders are not jailed, tortured and held, and that their movement will continue.
    I read in Monday’s New York Times that youth in Tunisia and Egypt have been planning these protests for two years.
    The Egyptian people are fed-up, earnest and hopeful, but they are realistic and sharp.
    I can only support their movement, cheer them on and give best wishes to Egyptians whom I encounter in my environment. I met two such cab drivers last week and those were encounters I will not forget. They are full of hope, yet realists. My heart goes out to them.

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