by JT Ellison
Well, Merry Christmas Eve! I don’t know about you, but I’m taking a bit of a break. A few days of no work, and all play. Of wrapping and cookies and family. My blood relatives, that is, I feel like all of you are family too. If you celebrate, may I wish you a very merry Christmas. And to all – a brilliant New Year!
Two of my favorite writers have new books out, and I thought it would be nice to share them with you. Libby Fischer Hellman and I go way back – we’ve run into each other at conferences for years. And Michelle Gagnon and I debuted together at Mira back in 2007. Libby’s new book, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, has been garnering praise from all quarters. Michelle’s newest thriller, KIDNAP AND RANSOM, is ripped from the headlines of the drug wars in Mexico. These are two seriously talented chicks, my friends.
I owed them both a gust spot here at Murderati, so I thought it would be fun to have a chat between the three of us. We managed to cover a lot of ground. Without further ado, here is the chick chat.
This is now a group chat. Libby Hellmann has joined. Michelle Gagnon has joined.
JT: We’re all here!
Michelle: Yay! Just an FYI, there might be a few pauses if I have to deal with a testy 4 year old. I forgot school would already be out. But I’ll do my best to keep them brief.
Libby: I love technology when it works! Hi, Michelle.
Michelle: Hi Libby!
JT: I thought we could talk a bit about each of your books, what’s going on in your writing lives, how you’re coping with all the crazy changes (if you’re seeing any on your end, our main bookstore just closed)
Michelle: I just saw that the B&N on Fisherman’s Wharf is closing, so it’s not just the indies…
Michelle: So scary. Ed at M is for Mystery gave the most depressing State of the Industry talk ever at the Xmas party.
Libby: I think the B&Ns and Borders are next on the list of dinosaurs. Actually, I think indies might, if they’re still around, be okay. There are still a lot of readers out there who want the direction and guidance of indie booksellers.
Michelle: I wonder if the new Google books app will help them?
Libby: Especially now that Google is making their ebook store available to indies… Great minds, Michelle…
Michelle: Ah, Libby, great minds… lol
JT: Will ebooks from Google save the indies? Or will they be the place we go to get all nostalgic fro the ways things used to be?
Michelle: I think possibly both. I’m not entirely clear on how the Indies get paid via Google.
Libby: I’m not sure of the profit structure between Google and indies, and frankly I’m not sure if there might not be a backlash against ereaders sometime soon…
Michelle: I think that part of the problem is that as everything moves online, online groups will fill the void indies now occupy in terms of finding lesser known books. Wow, Libby, we really do think alike!
Libby: We do. It’s scary. The issue about moving online…. Here’s what I still don’t get. How will people KNOW where to go to find lesser known authors? I think it’s still TBD
JT: Are you both purposefully seeking out new authors through the indies to help counteract the ebook revolution?
Michelle: I don’t know. I have to say I never would have heard of Lenny Kleinfeld’s fantastic debut if it weren’t for the Amazon group Libby and I both subscribe to. Because it was published by 5 Star, few indies knew about it either, even Lenny’s local bookstore. I have to say, most of the new authors I’ve discovered have been online or via word of mouth. Sad but true.
Libby: They are, btw, some of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever communicated with. But even the most popular thread for us only has 300 plus members on it.
Michelle: I still think the internet is a fad.
JT: LOL. I just read Hamlet’s Blackberry, and Powell talks about how in times of great change, there’s always this feeling that things won’t last. Like the written word during Plato’s time. It was just catching on, but Socrates thought it was a disaster and wouldn’t last. I think that’s what’s happening with ebooks.
Libby: Boy, would I like to believe that, Michelle, but I’m not convinced. I’m looking at the promotion I’m doing for STNOF and I have to say that 80 per cent of it is online.
JT: I agree.
Michelle: Almost all of the promotion for my last thriller was done online. Although the only personal appearances I made were at independent bookstores.
Libby: Me too. And a few libraries.
JT: Interesting. Any particular reason you didn’t hit chains?
Michelle: Honestly, there are more indies here than chain stores. And I haven’t had great luck touring the chains. I always end up sitting at a table directing people to the bathroom.
Libby: For me it’s easy. I’m with a small publisher and getting them to carry my books is like the myth of Sisyphus. They just won’t do it.
Michelle: I think that people aren’t as likely here (in San Francisco) to attend events at the chain stores.
JT: I’ve had the exact opposite issue. Many indies haven’t carried me in the past, but the chains sold me like mad.
Libby: Which is one reason I like internet promotion. Every book, every author, starts out with equal footing online.
JT: Yeah. You’re both on ebook, right?
Michelle: Yes, on Kindle but not the iBookstore yet.
Libby: Yes… all my books are on Kindle and Smashwords and the other etailers.
JT: Are you seeing any uptick in sales?
Libby: Absolutely. But it it’s the result of conscious ebook promotion on my part.
Michelle: At least on Amazon, my ebook sales outpaced physical book sales three to one for the latest release. It was actually pretty staggering.
Libby: Wow. That’s impressive, Michelle!
JT: Holy crap.
Michelle: I know. And I have to say, those ebooks are a godsend in terms of the backlist.
Libby: Actually, that’s happening with STNOF too, although it’s only been out a few weeks.
Michelle: I really think those Amazon discussion groups make a big difference.
JT: I haven’t gotten my ebook numbers for my October release, you’re talking about your November release, right? Kidnap and Ransom?
Michelle: Yes – but I use Novelrank to keep track of Amazon sales. Supposed to be fairly accurate.
Libby: They must be, Michelle. Or something.
JT: Novelrank? I’ve never heard of it. Will be signing up for THAT asap.
Libby: I don’t know Novelrank.
Michelle: It’s amazing. And sadly addictive. It tracks all of your books and estimates sales based on changing rankings minute by minute.
Libby: Well, we can add that to the list. Have you seen the new stuff on Author Central at Amazon? Amazing.
Michelle: Yes, I love that we can finally access Bookscan numbers. Amazon must have paid a fortune for that.
JT: Love that. It’s so nice actually getting a snapshot. I use Publisher’s Alley, but that’s just Baker & Taylor.
Libby: I heard a rumor they may be buying it.
JT: Amazon buying Bookscan?
Libby: And I heard Bookscan is only 25% of your total sales.
JT: I’ve heard 60%
Libby: Yes. That’s what I hear.
Michelle: Much less for ours, actually- have you found the same, JT?
Libby: Gee, are you surprised?
JT: So Libby, you go first. Tell us about your new book, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, and the fabulous new PW review you just got!
Libby: Well, the review called it a “first rate stand-alone thriller”. Not that I’ve memorized it or anything. It went on to say it was “insightful and fascinating…” I can live with that.
JT: A fitting description, of both the book, and the author. Michelle, you reviewed Libby. What do you think, does PW capture it?
Michelle: Absolutely- it’s a fantastic read!
Libby: It’s the story of past and present and how the repercussions of the past still influence events in the present.
Michelle: Loved it.
Libby: Thanks, Michelle. I’m so happy you did. I was really, really nervous about this one… because it’s a standalone. My first. And because there are more characters than I usually have in my novels.
Michelle: So different writing a standalone, isn’t it? My new book is a standalone. You did a wonderful job of developing even the more minor characters, though, Libby.
Libby: I really like the freedom of a standalone.
JT: Oooh, talk about that. What’s different?
Libby: You can plot the character development more carefully and not have to think about future arcs, for one thing. You can also have incredible obstacles thrust at your protagonists and not have to worry if you’re “using them all up”…
Michelle: I’ve discovered that it took some time to really hear the voices. Starting the series books where I knew at least two of the characters really well was like starting on first base. That’s true about future arcs, though. And about “using them up.”
Libby: That’s true Michelle… but for me it was liberating not to have to write in Ellie or Georgia’s voice.
Michelle: It was a nice break. In some ways felt like I’d spent the past six years at a continuous cocktail party with a group of people who I largely loved. But six years is a long time to be with anybody.
Libby: I can relate. The other thing I love about the standalone format is that I can make the characters anyone they want to be. They don’t necessarily start out being heroic… or assertive… or even noble. I don’t have to worry about their interior make-up. Their actions on the page will show readers what they’re made of. And then they’re gone! Poof… I don’t have to deal with them anymore.
Michelle: I’ve been writing a lot slower – partly because I’m not on a strict deadline, so I have the luxury of time, but also because I want to give the story time to simmer. With the series books, even though I don’t plot them out in advance, I always kind of knew what was coming. With the new book, I’ve constantly been surprised. You did have some very noble characters in STNOF though, Libby. I liked that by and large everyone’s motivations were very clear.
Libby: Thanks for your comments, Michelle, about the FIRE characters. What I love about your writing, Michelle, is your relentless sense of pacing. At least in KIDNAP AND RANSOM, there wasn’t a wasted page. I don’t know how you did it! How did you come up with all the obstacles and permutations?
Michelle: I actually ended up trimming about 10,000 words off the first draft.
Libby: You’re kidding.
Michelle: Thanks for saying so – I did aim for that with K&R. I tend to overwrite, then go back and get rid of any extraneous scenes
JT: Michelle, tell us about KIDNAP AND RANSOM, your new thriller.
Michelle: So basically the idea for K&R came to me when I was researching US/Mexico border issues for The Gatekeeper. I stumbled across a story on the recent kidnapping of the world’s foremost hostage negotiator.
Libby: Irony of ironies…
Michelle: And I was struck by the irony of the hero becoming the victim (which ended up as the tagline on the cover) The most ironic part was that he was in Mexico to give a speech at a conference on the recent uptick in kidnappings. Yet oddly there was no ransom demand, and none of the drug cartels claimed responsibility. So K&R is about the attempt to rescue him, and a (fictionalized) reason for why he might have been taken in the first place.
Libby: Did he ever turn up in reality?
Michelle: Not yet. It’s been two years this month.
Libby: He’s gone.
Michelle: I think so. It’s been terrible for his family not to know for certain. I received an email about a week after the book came out from another guy who had been at a restaurant with him the night he was taken.
JT: Michelle, does that make you uncomfortable, being right in the mix with a crime, or did it enhance the story?
Michelle: A bit. I received a few other emails too regarding the negotiator. However I (hopefully) made it very clear in my author’s note that I write fiction, and this was not intended to reflect him in any way, shape, or form. It’s just where the idea originated. I like starting with something grounded in reality, however. I’ve done that to some degree with each book.
Libby: Me too. I do that also.
Michelle: And Libby’s latest is all about that. What I loved was learning more about a time period that I didn’t know very well.
Libby: I lived through it. Many of the scenes actually happened.
Michelle: That’s amazing! Where did the young Native American boy story come from?
JT: background, please!
Libby: That was pure fiction. I knew I needed something to tie Alix and Dar together, and the boy served his purpose. Background: Parts 1 and 3 take place in the present. Part 2 starts in 1968 and goes thru 1970 in Chicago.
The protagonist in Part 1, Lila Hilliard, is a 30s something professional who finds out her parents are not the people she thought they were. Part 2 is the backstory of who her parents really were and how they were all connected. It’s basically about 6 people who lived together in a commune after meeting at the Democratic Convention. Part 3 is what Lila does as a result of knowing her parents’ history.
Michelle: It was a fascinating story, very intricate and yet really well woven.
Libby: Thank you, Michelle.
JT: I can’t wait to read it! It sounded fascinating when we were talking back in Nashville in October. So let’s talk a bit about the community. Best places to meet and mingle with writers?
Libby: Google chat?
Michelle: Good one, Libby! Bouchercon, hands down. Facebook too, for the day to day. I have to put myself on a Facebook diet. If I had a real job, I’d probably spend 75% of the day at the water cooler. It’s a problem.
JT: That’s the fun of the conferences, I think. The essence of being in a huge office building with all your peers.
Libby: Actually, I’m not so high on big conferences anymore. Sure, you can say hi, how are you… but it’s fairly superficial. I learned more about you JT in Nashville than any other conference that we’ve both attended. So I guess I like the smaller venues.
JT: I like the small ones too. It’s easier to get to know people.
Libby: What gets to me at conferences is the need to be on all the time. I’d rather chat informally, either on line or on Skype… or, now that I have my iPhone, Facetimes!
Michelle: Oh, how is Facetime? I haven’t used it yet.
Libby: Facetime is amazing! My daughter and I use it all the time… like of like a mini Skype.
Michelle: I haven’t been to a lot of smaller conferences. Aside from Book Passage in Marin, which is amazing.
Libby: I’ve heard. What do you have to do to get invited? Sell your first-born?
Michelle: Pretty much. They gave mine back, though.
JT: Favorite book you read this year (aside from each others, of course)
Michelle: FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French
Libby: That’s a tough one. Probably Daniel Woodrell’s WINTER’S BONE. I loved it. Also enjoyed SAVAGES by Don Winslow.
Michelle: I haven’t heard of Woodrell! (See how useful the online word of mouth can be?)
JT: There’s a new movie made out of Woodrell’s. I just bought the book, It looks…deep.
Libby: The movie was beautiful too. Really well done.
Michelle: Which movie?
Libby: WINTER’S BONE
Michelle: Great, thanks
Libby: It’s set in Appalachia, in the middle of meth labs and extreme poverty.
Michelle: These are a few of my favorite things…
JT: Any predictions or resolutions for 2011?
Michelle: I always make the same resolution – to learn one new thing.
Libby: Stop procrastinating. I’m a wizard at it.
Michelle: This year…back handsprings. Because that window is surely closing for me. Oh, and less procrastinating on Facebook.
Libby: I used to be much more disciplined in my writing. Not any more.
JT: Why does that seem to happen? I’ve had that issue too. Is it because we’re stretched so thin across the online world, having to do marketing and promotion, that we have less time?
Michelle: I’ve been trying to just shut off my internet connection when I’m writing, because it’s far too easy when the writing lulls to think, “I wonder if any new email came in?” Or, “What’s happening on FB?” And then I’m off and gone…
Libby: I think so. And there are so many worthy distractions. FB, Twitter and all the links that follow… online reviews… I have to shut it off. Otherwise, I’m just fooling myself.
JT: Freedom. Works like a dream. I use it religiously.
Libby: Btw, JT, your husband hit the nail on the hammer with the elections.
JT: I know. Michelle, he’s a pollster.
Libby: See how ADD I’ve become?
Michelle: Exactly, we’re rapidly becoming an ADD nation
JT: Read Hamlet’s Blackberry. Truly fabulous look at how this has happened so many times in history.
Libby: oops.. it’s the hammer on the nail. Or something.
Libby: See, I’ve learned two new things today… Novelrank and Hamlet’s Blackberry. I’m good for the next hour.
Michelle: Thanks! All I can say is don’t get involved with Angry Birds. You’ll lose hours every day
Libby: So I hear.
JT: Random – do you get dressed in the morning to write, or are you slovenly like me and work in yoga pants? And what’s your writing schedule like?
Libby: I LOVE days when I don’t have to shower or get dressed and all I have to do is write. Or pretend to. I write in my bathrobe half the time.
Michelle: Totally slovenly. To the point where the UPS guy thinks our place is a halfway house.
JT: Mine too.
Libby: I won’t even answer the door…
Michelle: It tends to be the only human interaction I get most days, so I make the most of it.
JT: LOL. Don’t you work in an office though, Michelle?
Michelle: Not anymore. Honestly, I get less work done when there are people around. I need total silence and a fridge nearby. I usually exercise first, and deal with minutiae in the mornings. Then I start writing after lunch.
JT: That’s my schedule too. I can’t do the coffee shop thing, I need solitude.
Libby: I try to write fresh material in the morning. Even if it’s only half done. Then I can spend the rest of the day refining it. My best writing sessions are when I set a timer for 45 minutes. I don’t answer email, the phone, the door, or anything. I just write. Not edit. Just write. Sometimes I feel like a monkey typing drivel. But eventually something worthwhile emerges. That may be all I do for the day, but putting it in shape takes the rest of my writing time.
Michelle: That’s a great idea, Libby. I’ve heard there’s actually a program that will prevent you from accessing email etc for periods of time
Libby: Then at the end of 45 minutes I give myself permission to check email, etc.
JT: I do that with Freedom. Set it for 60 minutes. Write my tail off. Then take a 5 minute break to check email. You can easily write 3K a day that way
Libby: Really? That much?
JT: Yeah. Writing, not editing.
Michelle: Signing up for it right after this. Oh, and after I check my email. And Facebook. And play a Lexulous move.
JT: It’s a great tool, if you use it.
Michelle: I aim for 2000-2500/day. About eight-ten pages. And I’ve decided that rather than feel guilty about it, I’ll just try to get as much done whenever that window opens up. Sometimes that means working at night
JT: Do you write every day, 5 days a week?
Michelle: I try, but that’s simply not always possible.
JT: Well, you have a toddler. That’s a challenge to creativity, right?
Michelle: Preschooler now. Great, but challenging. Plus I’m trying to get her into Kindergarten right now, which is a part time job in and of itself.
JT: I’m not up on the kid lingo
Libby: I try for 5 days a week. But my kids are grown and out of the house.
Michelle: That must make it easier…
Libby: Easier, and when I don’t do it, guiltier too.
Libby: OK. So that’s my resolution. A 45 minute session every day. Whether it ends up 3K words or not.
JT: I can’t even imagine. What are we missing here?
Libby: I don’t know, but if you find you are missing things, just let us know by email….
Michelle: Absolutely- email is the easiest way to reach me. And I’m around this week.
Libby: Boy, now you have to make this seem like a logical, intelligent conversation. I’m sorry for you…
Michelle: This was great, JT. Thanks so much again.
Libby: It’s been fun. Really. Have a great holiday, ladies.
Michelle: I know, I was thinking the exact same thing Libby! Happy holidays!!!
JT: Have a fabulous week, ladies, and Happy New Year! Don’t forget to stop by Murderati and answer questions Friday! xoxox
Libby: I’m so glad this worked… it was my first time using Google chat!
Michelle: Definitely. See you both then… xoxoxo
Libby: Will do, JT. See youse both.
With the release of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, Libby Fischer Hellman will have published seven novels by the end of 2010. About her fifth novel, EASY INNOCENCE, the Chicago Tribune said, “There’s a new no-nonsense detective in town… Tough and smart enough to give even the legendary V.I. Warshawski a run for her money.” They were referring to Georgia Davis, Libby Hellmann’s PI protagonist in the thriller. Davis returned, paired with amateur sleuth Ellie Foreman, in Hellmann’s sixth crime fiction thriller, DOUBLEBACK (2009), which was selected as a Great Lakes Booksellers’ Association “2009 Great Read.”
Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her bestselling thrillers have been published in North America, France, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Australia. BONEYARD was a finalist for a 2009 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. She lives in San Francisco with her family.
Wine of the Week: Hot Spiced Christmas Wine
- 2 oranges
- 2 (750 milliliter) bottles red wine
- 1 (750 milliliter) bottle white wine
- 1 (3 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/3 cup brown sugar, or to taste
- 1/4 cup brandy (optional)
- Use a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the zest from the oranges in strips, being careful to remove only the orange part, leaving the pith behind. Then, juice the oranges into a large, heavy-bottomed pot.
- Pour the red wine and white wine into the pot with the orange juice. Place the strips of orange zest, ginger, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and brown sugar into the pot with the wine mixture; stir to dissolve the sugar.
- Cover and heat over medium-high until heated through, but not boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and heat for an hour or longer to bring all of the flavors together. Adjust the sweetness by adding more brown sugar, as necessary. Strain and serve hot with a splash of brandy, if desired.