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As a reader, my favorite novels are ones that are set in the present but hark back to the past. I love delving into the relationship between yesterday and today; analyzing the consequences of events that occurred years ago. I also love stories that plunge characters into danger and make them draw on resources they didn’t know they had. As a writer, I’ve focused on those themes several times.
My new thriller, though, is different. Set the Night on Fire is an exploration of my own past. I came of age during the Sixties, and yes -- I actually remember them. But I’ve always had unresolved feelings about the time period. What happened to the idealism we felt? To the confidence (yes, bordering on arrogance) that we had all the answers? Whether we were flower children or activists, hippies or straights, the spirit of those times was a powerful narcotic – we really did feel that we could change the world.
But we didn’t. The world changed us, and I’ve always had a lingering sadness that so much energy and passion seemed to vaporize overnight. Maybe it’s not possible to sustain forward momentum indefinitely. Maybe our cultural and political institutions were too resistant. Whatever the reasons, Set the Night on Fire became a way to re-examine the conflict, passion, and ultimate disappointment of that era.
At the same time, I am a thriller writer. 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 remember about the past.
I found that premise in a film. Do you remember Signs, the 2002 film starring Mel Gibson? I thought the first part of the movie was riveting. Gibson’s family is being stalked, but they don’t know who and they don’t know why. The second half, when viewers 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 – having no power at all - 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 coming after her. She has no idea who’s stalking her 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 her parents were not the people she thought.
Part thriller, part historical, and part love story, the novel’s structure is much like a three-act play. Acts One and Three take place in the present, but Act Two picks up at the Democratic Convention in 1968 and goes through 1970. By focusing on six characters from that time period, and imagining the same people forty years later, I was able to grapple with the themes of passion, fear, and redemption.
It’s odd – I loved recreating the Sixties; but I loved finishing and putting the era behind me even more. I suspect writing Set the Night on Fire gave me the resolution I was seeking, although some of it must be in my subconscious. Whatever the process, I’m not questioning the past the way I used to. I guess I’m ready to move on.
I hope you enjoy the read.
- Libby Fischer Hellmann
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