Auntie M met author Connie Hambley at New England Crimebake. As a nice bookend to the year’s posts, and we decided to do an interview as we had something in common in our backgrounds, a change of profession. Happy Holidays to all, Merry Christmas, too, and Auntie M will see you in 2016!
Here’s Connie’s story on how being a lawyer makes her a great writer:
Auntie M: I was a nurse who wrote on the side until I could write full time. You were a lawyer who now writes. Was it always your intention to write, too, or did you fall into it sideways?
Connie Hambley: Definitely a sideways freefall. My DNA is coded to communicate via the written word and I thought becoming a lawyer was a perfect fit. Words? Clear expression of nuanced meanings? Boo Yeah! The hitch was I also hate conflict. An epically bad career choice turned around when I applied the lessons learned in law school to writing.
Lawyers are trained to inhale vast amounts of information then distill the concepts down to their essence. In constructing a legal argument, a position is taken –think ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ – and each word written leads to that conclusion. A well-written thriller or mystery does the same thing. From the very first word on the page, authors construct a world to manipulate readers’ beliefs and emotions with the ending goal in mind–to have the readers completely engaged in the story and believe the conclusion. The best books –just like the best legal arguments–change readers’ perspectives on the world around them. Once I started writing fiction, I knew I found my home.
Storytellers are consummate communicators. When I construct a story, I think of my readers as a first-rate opposing counsel. If I let a detail slip or if my characters’ motivations don’t ring true, readers will find reasons to disengage–or worse, critically attack. When I find a compelling question, I construct a story in a three-dimensional world filled with facts, motivations, and conflicts–just like a legal brief, but my outcome is fiction. (I will refrain from telling any lawyer jokes here, but the restraint is killing me.)
I write to an intelligent and discerning reader in the same way I would write to crafty opposing counsel. Resolving the conflicts into a satisfying and solid climax is a job well done. Oh, and the journey has to be nerve-racking for the readers.
AM: So why crime novels in particular?
CH: My thrillers take a crime to the larger stage. My family was the target of an arsonist who burned our farm down simply because he had an ax to grind. The repercussions of this act reverberated for decades. I learned that people who look like you and me can do reprehensible things yet still be loved by a spouse and children. For me, that crime opened my eyes to layers and shades of good and evil.
I explore crimes within the theme of terrorism because one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Readers’ natural repulsion for terrorist acts is a tool I use to ratchet up tension.
I use pacing similar to crime novels to breed suspense. You know the Alfred Hitchcock technique of showing the bomb to the viewer but hiding it from the characters? The viewer is nerved up, but the characters are going about their day. I use the same technique. A discarded backpack on a crowded street signals volumes to the reader, but the characters stand beside it. Horrible!
Vivid and compelling characters also propel my thrillers. Understanding motivation, or at least articulating it, invites the readers to stand in the characters’ shoes. Giving my characters the heft of a strong narrative invites the readers deeper into my web, er, story. A crime is more compelling when the reader asks, “Could I do that?” “Would I make the same decision?”
Inside the international crime story of The Troubles, I answer how a biological mother can live with her child for a decade and never say the words, “I’m your mother.” What powered that decision? The psychology of the characters is just as important as their actions, if not more.
AM: When we met during costume night at NE Crimebake, you were wearing authentic riding silks. I assumed you were Sid Halley, one of Dick Francis’ protagonist jockeys. Who else were your influences in writing crime?
CH: Ha! I channeled my inner “Chick Francis” for Crimebake! The main character in my books is Jessica Wyeth, a world-class equestrian who witnessed, and then was framed for, a murder. I seasoned my first book, The Charity, with John Grisham as Jessica tries to clear her name. That book has a strong legal thriller aspect to it, but also has the dark thriller tone of Jo Nesbo. In The Troubles, Jessica is drawn into an organization some folks refer to as the Irish Mafia. The unfolding layers and expanding world is definitely inspired by Stieg Larsson and the multi-generational story-telling is capturing Ken Follett’s spirit. Book three, with a working title of The Wake, has a pinch of Colleen Mccullough and another smattering of Grisham!
AM: Who is on your nightstand waiting to be read when you have rare down time?
CH: An essential part of a writer’s career is always to be reading! Lined up is Hank Phillippi Ryan’s newest book, What You See, and Susan Elia MacNeal’s fifth Maggie Hope book, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, is underway. Kate Flora’s Death Dealer is in the queue, too.
AM: And what about those beautiful silks–were they yours?
CH: Those cringe-worthy neon silks are mine! I grew up riding horses so Jessica’s backstory is richly detailed with the sights, sounds, and feel of riding. The breeches, helmet, and boots are my ‘real’ riding clothes and the silks have a long and storied history of being a family gag gift for Yankee Swaps at Christmastime! You know how one picture or scent can trigger a wealth of memories? If I ever need a little inspiration, I just open my closet.
Connie Johnson Hambley weaves stories from real-life experiences with a passion for exposing history with a fresh twist.
Hambley was a lawyer before turning her attention to writing, and she freely admits to having much more fun now. Her writing pursuits include being a featured columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek, an invited contributor to Nature, and a featured writer for Massachusetts HighTech. International money flow and laundering schemes were learned during her tenure as a Vice President at a major Boston bank and investment house–not that she ever directly uses that experience. Hambley creates worlds that leave readers feeling like eye-witnesses to international crime.
Hambley is a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Sisters in Crime, a professional organization supporting women mystery writers, and frequently speaks on the joy of writing mysteries and insights into the publishing process.
The Troubles, a sequel to The Charity, continues to explore the unseen impact of terrorism through the people and the organizations that fund it. Boston’s ties to the Irish Republican Army, Northern Ireland’s history, money laundering schemes with legal loopholes, and family secrets populate her books if not her real life.
Follow Connie on Twitter @conniehambley
Her blog is here: http://bit.ly/outofthefog
Facebook is here: http://bit.ly/facebookcjhambley
. . . and website: http://www.conniejohnsonhambley.com
She’s on Google+ too, but who uses that anyway?
In a crazy tradition of professionalism, Connie promises to personally respond to you. . . eventually