Connie and Auntie M met having fun and frivolity at New England Crimebake. Welcome to her very interesting world as she describes how she came to write her Jessica Trilogy:
Auntie M: The first time we met at New England Crime Bake’s costume dinner, you were dressed as a jockey and I flashed immediately on the Dick Francis mysteries set in the racing world. You’ve given Jessica Wyeth, the protagonist of The Jessica Trilogy, horse riding ability and talents, too. It seemed so natural to you to write that for Jessica that I’m guessing you took that experience from your life?
CJH: I did! I often say that the best fiction hangs on the bone of fact, so taking experiences from my riding past and infusing them into my main character made sense. Most readers want two things from spending hours between the cover of a book: They want to be entertained and they wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two. The more realism an author can weave into a story, the more engaged the reader is. As for Crime Bake, I definitely channeled my inner “Chick Francis.” I had to put those silks and breeches into use!
AM: From a dairy farm to Boston lawyer and investment banking–what made you decide to transition to fiction?
CJH: True confessions: Pursuing a career in law was a really bad career choice for someone who is conflict adverse! All kidding aside, going to law school was a terrific way to learn to write.
The craft of writing a brief and sculpting a legal argument is very similar to constructing a tightly woven thriller. Also, law school focuses writing on how your words will interpreted by your reader. Manipulating a bias for the benefit of your story (or argument) is essential.
Good writing means taking in a lot of information, throwing a lump of clay on the word wheel then sculpt, sculpt, sculpt. I’ve used my skills in law and as a writer for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other journalism adventures. I wrote my first book, The Charity, mostly as a legal thriller. Trust me – compared to law or banking, writing fiction is a heck of a lot more fun!
CJH: The loss of our barn devastated my family both financially and emotionally. We experienced a profound loss of security one would normally expect to feel growing up in a small town. The man who tossed a match into our hayloft confessed to having a grudge and wanting to get even. Two things happened that continue to shape my world view.
The first is that he was a beloved husband and father. He had a wife and family. People loved him, yet he did something reprehensible. As a child, when I was still seeing the world in black and white, knowing that people could consider him a “good man” boggled my brain.
The second thing is that he signed a written confession. He admitted his guilt, but because of a technicality, he never was found guilty and was set free. Knowledge that the world can be an unfair and scary place solidified inside of me. People can do evil things and get away with it. What’s not so great in life makes for great reading.
My books skirt the edges of good and bad. Is the Irish Republican Army a group of freedom fighters or a terrorist organization? How far does a person need to be pushed before he (or she!) sees violence as a viable option? The answer to that all depends on what side of the match your barn is on.
AM: You’ve decided to write about a strong woman who doesn’t have superhero qualities yet gets herself out of hot water a lot. She’s smart and devious at the same time, in the best possible way. How is Jessica Wyeth different from Connie Hambley?
CJH: Ha! For starters, Jessica Wyeth is a lot more cool, strong, clever, and beautiful than I am! I know women who tend families while undergoing chemotherapy, who have experienced profound and sudden losses, who have climbed mountains, or started successful companies. They did all of this without special powers or an Uzi.
Jessica Wyeth resonates with readers because she wakes up in the morning and makes it through her days any way she can. She’s a strong woman because she doesn’t give up. Describing her as devious hints that there is something diabolical or evil about her. Jessica has a strong moral code that keeps her true even while circumstance is exerting a magnetic force to pull her off center. She has an unbreakable will to survive.
AM: In Book Two in the series, The Troubles, you use Jessica’s search for her background to bring her to Ireland and explore the situation of Northern Ireland and the IRA. How did you conduct your research? Please tell me you got a trip to Ireland out of this!
CJH: I have traveled to Ireland, but that was before I knew my story was going to go there, too! Still, the impact of that trip infuses my settings and characters with a realism my readers enjoy.
The sunlight comes in at a different angle there. The earth smells different. There is a fourth dimension that flirts with your peripheral vision, giving you glimpses of another world. Those impressions have stayed with me and bringing them to life on the page was a way for me to relive my visit.
I was recently interviewed for IrishTV and the question turned to me having one last document to obtain before I can receive my Irish citizenship. The interviewer wanted to know why was citizenship important?
Walking where my ancestors walked–where my grandparents were born–made me feel connected and whole in a way I had never felt. Researching the book explained many family mysteries–including why my grandmother’s birth certificate listed her nationality as English even though she was born in the Republic of Ireland! My goal for the readers of The Troubles is to come away with a greater sense of what regular people experience while history swirls around them.
AM: What’s the idea percolating for Book Three–any firm plot lines yet?
CJH: Oh yeah! The working title of Book 3 is The Wake, and if you’ve ever been to an Irish wake, you know that they are a blend of sorrow and song, laughter and tears. Looking at the timeline of my story, Jessica returns to the U.S. weeks before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The horrific Centennial Park bombing provided a historical event I could hub my story around. The equestrian disciplines I focus on are eventing and equine therapy. Oh, and remember that bad people can come wrapped in pretty packages? I have a few new characters to challenge readers and a few established characters back by popular demand.
AM: Whose work was the biggest influence on your decision to write this kind of suspense thriller?
CJH: If Colleen McCullough and Stieg Larsson had a child, Jessica Wyeth would be their baby girl. The Troubles is McCullough-like as a sweeping, multi-generational tale and the whole story arc of my three books unfolds like Larsson’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
AM: When you’re not concocting plots and coming up with characters, who’s book do you like to read for relaxation today?
CJH: Hmm. Good question. I read all the time and both established traditional authors and independently published authors are in my TBR pile. I try to read different genres and not focus in on one author, although I admit to reading almost all of Jo Nesbo’s books. I love a well-crafted thriller and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkin’s Girl on a Train hit that mark.
I have a short story in the upcoming Level Best’s New England’s Best Crime Stories: Windward. Giving Voice unfolds the story of a survivor of human trafficking during her equine-assisted therapy session. Horses? Crime? I think I see a theme here.
You can find Connie’s books here:
Connie Johnson Hambley