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Just the title of Libby Fischer Hellmann’s book, Set the Night on Fire, is enough to bring boomers back to an era when political wrongdoing and injustice had the power to ignite a generation to action, and Jim Morrison and the Doors provided the soundtrack.
Although Hellmann is an award-winning crime writer, this fast-paced whodunit is really less a mystery about Lila Hilliard, whose father and brother have been killed in a house fire and whose own life is now being threatened, than solid historical fiction about a period in time in which we believed anything was possible.
I got to ask Hellmann about her own experiences during the ‘60s and how they shaped her book. Here’s what she had to say:
After ten novels, this is your first stand-alone. Tell us a little about the back story and why you decided to write about the ‘60s. What did that period of history mean to you personally?
I came of age during the ‘60s. 1968 was the turning point. I was in college in Philadelphia on April 4 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I watched as riots consumed the inner cities. I was saddened and disappointed because, 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. 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 excited; I planned on dropping out for a semester to work with him. For some reason, I couldn’t sleep the night of June 5 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 putting the lives of my peers at risk. I began to question why I should work through the system, especially when the system wasn’t working for us. I wasn’t alone.
I have to say that, reading your book, I felt a real sense of nostalgia – and loss – for the passion and idealism of the ‘60s. Can you talk about that?
Plenty of us 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?
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The title, Set the Night on Fire, perfectly sets the time period for the book. Were there other songs you considered? Were you a big fan of the Doors?
I usually don’t have titles for my books while I’m writing them. This one was no exception. After the first draft was done, I was talking on the phone to my son, who was in law school at the time. We started to talk about titles, and he promptly came up with Set The Night on Fire. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, I knew that was the right title. We went on to ask for the rights to reprint four lines from Light My Fire in the epigraph – there are only six in the entire song, by the way. After a lot of begging and pleading and throwing ourselves on their mercy, the folks who control the rights let us use them.
And to answer your question, yes. I was—and still am—a big Doors fan.
Besides getting older, how do you think the baby boomers have changed over the past 40+ years?
Unfortunately, I think we were swallowed up by the system. We packed our hopes and dreams into a trunk and dropped them into the ocean. We stopped our idealistic quests and began our materialistic ones with the focus on the “me” and the “let me get mine before you get yours.” Sure, we may have changed the culture, i.e. legalizing weed, the allure of rock music and casual sex, but, fundamentally, we sold out.
I don’t say this with scorn, though. I do think we were up against a power structure we just didn’t understand. The commercialism and materialism we helped unleash as kids was just too much of a force. And, of course, the Vietnam War shaped an entire generation with hopelessness and cynicism toward the government.
How do you think living through that time period will effect their reading experience of your book?
I think Baby Boomers will look back on their youths the same way readers have always done – either with wistful nostalgia or profound relief, depending on their own personal journeys.
You’ve created characters who feel very real and who many of us have probably known! Were any of them based on actual people in your own life or people you’ve read about? Which one do you feel closest to? Why?
That’s a tough question. The only characters who came directly from real life were the minor characters Donna, Linda, and the guy who owned the head shop. I didn’t even bother to change their names. The others were amalgams of people I knew and worked with. Of all the characters, I probably felt closest to Rain. As a photographer, she was just a bit of an outsider, someone who saw things with a certain perspective. Kind of like a writer. Second would be Casey, because he was hopelessly in love with Alix.
What’s next for you?
I’ve written two additional stand-alone historical thrillers.
A Bitter Veil tells the story of an American girl who falls in love and marries an Iranian boy. They move to Tehran, but four months later the shah is deposed. The rest of the story is about what happens to them as a result.
Havana Lost is about a Mafia princess who falls in love with a rebel fighting with Fidel Castro in the late Fifties. They run away from Havana, but her father, determined to get her back, searches the island for her. The book moves forward in time and Frankie, who is eighteen when the book begins, is in her seventies when it ends.
Taken together, I call the three books my “Revolution Trilogy” because they all explore what can happen to individuals, families, and cultures during times of intense conflict, i.e. revolutions.
Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post. She is the reigning champion of Blogger Idol and was recently named Humor Writer of the Month by Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Lois won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013, and writes regularly on pop culture and travel. Because of her blog, Oprah Winfrey selected her as an Ultimate Viewer and took her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, she was the Flicks for Kids editor at NickJr.com and a contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade. Transplanted New Yorkers, Lois and her husband of 32 years now live in San Diego, where they have turned into weather wimps and complain about the pizza. Their grown kids are, of course, both on the East Coast. You can follow Lois on Facebook or Twitter.