I met Connie Johnson Hambley at the Chelmsford Local Author Day, and was impressed with her grasp of book marketing- for someone just breaking into the biz, she was miles ahead of others.
Then I read her debut novel, The Charity, a taut thriller, and knew she was on a good path. So figured we'd find out more about her and her work. Asked her some writing-related questions.
Thank you, Connie for allowing us a peek into your world.
If you like what you read here, Connie and I will both be signing books, along with a number of other authors, at the New England Author Expo on 7/30, in Danversport, MA.
Q: So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
In every book, there are aspects of the author’s life and perspectives. As a child, my family was the target of an arsonist. (A recently fired employee, he tossed lit matches into the hayloft of my family’s dairy barn. It was a total and devastating loss for a farming family.) The seeds for my book were sown then. The themes of bad things happening to good people, that things are not always as they appear and that evil can hide behind a façade of good germinated. My thriller tells the story of a young woman who uncovers the money behind a terrorist cell and those themes are developed to keep the reader engaged and guessing. I used my experiences in training and riding horses competitively to paint a colorful world for my characters to inhabit and my career in law and banking to create a story that unfolds bit by bit with zigs and zags.
The Charity was conceived as a single book, but as I wrote it I realized there is much more to the stories of a few of the characters. Also, my readers have totally connected to the main character, a young woman named Jessica Wyeth. As The Charity’s story concludes, it’s obvious there are more questions to be answered as the larger canvas of the world of terrorism and the businesses and people who support it emerges. The sequel, The Troubles, will be out late fall 2014 and will further explore these issues.
Q: Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
The story for The Charity came to me fully formed. From the moment the idea popped into my head, I became obsessed with working out the details of the story and fleshing out the characters. I knew exactly where the book was heading from the first word. As any writer will tell you, characters sometimes demand the creation of a world of their own, and some of the characters took me to unexpected places. I have to tip my hat to them, because they introduced me to facets and depths inside the story I needed to explore and doing so made me up my game. I found myself gasping at what they made me do! My characters did not want nice little two-dimensional personalities or be all “good” or all “bad.” They wanted complexity and nuance! I found myself doing a LOT of research to find out how suppressed memories work and what PTSD would look like to a layperson. All of that added the crackle and realism my readers love.
My experience with The Troubles is quite different. I find this experience to be more like pulling taffy–the more you pull the story and the characters apart, the tighter it all becomes.
Q: What do you feel is the main theme(s)?
Even though the themes I mentioned above are important, I believe the main theme is that “strength” is sometimes as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. So often in thrillers or mysteries a main character is somehow super human – he or she is larger than life. I find my readers love Jessica because she is so real, so simply human with her own weaknesses and yearnings. But – and this is a big one – she has a tremendous amount of grit. She does not give up!
Q: Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
I think the mark of a great book is when it stays with you even after you’ve finished it. My readers tell me that after reading The Charity, they look at something or hear a news item and question it...but they question it from a position of knowledge because they’ve learned a great deal about the inner workings of the business of terrorism. I also love the fact that my readers totally connect with Jessica. She becomes real to them. In fact, one reader told me she saw a ‘For Sale’ ad for furniture and took the number to give to a “friend” she knew needed some items. Afterward she realized that her gut reaction to help a “friend” was really to help Jessica!
Reading a book is asking someone to spend hours with you. I want my readers to feel it was time well spent.
Q: What makes a good book or engaging story?
The readers have to connect with it in some way. The story or the characters have to scratch an itch the reader may or may not know they had. A good book slowly corrupts the reader’s biases to fuel the emotional pull of the story and the story has to unfold slowly, allowing the reader to make connections and discoveries on their own. I definitely write to an intelligent reader who does not want to be spoon-fed a mystery. I respect my readers, and I think that helps them become more engaged. My book keeps the readers guessing because it’s not predictable. I get them thinking the book is going to go one way, then it slowly emerges into another direction. It’s rewarding to the reader to see a book unfold in unexpected ways.
Q: Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
I’m definitely compared to John Grisham for the legal thriller aspect of my stories, and Stieg Larsson for the expanding world of my characters and story line. I love the tight wire Jo Nesbo creates in his story pacing. I’m not a big Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb) reader, but I’ve been compared to her for the heat I put into important relationships. I paint strong pictures of settings, emotions and action as succinctly as possible. That’s my legal training at work. Colleen McCullough of The Thorn Birds I am not.
As I write The Troubles, I’m definitely in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo mode. The world my characters inhabit is bigger and more complex than it first seemed.
Q: Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
I think storytelling is ingrained in us as a way to convey information. Long traditions of sharing oral histories around a campfire have shaped how we like to learn. A nice, meaty read is wholly satisfying and goes beyond entertainment. A reader spends hours inside a book and can emerge changed from it. My goal is to write something that entertains as it changes the reader. Maybe the reader emerges from my stories knowing more about the legal process or maybe they emerge with a greater understanding of why a person may resort to a terrorist act. But they surface from being immersed in my world different from how they went in. How cool is that?
Q: Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
I’ve enjoyed a few careers – from being a lawyer to managing corporate cash flows at a major Boston bank to starting my own company to being a professor of finance to. . . well. . . you get the idea. I delve down into the content! I’ve written for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other major national magazines as a journalist, but once I found fiction writing, I knew I found my home. It’s a great way to knit together my own personal narrative! Also, I wrote The Charity just for me. As more readers learned about it, they encouraged me to get it published and reach a larger audience. Now they’re pushing me for the sequel.
Q: Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
The Charity poured out of me and was a very different writing experience than The Troubles. Like in journalism, I inhale information and exhale a story. I believe in the cold-hearted rewrite. My work is just beginning after the first draft is done. I go back to my story like an assassin and hack off limbs and eviscerate bloated plot lines to make sure I’m weaving a tight tale. I can revise all day long and it takes discipline to stop.
Q: Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
I use beta readers and editors and I listen to what they have to say. I write the whole article or story out, revise it once, then I send it to beta readers. The beta readers are staggered. The first pass is for story interest and pacing. Then it goes to the finer points like character motivations and scene tone. After getting their feedback, I revise fully then send it to editors. It’s a lengthy process but ensures I write a tightly woven and captivating story.
Q: If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
I believe everyone has a story in them. I encourage people to write. Jot a few paragraphs. See if you can get the world that’s in your head on paper. If you can do that, then share it and see if the world you had in your head was able to be conjured in the world of your reader’s head via your words. I’m always open to helping a writer find that magic key. Also, to write good fiction, one must have a big imagination. Not everyone has built an imaginary world in their head that’s big enough to turn into a novel. More than just daydreaming, it requires wanting to return over and over to the characters and their world to follow your imagination and curiosity as it unfolds their stories.
Q: Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
I wish I had a nickel for every person telling me my book would be a great movie. So, if you know any movie producers, send them my way. I think audio books are a terrific medium, too.
Q: What's the next step in your writing world?
I’m always blogging and the sequel to The Charity, The Troubles, will (hopefully) be out late fall 2014. Once that’s out, I’ve already begun working on the history of my family’s barn fire. It turns out that’s a pretty faceted story and 2015 marks its fiftieth anniversary. One interesting aspect is that the Assistant District Attorney who worked on the case was a young upstart named G. Gordon Liddy. Yep, the Watergate guy and the staunch conservative radio talk show host. Turns out my mom and his wife were friends. Add to that the fact the arsonist was freed on a technicality even after he signed a confession. Oh yeah, there’s a story there.
Q: Any other information you'd like to impart?
Whether you’re a traditionally published author or an indie, social communications and outreach are key to finding and engaging readers. So, I’m out there! You can find me at:
My website: www.conniejohnsonhambley.com
Find me! Connect and, yes, I will respond!