Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny want to have fun on ‘State of Terror,’ but it’s also about real, scary dangers

Of all the things that could keep former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton awake at night, there is one that scares her more than any other: that a terrorist could get their hands on a nuclear weapon.

That’s the setting behind “State of Terror,” the new thriller that Clinton has co-authored with Canadian writer Louise Penny, best known for her Quebec-set Inspector Gamache mysteries.

“I brought the writing skills and Hillary brought the geopolitics and (insider information),” Penny explained. “As it turned out, our skill set and our experiences are a perfect fit.”

Penny, Clinton, and I are talking via conference call, an echo of the way the couple wrote the book for the past year and a half after the idea was first approached: why don’t they get together? and write a thriller? ?

After all, it’s not that the idea was unprecedented: Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, and American writer James Patterson have produced two thrillers together. Was there any indication of competition?

“Well, obviously we hope to get it right, rather …” Clinton said, and she and Penny burst into laughter.

While Penny had never written a political thriller and Clinton had never written fiction, they came up with a proposal that, to their own surprise, they apparently thought would work.

In broad strokes: there is a new president in the White House, installed after four tumultuous years in which the previous administration “spoiled everything it touched …” Ellen Adams, a former media mogul whose daughter is still involved in the business and whose son is a reporter, he is appointed secretary of state. London and Paris have just suffered terrorist attacks. You need to find out who’s next and who’s responsible. But the government and intelligence networks are so shattered that she is not sure who to trust.

“All of our characters are fictional. I want to make that absolutely clear, ”Clinton said. “But of course some of his characteristics and behavior are inspired by real people.”

"State of terror" by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, St. Martin's Press, 512 pages, $ 24.99

In fact, there are some seemingly very recognizable characters in the book: former US President Eric Dunn, “known even, perhaps especially, to his closest associates as Eric the Fool.”

She and Penny have met many interesting people in their lives, so they can be based on many different characteristics and attitudes. So Dunn is not based on any former president that we are familiar with, but on “a fictitious version of a president who, in four years, showed us that you can have a president who was manipulated by foreign powers, who was indifferent to institutions and the rule of law, ”Clinton said.

Creating their characters could have been fun, but they also wanted to pay tribute to some friends. It was a way of dealing with the pain the two perpetrators were processing, the recent deaths of people close to them: Clinton’s friend from elementary school, Betsy Johnson Ebeling, who introduced Clinton and Penny in 2016, an introduction that was turned into friendship; Penny’s husband, Michael Whitehead, who died in 2016; Ellen Tauscher, who was undersecretary of state when Clinton was secretary of state and whom he had known for 25 years.

“Even though they are fictional versions of those people, it makes them immortal to a degree, which is something important to us,” Penny said.

While “State of Terror” is a thriller, it is a clever thriller, with the weight of Clinton’s ideas to drive it forward. There are nuances in the situations, in the characters and in their relationships.

Here’s an example: On the opposite pages – the book’s design is a happy coincidence – there are two characters: Ellen Adams, who “loved her country,” and Iranian nuclear scientist Nasrin Bukhari, who “loved her country.” She would do whatever it took to protect him. ”

“It was important to say that the people we disagree with politically love their country,” Penny said. “Everybody thinks he’s a patriot and everybody thinks he’s the hero. I think it was very important for Nasrin to be a patriot, but also to be about to do something horrible. “

“That certainly applies to the conspirators within the US government in the book,” Clinton said. “The wrong militias, even evil as they are, have this ideology to which they subscribe that they are somehow the true patriots. His vision of the United States is far from what I think, you know, most of us think we are or should be … we wanted to write a book that had the nuances; it wasn’t just a slam bang thriller. “

The insights we gain also include interesting details, as Secretary Adams deals with the day-to-day life of being secretary of state. Attend a meeting and hand over all cell phones to security personnel to ensure privacy. Using a plane nicknamed “Air Force Three”. The tensions in a room when lives are at stake.

“I wanted to draw the curtain. I wanted people to have an idea, not just of high-stakes diplomacy, but of the day-to-day work and processes that a secretary of state went through, ”Clinton said. “It’s not a big deal, but it brings an air of authenticity to the role that Ellen plays and the work she’s doing.”

“It is also exciting!” Penny added. He clearly enjoyed the breadth and depth of the material that came with working with Clinton to write the characters.

Opinions and ideas also dot the book, as Ellen pointed out, during a videoconference meeting with the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, that “this was a loose alliance that could unravel at any moment. . moment. What held him together was not mutual respect, but mutual need. “

Funny moments are mixed as, during said videoconference, the Canadian chancellor (Jocelyn Tardiff) still in pajamas of elk and bear, after having been “pulled from a deep sleep” at 2 in the morning to meet.

Clinton and Penny laughed. “You had to mention that!” Penny laughed. “Hillary teased me mercilessly because when we were doing FaceTime at 7:30, I was in my elk flannel pajamas.”

“I laughed a lot,” Clinton said. “And then we had to put the moose pajamas in the book.”

Which brings us to Horslips. They are an Irish rock / folk band (Clinton has a deep relationship with the country and was recently appointed rector of Queen’s University in Belfast) and the mention of the band is a little Easter egg for their friends and fans. “We had a lot of fun,” Clinton said. “One of the things we hope our readers will do … as the book comes out is find some of those little treasures that we’ve planted the book with.”

At various points when Ellen Adams addresses negotiations, she will stop and consider the individual people around her, the people potentially affected, and what they might be thinking or feeling. It’s a big part of how Clinton says she saw diplomacy work.

“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the subtext of the words was, what was the personal interest of the person in front of me and what I should understand better if I am going to work with this person.”

Even more difficult, she thinks, as a woman on the international stage. The harshness of what she faced on a day-to-day basis, and what she brought in, is reflected in the way Ellen wrote. “Ellen Adams was used to people underestimating her. Accomplished middle-aged women were often looked down upon by little men, ”they wrote.

Writing to women “like us” who are often underrated was important to Penny and Clinton.

“It was kind of a mini mission… these characters weren’t characters you would see often in a political book, certainly not in a political thriller. And it was very important for us to put them at the center of the action, ”Clinton said.

As she was.

One of the most powerful things about this book is that it is rooted in truth and the truth can be terrifying. Clinton writes in a note at the end: “This is a work of fiction, but the story it tells is too timely.”

And she is still worried. “I know from my previous experience that terrorist groups have constantly tried to obtain enough nuclear material to build a dirty bomb or even something bigger and more deadly,” he said. “It is a very realistic and scary scenario to which we all have to be more alert and do everything possible to avoid it.”

We have entertained ourselves. Consider us warned.

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