"We were dreaming of, you know, going to exotic places," said Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We were gonna go all over the world and do our writing together."
"Let's sit in a resort somewhere in the Caribbean," laughed Louise Penny.
COVID would deflate that balloon, But if you're wondering how the former Secretary of State happened to write a book (a political thriller out Tuesday) with the acclaimed Canadian mystery writer, here's how:
"This whole experience and this book arose out of our friendship," Clinton said, "and our friendship arose out of someone who was a very good friend to both of us. That was my best friend from sixth grade, a woman named Betsy Johnson Ebeling."
They both loved Louise Penny's mysteries, eight of which have debuted at #1 on The New York Times Bestsellers List.
"So, fast forward, I'm running for president in 2016, as you might remember – it seems so long ago!"
When Ebeling was interviewed during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, one thing led to another: "The interviewer is asking, 'Well, so, what do you do together? And she said, 'Well, we read together, we read books.' 'Well, what are you reading now?' And Betsy goes, 'Well, we're reading the latest Louise Penny.' Louise's publisher read this article and said, 'Would you like to meet this woman who's a good friend of Hillary Clinton's?' And Louise said yes."
Ebeling met Penny at a book event in Chicago. They instantly became great friends.
"And two weeks later, my husband, who had been suffering from dementia, passed away," Penny said. "And I was going through the notes of condolence, and there was one from [Hillary]. Hillary's never met Michael, she's never met me, she's in the middle of the most vicious political fight of anyone's life, and she writes to a Canadian, who can't even vote!"
Correspondent Martha Teichner spoke with Clinton and Penny in a studio overlooking New York's Javits Center – Clinton's Election Night headquarters back in 2016.
Penny said, "Our friendship came out of grief. And when we met, you had just lost the election, I just lost my husband. We were two women of a similar age who knew what that felt like."
Then, in 2019, their friend Betsy died of breast cancer. "She just had a genius for friendship," Clinton said.
So, working on the book together was therapy, for Clinton (writing from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.) and for Penny (writing from hers in Quebec). "State of Terror" is published by St. Martin's Press and Simon & Schuster (a division of ViacomCBS).
"We could not get together; we operated over Facetime and virtually," Clinton said.
They wanted somehow to incorporate Ebeling, and so a character named Betsy Jameson is counselor to Secretary of State Ellen Adams (named for another of Clinton's friends, Ellen Tauscher, a former U.S. Representative and diplomat who also died in 2019).
But their COVID-restricted collaboration was anything but sorrowful. "I can't convey to you how much fun it was," Clinton said. "When we Facetimed, right, we were both in bed, it was like 7:30 at night – we're both in bed … I think that you did have on moose pajamas, being a Canadian!"
"Oh, I did, my moose flannel!" Penny laughed.
"And not to be a spoiler, that makes its way into the book!"
Imagine a thriller in which the heroes are two middle-aged women.
Teichner said, "They showed their insecurities, their fears. We found out right away that Ellen Adams had her grooming issues …"
"And wore Spanx!" Penny laughed.
"Yeah, that was a little bit of personal experience," Clinton laughed. "Oh my gosh, the hair? The hair again? Come on, people!"
"The women characters in the book are consistently underestimated," Teichner said.
"I immediately thought of an article that I'd read the last few days about how Angela Merkel's superpower was she was underestimated, for 16 years, as chancellor of Germany, that was the case," said Clinton.
Penny added, "And you were underestimated."
"Well, you know, I think it kind of goes with the territory, of being a woman in a high public position."
The plot of "State of Terror" is fiction, but not so far-fetched, starting out of a conversation the two had in which Penny asked Clinton what her nightmare was. "And you came up with three," Penny said.
"Yes, I did, and we chose one, which was nuclear."
What if nukes got into the hands of terrorists – foreign and domestic? The book is loaded with the insider stuff that Clinton knows from experience.
"It was fun to come up with, you know, scenes, obviously, Washington, D.C.; the White House situation room; the Oval office; Off the Record, the bar in the Hay-Adams."
And then there is Eric Dunn, the previous president, whose administration is described on page 3 as nearly "criminally incompetent."
"And he lives in Palm Beach," Teichner said.
"Interesting," Clinton said. "Lotta people live in Palm Beach."
"Are we supposed to read that as Donald Trump?"
"No, but I think we're supposed to realize that there are characteristics of real people that we obviously learned from, that we incorporated."
Fans of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries will be happy to discover character crossovers, and other little Easter eggs, hidden in the text. "There are some in-jokes," she said.
"And you know what?" Clinton added. "We would love for people, when they read it, to kind of find the in-jokes for us."
But mostly, Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny would like them to read their book for what it is: a dead-serious cautionary tale – and a tribute to friendship, on and off the page.
Clinton said, "This is a wake-up call for anybody who cares about America, the world."
Penny said, "I feel very proud of this book for doing that, and for being entertaining at the same time, and having a heart and having a soul. I'm very, very pleased with what we've done."
Teichner asked, "When's the movie?"
"Who plays us?" Penny laughed. "We're not in it!"
Clinton laughed, "We're not in it. How did we write ourselves out of it?"
For more info:
- "State of Terror" by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster/St. Martin's Press), in Hardcover, Large Print, eBook and Audio formats, available October 12 via Amazon and Indiebound
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Carol Ross.
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