Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

State of Terror

Zoomer / October 2021

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny talk about alien babies in the White House, matching pyjamas and their thriller, starring a not entirely fictional secretary of state

Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton bonded over a particularly awful 2016. The Canadian bestselling mystery novelist lost her husband, and the former U.S. Secretary of State had lost the American election, but thanks to a condolence note from Clinton to Penny, they found a fabulous friendship.

They love to eat, hit spas together, wear matching pyjamas and, at least while researching State of Terror, falling down the Google rabbit hole with some serious red-flag-raising search terms. Their political thriller is about a plucky U.S. Secretary of State darting around the globe to keep nuclear bombs from the hands of terrorists (not to mention a high-level informant or two).

Rosemary Counter spoke by phone to the authors — Penny’s latest Inspector Gamache book is The Madness of Crowds, while Clinton’s most recent is her 2017 memoir What Happened — about their new book, early bedtimes, alien babies in the White House and whether their protagonist, Ellen Adams, is entirely fictitious (wink, wink).

Rosemary Counter: First of all, congratulations! I spent all of Canadian Thanksgiving devouring the new book, which is actually new book territory for both of you. Did you have any reservations and how did each of you convince the other to go for it?

Hillary Rodham Clinton: We did have reservations, because this was out of both our comfort zones. I’ve never written fiction, and Louise’s tremendous series is set in Quebec, but could we write something that was a political thriller on a global stage? Both of us were apprehensive, to be honest, and we only got over that by talking it through and being very open with each other.

Louise Penny: We also wanted to make sure it would be fun and pleasurable, that we could enjoy it. Hillary talks about my fiction experience, which is true, but I’ve never been inside the White House or the State Department or [to the Washington neighbourhood of] Foggy Bottom. What an eye opener! We both contributed equally, and this book couldn’t be written by one without the other.

RC: I had a lot of fun, as a Canadian, Googling what’s real as I went. Off The Record, a basement bar in downtown Washington is real. Adams’ plane, Air Force Three, is not real. When you need these details, do you do research or head to Google or just call up your best friend and ask her?

HRC: I did a lot of each of those!

LP: I did a little bit of Googling. I’m calling you from New York right now and wasn’t sure they’d let me cross the border! My Google searches were all “terrorist plots” and “dirty bombs.” Luckily Hillary had all this information and I could rely on her. It was terrifying to hear, at times, what is really out there.

HRC: Part of how we ended up with the plot was Louise asking me, “What kept you up at night as Secretary of State?” There were a number of things, really, but nuclear bombs were the particular threat that we chose for the book.

RC: These topics are so serious and this book could be so scary, except there’s this great balance with the characters who have great fun and sassy banter. I’m thinking of the line: “Jesus, can’t we leave one person un-kidnapped today?”

LP: Ha! Just like in real life, we wanted our characters to be well rounded and recognizable, not caricatures. Even in the middle of something horrific, someone can say something funny to break the tension. Or they blurt it out. That’s just life. We want people to read this and relate, and we wanted to create incredibly believable and empathetic female characters to carry the story.

RC: Right at the beginning of the book, we get a look at life for Secretary of State Ellen Adams: she’s been on a flight for 22 hours, is running late, can’t wait to take off her Spanx — all very relatable! Secretary Clinton, what’s it like to finally get to reveal the behind-the-scenes part of the job?

HRC: Sharing my experience was so much fun for me. You get a little punch drunk flying around the world, seemingly without stop. I went to 112 countries in four years. You’re just on the go all the time and you get totally out of whack in terms of what time zone you’re in and what you’ll do when you land. I want people to have a feel just for the intensity of that job. And for women, it’s a bit more challenging because you have to think about how you look. I remember once having come off the plane and I had my hair pulled back. We got to a meeting with a prime minister, and he’s just staring at me, and I finally said, “Is there something wrong, Prime Minister?” And he said, “I was told if your hair is pulled back you’re in a bad mood.” I said, “No, Prime Minister, I just have bad hair! That’s all that is.”

LP: Hillary, remember the time you had nothing to hold your hair back so you used a paper clip?

HRC: It was a binder clip, and it was only on the plane.

RC: I’ve been using the elastic band on my face mask a lot.

LP: See? This is true for every woman!

RC: Ellen Adams is fictional — I’m doing air quotes here — but there are so many nods to real life: The famous photo in the Situation Room where you’re covering your mouth, and a “dirty woman” remark, instead of the real-life, “nasty woman” version. How are you similar to Ellen Adams and what is totally different about you?

HRC: She’s fictional, I promise you, and there are many differences. She ran a big media empire, she’s never been in politics, she’s never done a job like this before. But the whole feeling of it was imbued with my experience and how I saw the job. There’s a scene, as you know, where Ellen and Betsy are in a ladies’ restroom trying to figure out what to do next. This was something [former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright and I did once. We were in a foreign country and we couldn’t find a private space and we were the only two women there. These experiences went into the book, but Ellen Adams is a composite fictional character out of our imaginations.

RC: There are other characters in the book that readers might think they recognize, like former president Dunn, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and a bare-chested Russian president who rides a horse. How much fun is fiction in that gives you that leeway?

HRC: I have to say, even though it’s fiction, it is quite a lot of fun to take characteristics from real people and incorporate them into fictitious characters.

LP: I’ll answer that! It was fascinating for me to hear Hillary talk about her experiences with real people and then fictionalize them and bring them into the story, and make them fun and informative and thrilling and entertaining. It was quite an experience.

RC: Was there any time in the writing process that someone jumped in and said, absolutely not!

LP: There was the time I suggested an alien kidnapping, wasn’t there?

HRC: Ha, yes! Then I reminded you that one of the tabloids had a front-page picture of me when I was First Lady holding an alien baby. They said I’d secretly given birth to it in the White House. So, no, we weren’t doing that.

LP: We stayed very respectful of the other person’s opinion. If I had an idea that Hillary didn’t agree with and she felt strongly about, then we didn’t use that idea and vice versa. As a journalist, I’ve been in lots of story meetings and writing rooms so I know the magic that is building on each other’s ideas. She’d say, “I don’ t know about that, but what about this?” And I’d say, “Or maybe this!” Soon it’s impossible to say whose idea it was anymore. It’s both of ours.

RC: What’s the secret to writing a book with your friend and still being friends afterwards?

HRC: For us, we were very open with each other from the absolute beginning. We weren’t sure it would work and we wanted to preserve our friendship and we wanted to be totally open and honest with each other. That’s what I think made it all possible.

RC: I guess the flip side of that question is what is the hardest part of collaborating?

LP: One difficult thing was that we couldn’t spend at least some time face-to-face in the same space. I yearned to sit across a dining-room table with typewritten pages and pass notes back and forth. I’d like to have you there telling me what your scrawl actually met.

HRC: I think what she’s trying to say is the hardest part was reading my handwriting.

RC: What do you guys do for fun when you’re not writing?

HRC: Well, we eat a lot.

LP: We love food.

HRC: Then we like to go swimming, to pay for our sins.

LP: We have so much in common. We both love spas and travelling, so we talk a lot about where we should go next. Hillary and I, when we’re on vacation or just hanging out, we don’t really talk politics much.

HRC: We actually had all these great ideas about getting together at the spa and working there, but obviously that couldn’t come to pass because of the pandemic. We didn’t have a particular time set, but it often ended up in the early evening. One of the things Louise and I discovered about each other is that we both go to bed very early.

RC: How early is very early? I have a toddler, so I feel like I’ve got you beat.

LP: We’d start at seven o’clock sometimes, thinking that was safe, but we’d both be in bed. Hillary mocked me mercilessly about my flannel moose pyjamas!

HRC: Just yesterday, I was very pleased to receive a gift from Louise: My very own moose printed flannel pyjamas. I cannot wait to wear them.

RC: Your friendship is so fun and inspiring. What do you think makes you kindred spirits?

HRC: We both have a real interest in the world around us and try to make sense of it. We enjoy good company and good food and good times with each other. We take vacations together and have travelled to Canada and the United States. It’s just a gift, that’s the best way to say it.

LP: We met through Hillary’s best friend Betsy, who has since passed away. Betsy had an amazing gift for friendship and for folding other people into the circle. Hillary has that same gift, and it’s a remarkable thing to be embraced by Hillary Clinton and brought into her fold. These are high-powered, smart, kind people that she’s had as friends for, well, a hundred and fifty years or so?

HC: Yeah, a hundred and fifty. Exactly right.

LP: It’s an amazing experience for me to find so many friends later in life. Hillary and I bonded over mutual loss and mutual grief at a very profound level.

RC: Secretary Clinton, you could have chosen any number of people to write a book with, especially one about American politics, so what is the benefit of choosing a Canadian as a co-writer? Besides the moose pyjamas, I mean.

HRC: I love Canada! I may be one of Canada’s greatest fans. I love the times I’ve spent there, I love the beauty of the country, I love the fact that you have a national health care system. I love so much about Canada, so it’s not surprising to me that I chose a Canadian.

RC: Are there any famous friends that you’re looking forward to sending this book to? Someone who might get a particular kick out of it?

HRC: I’m sure a bunch of my friends will, especially those who I’ve worked with who will recognize some scenes and asides and action that takes place. It will be fun to see their reaction.

LP: But we don’t want to send the book, we want them to buy it.

HRC: Oh yes, of course.

RC: Maybe this book will land on the big screen. Who do you think would make a wonderful Ellen Adams?

HRC: I’m not even gonna touch that!

RC: Well, can’t blame a girl for trying.

HRC: Not at all.

RC: The book ends with a cliff-hanger. When do you think you might do it again and start a sequel?

HRC: Oh my gosh, we are still in the middle of putting this book into the world and enjoying the experience. We’re gonna relish that for quite a while.

LP: I agree.