Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny speak on their new political thriller novel ‘State of Terror’

Hillary Clinton’s own experiences as U.S. Secretary of State inspired her new novel, written with author Louise Penny. (Courtesy: Scripps Presents)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and international award-winning author Louise Penny joined Scripps Presents on the day of the release of their new political thriller “State of Terror.”

The discussion on Oct. 12 was moderated by National Book Award-winning writer Susan Choi. In addition to the insider look at the highest levels of politics from the first woman in US history to be the presidential nominee of a major political party, the fast-paced novel is packed with the layers of literary expertise that characterize Penny’s writing.

Clinton said the book features “what goes on behind closed doors in high-stakes diplomacy, when a crisis is truly staring you in the face. Our heroines don’t shoot, or open the door and throw grenades. They use their wits ― they use their experiences. They are heroic but they’re not extra-human. They are very, very human and at the heart of the story is their friendship, and these two very brave, tenacious women.”

The central relationship in “State of Terror” is between the fictional Secretary of State, Ellen Adams, and her lifetime best friend and now counselor, Betsy Jameson. Clinton and Penny took much inspiration from mutual friend Betsy Johnson Ebeling, Clinton’s best friend from childhood who had passed away in 2019 and was the reason they met.

“We kept coming back to our mutual love for and how much we missed Betsy,” Clinton said about their book brainstorming process. 

Clinton’s close friend and former Under Secretary of State, Ellen Tauscher, died the same year as Egeling and was also a strong influence in the book through the protagonist of the same name. Clinton and Penny bonded over their grief and over being women at similar stages of their lives.

Clinton has written seven previous nonfiction books, and said her first foray into fiction “was quite liberating, to break through those bounds, and think about not what has happened but imagine what could happen.”

One perk is the ability to implicitly reveal in a novel what otherwise would not be allowed in a memoir, including geopolitical insights from behind closed doors.

“We get not just a peek, but we get to walk through these doors that nobody else has been in except the Secretary of State ― to sit at this table to watch the mind games and passive aggressive things that were happening as the politicians are all trying to collaborate but also get one up on each other,” Penny said. “And then how they treated the woman in the room ― being dismissive and diminishing her.”

Penny and Clinton gushed about writing strong female characters that take others’ underestimation of them to their advantage, naming Angela Merkel and Janet Yellen as real-life examples. 

“We would build on each other’s ideas, now I couldn’t parse what Hillary brought or what I brought,” Penny said.

The protagonists, like the two authors, are avid readers and literary fans. Penny often weaves literary illusions into her works, most notably the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. Though she had never co-authored a book, this one is no different.

“It’s really the rare thriller that delights with a series of jokes about grammar that make up a secret code between the [protagonists] ― this tells us a lot about these characters and what is meaningful to them,” Choi said. “I felt it also spoke to what matters to us as humans and what we have at stake. This book was saying our culture matters, and we’re in danger of losing really important parts of it.”

It is impossible to ignore the references to current events in the book. The geopolitical emergencies that thread through the story are close parallels with the conflicts currently present.

“We have a continuing constitutional crisis in our country, because a very powerful minority with not only huge financial resources but enormous sway over shaping public opinion wants us to distrust each other, want us to give up on each other, wants us to turn our backs on each other, wants to define who’s a real American and who isn’t,” Clinton said.

The authors discussed the urgency of speaking up for one’s beliefs and standing up for one’s rights and the rights of others.

“The book talks about what lives in the vast silence and how the worst of the terrorists aren’t necessarily going to claim responsibility because they don’t want that ― what they want are the results,” Penny said, speaking from her decades-long career as radio host and journalist.

Clinton and Penny asserted their worries for the future of American democracy and society. While their book aims to offer answers for some of the questions it raises, they hope it keeps people thinking.

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