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This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.


Illustration by LeeAndra Cianci

An intrepid female Secretary of State races around the world to stop a terrorist unleashed by the former president, a dangerously stupid egomaniac now holed up in his Florida resort. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as U.S. secretary of state under president Barack Obama, was clearly exorcising some demons when she teamed up with Quebec-based author Louise Penny to co-write her first novel, the political thriller State of Terror. In a joint phone interview from London, England, Clinton, 74, and Penny, 63, laughed easily and finished each other’s sentences like the friends they’ve been since 2016. Here are highlights from our conversation.

Johanna Schneller: Fun moment in your book: A Canadian politician clearly modelled on Chrystia Freeland shows up on a 2 a.m. Zoom wearing moose pajamas.

Louise Penny: As you know, in Canada they come with your tax forms. [Both women laugh.]

JS: State of Terror has been a bestseller since it arrived Oct. 12. It’s a proper page-turner, full of clocks ticking down and planes taking off. It’s written with insider authority. At its core, though, it’s a story of female friendship, between the newly minted Secretary of State Ellen Adams and her best friend and counsellor Betsy Jameson. I can’t think of any other thriller that is built around that kind of relationship.

Hillary Clinton: That’s why we decided we would write the book. We wanted to write a political thriller where women are the protagonists. With their lives, their friendship, their feelings at the centre of the story.

JS: Madame Secretary, Betsy is an homage to your oldest friend, the late Betsy Johnson Ebeling, who died of breast cancer in 2019. You met Ms. Penny after Ebeling mentioned in a newspaper interview during your presidential run that you and she were reading one of Penny’s Gamache novels. In this book, Betsy is such a lovingly wrought character – steadfast, whip-smart, wickedly funny, a word nerd. What did you and the real Betsy respond to in one another?

HC: We met in sixth grade in Park Ridge, Ill. We just had the same reactions to things. We had a similar sense of humour. We loved to read; we used to go to the library together.

LP: They loved the Nancy Drew books.

HC: We read every one of them!

JS: So you meet, and almost immediately you’re eating Thanksgiving dinners together and spending time in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

LP: One of the great things about Hillary is how inclusive she is. There’s a persistent myth that women are cliquey. That is far from my experience with Hillary, Betsy and their friends. They opened their arms and included me right away, as I’ve tried to do with them and my friends.

JS: Then your respective agents convinced you to team up on a book. In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown you two met via Zoom and FaceTime to bang out an outline, realized you were having fun and soon enough were trading drafts.

LP: It was a bit like a literary foxhole. At first we wondered, ‘How will we even do this?’ We discovered that what we could do is trust each other. We could toss out ideas and build on each other. Hillary is exactly the collaborator I thought she would be and more so: She’s a natural team-builder, a great active listener, and extremely creative. It’s impossible at this stage to parse who did what, who came up with this character trait or that plot point.

HC: We were disappointed we couldn’t meet in person, at a spa or nice resort. But it was a great diversion [in the pandemic]. I found it liberating to be writing fiction instead of nonfiction.

JS: State of Terror is stuffed with what I’m calling Easter eggs for working women. Scenes, for example, of men talking over women in work meetings, dismissing their ideas, then stealing them and taking credit for them. Your women roll their eyes and just get on with things.

LP: I think that’s most women’s reality, being diminished, being dismissed, being underestimated. It was important for us to show that. And to have the women be recognizable, identifiable, so readers could say, ‘This could be me.’ They have insecurities. They’re not superwomen. Their superpower is their courage, and their ability to figure out who to trust.

JS: How real is the statecraft?

HC: It’s definitely based in reality. It’s rooted in my experience, flying around the world, going to 112 countries in four years. My experience dealing with foreign leaders and presidents, in difficult situations. My own awareness that terrorists have been seeking nuclear capability for years now, whether it’s dirty bombs or something more sophisticated. Ellen Adams is not me, but waking up after a brutal flight around the world, hair and makeup askew, not knowing where you are, I can tell you that is absolutely real.

JS: Ellen’s hair is askew because she’s saving the world from disaster, but you show us how the press and the public fault her for it anyway. Underneath all that, what you’re really showing us is a new, female model of leadership. Women using power differently. For example, knowing that an apology can be a sign of strength, not weakness.

HC: That’s right, because that’s what I had to try to do. That’s what a lot of the women at the highest levels of politics or government or diplomacy have to do. It’s not easy, and you don’t always get it right, but you’re constantly trying to figure out how to move forward in whatever the mission or purpose is. I think it’s an important example to set. The scene where Ellen apologizes disarms an adversary, and opens a door to getting some help that can lead to defusing the threat she’s facing.

Sometimes I would try things that were out of the ordinary, and the men around me would say, ‘What is she doing, why is she saying that?’ Well, I did it because a negotiation had fallen apart, and I had to figure out a new way to get back into the conversation. Louise and I wanted to show that a lot of women leaders are underestimated. I recently read an article in The New York Times suggesting that one source of Angela Merkel’s power was that she was consistently underestimated, and therefore could disarm people. I tried to figure out how to bring people together while not being caught in the double-standard that still governs so much of what women do in public.

JS: In the novel, being Secretary of State is demanding, thrilling, nerve-wracking, exhausting. In real life, was it ever fun?

HC: I had so much fun. First of all, it was an incredible rush and honour to represent my country. I went to so many places where I got a chance to interact with fascinating people, not just top officials. When we were delivering aid to Malawi, I went into the countryside, and sat and talked with women farmers about the better life they might have, now that the U.S. government was providing support for their dairy farming. We had parties on the road, lots of interesting experiences. There is a lot of fun in the job. But poor Ellen has only been in her job for a month, and she’s got to figure out how to stop a nuclear event. That is not fun. [Laughs]

JS: You pull no punches in damning the prior president, Eric Dunn – also known as Eric the Dumb – who is clearly modelled on Donald Trump. You communicate your urgent need to warn the world of the dangers of a weak and manipulatable U.S. president. But was there also a tiny bit of revenge?

HC: It didn’t have anything to do with revenge, honestly. Dunn is a fictional character, but nobody could have lived through the four years of Trump’s presidency and not have been shocked at his characteristics. As Louise and I developed the plot, it was important that Ellen has enemies from without and enemies from within. I wanted to demonstrate what happens when you have a leader who is reckless. Who is manipulated by adversaries. Who is so self-centred that he can’t ever see what the real threats and problems are. So there was a lot there in what we had all seen with our own eyes, that was important to put into the story. We wrote the book before the attack on the U.S. Capitol happened, but we were aware of the damage that had been done, and why we needed to make that a part of Ellen’s story.

JS: Ms. Penny, did your being Canadian add a spin to this U.S. political story?

LP: As a writer and former journalist, I think it did. I have some distance, and was able to write about the U.S. from a different perspective.

JS: In your acknowledgement at the end of the book, Madame Secretary, you write, “This is a work of fiction but the story it tells is all too timely. It’s up to us to make sure its plot stays fictional.” What do you hope readers will be inspired to do?

HC: It’s one of the points we make in the book: Bad things happen when people don’t speak out. The silence of acquiescence or complicity can breed all sorts of dangers. First and foremost, we both view this as a cautionary tale. We want people to read it and go, ‘Wow, the pieces do seem to fit together here.’ We’re hoping that through fiction, more people will understand what we’re up against, both internally and externally, than they might glean from any kind of lecture or non-fiction book. We want them to be more vigilant, more alert, and more willing to call out the dangers we face.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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