Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, STATE OF TERROR

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, STATE OF TERROR

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and author Louise Penny joined Zibby for an event with the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center to discuss their New York Times bestselling political thriller, State of Terror, which centers around one of Secretary Clinton’s greatest fears: the possibility that terrorists could get ahold of nuclear weapons. Secretary Clinton and Penny share how they met through Clinton’s late best friend and bonded through Penny’s grief after losing her husband. The duo also reveals what it took for them to hit their co-writing stride, which political powerhouse inspired their protagonist, how President Clinton was recovering after his recent hospitalization, and why it was important that the story focused on strong but imperfect women.


Gady Levy: Good evening. I’m Gady Levy, the executive director of the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. I’m super excited to welcome you to our 223rd virtual event. This one is really special. Over the past seventeen months, over more than 450,000 people like you from all over the world have found their way to the Streicker Center through Zoom reminding us that physical distance does not negate the possibility of community. It makes our community stronger. As we move into our new semester, we hope you’ll continue joining us virtually or in person starting next week as we welcome writers, thinkers, and political figures to discuss the issues we care about most. In the next three months, will we welcome Henry Kissinger and Anderson Cooper, Francine Prose and Katie Couric, George Will, Chris Wallace, Naomi Ragen, Adam Schiff, Andy Cohen, Lin-Manuel Miranda, among many others. I hope you will join us often. I have to say, I’m a little nervous because Secretary Clinton is watching. She’s my favorite. I’m just going to continue. Over the years, Temple Emanu-El has been honored to welcome some of the world’s most distinguished and accomplished individuals, presidents and vice presidents, supreme court justices, secretaries of state, ambassadors, journalists, activists, and Pulitzer, Oscar, and Tony winners. We are even more deeply moved when some return to our stages again and again, becoming a part of our community.

Few have appeared in entirely different guises than, thus, tonight’s guest, the woman who holds the record for the Gallup’s most admired woman in the world twenty-two times. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton first joined us a former presidential candidate packing our historic sanctuary with her fiery insight. She came back last March and spoke about the women who inspired her to become the role model for so many others. Now after a lifetime in law and public service, she returns in yet another role, as coauthor of this fast-paced thriller, which just a couple hours ago became the number one on The New York Times best seller, so a big mazel tov. One part fictional account of recent political intrigue and another celebration of shrewd women, State of Terror reflects both Secretary Clinton’s brilliance and personal experiences and the writing genius of her coauthor, Louise Penny, whose twelve mystery novels about a French Canadian police inspector have not only made her a number-one New York Times best seller, but have won her ten literary awards in the Order of Canada. We are proud to host them both this evening in a conversation with Zibby Owens of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” podcast and publisher of Zibby Books for discussion about political skimming, terrorist plots, and tough women saving the world. If you have any questions, please post them at any time in the chat function. We will get to as many as possible. I couldn’t be more excited to ask you to join me in welcoming Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Louise Penny, and Zibby Owens.

Louise Penny: Hello.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Hello. Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be back at Temple Emanu-El and the Streicker Center. I will come as often as you invite me.

Louise: Next time, Hillary, it’ll be in person.

Hillary: Yes, in person next time.

Zibby: It’s nice to meet you, ladies. I’m Zibby.

Louise: Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: Hi. Thanks to Gady and the Streicker Center for all this. I am so excited to discuss your book. It was so good. It destroyed three days of my life where that was all I could do.

Hillary: Zibby, I’m sorry.

Zibby: That’s all right.

Louise: You’re not sorry at all. She is not sorry at all.

Zibby: I feel like I hadn’t felt that way since I binged on Homeland. I couldn’t get off the couch. I was riveted. It had that same level of intrigue and made me obsessed. Thank you. I also wanted to say, there were so many references to the ladies in this book having some chardonnay together. I brought a little bottle, so we can pretend that we are enjoying this.

Louise: That’s not a little bottle. That is not.

Zibby: I’m just going to have it after. If I had a pair of Spanx, I would put them on here as well. That was part of what made this book so amazing. The two of you together made Ellen Adams seems like the most relatable and yet amazing woman ever. She’s doing the things that every other woman who’s probably on this Zoom or in the world has to do every day and yet so much more. She becomes such a multidimensional, amazing character. Tell me a little bit about how the two of you collaborated. I know it says a lot in your amazing acknowledgments, which are award-worthy in their own right, but how you collaborated to craft this character.

Hillary: I’ll start, Zibby. Then Louise can continue on. It’s a wonderful story that brought us together, to become friends, and then led us to collaborate. It really started back during my presidential campaign. Gady mentioned my coming to the Streicker Center to talk about that. During that campaign in 2016, one of my closest friends, my best friend from literally sixth grade, a woman named Betsy Johnson Ebeling, was interviewed about me, which is what happens to your friends when you run for office. They get asked all kinds of questions. She was being asked by a reporter, “What do you and Hillary like to do together?” Betsy named some things, but she said, “We have always loved to read the same books. Then we talk about them. We trade ideas about books.” Literally, we used to go to the library as little girls. The reporter then said, “So what are you reading now?” None of this would be happening. We would not be sitting here with you, Zibby, if Betsy had not told the truth, which is that we were reading the latest Louise Penny Gamache books in her wonderful series. Fast-forward, the article was read by Louise’s publisher. Take it from there, Louise.

Louise: Sarah Melnyk, who read it, got in touch with me and said, “Did you know Hillary Clinton reads your books?” When I regained consciousness, I said, “I don’t think I knew that.” She said, “Her best friend, Betsy, would like to meet you when you’re in Chicago,” where I was launching the next book. I said, “Yeah, I would love to.” Betsy and I met. When you reach a certain age, you sort of think your dance card is full. It’s not, but that was the assumption. I have made all the profound friendships I’m going to make. That could not have been more wrong because that was the moment that my life changed. Betsy and I immediately had a bond. She became the taproot for so much that has happened in my life and that ended up in this marvelous moment right now. We bonded. We kept in touch. Two weeks after my tour ended, my husband Michael, who had dementia, passed away. It was shattering. It was a terrible, terrible — I thought that I might die, but I clearly didn’t. I was reading. It was very comforting to read the letters of condolence, many of which were from people who were friends and we knew. I sort of expected them. There they were. It was very nice.

One, I didn’t expect. It was from Secretary Clinton. Couldn’t believe it. She took time from the most brutal political campaign to write a letter of condolence. It wasn’t just, “Dear Occupant, sorry for your loss.” This really talked about Michael and his contributions to medicine and about loss and grief, something that she knew a lot about and knows even more about now. It was a such a kindness to write to a woman she’d never met about a man she’d never met. I couldn’t even vote in the election. This was an act of pure kindness. From that moment on — Michael adored Hillary. I always had such respect for her, but it went to a whole other level, as you can imagine. After the election, in February, Betsy got in touch and said, “Hillary’s invited us to her home in Chappaqua for a weekend.” I thought, of course, I would love to come. Frankly, Zibby, going through my mind was, a weekend? Initially, it was going to be one night. I don’t know if you remember this, Hillary. Then you made it two nights. I’m thinking, I can probably not say something really stupid for one night. How long can I smile and nod? The moment we actually met, we were at dinner at a restaurant. Bill was obviously with us, and a couple of other people. Hillary, you were giving a talk in Boston. You flew back. You were a few minutes late for the dinner, so we were already seated. The restaurant was full. It was throbbing. Hillary shows up at the door, and the place goes silent. Then, as one, they rose. The cheers and the clapping, I’ll never forget it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Then as the coda to that, throughout the dinner as Hillary is trying to eat, these young women came over and thanked her. Some wanted a photograph, but for the most part, they just wanted to thank her. Many were in tears. Hillary, you were so gracious with them. It was obviously a moment I’ll never forget. It was beautiful.

Hillary: That was the beginning, Zibby, of our wonderful friendship. We got to spend time together. We spent it with my family, with Betsy and her husband. Obviously, Louise was a gracious host. We actually went to Canada.

Louise: I came to your place for Thanksgiving.

Hillary: Came for Thanksgiving. We went to Canada to see you, to see some of the places that are scenes in your books. Then we lost Betsy. Betsy passed away in July of 2019 from breast cancer, which she’d been fighting for ten years. Both Louise and I were honored to speak at her memorial service. It was just an incredible shared grief, losing our friend, but it also further expanded the circle of friends that welcomed Louise, all these friends of mine, literally from high school, who we’d stayed in touch with. Betsy was kind of the pivot around which we all rotated. She was the one who’d keep us informed about somebody’s family or if an illness struck, anything that was important. We’ve continued to be great friends. Then toward the end of 2019, we were both called by our agents asking if we’d consider writing a political thriller. I have to confess I was very apprehensive. I said, “Look, I love Louise as a friend. Obviously, I admire her greatly as a writer. I have never written fiction. I don’t know whether this could work. I’m really cautious and not particularly convinced.” I think Louise had a similar reaction. Our agents encouraged us at least to talk, and we started talking.

Louise: We did. We felt, there’s nothing to be lost to just chat. Let’s see how far we can take it. You’re absolutely right. I’d never collaborated with anyone. I had no idea how it’s done. Then I read a couple of books where people had collaborated and tried to get a sense of how it’s done. That was my fear, really, as you described, losing the friendship. It’s like going from playing singles tennis to playing doubles. I was just really afraid I’d keep hitting her on the back of the head with the tennis ball or worse. Worse would be you hitting me, or it’d be mutual. What they did was, the publishers, who had no faith at all, by the way, that we could do this, so they refused to sign a contract with us, very wisely, before we proved we had an idea. We sat down. Were in quarantine by then. Not quarantine. We were in lockdown. You were in Chappaqua. I was in Quebec. We hammered out a nineteen-page outline. It was quite something. I’ll always remember when we were tossing around, what about this? We knew, obviously, some of the broad strokes. It was clear it would be a woman secretary of state, obviously. It would feature strong women characters. That is not exactly a plotline. We were tossing ideas. What about this? I suppose that happens. You remember it? Hillary would say something. I’d say, “Yeah, but what about this?” Then she’d say, “No, I don’t think that works. What about that?” At one stage, Zibby — remember this, Hillary? — we got so confused that we actually just stopped talking and stared at each other. We thought our screens had frozen.

Hillary: Then I have to give Louise all the credit. She then asked the question that unlocked the plot. She asked me, what were my nightmares as secretary of state? I had quite a few, to be honest. I ran through some of them with her. They’re still my nightmares. One of them, which I worried about when I was a senator from New York, especially after 9/11 — obviously, I worried about it all four years in the State Department — was the possibility that terrorists could get ahold of nuclear weapons, whether it was a dirty bomb or something more sophisticated because I knew — this is in the public record. I’m not spilling any classified secrets. That has been a constant theme, the terrorists seeking, out on the dark web or through criminal gangs or the Russian mob, whoever they could possibly connect with — the idea that they wanted to possess a nuclear weapon. When I told Louise that, she was as terrified as I was. I don’t think she slept very well the next night.

Louise: Thanks a lot. Yeah, that’s great.

Zibby: I don’t think I’ve slept since I finished this book.

Hillary: Oh, dear. Don’t say that. I hope you do. You have a bunch of little children.

Zibby: That’s part of why. Yes, okay, fine, but this did not help. Let me just say that.

Louise: You know the other thing, Hillary, of course, is just a genius on so many levels, not only creatively, but obviously what you bring, Hillary, geopolitically. Again, we could have the, yeah, a dirty bomb, okay, but it’s still not a plot. Hillary provided the plot. The plot is Afghanistan, all the morass that is that region of the world and the chaos, and then added to with the American withdrawal and the Taliban coming in. Hillary foresaw this. This was prescient. The Taliban will come in. With the Taliban will come Al-Qaeda. A lot of the gains that had been hard-fought for twenty years would be lost. The terrorists would again have a foothold and a launching pad again. She walked me through this. Then, sadly, we had the plot.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe that passage was in there about what could happen with Afghanistan. I was flipping back. I was like, wait a minute, when did they write this? They couldn’t have just written this. It’s amazing and terrifying.

Hillary: We obviously did the outline and wrote most of it before the election in November, certainly before the attack on our capitol, before the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I did have one very important piece of information. That was the agreement that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban, which happened before the election. Basically, as one of Trump’s former national security advisors called it, it was a surrender agreement. We got nothing. We got no commitment to keep Al-Qaeda out. We got no commitment to follow the laws that had been adopted or their constitution. We got nothing. Nobody got anything. It was just, as they said, a surrender document. I knew that we were on a path to getting out, that it would be very hard even if you wanted to — I think most people wanted to end that war and get our troops and everybody home. Even if you wanted to do otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to because the momentum was on the side of the Taliban. That was, as I said, before the election and certainly before the deadline to withdrawal. As we were talking about this, the ramifications — I very much agreed with what Secretary of State Blinken said a few weeks ago. He said, “The Trump administration did not leave us a plan. They left us a deadline.” In our plot, we have a former president who leaves Afghanistan. Then the incoming president inherits that situation with all of the potential threats and dangers that it sadly conveys. I did think a lot about it. Louise and I kicked back and forth all sorts of ideas. We really wanted this not only to be a fast-paced thriller, and we’re obviously thrilled people are liking it and reading it, but we really wanted it to be a cautionary tale about both enemies abroad, enemies within, and the kind of threats that we have to be ready to address.

Louise: Because it’s fiction, and you’ve talked about this, rather than nonfiction, we were in the position of making it more palatable for people to be able to take it on board in a way that was entertaining at times, playful, but also as Hillary said, as a cautionary tale. We also wanted it to be more than just that, plot-driven. We wanted the characters to come alive. Really, what we want the people at the end of it to remember is the threat and the importance that we all stand up and be vigilant. I think people are most likely to also remember the characters, to bond with the characters. You were saying, the secretary of state, so identifiable. She’s not a superwoman. She is an intelligent, thoughtful, smart, motivated person who has found herself in this position where she can give back, and she does.

Zibby: There’s no better way to transmit information than through storytelling. I feel like that’s what you’ve done. You’ll remember that. You’ll remember the moments and the scenes in your head more than you will a paper on documents or agreements. It’s the most illustrative way, I think, to tell a story that’s memorable. I saw in the notes you said — I wanted to ask how President Clinton is and how that whole thing — I was sure this was going to be cancelled like everything else in life in the last two years. How is he doing? Then I saw that he had been your, sort of, fact-checker, which is quite the job.

Hillary: Thank you for asking, Zibby. He’s getting better. I have to say, it was a very serious infection. He, thankfully, was in California for events around the Clinton Foundation. He hadn’t been feeling great, but he felt good enough to go. Then that evening, he got high fevers and shaking. His staff took him to the UC Irvine Medical Center, which was absolutely an excellent place for him to be because they had to search to find the source of the infection and what the infection was. It had gotten into his bloodstream, and so he had developed sepsis, which is very scary, as I’m sure most of the viewers know. They had to work with the antibiotics because oral antibiotics were not going to work. We are now in the world of multi-drug-resistant bacteria. They had to get the right combination and start him very quickly on IV antibiotics. By Sunday, he was well enough to come home. We flew home. He’s going to have to take intravenous antibiotics every day for four weeks in order to try to knock out the infection. I am just so grateful that he had such excellent care, that he is recovering. He is getting better. I hope all of our viewers really take seriously any kind of fever. It was non-COVID. Thank goodness. Still, we’re in a world now where we’re in a race to try to get better treatments for bacteria like what he was infected by. That’s a pretty important challenge too.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry. I was thinking as I read the book and your acknowledgments at the end about all of the loss that you have had, and Louise, you too with your husband. That is so crushing, and your brother, Secretary Clinton, and your other friend. There’s just so much. I know a lot of people, obviously, in the world have had a lot of loss, particularly lately. Sometimes just even the sight of a hospital room can bring all of it back, the smell, something like that. My heart was going out to you and just wondering if it was even more than the fear of losing someone you’ve been with forever coming back.

Hillary: Zibby, that’s really both very thoughtful and astute of you because Louise and I have really reflected about how a lot of the motivation behind this book, frankly, was fueled by loss, as you point out. The person I thought of as we were developing the character of the secretary of state, Ellen Adams, was a dear friend of mine, Ellen Tauscher, who had been a member of congress from California who I had asked to leave congress to come to the State Department with me to run the program on arms control. She became the undersecretary for arms control. She understood the threat of nuclear weapons. She was really one of the experts. She passed away prematurely in May of 2019. I did lose one of my two brothers in June of 2019, which was just such a heartbreaking tragedy. Then we lost Betsy. As we began talking about this book and we talked about the characters, I shared with Louise, who had never gotten to meet Ellen Tauscher, what kind of person she was and how, when I thought about a secretary of state going toe to toe with adversaries around the world trying to stop a nuclear catastrophe, I would’ve sent Ellen anywhere anytime to do that high-stakes diplomacy. It was liberating for me as well as exhilarating because I’ve only written nonfiction. I’m kind of trapped by making sure everything is factually correct, which I believe in. I live in the fact-based world. This gave us a chance to tell a story rooted in reality, but with just enough elbow room and license that maybe readers could actually absorb it better than some five-hundred-page treatise about the danger of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of terrorist. We would show, not tell, I guess I would say.

Louise: You’ve described it as not having to force-feed people spinach.

Hillary: Right, exactly.

Louise: Exactly what you’re saying, I think that’s one of the reasons the characters resonate with people. They are founded in people that we loved and cared about. There is a responsibility we felt to Betsy and to Ellen and to others, that they be people in full, not just cardboard there to fuel along the plot, that there be a depth to them. It was a joy to write them as well — wasn’t it? — to bring them alive again and make them immortal and introduce them to hundreds of thousands, millions of people who would never get a chance to meet them.

Zibby: That is what’s so nice about writing about the people that we’ve loved so much who we’ve lost. I’ve lost a number of people too. Actually, one on 9/11. It’s so heartwarming when you can introduce them to people through words. It’s like you’ve done some sort of a mitzvah because you kept their memory alive. You could sense that in this book because so much of this book was about friendship, even just the kind words exchanged between Betsy and Ellen. There was one scene where they were on the phone or something. Betsy said, “Be careful, Ellen Sue Adams,” after this long pause. It was just this lovely moment where they’re working together, but there’s so much love there too. I felt like, yes, of course, it’s this nail-biting thriller with more travel than — I don’t even know how many miles Ellen Adams has put on at this point. I’m like, is it even physically possible for them to have gone to this many places in this amount of time? I don’t know. I’m sure you checked.

Louise: Actually, that’s one of the things our editor did. Hillary, you and I, we had Ellen flying all over the place because she had to. Others were flying all over the place. Our wonderful editor, Jen Enderlin, was the one who said, “How can it be three o’clock here but nine o’clock there and seven PM there? Maybe you want to work that out a little bit.”

Hillary: Zibby, I love the idea that it’s a mitzvah, keeping the memory of people that we loved alive. When I think about this book, I think about how, in the acknowledgements, Louise really summed up the feelings we had about it. Yes, it’s a book about terror. It is a page-turner. It is ripped from the headlines, all the things that I think are fair to say about it. It’s also, at its heart, a book about love and courage. We are living in a time that demands a lot of courage from a lot of people. Some are able to step up. Others are reluctant to do so. When we came up with a plot that included domestic terrorists, as I said, it was before January 6th. I was really concerned, and shared my concerns with Louise, who, of course, was watching with great interest from the other side of the border about what was happening in America, that we are really not only divided, everybody knows that, but there are truly people who think attacking our capitol, undermining our democracy, trying to stop an election, pumping big lies into social media and beyond, that they’re the patriots. We wanted to really help the reader think that through. We don’t yet have much detail on who’s reading it. We’re thrilled to be number one on The New York Times best-seller list.

Zibby: Turns out, everyone.

Hillary: We are thrilled, but we also are interested in who’s reading it. One of things that one of our editors said is, “You know, women writing a political thriller about women of a certain age is pretty unique.” Most political thrillers are written, understandably, by men. They star men as the protagonist. They have a lot of action. We do too. We have things blowing up and all sorts of stuff. “This is going to be interesting to see whether you can develop characters the way that Louise brilliantly does in the Gamache series,” characters that you just take into your heart. You want to know what’s going to happen to them. You can’t wait for the next book to come out because that’s going to give you more insight into them. Those are the kind of characters we wanted to put in the middle of an incredibly intense political thriller because those are the kind of characters we want not only to spend time with by reading, but we want reflected in popular fiction.

Louise: We set out, among many things, to also write a book we would read.

Hillary: Yes, that’s true.

Louise: And at the center of it, strong women who aren’t perfect. These aren’t superwomen, as we’ve all said. These are women who have doubts, who have insecurities, who wonder if they’ve done the right thing, who come out of a meeting and lean against a door and pray to God they haven’t just made a terrible mistake, things we’ve all done. The difference in this case is that the stakes are so high. That’s one of the great joys and insights of working, of course, with Hillary, is getting inside the room, getting to see what it’s like when there is a global catastrophe underway and information is — people have been, foreign ministers and prime ministers, woken up in the middle of the night. Information is coming in. It’s half-baked. Who knows what’s true? Who knows who to believe? Trust is a major issue that runs through this whole story. Who do you trust politically? Who do you trust personally? Do you trust yourself?

Zibby: Even layering on mothering of adult children and what you do when the paths diverge in the woods and you see what your kids end up wanting to do, whether or not that’s what you had in mind or not, and how you keep all those conflicts together while you’re busy running the country and everything else.

Hillary: That’s such a great insight, Zibby. Obviously, the plot has many twists and turns. Some of them have to do with adult children, as you just rightly point out. That’s what I think we mean when Louise is saying these women are not perfect. In most political thrillers, the women are there. They’re assassins. They’re love interests. They’re the stern intelligence director who gives the guys in the field their orders. You don’t really get to see much about their life. Yes, this may be the only book you’ll ever read, Zibby, that has both Spanx and flannel moose pajamas in it.

Zibby: Oh, I hope not. I hope not.

Louise: They may make a reappearance.

Hillary: We’ll tell you the story behind the moose pajamas. Can you do that, Louise? What do you say? Can’t wait. Go ahead.

Louise: Will this never end? All right, so here’s the story. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, of course. We had had ideas that we would be able to write this in a spa somewhere.

Hillary: That was our hope.

Louise: That was the hope, with spa in the morning. Hillary has actually made spa a verb. We would go spa-ing in the morning and then, I don’t know, have lettuce or something for lunch and then write. That didn’t happen. She’s in Chappaqua. I’m just north of Montréal at the lake house. We’re FaceTiming. We’re trying to figure things out and sending notes back and forth. We say, you know what, let’s FaceTime when the day settles down, seven o’clock. We get on FaceTime. Isn’t Hillary in bed? Seven PM.

Hillary: And isn’t Louise in bed?

Louise: That’s the thing. We’re both in bed.

Hillary: I do not know where the days went during the pandemic, but I would be ready for bed at seven PM. I wanted it to be on the downward slide. Louise, of course, being the good Canadian that she is — she has the Order of Canada. It’s very distinguished. She’s in her moose pajamas.

Louise: were the Order of Canada, actually.

Hillary: But the Order of Canada. Not the Order of the Moose.

Louise: No. Then Hillary, of course, being the silly woman she can sometimes be, mocks me for like eight months. Actually, as the readers know, it ends up in the book where a Canadian character is wearing moose pajamas. I did get, slightly, my own back. You came over for lunch the other day. I gave Hillary a pair of her own flannel moose pajamas.

Hillary: As soon as the weather gets cold enough to wear, I intend to wear them.

Louise: I want to see that. I do.

Hillary: I’ll send you a picture. Honestly, I will.

Zibby: It could be a good holiday giveaway. You could start selling the pajamas with the book and tying it with a red ribbon.

Louise: Oh, Zibby, good idea.

Hillary: Great idea.

Louise: That’s a great idea.

Hillary: I think a percentage needs to go to the Streicker Center. That’s a fabulous idea.

Zibby: There you go. So are these characters going to live on?

Louise: We are just having so much fun right now. To hear that we just hit number one in North America, I think we just want to breathe it in, relax. As we all know, life can just pick us up, and we can be in a wave. We forget to relax and take a breath and enjoy it and count our blessings. I think we’re doing that right now. Then we’ll blow up some more stuff .

Zibby: I find it hard to believe that either of the two of you are really just relaxing and kicking back. I’m sure you have eight million other ideas brewing for what’s to come.

Hillary: We do have a lot of things going on. Louise has so much happening. Anybody who produces a book every year for — how many years? Seventeen, eighteen years?

Louise: I think 300, 340, something like that.

Hillary: I don’t know. It goes back to at least the Revolutionary War. It’s just so remarkable to watch her in action. Yet at the same time, we really do want to enjoy this. We’re having a great time promoting the book, talking to people like yourself. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We want to just absolutely relish this.

Louise: Don’t you remember, Hillary, when this was proposed and we had one of our first FaceTime calls? I think we both made it clear that we’re not going to do this unless we’re going to enjoy it.

Hillary: Absolutely. We didn’t need to do it. This was not something that either of us needed to do. We just did it because we thought, in the end, it would be a great experience writing together.

Louise: And it was. We’re still friends, probably even better friends because we’ve kind of been through the wars together, the literary wars. Also, that’s the other thing we wanted to inject in this. I’m not sure how many political thrillers have a sense of playfulness as well, and humor. There are these easter eggs that we’ve put in for people to discover. The women — actually, they all. There are moments where all of them have fun. One of the things, Hillary, that we both loved was the relationship between the current president and the secretary of state. It’s antagonistic to say the least. Both of them get in some good shots every now and then.

Hillary: We do have the relationship evolve, which was really important to us. This president who, in her prior life as the head of a big media empire, Ellen had opposed — she did want him to be elected. Then much to her amazement, he asked her to be secretary. The ostensible reason was she ran this media empire. She had contacts around the world, but she had no political experience, no government experience. He really wanted her to fail almost as payback for her opposing him. She took the job because she is a woman of a certain age. It was an amazing opportunity and challenge, but she doesn’t trust him at all. The two of them have a lot of testy interactions. Then as this crisis develops, they realize they have to trust each other. They have to listen to each other. They have to respect each other’s gut and what is happening. I loved that. I loved the trajectory of that. There’s a lot in here that is not necessarily the headlines, but they’re kind of trendlines. They’re, what happens when people find themselves in difficult situations and they have to rely on each other? What happens when you don’t know who the enemy is? Maybe you think you do. Then you get new information, and that changes what you think. This is what happens in diplomacy. It happens in business. It happens in every walk of life, but the stakes could not be higher than they are in this particular plot.

Louise: What you’re describing so well, Hillary, is what gives flesh to the bones. That’s really the heart and the soul of these stories, the richness of the characters, their relationships, their doubts, and the fact that all of them evolve. The other thing I really like about the president and the secretary’s relationship is — we know early on why he appointed and why he hates her, because of this media empire and her campaign against him. We don’t find out until much later on, and I’m not going to tell you, why she hates him so much.

Hillary: Exactly.

Zibby: By the end of it, I was like, I don’t know what’s going to happen with these two. I want to open it up to all these amazing questions, but my last question for the two of you is, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Hillary: Wow. First, you have to decide if you want to write fiction or nonfiction. My prior experience was all nonfiction. You have to know what you want to say. You have to organize your thoughts the best you can. I actually was very used to writing an outline. Louise had not. When our publisher said, “Write an outline,” that was very familiar territory for me even though I had no idea, for a novel, what it would look like. Now that I’ve had this incredible experience with Louise, learning from her, watching her, collaborating with her, fiction is so exciting. It’s so full of possibilities that I am really just incredibly grateful that I had a chance to try my hand at it.

Louise: I’m incredibly grateful that you have more nightmares. Thank god. My advice when aspiring writers ask is — I suffered writer’s block for five years. That was pure fear, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of the judgement of others. Finally, it came to me what I needed to write. I couldn’t worry about others. I couldn’t worry about whether it’d even be written. Couldn’t worry about whether it would end up on the best-seller’s list. Couldn’t even worry about whether it’d be any good. All I could think about was just, write a book, as we said earlier, that I would read. That’s it. Chances are, if I will read it, other people probably will too. Just keep it simple. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Be very careful about who you show it to, especially the former president of the United States. You might want to keep that from him.

Hillary: We did wait until the whole manuscript was finished. Then I said, okay.

Louise: Did you have to find it from him? Did you have to lock it in a drawer?

Hillary: I had to cover it up whenever he would come into my office to see what I was doing. Then I finally said, “Would you read this? Tell us what you think.” Thankfully, he liked it. He did have a few editorial comments. He did say, at one point, “I’m not sure any president would say that.” Louise thought about it. It’s like, well, he was a president. Maybe we’ll edit that.

Louise: I was on the verge of arguing with the man.

Hillary: Overall, because he was so enthusiastic and has not only written two very successful thrillers, but read a million of them, that made me feel like we were on the right path.

Louise: He was very generous. I have to say he was very generous.

Zibby: My mother was very happy that you had books coming out at the same time. How nice that was.

Hillary: Great. Tell her thank you.

Zibby: I will. Louise, I think it’s so nice that you took all of that fear and ended up writing a novel about courage. It’s a nice way that you flipped it.

Louise: In front of me as I write, I have the last words of the poet Seamus Heaney. On his deathbed, he said, “Noli timere.” That means, be not afraid. It’s scary writing fiction. It’s scary writing anything, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s scary doing anything. You have to just get over it.

Louise: Just going out the front door sometimes is scary.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to leave on that negative note there, but anyway, lots of questions.

Louise: What we talk about is courage. It’s scary, but we all do it. It’s about courage.

Zibby: Exactly. What choice do we have? Rita is asking, “How difficult is it to write a book in this fashion, i.e., alternating the different storylines for each group of characters?”

Hillary: Once we had the outline — the outline was, in many ways, the hardest thing we had to do, nineteen pages that we massaged and revised and edited. Once we had the outline, we had a spine for the story. Some things changed. They were embroidered, maybe omitted, but the through line was there. Because I was the fortunate one working with a really experienced, brilliant, creative writer, she could take ideas that I was throwing around and fiddling with and really flesh them out. It went back and forth. We had, not disagreements, but we would say, I’m not sure about that. What about this? Have you thought about that? Because we had been friends before and had trusted each other in our friendship, we could be much more open with each other. We weren’t looking over our shoulder like, oh, my gosh, what will Louise think if I say this, or she was, oh, gosh, what if I asked this question, what will Hillary think? No, we just said, okay, let’s get into this. Then the outline guided us.

Louise: That’s absolutely true. It also helps to do two or three drafts. The first draft is really just throwing stuff out there. Then we would start working on structure and pace and those sorts of issues. I think of a book as like a symphony that has the harmonies. It’s got the main themes. It’s got the refrains. We get to be the conductors, thankfully.

Zibby: I love that. Carly wants to know, “Do you both have a favorite author of thrillers?”

Louise: Uh, oh. Hillary?

Hillary: I have to say, I really love Daniel Silva. I read every one of his Gabriel Allon books, including the last one, The Cellist. In this last one, it’s very funny because if you read it — I think you’ve had him on your book discussions before here at the Streicker Center. He has a portrait of the president of Russia in that latest book of his that is so on point based on my personal experience. When we also were going to have the president of Russia in our book, somebody said to me, “Oh, my gosh, you can’t borrow too many characteristics.” I said, “Have you read Daniel Silva’s latest book? It’s all there.” I’ve really enjoyed very much, his entire series.

Louise: I’m quite old-school in my reading. My favorite is John le Carré.

Hillary: He’s got a new book out.

Louise: Yeah.

Hillary: Post-death.

Zibby: I have it right there. If I could send it over… Sandra wants to know, “How did you actually write together? What was the collaboration process?”

Louise: I think we sort of described that, haven’t we? It’s difficult at this stage to really parse who brought what. As we’ve said, Hillary would say this. I’d do that and whatnot.

Hillary: I will confess to probably — the biggest problem I posed for Louise, that is, I still write longhand. I told her that, but I don’t think she quite absorbed what I meant by that. I not only write longhand, which means she has to decipher my writing, but I edit longhand. Literally, we were shuffling back hundreds of pages. I did get a new and very effective scanning app for my phone so that I could send it. I think she thought, okay, she may write longhand, but we’ll edit on the computer.

Louise: No. I would send hundreds of pages. Hillary would send back hundreds of pages written longhand. Honestly, it was just a half-step up from a stone tablet.

Hillary: You know what I always say, Zibby, when — I wrote a book with my daughter last time, as you remember. She was nowhere near as polite as Louise was when faced with my handwriting. She was quite put out about it. She would say, “Really, come on. Google Docs are your friends. Let’s figure this out.” I said, “You know, I’ve just done it this way for so long.” Finally, I would end the conversation by saying, “You know who else writes longhand? Barack Obama.” I would say that as though that ended the argument.

Louise: That’s a mic drop.

Hillary: It’s a mic drop, exactly.

Zibby: Chelsea also came on my podcast, by the way. We had a really nice chat.

Hillary: She told me.

Zibby: Christy wants to know, “What would you like readers to take away from this book?”

Hillary: I would personally love for readers both to take away the sense of fun and energy that the characters we created convey, to learn something or feel like they’ve been exposed to some issues that maybe they’ve thought about or not but which, in this fiction form, like the threat of terrorists getting nuclear weapons or the threat of domestic terrorists staging a coup d’état, as they tried to do on January 6th, so that readers will really love and relate to our characters, particularly our two protagonists, Ellen and Betsy, and others who we also feel very fondly toward, but come away with it as a kind of cautionary tale. Louise, at the end of her acknowledgments says, yes, it’s a book about terror, but it’s also about love and courage. At the end of my section of the acknowledgments, I say, look, it is up to all of us to make sure that this plot remains fiction. It’s a good story. I think it’s a really good read, but it also has some thought-provoking ideas in it as well.

Louise: I think one of the most thought-provoking that we hope people will reflect on is — in the book, the characters talk about the vast silence and what lives in the vast silence. A whole lot of bad things come out of silence. It’s up to each of us. We have a moral duty to stand up for what we believe in and to speak up and to say something and to be vigilant and watchful. We can’t just be passive and hope that someone else does it, whether it’s the secretary of state or the president or our elected official or the police. It’s up to all of us as individuals to be vigilant. Otherwise, something like this will happen. Hillary, one of the things that you found fairly early in the process was a quote from Tom Peters. We use it early on. Do you mind if I read it?

Hillary: Please.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Louise: He’s a historian. He writes, “The most amazing thing that has happened in my lifetime is neither putting a man on the moon nor Facebook having 2.8 billion monthly active users. It’s that in seventy-five years, seven months, and thirteen days since Nagasaki, a nuclear bomb has not been detonated.” How terrifying is that? That, for him, is considered a miracle. It’s up to all of us to make sure that clocking keeps ticking.

Zibby: Back to the not sleeping. Here we are again. One or two more quick questions. I know you said you don’t know if these characters will live on, but Marjorie wants to know, and others, “Do you have plans for any more collaborations of any type?”

Hillary: We’re going to collaborate on our friendship. We’re going to collaborate on vacations, which we have enjoyed together. We can’t really, at this point — I don’t have the bandwidth right now to think of anything else. We’ll see. We’ll obviously talk about it and see if that’s possible for us. I think Louise said very well that we went in as friends; we came out as stronger friends. That, to us, is really the center of why we did this and what it means to us.

Louise: It’s a great gift.

Zibby: Ari asks, “Do you want this book to be made into a movie or TV show? Who do you see portraying the secretary of state character?”

Hillary: I think that would be exciting. We don’t know if that’ll happen. I think it’s a great story. I’m like everybody else. I’d probably binge it.

Louise: I think it would be a great movie or a TV series. In terms of casting, I don’t know, but it’s a wonderful role for — as is Betsy, really, many of the women characters. There’s a few, we should mention, that are young women characters in there as well. They’re not all Hillary’s and my age. They’re younger as well. I think for the older women characters, fantastic roles.

Zibby: Kathryn and would be great.

Hillary: Yes, those are two really good younger .

Zibby: Two plum jobs there. Ruth wants to know, for Secretary Clinton, “Have you and President Clinton ever considered writing a novel together?”

Hillary: We haven’t. He has partnered twice now with James Patterson and had great success with The President is Missing and The President’s Daughter. It’s funny because, during this process, Jim Patterson, whom I’ve gotten to know and really like so much, and his wonderful wife Sue, he and Bill would give me a hard time. Then when Bill was with Louise and me, he’d kind of say, you guys are trying to compete, and all of that. Of course, we would totally disown that. No, no, no, we’re just writing a book.

Louise: But there were gauntlets everywhere, I’ll tell you.

Hillary: I have to say, Jim Patterson wrote — the publisher sent him a copy of the galleys. He wrote the most amazing and incredibly complimentary blurb. I said to him, “Boy, thank you so much. That was really above and beyond.” He was really gracious about it. Who knows? I doubt that that will ever happen, but it’s fun. It’s fun to be able to have this new experience that we both have now.

Louise: Something more to talk about over the dinner table.

Hillary: Absolutely, new plots, new nightmares.

Zibby: It’s great to see that working together brought both of you so much joy out of so much pain that connected you. It’s really wonderful.

Louise: Thank you.

Zibby: I know Gady wants to hop back on to say goodbye. Thank you from me too. This was so fun.

Louise: Can we also say, too — this is the last event in our virtual tour. I can’t imagine anything more special. Zibby, you’ve just been fantastic, as has the Streicker Center. Just thrilled. Gady, thank you.

Gady: Thank you both. Zibby, you did a great job. Louise, thank you for your humor and energy. I hope to see you again soon on our stage and live. Secretary Clinton, what can we say? You are our favorite speaker. I have to say it. I know my staff knows it by now. We just adore you. I certainly plan to take you up on your offer to come back. We wish President Clinton a full recovery. We look forward to welcoming him back on February 3rd, to the Streicker Center, with President George W Bush. Thank you again, everybody, for coming. Goodnight. Thank you.

Hillary: Thank you, Gady. Thank you, everybody at Streicker and Temple Emanu-El.

Gady: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, STATE OF TERROR

STATE OF TERROR by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts