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Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny tackle nuclear war and diplomacy in new crime novel

Louise Penny (left), a best-selling author, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, paired up to write <em>State of Terror</em>, a new novel that they say is meant to serve as a cautionary tale.
Louise Penny (left), a best-selling author, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, paired up to write <em>State of Terror</em>, a new novel that they say is meant to serve as a cautionary tale.

A president picks a former rival for secretary of state, who happens to be a woman.

What follows, in the new novel from best-selling author Louise Penny and — in her mystery writing debut — Hillary Clinton, involves intrigue, terrorist attacks, unlikely allies, brilliant young foreign service officers, and perhaps the most vivid love scenes ever co-authored by a former secretary of state.

State of Terror is a cautionary tale, Clinton and Penny said in an interview with Weekend Edition.

"I hope readers will be attuned to that," Clinton said.

At the same time, said Penny, it's meant to be an entertaining read — not a tough "pill to swallow," that explores what happens when "silence allows bad things to breed."

Read on for highlights from the conversation, or click on the audio link to hear the full interview.

On what sparked the story

HC: The impetus for the plot came finally one day when Louise said to me, "So what are the problems that kept you up at night?" And that just triggered my sharing with her some of the things that worried me the most, still worry me today. And among them is what we chose for the plot here, you know — the great fear that nuclear weapons would be obtained by terrorists. That began us trying to figure out, how would this happen and what would have to be done?

LP: Well, that's where having Hillary Clinton so deeply involved makes all the difference. And that's what separates, I think — well there are many things I think that separate state of terror from your average political thriller — and not the least of which is that it's written by two women of a certain age, about women of a certain age.

On whether the book villain's statement that "most of politics, of so-called democracy, is an illusion, staged for the great unwashed" is based on remarks heard in real life

HC: Absolutely, we are hearing it right now, Scott. We are hearing it, much to my dismay, from people who are in Republican politics. They are officeholders in states, they are in conservative think tanks, and they are saying in many different ways that, you know, "Democracy is maybe not what it's cracked up to be because there are a lot of people who really shouldn't have the vote, who really don't deserve to have an equal voice to mine or to people like me." And honestly, this has been an argument from the very beginning, but it's an argument that we kept overcoming. We kept knocking down the barriers, and now we have a concerted effort to basically rule by minority. And I have said in many public settings over the last a year: What we see happening is to try to implement the lie behind the "big steal" — which is the argument that the former president, his enablers and supporters have made — that if an election doesn't turn out the way you want it to, then you don't have to follow it and you have to set up a system so that it doesn't happen. And their goal is not to lose an election again, and they're going to try to get it set up so heads, they win; tails they win.

On writing their characters

LP: We wanted women who are flawed, who aren't perfect characters — not just women, but in this case, it happens to be women — who don't burst through doors with machine guns, and neither are they victims. But they use their wits, they use their smarts, they have flaws, they have doubts, they have fears and insecurities.

HC: But they are intrepid. They are determined, they are underestimated. But that doesn't stop them from trying to, you know, forge ahead and follow what their instincts and intelligence are telling them.

On venturing into fiction

HC: I have to say, Scott, never having written fiction — but having read a lot of it over many, many years — I always was somewhat taken aback when I would read an author say something like, "I started writing and I was surprised where the characters took me." And I would think, "Well, how could you be surprised? You've created the characters."

But it was such a fascinating experience for me, personally, to just see the difference between non-fiction, like, "Oh my gosh, another fact check, how many more do I have to do — make sure it's right." And this liberation that fiction provides, but also the surprise that it can even offer the author.

LP: That was the key too, with working with Hillary, is that I never worked with a co-author. And so, it's very scary because you go down all these different routes and try things, and it doesn't work and it's stupid. And it's a ridiculous idea, and that character doesn't really need to be there. But it's all necessary; they're all steps along the way. And to work with someone — with Hillary — who can see that they're steps, and instead of saying, "Oh no" [and] just throwing it out, saying, "Well, yeah, but what about this? And what about that?" And building on it. That was very powerful.

On the withdrawal from Afghanistan in both the book and real life

HC: I've been saying this for a long time, that there was never going to be any good time for us to end our involvement in Afghanistan. So, whenever and however it happened, we needed to be very aware of the consequences. And yes, there were many, but in particular the two that are referenced: one, a renewed threat coming out of Afghanistan. We're seeing [it] right now — al-Qaida, never having separated from the Taliban — which never rejected them. We're seeing ISIS. And you know, the very real setbacks to the advances that occurred over the last 20 years. In the book, we have a former president who made the decision to pull out without a plan.

And what we have, you know, in the real world right now is a president — the former president — who made an agreement with the Taliban, getting nothing for it. ... Nothing about following the Constitution. Nothing about protecting human rights. Nothing about anything. So, Biden comes in and he's confronted with an agreement by the United States government — because that's what it was — which put him in an impossible position. ... So, yeah, we are now out of there militarily. I think the administration did an incredible job, evacuating 120,000-plus people under really difficult circumstances. But I think we're going to have to be very vigilant because the adversaries that we have are going to repopulate Afghanistan, and the Taliban will be either unwilling or incapable of preventing attacks outside their own borders.

On whether the novel also serves as a cautionary tale

HC: Yes, it is. I worry a lot about the very serious attacks on our democracy from without and within. And this book really tackles both because we do have adversaries who from the outside want to undermine our democracy, set us against one another. And, very tragically, we have people in our own country who are really trying to undermine our institutions and our rule of law because they don't like the multicultural, incredibly dynamic and diverse society that we have become. And as your favorite president and mine reminded us, you know, a house divided against itself cannot stand. So, yeah, it is a cautionary tale, and I hope readers will be attuned to that.

LP: It's meant to be that, but... it's not meant to be a pill to swallow. People aren't supposed to choke down this book and then feel morally superior at the end of it. This is meant to be entertaining, but it's also meant to have people sit up a little bit and take stock. We talk in the book about the vast silence — about what lives in that great chasm. And very few good things live in silence. Silence is acquiescence. Silence allows bad things to breed, and it is time. It's time to stand up for what you believe in and to be counted. Because the clock is ticking — we are pretty close to the chimes at midnight on many fronts.

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