I first spotted Helen Hanson’s thriller titles on Amazon, and what especially caught my eye were the stellar ratings they are getting from readers. It’s clear that this indie author has studied her craft, and I knew that she was somebody I had to interview. Rather than try to write my own profile of her as a lead-in to this chat, I can’t possibly improve upon the one she has posted on her own website:
Helen Hanson writes thrillers about desperate people with a high-tech bent. Hackers. The CIA. Industry titans. Guys on sailboats. Mobsters. Their personal maelstroms pit them against unrelenting forces willing to kill. Throughout the journey, they try to find some truth, a little humor, and their humanity—from either end of the trigger.
While Helen writes about the power hungry, she genuinely mistrusts anyone who wants to rule the world.
Helen directed operations for high-tech manufacturers of semiconductors, video games, software, and computers. Her reluctant education behind the Redwood Curtain culminated in a B.S. in Business Administration with concentrated studies in Computer Science. She also learned to play a mean game of hacky sack.
She is a licensed private pilot with a ticket for single-engine aircraft. Helen and her husband spent their first anniversary with their flight instructor studying for the FAA practical. If you were a passenger on a 737 trying to land at SJC in 1995, she sends her most sincere apologies. Really.
Born in fly-over country, Helen has lived on both coasts, near both borders, and at several locations in between. She lettered in tennis, worked as a machinist, and saw the Clash at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium sometime in the eighties. She currently lives amid the bricks of Texas with her husband, son, and a dog that composes music with squeaky toys.
The Vigilante Author: You’ve now published two thrillers, Helen. Why don’t you describe the kind of fiction you like to write.
Helen Hanson: I write about ordinary people from various strata of society who don’t possess the ninja skills of Chuck Norris. My characters stumble into dangerous situations created by others with nefarious motives. They don’t create their own disasters. My characters use technology to advance their position even if it isn’t strictly legal. They won’t go quietly without a fight. All my works feature some aspect of computer technology, so “cyber thriller” is the best category I’ve encountered. My background is entirely high-tech, and I’m told that I present the salient details of the technology employed without burdening the reader.
My characters are smart people who possess a vein of humor. As in life, I prefer to meet my disasters with a cushion of mirth. It adds a pleasant bounce to my landing.
The Vigilante Author: So, tell me about your latest book.
Helen Hanson: In my latest novel, Dark Pool, Maggie Fender is a young woman who struggles to provide for her convicted hacker brother, who swears he was framed, and their father, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile in the news, forty billion dollars disappears from a hedge fund run by a manager who never invested a dime. It was all a Ponzi scheme, and he’s earned some dangerous enemies.
After a man tries to kill their father, Maggie’s brother thinks Dad may know something about the missing money in spite of his diminished capacity. Unfortunately, so does the Russian mobster who lost thirty million dollars in the financial scheme.
In part, this work speaks to the fiasco that is the Bernie Madoff case. While no one sweats Steven Spielberg losing a mill or two, not all the swindled investors were able to absorb the loss. If the SEC had investigated as required, it would have mitigated this financial disaster. But they didn’t investigate until their neglect became a public embarrassment. The SEC was criminally negligent in this case, yet, none of the officials responsible were ever brought up on charges.
The Vigilante Author: Let’s chat about your genesis as an author, Helen.
Helen Hanson: I was a delightfully unrestrained wild-child. The youngest of seven, I lived in a house with three miles of pine forest for a backyard. We routinely brought injured critters home for rehabilitation. Many survived. For the others, we conducted appropriately solemn funerals. My first earrings were lizards which I caught in the woodpile. I’d coax their mouths open and let them clamp my earlobes. I played with baby black snakes, frogs, and caught lightning bugs. I even kissed a snapping turtle. Once. Only once.
The Vigilante Author: Ouch. Where, exactly, did you grow up?
Helen Hanson: My father was full Sicilian, first-generation American, but he moved back to Sicily as a boy. My mother was raised on a dairy farm and the two met in the Navy. After they married, he switched to the Army, and they spent many years overseas. Conceived in Bordeaux, I’ve lived all over the U.S., so I can claim ties to a variety of regions and micro-cultures. No one can accuse me of provinciality.
The Vigilante Author: I interviewed Gary Ponzo a few weeks ago, and he has a Sicilian background, too, which plays into the Mob-related tales he writes. So, what drew you into becoming a writer of your kind of stories?
Helen Hanson: I’ve had an abiding love for stories since I was a toddler. My favorite place to hang out was the library because it was a veritable shrine to books. Books are an honorable thing. I remember being shocked when I’d see other kids writing on the pages. I didn’t even highlight them in college. That ranked as a venial sin, minimum. Libraries are livelier these days because librarians don’t shush people anymore. But I admit, I miss the reverent quiet of a well-shushed library.
The Vigilante Author: Funny you should say that. I remember feeling the same way about books and libraries as a kid.
Helen Hanson: And film noir. As a kid I preferred the old suspense movies with James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, or Edward G. Robinson over cartoons—Looney Tunes excepted. Alfred Hitchcock was a film genius. He could build tension by filming a man standing on a road doing nothing, à la Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
The Vigilante Author: I love Hitch’s films, too, and that one is my favorite.
Helen Hanson: The Depression and Prohibition era gangsters fascinate me. I recently read a book about Bonnie and Clyde that dispelled any notion of their competence as outlaws. They simply stole faster cars and bigger guns than any local authority could access. Plus, the laws of jurisdiction at the time always kept them a border away from arrest.
I’ve always written, but decided to work on a novel once I left corporate life. In high-tech operations, I spent most of my waking hours on-the-job. Now I draw from my background to write stories that speak to our times. Technology defines the era for both polite society and criminals. I write about people who are as comfortable with a computer as they are with a gun.
The Vigilante Author: Literary influences, Helen?
Helen Hanson: Call it silly, but Dr. Seuss gave me a love for words: their sound, collective rhythm, the way they look in print. Even in my thrillers, I keep an ear tuned to the absurd or the humor of catastrophe.
John le Carré’s George Smiley is one of my favorite characters. George was the frumpy, world-weary genius, counterpoint to the flamboyant, gadget-wielding, debonair James Bond, and to my ear, he rang more true. The multi-story tension between Smiley and his nemesis Karla kept me anticipating the moment when one would triumph. As a reader, I was not disappointed.
The Vigilante Author: Anybody else?
Helen Hanson: John Grisham’s early works contained an element of humor that I found particularly appealing. Harlan Coben writes gritty stories with a sliver of humor. At my best, I’m reminded of him.
The Vigilante Author: So, what makes Helen write?
Helen Hanson: I write to please myself. I like to see how the ordinary people find the extraordinary in themselves when faced with adversity. No one is surprised when Jason Bourne survives. But we aren’t ever sure that Maggie Fender can escape unscathed. As unique beings, we each need a different spark to light a fire. I like to explore the sparks.
The Vigilante Author: I love to ask authors how they deal with the social isolation of the writer’s life. And also about the trials and tribulations they have to deal with along the way. What say ye?
Helen Hanson: If you’re asking where I buried the bodies, fuggedaboutit. You’re safer not knowing. . .
The Vigilante Author: Yikes! I’m backing away slowly. But what about the loneliness and the challenges of the work?
Helen Hanson: Anything worth doing has its tough and lonely time. I don’t really think of the obstacles when I’m writing. That time is so internalized it passes as daydreaming in some ways. The tough part is after you write the thing. Now what? How do you get people to notice amid the din? That’s the part of traditional publishing that I long for as a writer, the team of marketing experts.
But the new reality is that all writers are expected to market their work. So what’s a girl gonna do? Me? I’m going to write another book and pray for divine favor.
The Vigilante Author: I don’t claim divinity, but I hope this interview helps at least a little bit.
Another question I ask authors is about their writing methods. Most of those I’ve interviewed are a lot more “seat of the pants” than I am; I outline and research extensively. How about you?
Helen Hanson: I need a skeletal outline and a sketch of my main characters to start, but it’s more of a suggestion than a flight plan. I detail the specifics of the next scene or two, and I keep an ongoing list of what-could-happen-later in a spreadsheet. Yes, I know spreadsheets are geeky, but it works for me. I keep notes on my storylines in case I want to change something later and to keep the pertinent details straight. I know my ending, but not necessarily the how of the ending. I like to be surprised, too.
The Vigilante Author: What about the mechanics of the process? Where and how do you work?
Helen Hanson: My husband runs a software business from home, so I typically write in the afternoon, evenings, and weekends. I keep a separate laptop just for writing, and I won’t use my normal office desk because I want a new perspective, even if it’s only six feet away. I plop my tuckus on a couch in my office and use an Air-Desk to prop my laptop. I have a liter of water at my side and occasionally stop to tousle the head of a needy canine.
The Vigilante Author: What do you find to be hard or easy about writing? And what are the rewards for you?
Helen Hanson: The hardest part is the sitting-on-my-butt-for-hours part. I will switch to sitting on a large exercise ball to alleviate the discomfort. Or go jog. The inactivity is difficult.
The greatest pleasure is a happy letter from a reader. Or when I make myself giggle. Just after I released 3 Lies, I received an email from a man who runs a helicopter service in Manhattan. He said he loved the story and thought my choice of helicopter for the scene was appropriate. That was a nice moment. Otherwise, I’ll let you know in another year.
The Vigilante Author: I’ll check back with you, Helen. Now, like most of the other authors I’ve interviewed recently, you are an indie-published one. How and why did you do that, rather than going through traditional publishing?
Helen Hanson: I had the interest of a New York agent on my first novel, 3 Lies. He thought the premise was extremely strong, my writing great, even wanted to see any of my other works. He had a couple of suggestions, and I revised the manuscript based on his request. Then I never heard from him again. This was mid-2010. I set a deadline for November 1st either to have a warbling bird in the hand or go solo.
The Vigilante Author: So, I gather the bird remained silent and out of reach.
Helen Hanson: The idea of self-publishing appealed to my inner control-freak anyway, so it wasn’t a difficult decision. It’s an individual sport. I wouldn’t recommend it en masse. I absolutely recommend that every writer investigate the option.
The Vigilante Author: I would agree with that. It’s not for everyone. It takes a streak of independence, and success requires a strong entrepreneurial spirit. But beside that, what qualities do you think are most important for any would-be writers? From your current vantage point, do you have any words of wisdom for them?
Helen Hanson: Perseverance and an internal compass. Study the craft to the point where all the information sounds redundant, and then write to please yourself.
I encourage all writers to have a critique squad of some sort. I’m involved with two on a monthly basis. When everyone agrees that something doesn’t work, it’s best to listen. When they don’t, listen to the people who enjoy your voice as a writer. Remember, not everyone has to love you or Stephen King.
The Vigilante Author: I save the critique group until after the novel is written. That’s when I find that beta readers are invaluable: They catch all the stuff that you would never have noticed is wrong.
Where can people buy your books, Helen? And how can readers learn more about you and contact you?
Helen Hanson: Readers are welcome to visit my website.
The Vigilante Author: Thanks much, Helen. I hope my blog readers start clicking those links today!
Helen Hanson: Thanks, Robert.