News & Politics

Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny: An Inside Look at How They Teamed Up for “State of Terror”

Both writers were nervous to explore new territory. Here's why they did it.

Photo by Joe McNally, courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny‘s new thriller, State of Terror, is getting rave reviews. So how did the fiction-writing novice end up paired with the Canadian mystery-novel star? It turns out the writers two reveal the story at the end of their book.

1. They already knew each other pretty well.

Clinton and her best friend, Betsy Johnson Ebeling, were both fans of Penny’s detective books. In 2016, Penny connected with Ebeling before one of her book events. When Penny’s husband, Michael Whitehead, died not long after the end of the tour, Clinton wrote her a sympathy note. “Secretary Clinton, in the last stages of a bruising brutal campaign for the most powerful job in the world, took time out to write to me,” Penny recalls in the book. “A woman she’d never met. About a man she’d never met. A Canadian who couldn’t even vote for her.” Penny and Clinton met in person in 2017 when the three women convened at Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York. Ebeling died in 2019, but Penny and Clinton stayed friends. One of the book’s central characters, also named Betsy, is based on Ebeling.

2. The publisher of Fire and Fury hatched the plan.

Stephen Rubin, now at Simon & Schuster, first suggested that Penny and Clinton collaborate on a thriller. Previously, he ran imprints that published blockbusters by John Grisham, Dan Brown, and, yes, Michael Wolff. The team-up would be similar to the two novels written together by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, The President Is Missing and The President’s Daughter.

3. The idea came as a surprise.

Penny was laying low in an isolated cottage north of Montreal during the early days of the pandemic when she got an unexpected call from her agent, to whom Rubin had reached out. Penny recalls her response: “Huh?” She was nervous about the idea, never having written this kind of book before. “A political thriller on this scale was so far beyond my comfort zone as to belong on another planet.” On the other hand, “how in the world could I let fear of failure steal this opportunity? I had to at least try.”

Meanwhile, Clinton got a call in Chappaqua from Bob Barnett, the DC attorney and book agent who also reps her husband. She was likewise skeptical; after all, it would be her first work of fiction. “I admire Louise as a writer and love her as a friend,” Clinton writes, “but the prospect seemed daunting. I’ve only written nonfiction, but then I thought, my life is the stuff of fiction, so maybe it was worth a try.”

4. They decided to just go for it.

The authors hatched State of Terror’s characters and plot during a series of long FaceTime calls, and continued to flesh things out by sending drafts back and forth. Soon enough, they had a 486-page story about—as you guessed from the title—a Secretary of State dealing with terrorism. Clinton writes that loss was on her mind as she worked on the book. In addition to Ebeling, she lost her brother, Tony, and another close friend, former member of Congress Ellen Tauscher. All three died in 2019. “Any one of these losses would have been painful, but the combination was devastating, and still hard for me to fully accept,” Clinton writes. Though the book’s fictional main character, Ellen Adams, is clearly based on Clinton’s experiences, her first name comes from Tauscher.