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In ‘Hard Girls,’ Estranged Twins With a Violent Past Reunite to Find Their Mother

In a Q&A with author J. Robert Lennon, he talks about writing crime in 'a literary style' and drops hints about the next book in the series / BY Rosemary Counter / February 22nd, 2024


Hard Girls, J. Robert Lennon’s ninth novel, is a fast-paced thriller about twin sisters Jane and Lila, on the run in the past and on a mission in the present. As precocious, hard-partying 15-year-olds, they commit a violent crime and manage to get away with it. Well, guilt-free Lila does, while Jane turns herself in. Cut to years later, after Jane’s done her time and lives under a new name, and gets an email from the estranged sister she hasn’t heard from in 15 years. Jane reluctantly reaches out through a payphone, to hear: “You have to come,” Lila says. “I think I’ve found her.”

“Her” is their long-lost mother Anabel, but that’s about all you can deduce early on from Hard Girls. Nobody is who or what they seem and everyone has a secret – even 30-something Jane, who warmly kisses her own daughter Chloe goodbye before stealing a car to set out from New York state on a Thelma-and-Louise-esque international adventure to find Mom. Expect crime, espionage, cocaine, code-cracking, semi-legal detective work and low-level fraud.

Zoomer called up the 53-year-old Ithaca, N.Y.-based author at his home for a lively chat about obvious pen names, the literary benefits and challenges of writing about twins, why his current Google search history is seriously suspicious and, since Hard Girls is the first in a series, what’s next for his imagined twins. 

Rosemary Counter: Hi, J. Robert! 

Robert Lennon: Hello! Call me John. 

RC: You got it, John. Why the pen name?

JRL: Why? Because John … Lennon? 

RC: Oh my god, I just put that together. Now I have a better question: What’s it like to be named John Lennon?

JRL: It’s my grandfather’s name and I’m happy to honour him, but it’s a pain in the ass! 

 

 

RC: Congratulations on your new novel, which Google says is a thriller, but it’s also mystery, crime, adventure. What genre is this book to you? 

JRL: I’ve read a lot of books labelled “thriller” and I still don’t know what a thriller is, to be honest, because they’re all so different from each other. Certainly there are mysteries scattered throughout this, and there’s definitely crime. So let’s say crime with a literary style.

RC: “Literary crime.” I like that. Where did the idea for Hard Girls come from? 

JRL: Well, I play in a band – it’s not a career, it’s a hobby – and I’d actually written a song about an outlaw, named Lila, from a wealthy family. I really liked the character idea, and she kinda hung around in my head for a while, until I decided to turn her into a novel. Then I came up with the twin idea, and their powerful missing mother, and from there everything fell into place.

RC: Talk to me about the art of writing twins. They’re so similar that it opens up all these literary possibilities, you can swap ’em if necessary, but also they have to be different and differentiable.

JRL: Well, I resisted the temptation to make them identical and deliberately made them fraternal. Because what’s more interesting to me than their looks is that they’re the same age, at all times, and have gone through the same things in the same upbringing, but they still turn out  different. 

Meanwhile, especially if they’ve had a troubled family, they might bond extremely closely, more than ordinary siblings might. Or maybe one ends up resenting the other and there’s a rivalry there. With all those ideas in mind, I thought the relationship between them could be a complicated, fascinating story. 

RC: What do you think is the fundamental difference between Lila and Jane?

JRL: Well, there’s been this shared trauma and this, let’s say, “event,” and from Lila’s point of view, she doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong and she doesn’t care. Jane, however, is wracked with guilt and is convinced she has to atone, so she turns herself in in order to assuage her guilt. She thinks she’s doing Lila a favour, but Lila of course doesn’t care. I think Lila is a little bit on the spectrum. The niceties of social interaction are unintuitive for her. 

RC: Morality seems to be a theme running throughout this book. When Jane suddenly steals a car, for example, it’s clear she has a whole past we don’t know about and is capable of theft, deception and crimes. In your world, do you think people are capable of anything? 

JRL: Under the right circumstances, I think most of us are capable of doing things that right now we wouldn’t dream of doing. Most of us aren’t murderers because we avoid the circumstances that would ever put us in that position. But if [you] were, like these two women, born into this bizarre family, you don’t know how you’d react. Jane and Lila act instinctively with disastrous results. 

RC: This is a story all about and by women, sisters and mothers. As a male writer, were you reluctant to write from a female perspective? 

JRL: I know some men do feel reluctant to write female characters because they feel they’re out of their depth. Not that I think I have some deep special skill that they don’t, but I just don’t feel women are all that different from men. A lot of my favourite writers are women and favourite books are by women. Plus I have a wife and three daughters, so I’m surrounded by women. 

RC: Did you do a lot of research into spies and espionage? 

JRL: I did, yes. The main book that inspired me was Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner, who is very critical of the CIA and who thinks of them as ignorant buffoons. It was lots of fun to solve problems throughout, like I needed a character to hack into someone’s wi-fi or email or security cameras. So I ended up hanging out a lot on IT security chat-boards learning about technology vulnerabilities. When I needed Jane to steal the car from the airport, I studied up on how to hot-wire a car. If anyone’s trying to frame me for a crime, this would be a great time to do it. 

RC: And by the book’s ending, we’re clearly all set up for a sequel. What’s next for Jane and Lila? 

JRL: They’re turning their complicated relationship into a business: a freelance, grey-market, not-entirely-legal private-eye company. There are a few little hints about the new plot in [this] book. Someone from their past is connected to a whole bunch of stuff, including the cattle industry. My wife specifically asked me to set the next book in a place that’s fun to travel to, so we can go and write it off as research. Then I had to tell her we’re going to Oklahoma. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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