Interview with Laura Lippman

Posted by Goodreads on February 3, 2014
This month prolific crime novelist Laura Lippman will publish After I'm Gone, her 19th novel in 17 years. This new stand-alone is a bold departure from her highly successful Tess Monaghan P.I. series (of which there are ten books) and heralds a freed-up new expansiveness from the author who, until 2001, spent 20 years as a journalist, including 12 at the Baltimore Sun, her hometown daily. After I'm Gone, like all of Lippman's work, is very much a Baltimore story, and she dedicates the book to her husband, David Simon, creator of The Wire. "He gave me the idea," she remarks matter-of-factly. Of course, the soaring execution is all hers. Skipping back and forth in time, it charts the before-and-after of racketeer Felix Brewer's disappearance on July 4, 1976, as refracted in the five women he left behind: wife Bambi, mistress Julie, and three daughters. Lippman describes it as her take on "the history of American women in the second half of the 20th century."

The writer's fans can also look forward to a film version of her first stand-alone novel, Every Secret Thing, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Banks, later in 2014. Lippman spoke to author Sandi Tan about fairy tales and the fate of the beloved Tess Monaghan.

Goodreads: You come from a bookish family. Dad was a journalist, Mom a librarian, and sis a bookseller. Were you an early reader and writer?

Laura Lippman: My sister taught me how to read before I started first grade. But I was writing before I could read. Back in those days you traveled with a portable typewriter in a case, and I sat myself down at my father's typewriter when I was four years old and said, I'm going to write a book! I struck all the keys randomly, and when I had all my pages, I drew illustrations and stapled it together and told people it was a book. I still have this. It was a story about cavemen. So that was my first book. I was four. And now my own three-and-a-half-year-old daughter texts. And she's doing what I did. She plugs random letters into my phone, and because of auto-correct, you get words like "jiffy chubby." Jiffy chubby!

GR: Going from the first Tess Monaghan novel, Baltimore Blues, to your 19th novel, After I'm Gone, an intricate stand-alone that plays with multiple perspectives and time frames, I sense a growing confidence and ambition. Do you agree?

LL: I wrote a first novel that was good enough, and it was as good a novel as I could write at the time. Since then, at every point along my career, people have said to me, "I hope you don't mind if I say you got better." Of course you want to get better. And so I do push myself very hard. I do have goals for myself. I am hopeful I'm getting better.

But when you're writing fiction in the 21st century, you're staring up a mountain, and it's so tall that the peak is out of almost everyone's reach. And you can be frustrated or you can say, I'm going up that mountain. You have to get braver. It makes me think of a short story that Italo Calvino wrote in Cosmicomics called "How Much Shall We Bet," about an eternal wager. And I think for novelists who are really honest with themselves, they are in an eternal wager.

Every time out the goal is to write a better book, but then there's also some specific goal. One of the counterintuitive things that as a crime novelist I try to do is slow the crime novel down. If you slow down, you're telling the reader: I respect you; I don't think you're an adrenaline junkie; I don't think you're only interested in the destination but also in the journey. And it can be a beautiful journey.

GR: What are the pleasures of writing the Tess Monaghan books versus the stand-alones?

LL: The Tess novels have to function within the rules of the whodunit. Whereas the stand-alones, although they have a whodunit component, they're much more secondary. I don't feel that the whodunit aspect is what's driving the story in After I'm Gone, even though there's an open murder investigation, and Sandy [the retired Baltimore detective working the cold case] is going to find out who killed Julie. What he's really going to find out is what Felix's intentions were the night he fled and how did these five different women feel about his absence. And the consequences.

I wrote seven Tess books back to back. I never had a plan to write a stand-alone, but then I had an idea that I realized could never be a Tess idea, and that was Every Secret Thing (2003). I was going back and forth between Tess and the stand-alones, and that was the plan. And then in a moment of whimsy, I had Tess Monaghan have a baby and I was stuck: I don't want to put her in jeopardy, and I knew every decision she made would be fraught because of the child. And so I parked her. The things that happened to Tess over the course of ten books are really incremental. I have written literally a million words on Tess Monaghan, and what they really are are ten 100,000-word chapters. Whereas in a stand-alone I get to use my characters up. They're done—and often with great wistfulness.

GR: Goodreads member Tina Devries-Zoller writes, "My question is about Tess Monaghan—is she going to be retiring now that she has a baby? Will parenthood temper her approach?"

LL: Tess should be returning in 2015 in a book that's as yet untitled, that I hope to finish in two weeks. It is very much about how motherhood has changed Tess in all sorts of ways. She takes on work in which she's in the proximity of a mother who is a challenge for any other mother to be around. Tess's child will be three-and-a-half years old, which also just happens to be the exact same age of my own daughter.

GR: In Every Secret Thing, about two 11-year-old girls who may have murdered a baby, you refer to Grimm's fairy tales a lot. Why do you think women who write about women and girls who do dark things continue to be fascinated with fairy tales?

LL: To me, a fairy tale and its darkness is more like the darker and more improbable crime novel, like Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. That's my favorite. When I'm reading it, I feel really cozy, I feel really safe. If you buy into the universe of the book, you live in the very city where Hannibal Lecter was running around, eating people's livers with chianti and fava beans. I think fairy tales function in the same way for kids. They're places where it's safe to test out your darkest fears and impulses. And kids have very morbid imaginations.

Lately I've been very interested in writing about popular culture the way it's beloved by women. I'm not a particular Flowers in the Attic fan because I was a little too old for it, but millions of young women were. I got really bugged because when the new film version came out, people kept talking about it being "icky." OK, it's disturbing and dark, and maybe not your cup of tea. But icky? Can you imagine someone calling Entourage "icky"? I keep seeing the word "icky" placed next to something that's of particular interest to women. And I'm like, you're saying we're icky. I really do feel like that's always the subtext. I think that people aren't owning up to the fact that what really bothers them is that it's a woman's story that's going places where they don't want their female stories to go.

I did a panel recently with Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn about how much we love so-called Lifetime movies. And people thought we were going to be campy or ironic about it. But no, we love these movies because they tend to be about women who have agency, where women are the stars. They're killing people and kidnapping babies and doing crazy stuff.

GR: Goodreads member Aimee asks, "How did you do the research for high-end escort work in your novel And When She Was Good?"

LL: This is one case where I thought my imagination could carry the day. Because it was something I'd never heard of before—the idea that a prostitute would be using a lobbying firm as her cover. I joked at the time that I really wanted to go on radio shows about economics because I felt like I'd come up with a viable business plan for a prostitute. I read a couple of books—Callgirl by Jeannette Angell and The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz. But those were more about what the emotional life of a prostitute was like. I stole a few details from them. But the rest was out of my own pointy head. I wasn't going to find my character in real life. She's completely made up.

GR: Baltimore Blues contains the first passages I've ever read about the "erg" (rowing machine) in a novel. Are you a rower? How does sport help you as a writer?

LL: I was a rower. But I don't row anymore in part because when I started writing, the writing needed to take place in the time that I was rowing. I was never a good rower, but I did compete and did belong to a rowing club in Baltimore in my early thirties. Working out is enormously important to me. Over the past ten years five of my books have had big, knotty problems that were solved when I was working out. On a typical day I get up and I write all morning, and that's anywhere from 8 to noon. Then in the afternoon, in Baltimore, I work with a trainer twice a week. I go to yoga, and I work on my cardio, at least five to seven days a week. In New Orleans, where I am a lot, I go to classes at a gym, I do boot camp. I am a workout freak. I love it!

GR: What are some of the crime novels that you've found deeply satisfying?

LL: George Pelecanos's Right as Rain, which introduces the character of Terry Quinn. The novel is anchored with two characters, and even though Terry's one of the two, he may in fact have made an unforgivable error. I love Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep and Alex Marwood's The Wicked Girls, and also the work of Denise Mina and Kate Atkinson. I love all of these books because these are all writers who understand that the answers will not save us.

I've never expressed this before, but if you go back to the oldest tale in western civilization—Adam and Eve—knowledge gets you expelled from the Garden of Eden. And I think that in crime stories, knowledge and wisdom do not lead to peace, not at all. I think that the best writers in my field are quietly, without fanfare, putting forth a version of the crime novel in which the answers may satisfy your curiosity about what really happened, but they cannot put us at peace because they reveal that the world is random and chaotic and beyond our control.

Interview by Sandi Tan for Goodreads. Before turning to fiction, she was a journalist and filmmaker. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, LA Weekly, and the literary journal Black Clock. Her first novel was The Black Isle. She has an essay in the new Lonely Planet food anthology A Fork in the Road, edited by James Oseland, and is completing a screenplay about a young woman tourist who goes missing in a downtown Los Angeles hotel.

Learn more about Sandi and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Diane (new)

Diane I love the Tess Monaghan books and really enjoyed this interview. I'm going to be looking for all her non-Tess books now. Can't wait for the movie but I must read the book first - books are always better, Thanks!

message 2: by Denise (new)

Denise Wonderful interview. Thank you both.

message 3: by David (new)

David Hello GR and all,
I enjoyed this interview with Laura Lippman, and as a relatively new author to the writing world, have much to learn from those who are more experienced in the literary arts compared to myself. I will be interested to read one of Ms. Lippman's novels.

message 4: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Laura Lippman is one of my favorite authors. I started on her "Tess" books and have grown to love her stand-alones even more. I grew up near DC, and my Mom grew up in Baltimore, so I enjoy the familiar terrain as well. Thank you for a really interesting interview.

message 5: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Can't wait to read Laura Lippman's latest and for the privilege of see her at our local library later this month!

message 6: by Habibullah (new)

Habibullah I would like story,specially from Laura Lippman story.Thank you

message 7: by David (new)

David Elizabeth wrote: "Laura Lippman is one of my favorite authors. I started on her "Tess" books and have grown to love her stand-alones even more. I grew up near DC, and my Mom grew up in Baltimore, so I enjoy the fa..."

Elizabeth, I used to live in Falls Church and Arlington VA, when I lived in the metro DC area from 1983 to 1996 when then returning to my native state of MI. I now work from home but often have classical music playing in the background from either wbjc or weta, and will once in a while browse the BaltimoreSun for a sense of connection to my past. Going to put Laura Lippman on my "to read" list for this year.
Meantime, wish you and all who read this well!

message 8: by Clarice (new)

Clarice Wonderful interview!

message 9: by Edison (new)


message 10: by Lorna (new)

Lorna G. I really enjoy Laura Lippman's books. Lonnie Bell

message 11: by شاهرخ (new)

شاهرخ با سلام خدمت شما

message 12: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Pamela's comment was so interesting because my feelings were just the opposite. While I liked the Tess Monaghan series, I never felt the author's skill in the series as much as when she wrote free standing stories. Keep in touch, Pamela as you proceed with "I'd Know You Anywhere" and I'll comment on "After I'm Gone" when I am through.

message 13: by Marylee (new)

Marylee MacDonald What an excellent interview! I especially enjoyed the story of her first book. How wonderful that she still has it and that she understands her own daughter's fascination with writing.

message 14: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Love the Tess Monaghan series. Surprised to see such an articulate and literate writer misuse the word ‘supposed’, though. For example, on p.127 (Kindle) Lippman writes, “...her eyes were suppose to flash “no poaching” signals...”. On p 36, “It’s also about all the important stuff newspapers are suppose to be about...We’re not suppose to be cheerleaders.” On p. 40, “She also said you’re suppose to put ointment on these raw patches...”
On p. 49, “His story wasn’t suppose to run.” P. 50, “Girls aren’t suppose to have fun.” It keeps reappearing throughout. Where’s her proofreader?

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