Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sunday Interview: Laura Lippman

Today's guest is Laura Lippman, author of the recently published What the Dead Know, which debuted at Number 11 on the New York Times Best-seller List. Lippman is best known for her Tess Monaghan series, but has also written a couple of stand-alone novels, including Every Secret Thing and To the Power of Three. She's either won or been nominated for every mystery writing award ever invented.

Laura lives in Baltimore, which features in almost all of her novels. She was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun for many years before leaving to write fiction full-time. According to her blog, she has just filmed a cameo for the phenomonal HBO series The Wire.

According to her unofficial biography (and who would want the official one - my blog isn't exactly the most professional site to visit), Laura was born in Georgia and still "speaks with a slight drawl if [she has] too much to drink." So, let's get to this before she hits the booze.

Noir Writer: In your first novel, Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan mirrored some aspects of your personal and professional life and led some to regard it as somewhat loosely autobiographical, but your career and Tess's fictional career have definitely diverted over the years. Is there still some connection there, or were the similar qualities only a jumping point into the character?

Lippman: In the early 1990s, when Tess was conceived, I had two dead newspapers on my resume: the San Antonio Light and the Evening Sun. And, for a few heart-stopping weeks, I was about five people from the bottom of the seniority list at the Baltimore Sun, where the publisher was floating the idea of lay-offs. I thought long and hard about what I would do if I couldn't be a reporter. I never really figured it out for myself, but I did figure it out for Tess Monaghan.

My life is nothing like Tess's. But our brains and temperaments are very similar. Also, I'm not sure if people have picked up on this, but Tess and I have shared some similar experiences as time goes on. There are some small jokes in the later books about her local "celebrity" -- her inclusion as a "hot single" in Baltimore magazine, the fact that she gets more and more e-mail. Some PI novels never seem to acknowledge that a detective involved in high profile case after high profile case would become somewhat well-known. At least, that would be true in a town such as Baltimore.

For the record, I was never a "hot single." But I like to think that's because I've been pretty steadily coupled.

Noir Writer: For many struggling writers, teaching fiction seems to be a reluctant career choice to pay the bills, but you're very successful and have taken the time to teach in places like Writers in Paradise and Goucher College. What kind of satisfaction do you get from teaching? What are the benefits to you as the teacher?

Lippman: I like thinking about fiction -- what works,what doesn't, how to articulate those points. The more I think about other people's work and how it might be improved, the more I apply those lessons to my work. I also find, when I teach, that I often go running to the shelves to check out how the greatest writers did certain things. Truthfully I'm not going to pluck Ulysses off the shelf to while away the hours, but when I'm thinking about certain narrative challenges, I might do just that.

Noir Writer: Do you find it difficult to place Tess in troubling situations or have her make terrible decisions? Is there a part of you that wants to protect her from all danger?

Lippman: There's a part of me who wants to protect her from me. I am a huge fan of Edward Eager, a children's writer, and in his book Knight's Castle, four cousins find themselves transported at night to their own toy kingdom. There, one of the girls is confronted by a doll, which she has treated the way girls normally treat dolls -- loving her, vandalizing her, abandoning her. I feel like I treat Tess that way. I feel like I'm in the way of her having any normal life, and she is going to take her revenge on me

By the way, I think Stranger Than Fiction should be mandatory for anyone who writes about a series character.

Noir Writer: Supposedly, Elizabeth Taylor, Emma Thompson and Susan Sarandon keep their Oscars in the bathroom. Where do you keep all of your awards? Or are they just piling up in your garage?

Lippman: I had some office furniture custom-built a few years back, and there's a shelf above my computer that holds most of the awards, along with many odd things that are dear to me -- a Brooks Robinson card, a Wonder Woman doll, a rubber Donald Duck that I found in the street in Waco, Texas, artwork by children I know.

Noir Writer: You were a journalist for many years and you still comment on your former profession from time to time. What do you think about the future of print journalism?

Lippman: If I knew the future, I'd be acting as a consultant and making some money on the side. I only know that I am optimistic that trained journalists are vital to democracy and capitalism, and the latter will somehow figure out a new economic paradigm.

Noir Writer: As a reformed reporter myself, there are some aspects that I really miss, but a lot that I wouldn't wish on Karl Rove (well, that maybe taking it too far because I wish a lot of things for Rove - mainly involving the lower depths of Dante's Hell). For you, what was the best part of being a journalist? What was the worst part?

Lippman: Well, we all know the worst part -- calling on the next of kin. It was, in fact, one of the last things I ever did as a reporter. It wasn't my absolutely last shift, which I wrote about on my website back in December 2001 IIRC. But on one of my final nights, I was filling in on rewrite and there had been a taxi driver murdered and my night editor, rightfully, insisted that I go see the family, find out more. In this case, the family was adamant that they didn't want to talk to me; I later came to suspect that they might have had some immigration issues and didn't want any exposure. Over twenty years as a reporter, I became very, very, very good at talking to the bereaved, but I hated it and I seldom felt that I was providing comfort. (That's the great rationalization, right? That they might find comfort in talking about their loves ones.) The absolute nadir involved a family who lost their son in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. At the time, I was on double-secret probation at the Sun, I wasn't allowed to fail on any level, or I'd just end up in a bigger doghouse. (The top editor at the Sun during my last year was NOT fond of my outside career.) So I had to get the story and I -- politely, sweetly, but stubbornly -- stayed on their front lawn until they finally spoke to me. Their son's body hadn't been found and they were holding on to the slenderest hope that he had survived the bombing, but I knew there was no chance. I felt like such a ghoul.

The best part -- probably the camaraderie of the newsroom. Once, when I was a feature writer, we noticed that some of our counterparts on the news side were trying to pump up the importance of their own stories by insisting that they signified something huge was in the works. They kept using the phrase, "Signaling a widening probe." So I held a contest, in which my feature colleagues demonstrated how to signal a widening probe. My friend Arthur Hirsch won by pantomiming a proctology exam.

Noir Writer: A recent post on your blog became the catalyst for renewed discussion of literary versus genre fiction. Why do you think there is such a divide in respect? Do you think genre fiction is branded by the lowest common denominator?

Lippman: I think genre is a label that some people, usually those who want to play for the literary team, take too seriously. But you know, the cred, the reviews, the prizes -- that's the turf of literary fiction and I think some of what we're seeing is a backlash, a fear that some writers in popular genres are going to have it both ways, make money and enjoy respect. Which is funny, because I've never heard anyone in the crime genre grump when a literary writer sells extraordinarily well. Stephen King went out of his way to embrace the work of A.M. Homes, for example.

Noir Writer: Barry Levinson or John Waters?

Lippman: John Waters because he's an exquisite writer. Really, read the essays or the memoir. Top-notch stuff.

Noir Writer: In the movie The Sum of All Fears, Baltimore is hit with a nuclear bomb. Were you hurt in that explosion? Has there been any radioactive mutation?

Lippman: It would explain a lot. Especially some of the hairdos. We always call them beehives, but maybe their missile silos?

Noir Writer: How many copies of The Inn at Lake Devine have you signed?

Lippman: None, but I am confused with the "Laura Lippman" who writes about poverty, and the one who wrote a couple of Monarch Notes on Shakespeare.

Noir Writer: Which is the better song, "My Humps" or "Fergalicious"? Is either on your ipod? Be honest.

Lippman: Neither is on my iPod, but I am counting down the days until I can see Will Ferrell sing "My Humps" in BLADES OF GLORY.

Noir Writer: Bought any appliances from Sears lately?

Lippman: Ha! No, and I need a new oven.

Noir Writer: Political question: Do you think President Bush is over his head, or do you think everything that has happened during his presidency has been carefully orchestrated and gone exactly as planned?

Lippman: I will use this question to note that our current president is the only person, in my 20-year career as a reporter, with whom I ended up in a shouting match. He was wrong on the facts in 1988, and things don't seem to have improved much.

Seriously, I happen to agree with Dahlia Litwack of Slate, who believes that Bush and Cheney came into the White House with an agenda that included expanding the power of the executive branch, and they've been disturbingly successful at that.

Noir Writer: In the beginning of No Good Deeds you make an observation that I only realized recently from reading to my three-year-old son: the Whos in Horton Hears a Who are the same Whos in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Do you think the Grinch was yelling along with the Whos at the end of the Horton book, or was his hatred so great for the Whos that he was willing to sacrifice himself for their complete annihilation?

Lippman: I haven't checked the copyrights, but I think the Grinch might have threatened Whoville post-Horton. Or, if not, then he's just a peaceable Who at the end. Lord, those Whos were resilient. Did you know that Horton Hatches the Egg is used as pro-life propaganda? I find that really disturbing, and I can't imagine Dr. Seuss was thrilled when he was alive.

I want to thank Laura for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview. And I hope you, the readers, have enjoyed it. In the following weeks, look for interviews with Megan Abbott and Denise Mina. Have a good week.

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