MysteryPeople Q&A with Laura Lippman

  • Interview and Introduction by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

 

With her latest, Wilde LakeLaura Lippman has written another fascinating stand-alone novel that, as usual, has a higher level of quality and character examination then most writers. What others in her field can pull off from time to time, Lippman does consistently.

Wilde Lake recounts the story of a family in suburban Maryland with more skeletons than even a walk-in closet could fit. Lippman’s latest is narrated from the perspective of a recently widowed prosecutor who returns to her home town. As she works to prosecute the suspected murderer of a local woman, she begins to suspect more to the story. Flashbacks to her childhood intermingle with her new case for an intense look at power, privilege, and pain.

Lippman crossed my radar early, during my time as a mystery-book-loving newspaper reporter in Hagerstown, Md., not less than 90 minutes from Baltimore. Lippman had been a reporter at the Baltimore Sun but had left to start a detective series about Tess Monaghan, a former reporter for a newspaper that sounded suspiciously like the Sun, but was instead called the Beacon-Light. Lippman was also a reporter, earlier in her career, at the now-defunct San Antonio Light, which she speaks about in the interview.

“I really love Texas. ..I wasn’t made to live there permanently — I really don’t like hot weather — and I’m not a Texan. But I get Texas and I like it and I get very impatient with people who buy into lazy stereotypes about it.”

As she wrote great book after great book I became an increasingly admiring fan of Lippman and her series. While her Tess Monaghan series is great, it’s her stand-alone novels that are more popular – she’s been on the New York Times Bestseller Lists with them – and have received, deservedly, even more critical acclaim.

While Lippman was living in Baltimore and writing about a former reporter living in Baltimore, her future husband, David Simon, also a former Baltimore Sun reporter, captured Baltmore in another way, in The Wire, one of the best television series ever made. My interviews with her would occasionally include me asking questions about which television series better captured the city: The Wire or Homicide (of which Simon was also a significant part.) It’s not unusual for interviewers to ask Lippman questions about Simon. I mention this partly to explain her last answer in the interview, which puts an interesting spin on folks like me asking her questions about his work.

While her Tess Monaghan series is great, it’s her stand-alone novels that are more popular – she’s been on the New York Times Bestseller Lists with them – and have received, deservedly, even more critical acclaim.

Her new book, Wilde Lake, is no different – she takes a clever plot, adds fascinating characters and comes up with a great book that will leave you thinking about it well after you have finished reading it.

It’s hard to know where collections begin. The first robot wasn’t technically a robot, but a found-art assemblage called “Little Red Riding Hood.” Then I just kept finding robots. I’m trying to keep it under control and succeeding, more or less.”


Scott Butki: Did this novel start with an idea or question? If so, what was it?

Laura Lippman: It started with an idea — how would the events of To Kill a Mockingbird change if they played out in a self-consciously progressive suburb in the 1970s.

SB: How did you go about researching this particular book?

LL: Research is over-rated, says the former reporter. I did read a wonderful book about Columbia, Maryland and checked my memories of it with high school classmates. I also did quite a bit of research into the legal aspects, which are deliberately humdrum. I interviewed a current female state’s attorney in Maryland, ran scenarios by a Facebook friend who has worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney — and had a wonderfully boozy lunch with Alafair Burke, who later fact-checked the final manuscript.

SB: I was excited last year when you returned to the Tess Monaghan series after doing several stand-alones. It made me wonder, though, what it was like switching from stand-alones to a book in a series. Was that switch hard?

LL: I like the switch. If you put the series books to the side and look at the stand-alones, they are very different. I’m always switching things up.

SB: Which is more challenging, and which more enjoyable to write, the stand-alones or those in a series?

LL: Ah, this question makes me feel the way I do when my 6-year-old asks me to pick favorites — between light green and dark green, between her and her father. All are challenging, all are enjoyable when they’re not being challenging.

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from your books, especially with this new one?

LL: I’d like people to think about the way we judge the past.

“Seriously, the most intimidating thing is to get up and do something that so many people do so well. I think I’m good at what I do. But I know there are literally hundreds, thousands of people throughout history who do it better. It takes so much chutzpah to write when you know the world has enough wonderful books to fill everyone’s hours for a lifetime. And yet I do it.”

SB: Do you have a favorite of your books? Which and why?

LL: My favorite book is always the one I just finished. Or the future ones, because they’re hypothetical and therefore perfect.

SB: I understand you have a robot collection. How did that begin and what does it entail?

LL: It’s hard to know where collections begin. The first robot wasn’t technically a robot, but a found-art assemblage called “Little Red Riding Hood.” Then I just kept finding robots. I’m trying to keep it under control and succeeding, more or less.

SB: Did you ever think, when moving from journalism to fiction that one day you’d be described, as in your book jacket, as a “perennial New York Times bestseller” and praised by Anna Quindlen and other great authors?

LL: Think? No. Fantasize? Sure. I tell my writing students to dream big and say their dreams out loud.

SB: Is it hard or intimidating having to live up to that praise and level of accomplishment? (I originally typed “love” instead of “live”)

LL: Can we just say that is the best typo ever? Seriously, the most intimidating thing is to get up and do something that so many people do so well. I think I’m good at what I do. But I know there are literally hundreds, thousands of people throughout history who do it better. It takes so much chutzpah to write when you know the world has enough wonderful books to fill everyone’s hours for a lifetime. And yet I do it.

SB: Can you talk about your work at the now defunct San Antonio Light? Since this interview will run in Austin’s MysteryPeople site there may be some who remember that publication and your work there.

LL: I came to Texas in 1981 to work in Waco, went to San Antonio in 1983 and didn’t leave until the 80s were almost over. I really love Texas. I still subscribe to Texas Monthly. I feel that my nine years there as a reporter make me part of something pretty cool. I wasn’t made to live there permanently — I really don’t like hot weather — and I’m not a Texan. But I get Texas and I like it and I get very impatient with people who buy into lazy stereotypes about it.

SB: Lastly, what’s a question you wish you were asked more often?

LL: Is it hard for your husband to live in your shadow?

Scott Butki left journalism to help families of people with intellectual disabilites but continues interviewing a minimum of 20 authors a year, many of them for MysteryPeople. He has indexed his interviews with more than 500 authors here.

You can find copies of Laura Lippman’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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