Laura Lippman is a MysteryPeople favorite, particularly of our Meike Alana. She interviewed the much lauded author about her latest, Lady In The Lake, a period newspaper thriller that deals with class, race, and gender issues in sixties Baltimore.
The central character in Lady in the Lake is Maddie Morgenstern Schwartz, a privileged Jewish housewife who leaves her husband to pursue her dream of being a newspaper reporter. The book is set in 1966 and Maddie encounters a number of barriers to her ambition. Can you talk a little bit about her struggles and how those may have been informed by your own experiences as a reporter?
They were more informed by my experience as a woman, if that makes sense. I think of myself as a second wave-second wave feminist—there were a lot of women in front of me, who did the heavy lifting. This was true in newsrooms and PI fiction. Maddie is about the same age as my mother and—I’ve literally never made this connection before—my mother went back to school in the late 1960s, early ’70s, got a master’s in library science and became a school librarian. That was a “safe” way for a woman to enter the work world. She didn’t have to leave her family, her hours were very family-friendly. But, as it happens, my mother loved to browse at The Store, LTD (a location in the book) and she had dresses made from Marimekko fabrics.
Maddie pursues her ambition, and at times she has little regard for how her methods may affect others. Women are often disparaged for being too ambitious, and we’re taught that we need to put others’ needs and considerations before our own. You make no judgment about Maddie’s actions, but I wonder if you can share your views on how this dilemma can play out for women.
I’ve never heard a woman described as ambitious in a positive way. Even with men, we sometimes struggle with the idea that ambition is positive, but, boy, do we hate it in women. I own the fact that I’m ambitious, competitive, driven. Once a man on a train asked me if the file I had open on my laptop was the Great American Novel and I said, “It just might be.”
But, you know, there’s that famous Joan Didion edict, the one that Janet Malcolm somewhat misrepresented, about how a reporter is always selling someone out. It’s true and it’s not true. People who write obituaries are doing a public service. I’m not joking—if I had stayed in newspapers, that’s the job I’d have now. I loved writing obituaries. It combined everything I loved—reporting and writing on deadline, writing about people who weren’t necessarily famous—but it often made people happy.
I’m really big on women giving up self-deprecation and doing what I call “Sing out, Louise.” Because you know what? No one else is going to do it for you.
The title refers to the body of an African American woman that was recovered from the fountain of a park lake in Baltimore, and Maddie sets out to make a name for herself by investigating the case. What was the inspiration for this story?
So in 1969, a young girl was murdered and the newspapers were all over that story and I never forgot it. But the same year, an African-America woman was found dead in the fountain at Druid Hill Park and I never even heard of the case until I went to work at the Evening Sun in 1989. It was the juxtaposition that fascinated me, the girl whose disappearance and death was Page One news, the woman whose disappearance was ignored by the daily papers, whose death was presented almost as a curiosity. (It wasn’t even ruled a homicide.) By the way—I don’t think things have changed that much, 50 years later.
There are a number of African American characters throughout the book, and you explore a variety of ways racism can play out. Can you elaborate on where you derived your inspiration for these characters and their situations?
I grew up in Baltimore, live here now. It’s a majority black city, yet one that remains extremely segregated. Racism is a big part of the history—and present—of Baltimore. Not all my books center on race, but it’s hard to write honestly about Baltimore and not write about race unless you keep it to a very narrow world.
The structure of this book is just brilliant. You tell the story from alternating viewpoints of different characters—some are the central characters, others are “bit players” who appear only briefly. For me the pacing was lightning quick with extraordinary detail. What unique challenges did that present?
Those chapters came about because I wanted to showcase all the stories that Maddie was missing while looking for THE story. I very much belonged to the school of journalism that you should be able to find a story in almost anyone’s life. Rob Hiaasen, to whom this book is dedicated, was also one of those reporters. There’s a line that I’m not sure remained in the book, but it was the first impression that Donald Weinstein had of Maddie, when they meet in a bar. He thinks she’s like a greyhound and that’s Maddie—practically quivering, ready to chase that mechanical rabbit around the track. She missed so many stories along the way! And at the end of the book, when we have that little glimpse of her in the future, she knows that about herself.
Oh, but you asked about unique challenges. Well, it was finding the voice, but not falling back on lazy, old-fashioned tricks like dialect. And, I think, finding the dignity in each character, recognizing what they yearned for, what they feared.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I write in the mornings, I try to get 1,000 words done minimum. I’m a pantser, but I usually know the big secret.
Last summer you gave us Sunburn, which made our top 10 list of books for 2018. This summer we have Lady in the Lake which will no doubt make our list of favorites again. Can we expect another great summer read in 2020?
Possibly, but the nature/genre of that read might surprise you. There’s a novel under way, about as different from Sunburn and Lady as possible. But there are some other things cooking.