Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura, it’s so nice to have you here with MysteryPeople. We love your work and are in awe of your newest book, Sunburn. I know you said it might be your favorite book you’ve written so far—what’s your second favorite, and what’s your least favorite book? Also, what makes these books your favorite or your least favorite?
Laura Lippman: I cringe a little bit thinking about my early work. I think I leaned a little too hard into certain jokes. There’s a recent television show that I’m obsessed with precisely because of that same tendency. (I won’t name it because I know one of the writers on it.) I am who I am. Unlike some other writers I know — Megan Abbott is an obvious example — I wasn’t anywhere close to fully formed when I started publishing, although I was no youngster. But I don’t know how I would have gotten to the books I ended up writing without writing those early books.
My least favorite book is always the book I’m working on, but it’s also my favorite. It’s very much like being a mom.
MT: I’ve loved your books for the longest time. Can you explain where you got the idea for your first novel, Baltimore Blues, and how it evolved into one of the greatest P.I. series of all time?
LL: I was dating a young lawyer with a horrible boss. One icy November night, my boyfriend was late meeting me and I was worried about him. I called the office — this would have been 8 o’clock or so — and his boss screamed at me. (I found out later my boyfriend was chasing a FedEx truck down the street, trying to make the last delivery of the night.) I later remarked, “One day someone is going to kill your boss and there are going to be so many suspects it will be impossible to solve.”
We began to talk about how this might make a great mystery novel. He saw himself as the lead, the wrongly accused associate, with a female sidekick who helps to prove his innocence. I thought, Well, I’m the writer. I think it should be a story about a young woman who investigates to help her friend.
MT: I know one thing that’s important to you is the rise of women in crime fiction and how important it is that women and other minorities are contributing to this genre. Who are your favorite women writers—as well as other minorities? How do you suggest we further expand and make room in the genre for other marginalized groups?
LL: I’ve mentioned Megan. My other favorites include Denise Mina, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Lisa Lutz, Attica Locke, Ivy Pochoda. Boy, that’s a really white list, though. And awfully heterosexual, to the best of my knowledge. Crime fiction really needs to have some different voices.
But then, I think we all have to challenge ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. I like to read about people with whom I identify. But by “identify,” I don’t mean race/sexual orientation/age. I like to read about people who are unsure and looking for answers. Probably one reason I became a crime writer.
MT: You’ve won more awards than I can count. Do you have a favorite award that you’ve won, one that feels more special to you than the rest? I know you tied with Megan Abbott at one point, which seems like an honor on both of your ends. What author would you give an award to if you had the chance?
LL: Tying with Megan was pretty great. But I have to say, the first award I won, the Edgar, stands out in my memory. It was so early in my career and it made my novel-writing career feel quite different from my newspaper writing career, where the bosses did not see me as someone who could win the field’s top prize.
MT: I love your matter-of-fact storytelling. You are very to-the-point and no-nonsense, and your prose is really beautiful in its own way. No one is writing exactly like you. Where did you get the influence to write this way? What books were important to you, and remain important, in determining the influence of your writing style?
LL: My prose style is probably the result of reading far too many articles aimed at teenage girls trying to make the most of their assets, beauty and style-wise. My prose is not naturally beautiful. It just isn’t. I read enough poetry to know that I don’t write the kind of words that make readers almost startle from the glory of the images and the sounds. But I try to exploit whatever merits are there. It’s funny, I’m answering these questions after a morning of writing a passage about an older woman who absolutely owns her unconventional looks, who compared herself to Diane Vreeland. I think that’s how I feel about my prose. It’s mine, it has a distinctive style. Possibly one that involves in wearing mostly black accessorized with some very good pieces of Bakelite or Ippolita.
And even as I write these words, I kind of regret them. Because we live in this rah-rah branding world where being honest about one’s work isn’t always productive. I know writers who go around, humblebragging about how great they are and I see this become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their “brand,” if you will.
MT: You often teach classes, or workshops perhaps, involving new and emerging writers. What is your favorite method of teaching? I know once you mentioned to me that your process is very visual. Can you describe that?
LL: I love doing one-on-one manuscript consultations because it’s like the movie version of psychotherapy. People come to me for a two-hour session and some of them, most of them, leave feeling “cured.” I use colored cards to show them a text-free version of their book and all sorts of insights pop out. Balance of POV, the shape of the story. There’s also an aspect of play to it and I think we should never lose sight that storytelling is fun, it’s something we do when we’re children. I had a very large collection of small stuffed animals from the Steiff Co. when I was a child. (I still have them and I am NOT a hoarder, nor particularly sentimental.) I played elaborate games of make-believe with them. And my sister and I played a version of Barbies that was very much influenced by the soap operas my mother liked.
MT: I know you often reference or base your novels on true crime stories. This is fascinating to me—you take something so real and make it your own, and bring out the beauty in these stories, even in their most horrifying situations. If you could tackle one true crime in a novel, what would it be?
LL: It’s not a crime, but I wish I knew the mystery of my mother’s father, who was divorced from my grandmother by the time my mother was a year old. There was this terrible silence around the story. My mother waited until her own mother had died to find him and then she declined to have any relationship with him. She has half sisters she’s never met. I don’t think it’s scandalous in any way, just a young marriage that didn’t work out. But it’s interesting to me that, as a family, we tacitly agreed not to speak of it and not to probe it.
MT: What is your favorite crime novel of all time? Are there any books or authors you think are overrated? Are there authors you find yourself returning to again and again?
LL: Can I claim Lolita as a crime story? I know, it’s a stretch, the kind of stretch that I normally hate, but it does play with a lot of the genre conventions. If not Lolita, then Mildred Pierce, which is barely a crime novel at all, although there are some disreputable accounting practices.
There are a lot of authors I think are overrated. I just don’t read them.
MT: I very rarely find that white authors can write about race in a new and “woke” way. Yet, with you, you’re able to tackle almost any subject with an objectiveness and understanding that is refreshing and encouraging. How do you go about investigating your novels, and doing research beforehand? What do you think helps you be so objective and thoughtful? How do you feel about other authors who have tackled issues like race, homophobia, sexism—things outside of themselves? Who does it best, and who would you like to see improve?
LL: I’m not going to claim I’m woke. But there’s this interesting conversation right now, in which some white/binary writers want to say, “How dare you suggest there are any limits on the imagination,” when the only thing anyone is suggesting is that writers are going to get called out for doing it poorly. I spent a few moments today wondering if I should describe a character’s weight, or if I was being a bit of a fat-ist, if the detail added something or simply reinforced certain stereotypes. All that said, it’s not for me to say who does it best, just that I’m thinking about it all the time. Sunburn identifies almost no one’s race — Polly, who has the titular sunburn, is clearly Caucasian — and there are actually three African-American characters hidden in the text. I thought that was kind of cool, but the writer Steph Cha politely challenged me when I mentioned it, said perhaps the way to go is to make sure that all skin colors are described. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m willing to try and willing to fail. But isn’t that the essence of writing? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing across the board?
I am slightly unusual because, growing up in Baltimore, I was often in the minority growing up. That’s a valuable experience. I encourage people to seek it out.
As for research — I do it as I go. I don’t believe in deep dives beforehand. That’s a form of procrastination I can’t afford, personally. I support myself through my writing. If I don’t publish, I don’t get paid. But even if someone paid me a sum that allowed me to work five years on a book, or I had a freak hit that sent so many royalties my way I never had to worry about money again — I don’t think I would change much. I like to get things right. I like to make stuff up. Once I know what I want to make up, it’s easier to get things right. Does that make sense?
MT: If you could suggest one of your books to President Trump, which would it be? Which of your books would America in general learn the most from?
LL: I would give President Trump the magical book from Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager and hope that he gets stuck in it, as Barnaby almost does, staring into a reflection that shows him his every flaw and defect, for an eternity.
I’m not sure I have anything to teach America, but I think my most overtly sociological novel is No Good Deeds, which is based on the all-too-real premise that it would be really easy to have a conspiracy that’s dependent upon killing young black men, because almost no one would notice or care.
MT: What do you think is the most important piece of advice or mantra an author can live by?
LL: Read well.
MT: How do you stay in the mind of one of your best protagonists, Tess, who is the subject of your Tess series? How have you stayed in her mind for so long? Is it like second-nature now?
LL: Tess and I agree on almost everything, although I think she needs to cultivate impulse control. She is my very satisfactory invisible friend and I am always happy in her company. It helps that we have several shared experiences — newspaper life, motherhood.
MT: I think my favorite book of yours is either Sunburn or After I’m Gone. What inspired After I’m Gone? I remember when you announced your idea for Sunburn on social media—I believe you maybe got the idea in the shower? What triggered it?
LL: After I’m Gone was my husband’s idea. He lobbied for years. But I didn’t see my way into it until I flipped it, decided to focus on the women left behind, not the man who left and where he was. For a long time, it was going to center on what happened when the youngest daughter showed up at High Holiday services in a fur she couldn’t possibly afford. Clearly, the book changed a lot.
MT: What advice do you give to new and struggling writers?
LL: Persevere. It’s hard, I know, in this climate, and it probably seems very easy for me to give such advice. In hindsight, I had a relatively painless passage from unpublished to published. But it never feels easy, I don’t think.
MT: What are you writing next? Our readers are likely dying to know.
LL: A historical novel, assuming we all agree that 1966 is now in the history books. It’s about a 30-something housewife who leaves her husband, much to everyone’s amazement (including her own) and then decides she wants to be a reporter.
MT: Laura, thank you so much for joining us at MysteryPeople. It was such an honor and a privilege. We love your work so much, and especially Sunburn, out February 18. P.S. I adore you and your work.
LL: Mutual, I’m sure.