On Baltimore and Books: A Discussion with Laura Lippman

by Sandra Ruttan


Award-winning American author Laura Lippman discusses touring Baltimore cemeteries, the pressures of writing, her future projects and her theories about business books.

I read that you wrote your first book as a response to someone who said you couldn't write. What gave you the fortitude to stand up under that kind of criticism and prove yourself?

It was an unfamiliar criticism to me, after 12 years in journalism, where I felt the consensus had been that I could write very well, but I didn't have a natural reporter's chops. Reporting was hard for me; I never quite persuaded myself that I had the "right," if you will, to ask anyone anything.

At any rate, the criticism stung, but it made me aware of a few things. 1) Quality of writing is subjective. 2) If my editor said I couldn't write well, it didn't matter who else thought I could. He held the keys to my future at the newspaper. 3) Given that I couldn't oust him, I had to figure a way around him. I decided that writing a novel would give me a chance to put my writing ability in front of a potentially infinite number of people. It was as if I were launching my own "American Idol" contest. Hey, America -- vote with your dollars and library cards if Laura can write or not!

Are you very sensitive to criticism then? Do you find it hard to read reviews and assess them objectively?

I've grown a thicker hide. I don't seek out reviews, but I inevitably see the bad ones. I was recently reading a business book, The Big Moo -- I have a theory that books on business might have broader applications -- and came across an essay that said: Ignore the critic, heed the criticism. That's pretty solid advice.

But, sometimes, the criticism is: This is not a plum, but a nectarine. And if one set out to deliver a nectarine, it's hard to please the person who wanted a plum.

The thing is, I don't think the meat of reviews really determines if someone buys the book. I often read negative reviews and think: I want that book. I see glowing reviews and can't work up any enthusiasm for the book at hand. It's just exposure, more than anything else, and I'm grateful for it.

You have a theory books on business might have broader applications. Care to elaborate?

I've always liked reading nonfiction narrative about business; it helped me understand abstract ideas (such as leveraged buy-outs) that were otherwise hard for me to grasp. And I am in a business of sorts, so I like books like Blink and The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. The Big Moo has one of the best explanations for why one shouldn't try to imitate another big success in publishing.

That's an interesting perspective. Was it hard for you to get your first book reviewed?

For a PBO writer (paperback original), I was very, very, very lucky. First of all, PW reviewed it. Not glowingly -- the best they could say was that the series had potential. Then the book editor at the Sun tossed a copy to Terry Teachout, a writer then at work on his Mencken biography, so he was visiting Baltimore a lot. Terry wrote a knock-out one-paragraph review that ended, "More, please." He also became a dear friend. I just had brunch with him yesterday. He's now the Wall Street Journal theater critic and one of the best arts bloggers on the Internet.

Speaking of the Internet . . . I first published in 1997, during its toddler years. The listserv DorothyL proved to be an incomparable way of promoting books and meeting other writers.

Now, I've heard that you have a bit of a pet peeve about people who over-promote. Why and where does that come from?

In fairness, I should note that there are those who thought I had mad skills as an over-promoter. I am one of the most gregarious writers you'll ever meet, just freakishly outgoing. And I recall one writer muttering that it was unfair to the more classically shy folks.

My pet peeve is with those who suggest there is One Way, One Path, One Whatever to publication and success. T hat's just not true and it's a disservice to beginning writers. George Pelecanos is my temperamental opposite -- shy, reserved -- and he's got a great career. Harlan Coben is more like me, a people person who enjoys a good schmooze, but it's ultimately not Harlan's personality that made him a huge success, it's his books. I just don't like seeing those who groove on being gurus, without worrying about the validity of the advice they give.

In your career so far, you've won the Agatha, the Shamus, the Edgar, the Anthony and the Barry awards, amongst others. Do you ever feel pressure from yourself to live up to or exceed what you’ve accomplished with previous books?

The pressure is to write a better book and a different book. The awards have been a great boost -- in particular, the Edgar, as it was my first -- but I do think that it makes me a bit of a target. Peter Guttridge -- a divine writer in his own right, by the way -- said as much in his review of THREE, which I appreciated.

I came from a newspaper that was crazed on the subject of awards, particularly the Pulitzer. I saw other journalists beat themselves up for not winning the big prizes. So I had a very clear-eyed view of what awards mean and what they don't mean. The proper response to winning or being nominated for an award is to be very, very, very happy for fifteen seconds. The proper response to losing is to be disappointed for one second.

That one-second of disappointment validates the winner's achievement in a way.

I've met Peter Guttridge. In passing, but a very pleasant person, I thought.

Adorable. And the Nick Madrid books are fabulous.

Do you plot well in advance? Or are you a 'fly by the seat of your pants' writer?

I belong to the "distant shore" school of plotting. Imagine a trip across a broad river, where the destination is shrouded in mist. I think I know what I'm going to find, but it may change as I get closer. And the journey itself may be slower or faster in places, and the current may carry me farther downstream than I anticipated.

That process can be true of drafts 1-3, with discoveries still occurring. I believe very strongly in what I call the organic solution, revelations based on what the story has revealed so far. The one critic I really wanted to take to task was the reviewer who didn't like BY A SPIDER'S THREAD. She claimed the ending was deus ex machina. Love me or hate me, but I've never written such an ending.

Deus ex machina?

I think the literal translation is "God in the machine." Or, as my creative writing teacher in college put it: “A big bear came out of the woods and ate them all up."

It really stung on Spider because I labored so hard on that ending, bringing people together in a remote locale and writing a climax in which Tess has erred, but not spectacularly so.

Where did the idea for TO THE POWER OF THREE come from?

In the fall of 2003, I was finishing Spider and didn't know what I was going to write next, but felt I should do another stand-alone because writing EVERY SECRET THING had clearly been good for me and Tess. Neil Smith at Plots with Guns asked for a story, any story. I started a story about the prototypical loser kid who takes a gun to school, but it didn't ring true. I wasn't a loser, nor was I popular kid. Like most girls, I fell in the middle and I decided I had to write about that. The Babysitter's Code details Perri's (named Terri in the story) discovery of the gun and her decision to steal it. And I suddenly had my next idea.

Interesting that you bring up EVERY SECRET THING, because there are some similar themes in the two books. You seem to have thought at length about "replacement babies." Care to comment on that?

I'm a stepmother, unofficially. It's a good vantage point, if you will, to contemplate parenthood and what I was seeing -- not necessarily with my stepson, but in the larger community in which he moves, a very child-oriented suburb that definitely inspired Glendale -- is a kind of parental narcissism. I found that interesting. Not good or bad, just interesting. I am fascinated in how something inarguably good -- the love of one's child -- can have bad consequences. The thing is, one doesn't advocate for one's child in a vacuum. If you fight to get your kid away from the notorious teacher everyone loathes, or if you angle to get him on the "better" Little League time, other kids are affected.

As for "replacement babies" I've known a lot of people who have had miscarriages and some who have lost children or siblings. It's shocking how often people, trying to be kind, use this very language. A woman at a Baltimore reading who had lost a child under tragic circumstances asked a friend of mine, "How does she know this stuff?" Twenty years of journalism goes a long way toward helping one understand human nature.

My boyfriend gives me a very hard time about it, but I like certain reality shows because of the insight into people. Granted, it's a skewed insight -- This is how a deviant person behaves on television -- but there's still a lot one can learn. "Deviant" because it's not normal, wanting to live one's life in front of cameras.

I believe it was in an interview with Jeff Abbott, Writer 2 Writer, that you said, “I want to write a book that changes the way people think about something, anything.” What would you hope to change about how people think with TO THE POWER OF THREE?

I wanted people to see the interior of girls' lives as interesting. According to some, I failed. But this stuff matters. I probably become my most strident when I get on the topic of why A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn't accorded the status of, say, Huckleberry Finn. Or, certainly, A Catcher in the Rye, which I find grossly over-appreciated. Books about boys are considered universal and therefore classic. Books about girls seldom are. And don't throw To Kill a Mockingbird at Me. Scout is one of the most boyish characters in fiction, and the book is really about Jem and Atticus.

Also, I felt the "Mean Girls" zeitgeist was a little simplistic. That's a role that a lot of girls try on at some point.

You make a really good point. I think part of the reason I was mesmerized by THREE was because I could relate so well to the girls in the book, from every angle. The child, the teen striving for independence, the student, the former girlfriend... People don't fit into neat little boxes - I think people usually have several faces that are all real aspects of themselves, and that's something I saw in the characters in THREE. You couldn't pin people down to being 'good' or 'bad' or 'right' or 'wrong' which made the story more compelling, for me. Was that something you wanted to accomplish, to portray the whole, real person so that people wouldn't stick labels on your characters? There's a real tendency in the media to 'simplify' people as villains or victims...

Yes, absolutely. I'm so done with villains. I don't know anyone who wakes up every day, looks in the mirror and says, "I'm so evil, bwahhhhhhhhhh!" Well, maybe Dick Cheney, but I don't know him personally. I've decided that, like Prometheus, I have to love my creations and go the extra mile for them.

Actually, Stuart MacBride wakes up every day, looks in the mirror and says, "I'm so evil, bwahhhhhhhhhh!” He says it on his blog all the time.

I wonder if I lifted that from his blog unconsciously? For the record, I now consider it an official homage to Mr. MacBride. (I read A LOT of blogs for someone with a self-imposed time limit on the Internet. One hour a.m., one hour p.m., as little as possible on weekends and evenings. Stuart, John Rickards, Sara, Duane S., Laurie King, The Lipstick Chronicles, First Offenders. I also read a blog dedicated to journalism and my friend Terry's arts blog.)

It's very, very human to want to take a horrific event and assign blame. That's the beginning of making it abstract, non-threatening. Crime fiction is, in fact, powered in part by the belief in motive. But I wanted to show that understanding motive and responsibility doesn't make one "safe." I love every character in Three -- Dale and Chloe Hartigan, Perri. I adore Eve, and she's far from perfect. Even the guidance counselor has my empathy, although I think she's the most hideous person in the book. To me, the most suspenseful moment in the book is when she tries to seduce Lenhardt.

Which is a far more realistic way of looking at people and the world, because in this story it really is about ripples in a pond that started with one childhood and had an impact on another child and subsequently every person that child came in contact with. The story seems to circle around and around, looking at everyone from every angle. I felt sorry for Dale. I really liked him. Not wanting to give away anything, once I got to end, it was gut-wrenching. Have you been asked to give parenting advice after this book?

Lord, no! In fact, I think I creep most parents out.

Okay, I have to ask why? Too opinionated? Because you aren't into Harry Potter?

I think it's my lack of sentimentality about childhood. Maybe I was a twisted little kid, but I know that I was a scheming, manipulative, self-centered kid. The only thing is, being a kid, I was transparent about my machinations.

Last year at this time, my stepson wrote a wonderful letter to Santa, asking him to intervene with his mom and get him an Instant Messaging account. He was only 10 at the time. The letter was beautifully written and hilarious, but I was the only one who said: But Ethan doesn't even believe in Santa. He left that letter on his mom's computer on purpose. I was right. And Ethan is about the best kid I've ever known, good-hearted and extremely honest.

Childhood's a jungle.

Now, I have to ask how you did your research for the foot injury because you got it dead on and I can’t imagine other people really understanding what it’s like to learn how to walk again unless they’ve done it. Is this something you experienced or did you talk to people with foot injuries or did you guess?

In 1986, I was walking in the ocean and I almost severed the second toe on my right foot. It felt like nothing -- a bruising contact with a stone perhaps -- but when I got out -- Yuck! The toe was hanging by a very small bit of skin. But there was no skin loss and the doctor patted it back into place, wound a thousand yards of gauze around my foot, put me on crutches and gave me antibiotics.

So, yes, I know what it's like when you've been on crutches and you're trying to get your foot to touch the ground again. I did some research about gunshots, what would happen if -- well, SPOILER -- but much of Josie's experience was based on mine. And it just seemed like such a darn good metaphor. Hey, I just realized another "three" in THREE -- Josie's essentially three-legged for the whole book. THREE is lousy with threes, something a reader pointed out to me. I only planned out three trios.

Now people will look for those if they haven't read the book yet.

Do you enjoy the research? Did you find it hard to research the PI role when you started with Tess?


I like research, but I don't fetish-ize it. In fact, I play a bit of a high-wire act with my research, leaving it for the later drafts because I don't want to get lost in open-ended research. As for Tess, given that she's a former reporter who's largely self-taught as a PI, I don't find that difficult at all to write.

So, off in a completely different direction... Homicide, The Wire and Laura Lippman books. It strikes me that there is this duality to Baltimore, that it’s a city with different faces and that makes it fascinating. Would you agree? What is it about Baltimore that appeals to you, that makes you so enthusiastic about it and makes you want to write about it?

I'm in love with Baltimore. I don't know why and I've stopped trying to analyze it, as there's not a lot of logic to it. My parents, for example, don't seem to feel as strongly about it; they've retired to the Delaware seashore and visit only sparingly. It can be crude and rude and messy, but it also seems to be missing a veneer that some other cities try to slap on. It's a city with a multitude of faces, which is probably part of the reason it's never boring.

And the things one overhears are just priceless. It's an unfiltered city, incapable of pretense.

Will you be doing a walking tour during BoucherCon 2008 of some of your favorite sites, like Antique Man where the Giant Ball of String resides, the places that used to exist and the cemeteries? Why are those places so interesting to you?

I'm on the verge of completing a series of "Tess tours" for the website and I'm hopeful that they'll be incorporated into Bouchercon 2008. I adore cemeteries and often visit them in other cities, so it seems natural to include them on the tour. And, yes, the Antiques Man is part of it, too.

Interestingly, there's a lot of food involved. Tess does like to eat.

This sounds like an absolute must - especially the food, judging by the references in the books. What's next for Tess?

The next book is NO GOOD DEEDS, a very timely tale about what determined government types can do to a recalcitrant witness. Tess, in this case, who's just protecting a young witness. An unwitting witness, if you will, who has no idea he holds a key to a notorious murder and doesn't want to talk directly to investigators as witnesses in Baltimore murders have a very bad habit of winding up dead. The book affords Tess's boyfriend his first-ever POV and I think it goes a long way to explaining him and his loyalty to her.

Interesting you mention that because, #1. I read in an interview you did with the Baltimore City Paper that you felt guilty about the fact that most of the crime stories you tell are not the true ones and the 'witnesses ending up dead' theme has been an underlying issue on The Wire, so I've wondered how "true" it is, #2. I like the fact that Tess has an ongoing relationship, as opposed to the 'will they, won't they' subplot, which is nice for a while but limiting with the characters, and #3. You said earlier you're "done with villains". I was wondering if you find it harder to avoid the "evil" characters with Tess books.

This is my attempt to tell an authentic Baltimore homicide story: While there's a "red ball" at the center of the book, there's also a black teenager whose murder causes barely a ripple, but it's key to what's going on. Witnesses are killed here a lot, I'm afraid and there was a notorious home-made DVD in which a pro basketball player appeared, encouraging folks to "Stop Snitching."

It is more challenging to write real people as opposed to villains as Tess's foils, but I'm determined to do it and think I managed it in this book.

And NO GOOD DEEDS will be out...?

June 27th, I've just learned.

Are you following that with another stand-alone?

Yes. I actually know the next three books I plan to write, which corresponds nicely with the set of contracts that arrived today. Book #12 will be a stand-alone, Book #13 will be a Tess and Book #14 will be a prequel about Tess's parents, set against the backdrop of the 1966 governor's race in Maryland.

Do you have an idea for the stand-alone yet?

Yes. It's inspired by a Maryland case from my childhood, in which two sisters disappeared. In my book, one shows up thirty years later.

Do you treat future projects like dishes on a backburner, occasionally throwing spices in, while you work on a main project?

I don't let the new project come online until I'm as finished as I can be with the preceding novel. NO GOOD DEEDS is about to come back to me in copy-edited form. I'll finish it by early December, but I won't allow myself to start the new book until the first Monday in January. I may do some research -- a big chunk will be set in the '70s -- but no writing. I like to work myself up into an almost frenzied longing to write, so I force myself to take the end of the year off.

Yet, at the same time, the next book has been there on the backburner since April, when the idea first came to me.

More like keeping an "ideas" file and just putting it on pause until you're ready?

Yes, but I don't write a lot down. If I can't retain the idea for a novel, it's probably not worth writing.

I understand that Baltimore City Council isn't too fond of The Wire. Have you had any criticism about how Baltimore has been portrayed in your books?

To clarify, I think the only person who really worries about The Wire is the mayor of Baltimore, who's running for governor. It is inconvenient that a fictional television show is on the air, reminding folks that the homicide rate has not fallen, despite what some politicians might have promised back in 1999.

My books tend to be seen as good for Baltimore because they're so affectionate. And while The Wire has reached millions in the United States, Tess is the more far-reaching ambassador overseas, with translations in a dozen languages to date.

As far as I know, there's no talk of Tess hitting the small or big screen. How would you feel about that, as a writer? Would you consider adapting your work for network television or a movie?

It would be difficult to sell Tess, but I could be persuaded. I have no desire to adapt my own work. As for the stand-alones . . . I hope to make an announcement soon about EVERY SECRET THING, but nothing's been signed.

If you could steal one character off The Wire and put them in a book, who would it be and why?

Well, like a lot of the world, I have mad Omar love, but I wouldn't steal him. I also like Prez and Lester, but ditto. Those characters are very well-served by the show.

I'd take one of the women -- possibly Carcetti's long-suffering wife. Or Beadie Russell.

Now, for fun, if you were stuck on a deserted island and found that magic lamp with a genie and the genie had the power to bring any character in your last book to life to be your companion, who would you pick and why?

By last book, do we mean THREE? Because I think I would pick Eve. She's very resourceful. Then again, Dannon would be terrific company.

If it was a Tess book?

I have to choose Tess, don't I?

Well, no. You could choose her boyfriend, or one of the dogs...

No, I'd still choose Tess and trust her to bring Esskay.

Sneaky. I remember reading that you love greyhounds, and you encourage adoption. Is that a charity you're involved with (SPCA)?

I give money every year to Greyhound Pets of America, after inquiring about chapters in need. This year, for example, Louisiana was hurting (no surprise) and Orlando had some dogs that were badly injured in a fire. The head of MD-GPA helps me in all this.

For greyhounds, it's a matter of some being turned back because the adoptive families no longer have homes. There's actually a foster care program within the greyhound community, as there is with a lot of rescue groups, but everything costs.

What's been the hardest part about the publishing/writing process for you?

I spent more time and had more heartbreak finding an agent. Now, part of the problem is I didn't do it right and I got caught in the strange passive-aggressive clutches of someone who wouldn't say yes or no for six months. But once I found my agent, Vicky Bijur, I was in good hands.

I've also had one of the strongest lucky streaks anyone can have in this business and luck should not be under-estimated as a force in anyone's career.

First, finding the right agent is harder than finding true love. Don't settle, which means don't take someone just because she/he agrees to take you, but doesn't seem to be saying the right things. I can sell you versus I love your work.

Stay away from "names." They sell based on their reps, not yours.

Be persistent. Keep querying. Comb every book's acknowledgments out there to find agents -- if you can write a query letter that says, "I'm writing to you because you represent X and I feel my work has similar qualities" -- you're already in the 99th percentile.

For more information about Laura Lippman, visit her website http://www.lauralippman.com/


ABOUT OUR INTERVIEWER

Sandra Ruttan has studied journalism, communication theory and special education. After several years of early intervention work with children with speech and motor delays she is concentrating on her writing. She has written a police procedural that made the shortlist in an international unpublished novel competition, and another mystery she's been working on recently made the long list in a different competition. Sandra is now focusing on finding an agent or publisher for her work.

Sandra is a regular contributor to SPINETINGLER Magazine and can be reached at sandra.ruttan@spinetinglermag.com


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