Shots: The Crime & Mystery Ezine

Laura Lippman speaks to Ayo Onatade for Shots Ezine

© Ayo Onatade

Laura Lippman Laura Lippman is the author of the acclaimed series featuring Jewish-Irish former journalist turned private investigator, Tess Monaghan. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, she moved with her family to Baltimore where she spent her childhood and where she now lives and where her Tess Monaghan series is set. Laura Lippman is one of the few authors to have won every single mystery award going for this series. A former journalist, Every Secret Thing is her critically acclaimed first standalone novel and is told from the point of view of each of the various characters. Her books are published not only in the UK but also Japan, France, Norway and Portugal.

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Ayo:

Youíre pretty well known in North America but not so well known in the UK apart from in the crime fiction scene. Would you like to give us a bit of detail about yourself?

Laura:

I was a journalist for twenty years and in the 1990s I began doing what I always wanted to do which was to try and write novels. I began what became the Tess Monaghan series about a young private detective in my home town of Baltimore. I actually managed to find an agent, sell it and launched on a career although it took me another eight years before I could leave my job. So I wrote seven books while working full time at the Baltimore Sun. In late 2001 I was finally able, thanks to my US publishers, to do it full time. I left the paper and I have been writing full time ever since, although I teach a little bit.

Ayo:

What made you go into journalism initially?

Laura:

I wanted to write for a living. I always wanted to write novels but sort of looked around and saw how the world worked and said, ďWell, you know, it seems like the people who want to write fiction all end up being teachers and that seems a little frustrating to me.Ē That was a good hunch on my part and I later found out that itís really hard if you are teaching full time to write. You are just wrung out. It is a very difficult thing to do. I thought that at least I could be a journalist and I would be writing everyday and Iíd be getting paid to write.
I donít know why I am so proud of the fact that I have made my entire career as a paid writer - for some reason that means something to me and it probably doesnít mean anything to anyone else. So I chose that. Journalism had an unexpected benefit which is that it exposes you to a lot more of the world and I saw a lot of things and I learnt a lot of things from being a reporter. I wouldnít have missed those twenty years at the newspaper for anything. It was a vital experience in so many ways.

Ayo:

I understand that you worked together with your dad at some stage?

Laura:

My father was a long time editor and writer at the Baltimore Sun and we overlapped there by about six years. I came in 1989 and he took retirement in 1995. He is still really active as a writer, still freelances and does book reviews and all sorts of things. But it was too good a deal not to leave when he was offered that retirement package.
The Baltimore Sun is quite the hot bed of crime writing activity. Dan Fesperman, when he found out that I had sold my first book, was home from Berlin where he was stationed for the Sun and he asked me to read the first 60 pages of his book which I thought was fabulous. I gave him some names of agents that I had seen at conferences who said that they were not afraid of foreign settings. You know how that is in the United States: ďA book set in a foreign country? What would we possibly do with that?Ē
There is also Stephen Hunter. He was the film critic at the Baltimore Sun until he left to go to the Washington Post where he actually won the biggest award in American journalism for his film criticism. Steve and I actually shared a computer. The Baltimore Sun only had one computer for every two reporters and we had to share for a long time. Sujata Massey was at the Baltimore Sun, my now boyfriend, although when we worked at the Sun we barely knew each other. David Simon wrote the book Homicide which became the TV show and which has launched him into this whole new career in television; and there are other people that are working on crime novels. I know at least one who is working on one. There is something going on there; I donít know if it is just living in a city where there is a homicide almost everyday, unfortunately, or if there is something about the management at the Baltimore Sun that has inspired a lot of people to try their hand at crime writing.

Ayo:

So what made you choose to write a crime novel?

Laura:

I had tried to write a lot of those typical first novels that are coming-of-age stories. Very autobiographical, really boring, nothing ever happened and I would write like three chapters and run completely out of steam because even I was bored with by it. There is a thing for young writers, especially where you have written a couple of pages that you think are really good and you want to go round and show them to people, but I thought that if you are writing a crime novel you canít have an unfinished crime novel. Youíve got to finish it, because if you show it to someone when itís unfinished they will either say where is the rest of it, or worse yet they wonít care. But if it is any good then you have got to follow the story to the end. Thatís why I did it - I had an idea and I just thought that if I tried to write something that is very story driven it will solve this problem that Iím having. Tess Monaghan was a former reporter, quite like me in temperament and intellect and probably world experience but she had a reason to be involved in these stories. I tried to give her reasons and I just had always read crime, always loved it. Itís kind of like the chocolate of my reading life! I have always liked reading to be a little bit on the subversive side. I read Lolita when I was twelve years old because I heard that it was a really dirty book. I saw reading as a very adult activity when I was the youngest in my family and I wanted to do what everyone else was doing. I wanted access to that world. When I was grown up and in college I would read a lot of ďseriousĒ literature, but it was too wholesome almost. I just always needed something in my reading life that wasnít good for me or other people didnít think was good for me, because something that people donít say is that it is so fabulous that you are reading Lolita, youíre reading James Cain. If you walk around with Henry James under your arm you get great props - oh, thatís so amazing.

Ayo:

Every Secret Thing is your first standalone novel after the first seven Tess books. What made you decide that the time was right for you to write a standalone?

Laura:

The story decided it. The story did not fit Tessís world, it didnít fit Tess; it had to be told in a way that would not have allowed Tess to be the major character. The point of telling a story about children who have killed is to try and understand the children and you can only do that if you can give them a large piece of the book to themselves. For them to tell it, to see it through their eyes. It is a question that can only begin to be answered in fiction.
Book Jacket, Every Secret Thing In real life people, such as Mary Bell, who have killed as young people canít really offer us a satisfactory explanation. This is a delicate subject because she never speaks of it. Anne Perry, who clearly has the intellect and insight into herself to talk about this, of course wishes not to speak of it. The people who might be able to tell us either canít or wonít, and the people who might talk about it tend to be psychopathic and are therefore uninteresting to me. I donít need to know their argument, theyíre insane, thatís the end of the story. So fiction is probably the best place to examine this subject.
And the final reason it couldnít be a Tess book is that thereís a tone in the Tess books, thereís a world view that comes down just on the edge of optimism about the human condition. Even if the books are not completely redemptive, even if they donít always end with everything solved, they usually end on a slight tick of hope. Something has been accomplished but you could not be true to the story and have it end with any hope whatsoever.

Ayo:

Was there a specific event that prompted you to write Every Secret Thing? It is such a dark subject.

Laura:

When I was here four years ago the Bulger case was very much in the news and the judge had been asked to decide whether the boys had finished serving their juvenile time. As I recall he was asked to interpret the law in a way that would allow him to remand them into adult custody and it wasnít something that could be done automatically, it was going to have to be created judiciously. He came back and said Iím not going to do it, there is a reason we have a juvenile system (paraphrasing a bit) and the thing he said that engaged me was that when they are released they will have new names, new national identity numbers and it would be a crime to reveal who they are and where they are. And I thought Oh, it would never work that way in the United States. Press law is so much different and, knowing what I know about United States and juvenile law, which was not an insignificant bit, I thought that it is possible to commit a crime when you are very young, no one would know your name and you might be able to re-enter society with initial anonymity, but if for any reason attention was drawn to you that anonymity would be stripped away if you are of age.
I wanted to think of the consequences of that. I wanted to think about the consequences of society not forgiving. Is there something that is bad for us as a society, as a city, as a place, if we canít learn to forgive people, if we canít give them second chances? In the last couple of years at the Baltimore Sun my view of media turned kind of dark. Just in the books alone you wouldnít have to know anything of my life. A friend saw it beginning in In a Strange City. She said I was really harsh on the media in that book, and I said that I think some of it was like an adolescent tantrum. You know, before you go away to college you almost have to reject your parents in order to be able to leave, you have to be kind of difficult and grouchy and cranky.

Ayo:

Do you consider Every Secret Thing to be a literary novel as well as a crime novel? I remember reading somewhere that you didnít want it to be considered solely as a literary novel.

Laura:

I was really worried that someone might tryÖ I donít want to be ever be reviewed this way in which people used that dreaded term ďtranscending the genreĒ. I have too much respect for the genre to believe that it can be transcended. I mean how am I going to levitate above that plane which holds James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, and Jim Connolly? I canít get higher than that. If I could just get even with it I would be quite happy, thank you very much. What I like to say in a sort of playful taunting way is that I felt that Every Secret Thing read the way a literary novel would read if more literary writers could plot.

Ayo:

When Every Secret Thing came out it received a lot of critical acclaim, especially from your fellow authors. Were you amazed by all the reaction?

Laura:

I was very happy and very proud of the book. I think the thing I was surprised about is that people had bought the book. In the planning stages there was some nervousness about the book: 'it sounds awful', and 'it sounds terrible.' It is a book about two eleven year old girls who kill a baby. People would shake their heads and say they didnít want to read it but there was a surprising number of people who did and I was sort of gratified by that too as there was a big increase in my sales in the US. They really understood the story and no one ever said, gee I am so happy I read Every Secret Thing, but they would write me and tell me that it stuck with them. They were still thinking about the characters and no two people responded exactly the same way, it became a very personal litmus test. I swear I could build a psychology course around what character in Every Secret Thing they responded to.

Ayo:

Whatís your writing routine like? Have all your years as a journalist paid dividends in the way that you write?

Laura:

I think so. I am disciplined about writing, I donít romanticise the writing process; itís a craft. Inspiration will visit every now and then and itís ever so nice but you canít wait for it and nor should you. Sometimes you sit down and have nothing to say and you feel as if youíre not even going to get through the morning session but something good might emerge; you might be surprised at what happens by forcing yourself to do it day after day. I get up every morning without an alarm clock and I pick up my laptop, go down to my neighbourhood coffee house and I set up camp there for two to three hours. No one bothers me. I like the hum - itís like a newsroom again. During the first draft those two to three hours - which are the equivalent of a quota of a thousand words - is about the best I can do. Then I am wiped out. I can go home and do e-mail, I can do research but I donít have another writing session that day. That routine should bring me to a first draft in four to five months. Second draft I can do two sessions a day and then I set the goal of trying to get through an entire chapter. If Iím lucky I do a polished draft before I turn it in during the autumn.

Ayo:

Every Secret Thing has been nominated for a number of awards the most recent being a Barry Award. You are one of the few authors to receive an Edgar, Shamus, Agatha, and Anthony Award for the Tess Monaghan series. How gratifying is that?

Laura:

The thing about awards is that I came out of a newspaper that was very award driven. Awards were the goal, they were really into it, and as a consequence a lot of people beat themselves up and feel bad about themselves because they werenít winning awards. So I sort of figured out for myself early on that awards are really nice when you win them and when you win you should go yeah, yeah I won an award and then you should forget about it. Iím going to quote something really queer now from the movie Cool Runnings: ĎIf youíre not enough with the gold medal, you werenít enough without it.í I think that was Candyís best material when he says it. I love that movie, itís one of my guilty pleasures, but thatís true. Awards are really nice but the one that means the most to me is when fans like George Pelecanos tell me how much he loved Every Secret Thing. Thatís because he is a total no bullshit person and he is also really bright and smart and he has thought a lot about what we do for a living.

Ayo:

Characterisation or plot - or do you think it should be a combination of the two?

Laura:

Thatís a good question. When I started off I thought I could do character but I am not sure I could do plot. So I thought I really better work on the plot thing. I pushed myself harder on plot and as a consequence got better at it. You have to have both. I will say that if you could only have one you should have character.

Ayo:

What writers that are up and coming are you most excited about at the moment?

Laura:

The new Pelecanos. Up and coming! Shaun Doolittle published by Ugly Town. Iíve got to think very hard as I have a bad memory. I wouldnít really describe Eric Garcia as up and coming but I have just finished reading The Cassandra French Finishing School for Boys about a mid-level lawyer at a Hollywood studio who has kidnapped three men and has them chained in her basement where she keeps them doped up with morphine and is teaching them how to be better boyfriends. Very tough book to bring off and I thought that he did it really well. Not an up and coming writer but a very established writer whose next book I cannot wait to read is Katy Munger. She is working on a standalone novel, I have to think it is going to be knock your socks off terrific.

Ayo:

Talking a bit about Tess now, for those who havenít read any of the Tess novels how would you describe her to a novice reader?

Laura:

Oh, she is very, very human. She makes mistakes. The Tess series is very much about watching someone learn to do what she does. I was surprised later to find out that fans were a little bit perturbed about how inept she was at first. I just thought that that would be normal, there is a learning curve to everything. Tess is smart, fiercely loyal, almost to a fault sometimes, but when she loves you sheíll do anything for you; cross her and she will probably never speak to you again.
In a lot of ways she is a typical young woman in her thirties feeling her way through life. She has this illusion that you can have everything lined up; that you can get the job and your home and your love life and itís finally one day going to be showing sevens and it doesnít. And sheís still trying to do it. In the book that comes out next in the Tess series, she is still struggling with it but she is beginning to relinquish the idea that everythingís going to be perfect. I would like her as my friend.

Ayo:

That leads me on to another question what is your relationship with Tess like?

Laura:

Oh, itís great. I spend more time with Tess than I do with any flesh and blood human being. Maybe thatís pathetic, but you know Iím a stay-at-home writer and my boyfriend works all the time. If my boyfriend were around more often he would probably edge Tess out, but he goes out and works an eighteen hour day so Iím hanging out with Tess. Sheís great company, sheís interesting, she has that habit of asserting herself sometimes, and I try to make her do things that are really out of character.

Ayo:

Do you sometimes feel your characters getting away from you when you are writing?

Laura:

Ultimately I have 51% of the voting stock in Lippman Monaghan Inc. I always get to veto, but sometimes as I am working Iíll have a plan and Iíll realise that it doesnít really work. Itís very nice on paper and itís neat and itís all wonderfully symmetrically dramatic but it doesnít make sense in Tessís world. She wouldnít do that so I talk myself out of it just like the duet called Youíre Nothing Without Me in the musical City of Angels: the character is famous, the character is dashing but the writer is in control and at the very end of the song, there is this wonderful battling duet. I am always surprised that more crime writers donít reference it. Itís a terrific musical.

Ayo:

By a Spiderís Thread has just been published in the States and will soon be published here. Could you tell us a bit about it without revealing too much?

Laura:

It is based on a real story that happened in Baltimore when I was a reporter. A man came home from work one day and his wife and three kids were gone so he called the police and told them his wife had taken his children. Book Jacket, By a Spider's Thread They said to him hereís the thing, youíre married, no legal separation, no divorce pending, right now your wife has presumed shared custody of your children, she can take them anywhere she wants to. He had to get divorced in absentia, he had to get custody in absentia, and only then could anyone help him.
In the short term he worked with a private detective but ultimately it was not a private detective who found his family for him. The way he finds his family is a very odd and offbeat thing that I actually used in the book, so I canít really tell you. Tess, who is nursing a few secrets and is suffering from the events of The Last Place, takes on the case and finds herself drawn, not only into this mystery but into a world that she doesnít know as well as she thought did: the world of orthodox Judaism. Her client is a modern orthodox man and he is in many ways infuriating and old world and she has to learn how to work with him.

Ayo:

Are you taking a break at the moment or are you working on something?

Laura:

I take one break and itís about three weeks. I am working on my novel for next year which is another standalone about three once fast friends who were school girls and they end up in a bathroom. Oneís been shot in the head and the third one is telling a story that doesnít match the physical evidence. Harold Lenhardt, who is Nancyís boss in Every Secret Thing, is the primary investigator. I liked the idea of having this seasoned, battle-hardened cop who has seen everything, every kind of homicide, every kind of murder; there is an allusion early in the book to a case he had where this horrible torture is done amongst drug dealers and all that now seems vastly preferable to trying to investigate the world of teenage girls. He has a pre-adolescent daughter and throughout the book he is increasingly aware of the world that awaits his daughter and why he doesnít want her to enter it. In a weird way this book is also about the pitfalls of amateur investigation. There are a lot of people in this book who are poking their nose in where it doesnít belong and trying to do the policeís work for them and that is going to have pretty disastrous consequences.

Ayo:

Part and parcel of being a crime writer is all the camaraderie that you get within the crime fiction genre. Do you enjoy going to conferences and book signings?

Laura:

Itís great, itís like really short sessions of summer camp, but more than once a year. You have these great people, nicest groups of people I have ever known. I give it like 99% rating for just good souls. The thing is it is always nice to be around people who truly understand what you do. When I left the papers to write full time my mother said not judgmentally, but kind of wonderingly, ĎSo all you are going to do is write a book a year now?í Ah yeah, and recently my parents for the first time went to an event with me - the Maryland Library Association.

Ayo:

Where you won an award I believe.

Laura:

I was named author of the year and I had to give a speech, I had to give a workshop and I had to do two signings. Because my mom was with me she saw for the first time that going to something like that was certainly pleasurable and fun and I was thrilled to death, Iím working.

Ayo:

It is a lot of hard work, you have to be organised, and you need to know what you are going to say.

Laura:

I used up so much energy. You have to be your very best self and you have to be able to focus on people one by one and try and make sure that you talk. It was held near my parentís house so I went home with them. I all but crawled over the threshold saying, ĎGive me a drink, Iím exhausted.í And my mother said, ĎI am not surprisedí and that felt really good. Other than that you know a lot of people donít really understand what I do and even some of my old colleagues at the Sun think that my life is so easy, it sounds easy.
This is the greatest job in the world, itís the best job I ever had. But when I am touring for a book I am working, I am away from home and I suffer from home sickness. This has been a really nice trip for me because I have been so coddled. There has been stuff for me to do constantly; I mean they took me to dinner last night which was great.

Ayo:

What do you consider to be the best type of mysteries?

Laura:

I like the mysteries that are moving increasingly into the territory of the social novel. I like mysteries that are concerned with inequities big or small and culture today. I care a lot about class as an issue, which people say isnít an issue in the United States but it very much is. Class is more fluid in the United States, you can grease your way upwards with money but there is still very much a class system. I think that matters. Iím really interested in the nuance of human personalities - I often receive the most slack for allowing good people to have bad moments in my novels. In Every Secret Thing Nancy Porter and Kevin Infante have a conversation if they would ever date interracially? She says she would and she thinks to herself that she wouldnít but then she immediately rationalises that itís not the person she is prejudiced against but its because she likes a certain type of guy, big and blonde; actually a kind of prejudice.

Ayo:

Do you consider that crime or mystery novels should be seen as imparting social documents or as moralists?

Laura:

I donít get the point of writing about crime if you donít have a moral feeling; if you are only writing about murder because itís a really great sensational subject and you know that you can get people to pick up your book because you come up with this really keen new serial killer. No judgment, but it is not for me. Itís not for me as a reader, itís not for me as a writer. Crime is such a great subject because a lot is revealed about a community when a crime happens there. What you reveal about yourself is a licence to examine justice and morality and right and wrong. Instead you can write something that is purely escapist fare. I would be bored as a writer and I would be bored as a reader. No judgment.

Ayo:

How would you like Tess to be remembered?

Laura:

First I would like her to be rememberedÖ This is one of my little pet theories. The reason why literary writers and crime writers end up pissing on each other sometimes; the real battle in literature is to write something that outlasts you - you have no say in the matter. There is not enough money in the world. You could be a billionaire and you could endow your own library and make it carry your books for the next three centuries but no one gets to determine what future generations are going to read, whatís going to have staying power. Thatís outside our control. You just hope that you have created something that will be remembered.
I would like Tess to be seen as what I always call the second wave of female PI. Just as Tess followed a trail through first wave feminism and second wave feminism that was blazed by V I Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone and Sharon McCone, you could then have the Tess Monaghans and the Casey Joneses; these new female characters that were more flawed, less competent, a little more vulnerable. That was my life in journalism by the way.
There were women who went first and they were like super heroes. They were better than everybody. That allowed the more human versions to come along and I would be nowhere without them, but itís a necessary part of the evolution. First women have to be better than everyone then they have to be just as good as and Tess is in the just as good as generation. I would like that to be understood and remembered.

Ayo:

What do you do in your spare free time when you do have spare time?

Laura:

Iím so boring. Actually, there is one thing I do with my spare time of which I am proud. Every Thursday Iím in Baltimore, which this summer is not much, I work in a soup kitchen that is run by two Catholic workers Brendan Walsh and Willa Dickens. They are married, heís a former priest, sheís a former nun and they have committed their lives to social justice and they can feed three hundred people for three hundred dollars. They are amazing. I serve lunch there every Thursday Iím in town. They are only open two days a week - Wednesday, Thursday - and after I realised that I had all this free time from leaving the Sun I called and asked Willa when she needed me and she said come on Thursdays. I have been going on Thursdays ever since.
Of course that makes me sound so much nicer than I really am. Thatís the good thing. Typically I am pretty lazy. I have become one of those horrible little trendoids whoís into yoga. I have been teased a lot because Publishers Weekly did this huge piece on me and the opening referred to my ďtoned arms.Ē So I have been showing off my toned arms. You canít really see them. I took off my sweater last night and showed my arms off at dinner last night. I think it is a very un-British thing to do, because there was some shock involved. I exercise and read and sort of hang out. It is a pretty busy life and I just love the freedom to lie on the sofa and read and watch the occasional reality television show that I am not supposed to watch.

Ayo:

OK, now for some off-the-wall questions: What one luxury item would you take away with you if you were marooned on a desert island?

Laura:

Is an Ipod one item, because I figure I could download all these audio books on an Ipod.

Ayo:

I consider an Ipod as being a luxury item.

Laura:

But its one thing right? Even if I download a thousand novels into the Ipod?

Ayo:

Itís still one thing.

Laura:

Thatís it. Clearly I would take an Ipod with a thousand novels. All the ones I havenít read but I am supposed to - Proust, Ulysses. We have started this thing in my household where we are dividing up the great books. I donít have to do Joyce. I did Cortrelli Ellisís Young Man and I have read sections of Finneganís Wake and Ulysses but I am done with it and The Dubliners now. So my boyfriend has to read that but Iím supposed to do Proust. So when I go to the desert island Iíll get it done on audio.

Ayo:

You can choose five crime characters, dead or alive, who you can take to dinner., who would they be?

Laura:

Oh wow! Okay - Angie from Dennis Lehaneís books. Iíve always liked Angie and Casey Jones, Sam Jones. Now we need a couple of boys. A couple of great guys. Terry from George Pelecanos books. Has to be from a crime novel? Could it be from a crime television show? Oh, um, Iím having a brain fart! Theyíre a little too loud anyway, theyíre too loud. Some really sexy guys, the sexiest guy in crime fiction. Terryís good but, Dortmunder, Iíll take Dortmunder.
With Dortmunder we need some laughs. You know Terry is not going to crack us up much, but if I were smart I would have done three boys and two girls.

Ayo:

Who would be the third guy?

Laura:

Um, Bosch is too serious. Canít take Bosch. Whom were you thinking of?

Ayo:

Ivan Monk because I adore Gary Philips.

Laura:

Thatís a good one. I like that too. Itís kind of a toss up - Spenser or Elvis Cole. Spenser; my favourite Spenser.

Ayo:

Thank you so much, Laura.

Laura:

Thank you, I loved that.


Books by Laura Lippman -

Tessa Monaghan series

Further information about Laura Lippman and her books can be found on her website -

www.lauralippman.com


 

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