This is a transcript of the April 11 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Laura Lippman: “A thick haze hung over the skyline, but no clouds. From this vantage point Baltimore simply looked dirty and discouraged. ‘Welcome to Charm City,’ Tess said to a seagull that was diving for dead fish. ‘Welcome to Balmer, hon.’
“Neither Tess nor her hometown were having a good year. She was out of work and out of unemployment benefits. Baltimore was on pace to set an unprecedented murder rate, breaking the once thought unbreakable record of 1993, which had broken some previously impossible records.”
Jacob Brogan: That was Baltimore-based crime novelist Laura Lippman reading from her terrific novel Baltimore Blues. You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on the show we’re going to Baltimore to talk with people there about the varied and various ways that they make a living. We’re hoping to learn a bit about how the city informs their work, and about how they’re shaping Baltimore itself, by working.
For our first episode we’re talking to Laura Lippman, author of more than 20 books. She tells us about how she got started as a crime writer, making the transition from life as a newspaper reporter to writing fiction full-time. She also talks us through her current composition and revision process, shares some details about the financial side of the business, and of course, talks with us about her relationship to Baltimore itself. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Lippman talks about her connection to the original Baltimorean mystery writer, Edgar Allan Poe.
What is your name and what do you do?
Lippman: My name is Laura Lippman and I’m a crime novelist.
Brogan: How did you become a crime novelist?
Lippman: Well, it’s kind of a long story. I always wanted to be a novelist. But I went to journalism school at Northwestern, because I didn’t know any novelists. It wasn’t a career path that I understood. And I’m not even sure that I understood that, oh, you major in creative writing, and you get a university degree, and then you teach and you write. I don’t even think I could figure that part out. I had come to Baltimore in 1989 after eight years in Texas, wanted to write fiction, kept getting stalled in these autobiographical novels—because they were boring, because nothing’s ever happened to me. I went to a party in 1991 down in Washington, D.C.
Brogan: Were you a journalist at that time?
Lippman: I was a journalist at what was then called the Evening Sun.
Brogan: Here in Baltimore?
Lippman: Here in Baltimore. I went to this party, which I guess I have to say because I am talking to Slate Podcast, was held at the group home who was shared with my old summer camp friend Jacob Weisberg.
Brogan: The Chairman of the Stale Group.
Lippman: Right. He’s just someone I’ve kept in touch with over the years. But he’s younger than I am. Six years, which now seems like nothing, but at that time seemed like a really big gulf between me and most of the people at this party. Which was a ’70s party, which was more ironic for people who hadn’t actually been in high school in the ’70s. I found myself talking to one of the people at the party who had been a grown-up in the ’70s. Her name was Michelle Slung, and she told me that she was publishing an anthology of erotica for a major publisher, Harper Collins, that she was desperate for submissions, and that if I would submit and be accepted she was paying $1,500, which is a lot of money.
Brogan: In 1991.
Lippman: 1991. I have to tell you, there are still times now where I write a short story for maybe like 100 bucks, 200 bucks. So I thought, I’m going to try to do this. I wrote a story, it was accepted for the collection, which was called Slow Hand. Michelle said two important things to me. One was, I think you could be a novelist, and if you ever write a novel I’ll read it and tell you what I think about it. Secondly, she said, and it’s really interesting to me that a lot of women need the mask of genre to help them write. They feel presumptuous saying, “Oh, I’m going to write the great American Novel,” but if it means saying, “I’m going to write, just a romance novel, just a historical fiction, just a mystery,” that that helps them sort of get over that first hump of doing it.
I loved crime novels. I read them for fun, as one should read all novels. I pretty much read everything for fun, I don’t have a real earnest desire to improve myself through fiction. I think fiction should be entertaining and delightful. That doesn’t mean you don’t read serious books, but it should be entertaining. I sort of took those words to heart. I would say that within two years, I feel that it was fall of 1993, I had finished my first detective novel, and I—
Brogan: What book was that?
Lippman: It was Baltimore Blues.
Brogan: That first novel, Baltimore Blues, is about a character, Tess Monagahn.
Brogan: Who is a detective about whom since then you’ve written, how many, 10 books? Something like this?
Lippman: There are 12 books overall if you count the novella “Girl in the Green Raincoat.” She appears in two short stories, maybe three. I think at least three. I know I’ve written over a million words about Tess Monaghan.
Brogan: That’s a lot of words.
Lippman: It is, it is. But she was a good surrogate. I was still working full-time at the paper, and I would stay at the newspaper through November 2001, when I was able to leave reporting and just be a full-time novelist.
Brogan: Earlier, we blazed over your journalistic career, but that character of your first novel and many of the books that you’ve written since then, though not all, Tess Monaghan, is a former journalist.
Brogan: When you were doing that initial writing, even if it wasn’t autobiographical, were you bringing those experiences into your work?
Lippman: Absolutely. The books were born almost out of a sort of interior panic. The economy had begun to shrink. The Baltimore Sun, which at that time had never had layoffs, began to talk about whether they would have to have layoffs. I was five from the bottom on the seniority list, and I sincerely didn’t know what I would do if I lost my job at the Sun, because I wanted to live in Baltimore. I’d spent eight years trying so hard to get back to Baltimore. I’d finally gotten back. This was what I wanted, and I thought, “What if I lose it? What if the newspaper goes away? Do I go find another newspaper job, or do I stay in Baltimore, and what would I do?” I had a co-worker, a guy I loved named Frank, and Frank mentioned one day in passing that an insurance company had told him that if he ever wanted to leave the newspaper business, he could be an investigator for the insurance company.
I thought, “I can’t see myself doing that, but I can see myself writing a novel about someone who would do that.” So I was kind of working out this alternative life where, OK, if I get fired, if I lose my job, how do I cope? What do I do? Who do I become? And that’s where the Tess Monaghan novels came from.
Brogan: So in some ways, your anxiety about your work then inspired the work that you’ve done since then.
Brogan: What is your work like now, though? What is a day like for you? When do you get going in the morning?
Lippman: I’m trying to keep more or less to a book-a-year pace in terms of writing, although because I don’t like my books to come out every 12 months, my own bizarre theory that there’s something about that clockwork schedule that encourages people ever so subtly not to take the book seriously, and to think of them as product. To see them as being somehow manufactured on an assembly line. So I don’t care how fast I can write them, and sometimes I can write them very fast, I like my books to come out maybe every 14 months, maybe every 18. But I have to write every day, pretty much. Now I have a small kid, and three mornings a week it’s my job to get her off to school, and that’s when I’m lucky enough that my husband’s in town. We have long stretches where he’s been away working, so I don’t do anything until my kid’s off at school. On the days that I’m not responsible for her, I might start my day as early as 6:30. I’m really a morning person.
Brogan: Coffee first?
Lippman: Yes. Always.
Brogan: Something that I always wondered with writers. Do you get dressed if you’re writing really early, or are you just writing in your pajamas?
Lippman: Oh, I’m getting dressed, because I have to get out of the house. I can’t be in the house and think I’m going to get any work done once that morning routine begins.
Brogan: So, we’re in you’re office now, which is an incredible space.
Lippman: My office is around your corner.
Brogan: Oh, OK. So this is not your home anymore.
Lippman: No, you can actually see, that’s my home. That brick wall that I’m looking at through the window of my office. That’s our house. It doesn’t connect or touch this office space in any way, so there’s no way for me to get to my office in my pajamas unless I’ve become truly a Baltimore eccentric who doesn’t mind walking around the corner in my bathrobe and pajamas.
Brogan: Maybe you could jump from that deck up there.
Lippman: You know, there is a fire escape, and I could go in through the top floor. No, sometimes I like to work in public spaces. I can work pretty much anywhere. I can work in a coffee shop, and sometimes I like that. My drill, when I’m writing, is a minimum quota of a thousand words. I will write—
Brogan: Per session?
Lippman: Per session. My best hours are basically 7:00 to 11:30. I’m no good noon to 4:00.
Brogan: Just tired?
Lippman: Low energy. As much as I’ve learned about nutrition and know to eat better midday for energy, those just aren’t good hours for me. I’m kind of shocked to look back and realize that for years I had a job where I had to do work between 12:00 and 4:00. Now I’d rather do the ancillary stuff, the email, the social media, or research reading. Or go to the gym. The gym is a really sacred space for me. I solve a lot at the gym. I figure stuff out.
Brogan: Puzzles in the books?
Lippman: Just things that need to happen. You park your mind and you’re not thinking about it so consciously and solutions will come to you, sometimes unbidden. I’ve solved a lot of plot problems at the gym. But I’m a fast writer generally. I am almost embarrassed sometimes how quickly I can write 1,000 words, I don’t necessarily want to draw attention to it.
Brogan: You just did.
Lippman: I did. I know. I’m fast. I’m really fast. But because I’m fast, in a year’s time—I’ll break it down. If I can write at minimum 1,000 words a day, five days a week, and your book is 100,000 words, which is a bit long sometimes for my books, at minimum I would have a book in about 20 weeks. That means that I have time to do two pretty intense revisions before I even send it to my editor. I would say that by the time one of my novels is published, it’s been through five pretty hard-core revisions.
Part of it is that when I send it off, I play a game. While my editor has it, I start rewriting it. The game is to figure out how much stuff will I fix before my editor tells me it needs to be fixed. Then I get her notes, another revision. I also pay an editor out of pocket to do an edit between my editor’s edit and the copyedit. That’s a slightly different edit. I have that one. I’m in the middle of a copyedit right now, and during the copyedit stage, I read it aloud. It’s a really good way to catch errors, it’s a really good way to decide what’s working. It’s also incredible for continuity. I catch things that even the copyeditor doesn’t catch when I’m reading out loud, and I have a good copyeditor. It’s a lot of reworking of stuff. You can see I feel a little bit defensive about the book-a-year thing, and I want people to know just how much work is going on.
Brogan: Do you feel defensive because you think that they think you should write more?
Lippman: Oh, gosh, no. I find that people feel that . . . the verbs that are used for people who write quickly are almost never flattering. Crank it out, churn it out. At the same time, I’m always a little bit skeptical, or I should say amused, when there’ll be a writer, they’ll have a really big gap between books, and when the book comes out, there’s this inference, this assumption made that, “Well, it’s been five years, he’s been working on this book for five years,” and I always want to say, “Maybe you want to go check IMDb before you say that. Dude’s been working on a lot of screenplays.” The idea that someone’s spending every waking moment on their novel when there’s a gap. I’m someone who comes pretty close to every waking moment on my work.
Brogan: Are you a total rewriter, or are you just a sentence fiddler?
Lippman: Oh, I’m a big rewriter. My process of revision has changed over the years. In my early years, I wouldn’t even try to revise a book until I had an entire book. I would let huge things go by. Literally, in an early book, a character changed gender midway through the book. I said, “I’ll go back for that on the second pass.” Over the years, I have begun to write in a way that reminds me of what they call “running ladders” or “wind sprints.” I go and I go and I go and I go and I hit a wall. So then I go back to the beginning, and now I’m revising. And I’m going to run that much farther the next time, and then hit the wall. I’m 50 pages in, back to the beginning. I’m 75 pages in, back to the beginning. I’m 150 pages in, back to the beginning. Then as you get toward those last 30, 40 pages, you can really start going full speed. You can see it.
I’m figuring out a lot of stuff, plot-wise. I don’t outline. I’m not completely what people call a pantser, seat-of-the-pants writer. I usually know, “OK, here’s a big secret in my book, and this is what my characters have to discover.” There’s so much I don’t know when I start to write, so there’s this process of discovery. What is this story? There’s also this process of taking the scenes you’ve written and pushing them to be better, smarter. Great old writing advice: Start your scene late, end it early. That’s advice I give all the time as a writing instructor. But I’m also looking for this opportunity to do something that—I don’t know what other writers call this. My husband and I developed a code for it, which is we call “flipping it.” It’s really natural as a writer or creative person to, no matter how hard you try, to kind of do the clichéd version the first time through. It’s almost unconscious how much we think in cliché. So you’ve got this scene, it’s a perfectly good scene, but it’s too on the nose, it’s too expected. I’ve read this a hundred times, why did I just read the hundred-and-first iteration? So you have to ask yourself, what was the idea in this scene? What were you trying to convey? And how could you make it so much more interesting? Usually it involves flipping it. Looking at your first instinct and saying, “No. Try the opposite it.”
I once wrote a novel about a young boy who’s been sexually molested, and no one can talk about it. It’s in the ’70s. His family doesn’t know how to talk about it. His brothers can’t—no one can talk about it. That’s just the way it is. They’re not going to talk about what happened to this kid, but they’re aware that he’s troubled and upset and unhappy since this happened. In the initial scene as it was written, I had the boy show up for this 4th of July parade in this quaint neighborhood where they lived, which was based on the neighborhood where I grew up. And he’s dressed in a horrible and inappropriate way. I believe it’s 1980, so he’s dressed as the character from the Friday the 13th series, Jason. He’s got on a hockey mask, and he looks awful and grotesque, and his father yells at him and hits him and sends him to his room and everybody cries and everybody’s miserable.
And I thought, “Yeah. Boy, that’s really on the nose, isn’t it? And it’s a lot of big emotion, but does it really take you anywhere? We already know it’s sad. We already know he’s troubled. What have I actually told the reader that the reader won’t have reasonably inferred?” So I thought, “I’m going to flip it.” I guess because I’d been thinking about Jason and Friday the 13th and the hockey mask, I began thinking about the fact that 1980 was the year of the miracle on ice, the U.S. Olympic team winning the hockey gold against Russia. At any rate, they won the gold, and it was a big, big deal in 1980. I thought, “What if this kid in his own troubled, sad, hopeful way, decides that he wants to be the goalie from the winning hockey team in a 4th of July parade. And furthermore, he’s not only wearing this big sweater on this hot July day, he’s decided he’s going to walk in his parade in his skates, with the rubber protectors on it, but still he’s going to walk a mile in his skates.
Everybody in the family pitches in. His brothers carry him on his shoulder, his dad helps him, and he’s just inching along, and it’s a great victory, and he wins second prize, and he’s so happy. And two weeks later the family’s driving back from the beach and he asks his father a question that makes his father realize, no, nothing changes. You’ll have these great little miracles, but my kid is damaged, my kid is hurt, and there’re not enough 4th of July parades and prizes in the world for me to undo. To me, that’s a better scene, and that’s how the scene ended up. And that’s what I mean by flipping it. So when I’m in revision, I’m looking for how to take my scene somewhere really unexpected.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to crime novelist Laura Lippman. After this, she describes her office, and talks about the research that goes into her work.
* * *
Brogan: Can you tell us briefly just a little bit about your office, this space that we’re in, that you work in?
Lippman: My office is part of a four-story unit that was carved out of an old church. It’s around the corner from where I live, and I share the space with my husband in the sense that he gets to have the first floor for meetings and the top floor for screenings, and I have the second floor where I keep my books, of which I have quite a few. I’m going to have to start a purge soon.
Brogan: Lot of books in this room.
Lippman: I have a lot of Mexican folk art from my time in Texas. I have a lot of strange, sentimental items. I have a windowsill on which I have assembled what I call the robot army, which are reboots made out of found parts. That’s just something I developed an affinity for a few years ago for no reason whatsoever. I have all my books, which take up, at this point my books take up three shelves, and I have awards that are scattered around the rooms, photographs of friends and family, strange little action figures, Gogo from Kill Bill. Wonder Woman. Edgar Allan Poe. Some wind-up sumo wrestlers that were a gift from a friend. There’s a strange, strange little boy figure with rabbit ears that have teeth in them that came from the fairgrounds at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Brogan: It is extraordinarily disquieting.
Lippman: It is. It’s here because my husband couldn’t bear to have it in the house, it scared him so much. There’s a little hamster in a wheel that was a gift from my husband, because one time back in the Baltimore Sun newsroom where we met, I said I would’ve loved to be a hamster in a wheel, I could run around in a little wheel all day and be quite happy.
Brogan: What’s the financial side of writing fiction? You said earlier that you sometimes will write short stories for $100, $200, but I assume that you’re getting more than that for your novels. You also said that you have essentially a standing contract, if I understood that right. Is it a relatively secure position that you find yourself in?
Lippman: I don’t think anyone should ever think they’re in a relatively secure position economically.
Brogan: I certainly don’t.
Lippman: I broke into publishing in the mid to late ’90s. It wasn’t a bad time. By the way, you never find anyone saying, “Boy, it’s a great time to be publishing,” although interestingly, lately, people are beginning to develop this kind of cautious optimism. I think part of it is that people realized that the book was here to stay, in physical form, anyway. I broke into publishing at a time where I got a very modest advance for two paperback originals, mass-market paperback originals. There was a rule of thumb, I think it would be the same today, it might be easier because so many people don’t get benefits anymore, but at the time the rule of thumb was that if you can get your day-job pay plus 30 percent, you can quit your day job. I hit that mark with my third contract, I believe. No, it was my fourth contract. I sign usually for two or three books. Lately it’s been three books.
About the time, I hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2007, and most of my books since then have made it on there, but in lower slots and only for a week or two, maybe three or four weeks at the most. I’m not Lee Child, who started the same year I did, and is a friend of mine, but I do well. I do really well. That’s why I don’t feel secure, because at some point I think, “Well, someone might decide that that money can be better spent elsewhere.”
Brogan: Some reader, or some publisher?
Lippman: Some publisher. I have this weird frame of mind where I feel as if I’m good for the next contract, but it’s the contract after that contract that I worry about. I’m never too nervous that I won’t be offered another contract, but then I think, “But if I don’t deliver, and I don’t do well.” The contract after the contract. Now, I started off at a place called the Hearst Book Group, as in William Randolph, which owned Morrow and Avon. That was swallowed up by HarperCollins in 1999. Pretty tough merger that cost some people their careers. I got lucky. My editor thrived, and I was able to thrive. Some people came in who did something that I’d certainly never seen in newspapers, where they came in and they said, “Let’s see who we’re already publishing and if we can publish them better.” They didn’t say, “Oh, we’re already publishing you, you suck,” which is pretty much how life went at the newspaper when the new editor came in. “I didn’t hire you, you must suck.”
So I was working for these marvelous people, and they looked at the roster, and two of the people they looked at and said, “We can publish them better, and we can get them better sales.” One was Dennis Lehane, an old friend of mine. And I was another one. They would go to sales conference every year, it seemed like for years, they would go to sales conference every year, and say, “We tell you, we’re going to break Laura Lippman out. We’re going to start selling a lot of copies of her books.” Eventually they did, after years and years of that.
I have a very nice life as a writer. But I’ve always been a little veiled about how much money I make because I don’t want to stoke envy in people. There is so much envy. I sometimes allow people to infer that I’m much less successful than I am, because I’m more comfortable with that. Something that provides me an enormous amount of cover is that my husband works in television. So if someone wants to bust me for something I’m indulging in, whether it’s having taken a trip in business class, which I like to do, I say, “Well, I’m married to a television producer.”
Brogan: None of those people will listen to this, right?
Lippman: I know, I know. But I still haven’t told you. I do well, and I’m happy with it.
Brogan: We’ve talked about the writing process, the daily writing. About revising. What about conceptualizing a book in the first place? At what point do you start trying to sell it to editors? Where does it begin? I don’t even know where to start this question.
Lippman: It’s really funny, because I know people, writers and people who know writers, who say, “Don’t ask writers about their ideas, they hate that question,” and I think it’s a good question and I think it’s a reasonable one. Having ideas is my job, and I don’t romanticize it. I think it’s a really big mistake for writers to get hooked on inspiration or divine moments of serendipity or to act as if their ideas come from some higher power, because then when you’re having trouble having ideas, you set yourself up. It’s my job to have an idea.
Brogan: Right, I guess that’s what I’m getting at. What’s the business end of an idea, when it comes to selling a novel?
Lippman: I’m in a rare position. I sign contracts that basically say “Laura Lippman number 20, 21, 22” and when I get the idea, I talk to . . . I’ve had the same editor my entire career, which makes me a really odd duck in today’s publishing. So I’ll tell you, last December I turned in my latest book and I went to lunch with my editor and agent in New York. I said, “OK. I’ve always said I wanted to write this prequel about Tess Monaghan’s parents set in 1966, and I really want to do 1966 right now because I don’t know how to write about 2017 in the world as it is. It’s a little too kooky, it’s a little too unexpected.” I wanted to go hide in the past. I was long interested in the governor’s race in 1966 in Maryland. I always thought, “Well, Tess Monaghan’s parents, they met through politics. It’s established in the books that they had worked on this campaign. Let’s write their story.”
The thing that happened in 1966 in Maryland is that the Democrats, to their dismay, saw not the establishment candidate get the nomination, but this crazy racist demagogue. So this crazy racist demagogue was the democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, and a lot of Democrats said, “I can’t vote for that guy.” So they voted for Spiro Agnew, and that’s what brings us Spiro Agnew, and I just thought it was an interesting time and place to be. My editor said, “I like it. Does it have to be about Tess’s parents?” Whenever your editor says, “Does it have to be?” the first response is always, “Yes! Yes, it has to be!” But my editor’s supersmart, I’ve worked with her for a long time. Her instincts are so sound. I thought, “Well, I always thought it had to be that, so let me think about it.”
So now I’ve got my 1966 thing going on, and I’m thinking a lot about the books that are basically in my DNA because I’ve read them so many times and I’m so obsessed with them. I start thinking about Marjorie Morningstar, a book that I read every year much to my husband’s confusion. Marjorie Morningstar, for people who don’t know it, is the story of a young woman growing up in New York in the ’20s and ’30s, wants to be an actress, in the eyes of the writer, Herman Wouk, makes the tragic mistake of losing her virginity to a cad named Noel Airman, but marries happily and has a happy ending. Then the epilogue of the book is written by one of her spurned young suitors, who sees her as being completely washed up at the age of 40. It even says, “A woman of 40 is not at all suited to a man of 39.”
This idea of a woman being washed up at the age of 40, and I thought, what if my ’66 novel is about a woman after the epilogue? What happens to Marjorie next? What if Marjorie up and leaves her husband? What if it turns out she has this whole second act in her that her spurned suitor Wally Wronkin never saw? So I decided to set this divorce loose in Baltimore, 1966, and she somehow gets involved in the political campaign, and this is all happening in my head on a walk home with my cup of coffee.
Brogan: From the Starbucks nearby?
Lippman: This time I had gone to a different coffee shop. I like to really spread it around. Sometimes it’s Starbucks after school, sometimes it’s Spoons, which is really beloved to me, where I’ve actually written a lot of my novels, and there’s a new coffee shop at the foot of the hill that’s really good, and I go there because they have RXBARs, to which I’m rather addicted. And I’m walking home, and I’m thinking all these thoughts, and I go inside onto my computer, and my friend the crime writer Megan Abbott has shared all these photos from Grossinger’s, which was one of the big Jewish resorts where Marjorie would have gone. I was like, it’s a sign. I was like, you know, it’s all here. So then I start writing, and I start thinking about this, and I start thinking about that, and somehow I start talking to my husband about a murder that really interests me that took place in ’69.
Brogan: A real murder?
Lippman: A real murder. And I thought, “OK, I’m going to take that, it’s going to happen in ’66 in my book, I don’t care what anybody thinks, I’m making it all up.” And I started talking to my husband about ’66. My husband is named David Simon—he wrote a book called Homicide, which was a year in the life of the Baltimore police department—and is probably best known for creating The Wire. He’s this amazing resource, so I start talking to him about ‘66, and it turns out ’66 is this watershed year in the Baltimore police department, and it’s when it becomes truly integrated for the first time. Up until ’66, they had black cops, but they weren’t allowed in squad cars and they weren’t allowed to use the radio. I’m like, OK, so it’s Marjorie Morningstar, and it has these real-life elements, but it’s also, I think I’ve got this L.A. Confidential story going on, but the two cops are African American. This is how it germinates.
Brogan: So you’ve got a ton of pieces in motion here when you’re working, especially when you’re working on a book like this one. The Tess Monaghan books are contemporary, they’re not historical fiction in this way, but there’s still a lot of stuff about Baltimore, a lot of other research that goes into those, I assume. But here, you’ve got facts about this murder in ’69, facts about the police department and its history, about the election, and I imagine a lot of other stuff as well. What is the research component of your work like? You said you do some of that in the afternoon.
Lippman: You know, I start online. It’s seductive and easy. But the in the end I’ll end up at the central library of the Enoch Pratt system. They have a great Maryland room, great for local research. They have all the newspapers on microfiche, although apparently now I can read these newspapers online, I still kind of want to go to the library and read them. The murder I’m interested in was the murder of a young African American woman, and the daily papers hardly covered it, but the Afro covered it in great detail.
Brogan: Was that a local African American paper?
Lippman: The Afro-American. Yeah. It was a big story for them, and they followed it, so I need to go read that. I’m pretty smart about research, I think because I was a reporter for so long, I know how to research very efficiently. So I do a lot of writing before I do much research because I need to know what I need to know. I don’t need to go down a rabbit hole of “this is fascinating, this is great, and it’s of no use to the book that I’m writing.” That just isn’t for me.
Brogan: How do you know, though?
Lippman: You write a while. You write a while and you actually put things in there, like, go figure out what building these guys would’ve been in.
Brogan: You have specific information you’re looking for.
Lippman: Yeah. You find what’s missing in the text. The thing I’m most interested in is quotidian life for cops in ’66. Watching for these anachronisms that creep in. I was writing a scene in the new novel, and I initially had an African American woman was remembering that a white boy at school taunted her, and I went, “Whoa, wait. She’s born in ’31. She’s not in school with a white boy. That’s not happening in Baltimore in the 1940s.” So, you know, I have to . . . that’s a little bit different for me. I haven’t written very much about anything before my own birth date, and even when I research the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s, which are eras that I lived through, I do a lot of research, because people really remember stuff wrong. And the stuff that you don’t remember is so great.
I was working on a book called What the Dead Know, which was about the disappearance of two girls, sisters. I am basically the same age as the people I’m writing about. I’m 15 about the same time, maybe a teeny bit early. And I know not to count on my memory of how things were. So I spent a day at the Pratt reading Seventeen magazine from the 1970s. It’s not the articles so much that remind you of what the time was like, but the ads. I’m reading Seventeen, and there’s an ad for a hope chest, which were these items that girls bought and filled with the things they wanted when they got married, like their linens and their silver, that went into your hope chests. I thought, “Wow. If they were taking ads for hope chests in Seventeen magazine in 1975, that means that there was still a reasonable expectation that a lot of teenage girls got married at 18, got married out of high school.” I had forgotten that. That was no loner, and it was a really key detail when it came down to it.
So I look for that kind of detail. I want to know what movie was playing at the theaters. I remember, again, writing What the Dead Know, that I think I had to include a note to people that “I know you’re going to write in and say that Chinatown was released a year before. I would remind you there was a time when Oscar-award-winning films were released a second time after they won the Oscar, because we didn’t have DVDs and we didn’t have streaming.” So, I’m always looking for those kind of little details.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to Laura Lippman. In a minute, she talks about how Baltimore itself influences her work.
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Brogan: What about Baltimore itself? How does this city that you live, the city that you write about, make its way into your books? You’ve lived her most of your life.
Lippman: My family moved to Baltimore in 1965 when my dad took a job at the Baltimore Sun. We lived in the city through my 9th-grade year, and I always wanted to come here and work here. I find it fascinating. I don’t know, I mean, the thing I can’t know, if my dad had moved the family to Duluth when I was a first grader, would I be obsessed with Duluth? I think I might be. There’s something about this place where I grew up that’s really interesting to me because you become aware that every place is two places. There’s the place that the child sees, and the place that the adult comes to terms with. I spent eight years working in Texas, trying to get back here. That’s all I wanted, was to live in Baltimore. I got back here and it was everything I hoped it would be, but it was a lot of things I didn’t expect it to be. It had this horrible homicide rate. There was crime, there’s poverty, there were frustrations about living here, and yet I loved it still.
Most of all, what I really had to confront when I moved back to Baltimore was that —I don’t want to get slammed for this—racism is a really prevalent problem in the city, I would say to this day. I was interested in all of that. I began to see Baltimore as this beloved family member. Doesn’t everybody have that one family member who drinks too much and says the wrong thing, and it’s kind of an embarrassment and isn’t always right, but you love him still? You sort of have reconciled, it’s not perfect, as a matter of fact it’s far from perfect, but I love it, and I’m at home here. This is where I feel comfortable, and I know it. So I think the books grew out of that.
Brogan: You’re writing right now about the relatively distant past, but do you see those kinds of asymmetries in the city making their way into your fiction, contemporary or otherwise?
Lippman: Always. I’m always trying to write more than who shot whom, who killed whom. I wrote a novel called No Good Deeds, and, gosh, this is now going back 10 years, but what I wanted to do is sort of reveal the conceit of the crime novel. The stories I write about Baltimore crimes are not the everyday average crimes that happen here. Most of the people murdered in Baltimore are young black men. How do you build a novel around that? It’s perversely difficult to do. How do you make people care about young black men who are being killed either as bystanders or the drug trade or participants? I wanted to take that on, so I took that on in a book called No Good Deeds in which the very indifference to this loss of human life becomes sort of the cornerstone of the conspiracy. The idea that young black men could be killed easily because no one would question it, and now we have this case in D.C. where these young black women have disappeared and people are wondering how that happened, and why was it that so many women could disappear before anyone began to notice it and put it together.
There’s, yeah, there’s always another element. It’s always about something other than a murder. Increasingly what I want to write about is how really well-intentioned people who are so sure they’re doing the right thing can go so horribly wrong.
Brogan: You talked about getting advice about the gender politics of genre fiction, but genre is an always tendentious, fought-over issue, and also often one, mystery, that has all kinds of complex ongoing issues of gender around it. Is that stuff that you find yourself thinking about?
Lippman: You know, I’ve decided to opt out of the never-ending cycle of arguments about whether genre fiction can be as good as literary fiction, and is genre fiction by definition lesser than literary fiction—it’s kind of like clickbait before there was clickbait. I look back now, and I actually know quite a bit of the history of this, you have Edmund Wilson writing two essays, two essays, about how he didn’t care who killed Roger Ackroyd, and then Raymond Chandler comes back and he answered it.
Just this month, we’re in March of 2017, a Notre Dame professor wrote this long piece for the Irish Times in which he was extolling one of his former students, who has not had a hugely successful career but is a gifted writer, and has written some crime fiction. The professor wrote, “He didn’t have the fatal lack of talent that was necessary to write crime fiction,” and at that point I said, “I’m just opting out of this argument. I can’t have it anymore. It bores me.” I don’t think it’s important. I don’t think it matters. I think the thing that crime fiction should pay attention to is that we’re probably the most respectable among the genres, which is why we get attacked. Instead of wasting energy mooning around outside literary fiction’s house, driving our bike slowly back and forth, hoping that literary fiction will pay attention to us, I think we should pay attention to the fact that all genres are good, that every genre has the potential to produce great work, and that you don’t want to get caught up in these hierarchies.
I chose to write genre fiction because I could conceptualize myself doing that. I think I did have a lack of confidence when I began, and probably when I wrote my first book said, “I’m just writing a mystery.” Now I don’t suffer for confidence at all. I feel pretty good about myself. I am proud of the work that I do, indifferent to the labels that are put on it, indifferent to the judgments about who’s going to . . . I don’t even let people say that my work transcends the genre because I say, “I don’t accept that as a reasonable metaphor.” Like, what am I transcending? It’s not a plane where you have . . . it’s part of this big blobby map where no one knows the boundaries.
The most interesting work in everybody’s work is being done at these vague territories between the territories. Is Daniel Woodrow a crime writer, or is he a literary writer? I don’t know, I don’t care. I mentioned that one of my friends in this business is Megan Abbott. I think she’s fantastic. Call it “crime,” if more people buy it, I’m all for it. Kate Atkinson is a big hero of mine. There’re so many people I’ve gone fangirl on, it’s quite sad. But Kate Atkinson, I was allowed to meet her because I knew her U.S. editor, and I was overwhelmed. This is a very successful literary writer whose first novel won really prestigious prizes in the U.K. A couple years later she began writing novels about a PI, I believe from Oxford, which is, not from Oxford, the college, but as in from the town of Oxford. Is Oxford a town? I have to question myself.
Kate Atkinson began writing PI novels about a character named Jackson Brody in the U.K., which does not have a very strong tradition of PI writing. It’s such a U.S. phenomenon. These books are fantastic. They were like nothing I’d ever read, and they were different. They were unto themselves. But what was so interesting to me was that Kate Atkinson was not the writer who needed to tell you that she’d investigated the genre and she was doing it better. She was like, “No, I love the genre. I read Harlan Coban, I read Lee Child. I’m crazy for these books,” and that affection and that love is so apparent. Now she’s moved on to speculative fiction.
As I said at the beginning of the conversation, I’m just going to politely opt out of the conversation about genre fiction versus literary fiction because it feels like we’re treading water and we’re not going anywhere. No one ever changes their mind. It’s not the kind of conversation where someone says, “You’ve made some really valid points, I’ve completely reversed myself on the idea of genre fiction.” I think Raymond Chandler, actually, in writing The Simple Art of Murder unwittingly set us up to have this conversation forever, I think out of politeness, gave too many points to the other side, and now they’re thrown back in our faces all the time.
Brogan: I do wonder, though, whether you ever feel obliged to write something that’s at least nominally recognizable as crime fiction, whether because that’s what your audience expects or that’s what your publisher wants. Do you ever just want to go write a science fiction novel?
Lippman: Not yet. I don’t want to write science fiction yet. I have a lot of admiration for it. I don’t think I’d be very good at it.
Brogan: I meant that more just by way of example.
Lippman: I know. Like anything. I thought about writing what most people would call “chick lit” or “romance.” I have an idea that I haven’t had time to explore yet. I’ve thought more about writing young adult. Actually, I did think about writing something that was kind of dystopian young adult. But I don’t feel as if anyone’s keeping me from doing those things. I don’t ever feel as if, “Oh, gosh, I have to go kill someone today, I’m so bored.” I like crime stories. I really like them. I watch them. I saw this thing with two generations of men in my family with my grandfather and my father. My grandfather watched Perry Mason in reruns all the time, and I watched it with him. He watched every single one over and over again, and he never remembered who did it. But he loved it.
And then my father, who died two years ago, he was obsessed with Law & Order. And he watched Law & Order all the time, and he never remembered who did it. I mean, there’s nothing more genre than Law & Order, and I kind of love it. It’s sort of perfectly constructed. It’s so satisfying, and it knows exactly what it is. I had insomnia the other night, and I took to Twitter, saying, “Remind me never to send my child to Hudson University,” which is the university in Law & Order where everything bad happens because they can’t use real names. Basically Hudson University and Mercy Hospital are two places you never want to go. But it provides me with so much pleasure.
If anything, my one regret about becoming a crime writer is that the true unfettered joy I had in reading crime fiction is now undercut by the fact that I have to kind of judge it now. It’s really hard. Not even judge it. It’s really hard for me to turn off my brain and get lost in the story because I’m kind of watching it and going, “Oh, look what they did there, and look what they did there.” Although when I do manage, I realize how good a novel is, when I completely check out and I’m not trying to second-guess it. I don’t usually try to solve mysteries. By the way, if I can solve your mystery, that’s a sign that I’ve checked out, and that it’s probably not very good. I’m not some sort of mastermind. My own plots are not designed to be that clever.
As a matter of fact, I talked again about “The Purloined Letter,” you park something right in front of people, and you tell them. You say, “This is what happened.” I wrote a book called, Every Secret Thing. It begins with two little girls on a hot summer day who take a small child, an African American child from the front porch of a home, and that child dies, and they’re convicted of the crime. I had people read the entire book thinking that it was going to somehow turn out different. Like, no. I told you. But I found, I mean, one thing I love about writing crime is that crime readers are really smart, and they do a lot of heavy lifting, and once you sort of get into how interactive it is, you think, “OK, I’m just going to plant this here, and people are going to go crazy.” It’s like putting catnip in front of your cat and watching it knock itself out. You know how cats get drunk on catnip and they bat it around all this time? You can do that with plot points in a crime novel, where the really cool readers, they’ll just lose themselves in this one detail, and then they’ll get to the end of a book and go, “Oh, that wasn’t meaningful at all. That’s how you fooled me.”
Brogan: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Lippman: Thank you all for your interest in my work.
Brogan: It is wonderful work, and everyone should go read it.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is email@example.com. We do read and try to reply to all of those messages that come in there. You can also follow me on twitter, @jacob_brogan. And you can listen to past episodes at slate.com/working. We really appreciate listener feedback, and it does help shape the show and make it better, so let us know what you’re thinking.
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Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Laura Lippman discusses her connection with Baltimore’s own Edgar Allan Poe.
You live and write crime and mystery fiction in a city that has the unusual distinction of being the home of one of the progenitors of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote two of the first stories that are kind of canonically recognized as mystery stories in the sense that we now know. There are a few images of him in your office, but does he inflect or influence your work at all? You wrote about him in your first book, Baltimore Blues, but is he someone that comes back to you ever?
Lippman: I wrote an entire novel in a strange city, which takes its name from a poem, about the now no longer cherished tradition of the visit to Poe’s original grave site at the Westminster Graveyard, which I got to witness one year.
Brogan: What tradition is that?
Lippman: On his birthday, there used to be someone known as the “Poe Toaster” who would come in the dead of night and leave three red roses and a half bottle of Cognac at Poe’s original grave site, not at the site to which he was moved for a grander monument. I believe it was in January of 2000 that I was allowed to witness it. It’s on private property, so you have to get permission.
It was kind of glorious, and it was fantastic, and it continued until about three years ago and it stopped. So that inspired a book. I’m always looking at classics. I think I return again and again to the lesson of “The Purloined Letter,” which is one of the best places to hide something is in obvious sight. The Edgar is a big deal in the mystery world, and I’m really proud to have won one. So, yeah, I’ve been nominated seven times, and won the first time. I’ve lost six times. But you know, it’s actually a big deal to even have been nominated seven times. I would say that there’re probably fewer than 20 writers in the history of crime fiction who can say they’ve been nominated for an Edgar seven times.
Brogan: Maybe you’ll make it eight with the next one.
Lippman: Who knows. I’m on a pretty long losing streak at this point.