The Uncovered Story: A Conversation with Laura Lippman

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Laura Lippman is funny on Twitter. Being considered funny on Twitter is meant to be a reward for the can’t-get-published, doing-it-for-exposure, this-Big-Gulp-is-my-dinner kind of writer. It doesn’t pay the rent but sometimes you’re on a listicle of writers who are funny on Twitter. So that’s nice. But Laura Lippman, who is funny on Twitter, is the New York Times best-selling, multiple-award winning, critically beloved writer of twenty-three novels. And she’s really funny on Twitter. Bit unfair, that.

Since the late 90s Lippman has been publishing smarter-than-they-need-to-be novels about crime and women and Baltimore. She might be best known for her series about a private eye named Tess Monaghan, but all of her books are delicious in the way the best crime fiction is delicious. Satisfying and perhaps made from something more than butter and flour.

Lady in the Lake is the twenty-third of those aforementioned novels. Set in 1966, it stars Maddie, who is trying to use the discovery of the body of a black woman named Cleo to springboard herself from kept housewife to intrepid journalist. In a way, the gorgeous book is Lippman’s retelling of Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. That novel is a book Lippman loves but that novel has an ending that Lippman thinks lets down its titular character.

An hour before our interview Lippman joked on Twitter that she was day-drinking before she was scheduled to sit for an interview. Bit unfair, that.

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The Rumpus: Thanks for agreeing to do this.

Laura Lippman: I love The Rumpus. I’d like to think that most big writers are smart enough to pay attention to where there is smart writing. I think it’s pretty grand.

Rumpus: You’ve said that you wrote Lady in the Lake because you wanted to write Marjorie Morningstar if it had been Marjorie’s version of the story. Are you telling her version of the story or the version that you think she deserved?

Lippman: I like the idea that it’s the version she deserved. Marjorie Morningstar is a book that I love, but that epilogue is so unearned and I feel like the book would be so much better without it. It takes a pretty significant achievement in which a male writer has done very, very well by a female character, but he just couldn’t resist making it obvious that Wally went on and had great success and wouldn’t even consider being married to Marjorie now. I don’t think that this idea that the thing you yearn for at nineteen isn’t the same if you get it at thirty-nine… I don’t feel like that’s such an amazing epiphany that it needs to be there in the book.

I get very jumbled up in my head in terms of what was the sequence of ideas that I had, what did I want to write when, but I am actually clear on this. I knew very soon after the 2016 election that I was going to write a book set in 1966 and I thought at the time that the Maryland governor’s race of 1966 should be the centerpiece of it. I can see this very clearly: It’s a cold, bright, brilliant day and I’m walking up the street and I’m thinking about Marjorie Morningstar and I come home and I turn on my computer and somewhere on social media my friend shared this series of photographs from an old Catskill Jewish resort. And that was it. I’m not writing about an election. I didn’t want it to be that on the nose. And the election moved to the background and instead I became obsessed with writing a story about a woman who’s not washed up after forty. It’s all that jumble of things. When I started the book I didn’t realize it was going to be a newspaper novel.

Rumpus: Do you think part of the reason that Lady in the Lake is a newspaper novel has to do with our political context and feeling the need to remind people of the vitality of that profession?

Lippman: I think that was part of it. My father started at the Baltimore Sun in 1965. In the years since his death, I find myself working through a lot of things in my writing. This is my dad’s world. And I saw it as a child. I saw the newsrooms of the 1960s. My dad was a really good columnist, a very serious editorial writer. He was someone who wrote about the Supreme Court for the Baltimore Sun editorial pages which meant that when the Supreme Court handed down a decision, he had that decision messengered to him in Baltimore and he read the whole thing before he would even consider trying to write an editorial about it.

I think not only of the vitality of it, but also of the importance. I do believe the press is incredibly important to American democracy, but also I was part of the last generation who really had fun working at a newspaper. Maybe that’s not fair to say. Maybe there are people who are at newspapers right now who would say, “How dare you? It’s still fun!” But it was really fun. There was a raucousness to it. There were practical jokes. There was also incredible sexual harassment and all sorts of of things to be decried, but I have a real affection for newspapers. I was asked by a friend just the other day, “Do you ever want to go back?” And I said no. I never want to go back. I love what I do now and I love what I do now even better than I loved working at a newspaper. But I am immensely grateful that I know what it’s like to work in a competitive news town in a very different time when that was how people found out most of what they knew.

Rumpus: Can we talk about the character of Maddie?

Lippman: The book is going to succeed on the basis of how full and credible the character is. I’m trying to pay attention to everything about them. The way they dress, what they look like, what they eat, how they eat, what matters to them, how they speak. The interesting thing to me is that the audience for fiction, even crime fiction, is overwhelmingly female and these women are very good sports about reading male-centric stories, but I feel like they deserve to read stories about women. All kinds of women. I don’t have a lot of patience for this discussion of whether or not the characters are likable. All that matters is, are they charismatic? Are they interesting? Do you want to read a story about them? Then great, go forward. All I’m trying to do is create really interesting women that people are intrigued by.

You wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with some of the women I created. Maddie’s not a good friend. She hasn’t learned to value female friendship. She’s someone who lives in the world where the approval of men was so important to what she thought she wanted that girlfriends, she could take or leave. I’m not much interested in perfect people as a writer, as a reader, or as a person. I don’t feel the need for my characters to be up on a pedestal, worshipped, beloved.

Rumpus: Do you think there’s fear of writing female characters who are unlikable?

Lippman: I think the trick is that you want to create human characters but you don’t want to fall into these patriarchal traps of the woman as a nag, the woman as a bitch, the woman as bossy. I think the smartest female writers I know are trying to figure out that middle path between the perfect character and the character who has flaws in this old-fashioned, sitcom kind of way. Gillian Flynn really threw down the gauntlet when she created Amy in Gone Girl. That’s a pretty hard character. There’s nothing to like about her. But she’s full, and she’s complete, and she’s interesting, and she very much owns her agenda and what she’s doing. I think that raised the bar a lot. A lot of women who were working in crime fiction, didn’t go out necessarily and create characters in the vein of Amy but they’re like, if my character can’t have blood on her hands, if my character can’t make mistakes, if my character is the perfect person who daintily steps through the plot and ties everything together and makes everyone feel good about themselves, is that the kind of book I want to be writing?

Speaking only for myself, that’s really uninteresting to me. When I wrote series fiction about Tess Monaghan, who still pops up here and there, she was always really imperfect. And not imperfect in that fake way, you know the fake imperfection you sometimes find in female characters. They’re like, “Oh I forgot to put my lipstick on before I left the house.” She was truly imperfect. She was impulsive. She was cranky. She wasn’t always kind to people. And she could be quite tactless. And that was always very intentional. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything close to a perfect female. They’ve always had their share of flaws.

Rumpus: Maddie’s treatment of Ferdie, her romantic partner, is part of that imperfection?

Lippman: There’s so much debate right now about appropriation, about white writers writing black characters, and how they do it, should they do it. My approach was to be really meta about it and to create a white woman who’s barreling through the world and not paying attention. It doesn’t even occur to her that there could be any fallout from what she’s doing. It doesn’t even really occur to her to think about her relationship with Ferdie from Ferdie’s point of view. The relationship works for Maddie. She enjoys it as it is. The idea that Ferdie might want more, that he might be more serious about her than she is about him—she doesn’t even worry about that. Everything she’s doing is rationalizing having the relationship be what she needs it to be.

Rumpus: That meta aspect of Maddie telling the story of a black woman, and about who gets to tell other people’s stories; it’s hard not to think of that and of this true crime moment that we’re having and then the backlash to the true crime moment and the concern about the exploitation of the victims in storytelling.

Lippman: Over the years I’ve had to accept the fact that one book I wrote in particular infuriated quite a few people who just found it disrespectful to the real-life family who had clearly inspired the book. People see value in stories. Why shouldn’t they? Their stories are valuable. I feel that the way I do it is respectful. I find my ideas and then once I’ve been inspired by a real crime I actually read as little about it as possible because now I want to be free to use it as a jumping off point. I’m inspired by certain crimes because there’s something bigger there.

There are two very real crimes that inspired Lady in the Lake. They happened in 1969. I was ten years old and I was very aware that a girl had been strangled by a man from a fish store and her body had been found in a vacant lot. The story was in the daily newspaper; this kid wasn’t much older than I was.

I was an adult before I heard the story about the woman whose body was found in the lake at Druid Hill Park. That was what was interesting to me. That the story could go uncovered.

Rumpus: YA has a community of readers who are very, very vocal about representation and it has made YA publishing more representative as a result. Do you wish for something like that in crime fiction?

Lippman: I wish that the writers would think more about what they’re doing. People who have had the privilege of living at the dead center of mainstream really need to consider their literal point of view. What they see from where they stand. People can come at me and tell me that these characters I created in Lady in the Lake, that I didn’t get it, that these are the mistakes I made, that this is what I don’t know about being a black person in Baltimore in 1966. I’m open to that critique. It’s a fair critique. What I know in my heart of hearts is that I worked very hard not to fall into those traps. I created this framework in which the whole point is that these voices are missing from Maddie’s imagination. That was the whole point of the book. This woman who wants to be a reporter so badly and almost every person she meets has an amazing story that she never hears because she doesn’t even think to ask them questions. Because she’s in pursuit of one story. And Cleo, the ghost, nailed it when she said, “You weren’t interested in my life, you were interested in my death. They’re not the same thing.”

When Sebastian Junger wrote The Perfect Storm, none of his subjects could cooperate because they were all dead. One of the things he did was to simply research what is drowning like. So there is a chapter in The Perfect Storm that describes what it would be like to die in the particular circumstance and how awful it is. That’s the thing I come back to again and again which is—are you interested in the life or are you interested in the death? Whatever any critic wants to say about my work, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m interested in people in life. I don’t do over the top, ritualistic tableaux. I don’t have serial killers who are arranging bodies in artistic visuals or particularly sadistic ways. I’m not interested in that. My deaths could not be more ordinary and are very seldom described. There is no description really of the death of the little girl in Lady in the Lake. There is definitely no description of the death of the [titular] lady in the lake. That’s by intent and by design.

Rumpus: To your point, the lady in the lake, her voice is literally heard throughout the book.

Lippman: It’s the first voice and the last voice in the book and that’s not something that happened by accident. She owns the book. If you broke it down by page count she doesn’t have as much of the territory as Maddie does, but it’s her book and Maddie’s book.

Rumpus: We have to wrap up, but I have to ask, what is it about Baltimore in fiction? It’s the size of Milwaukee and we don’t have a lot of Milwaukee fiction. Why Baltimore?

Lippman: Because of the very stark contrast here, it encourages people to think about death and homicide and where it happens and how it happens. It’s an interesting crossroads where the North meets the South. It’s not just rich and poor because it’s not like people in Baltimore are super rich, but Baltimore had a very, very established upper class going way back. To me, it’s just where I grew up. Would I, if I had grown up in Milwaukee, would I be writing about Milwaukee? Possibly. Probably. I think so.

Why do I love it? The city might make you ask yourself that every day. We live in a neighborhood where it is absolutely impossible to take delivery of any packages. You’re never going to see that package if it’s left on your doorstep. Last year the thing that got stolen were the pages that I was supposed to sign that would then be inserted into bound books. They showed up in my neighbor’s recycling bin two blocks away.

That’s the best answer I have which is Baltimore is a city where even if you love it, pretty much every day you might have a moment where you wonder why you love it and why you stay and I think for me, writing fiction about Baltimore has been part of that, addressing these contradictions. It’s a place that asks you every day to remind yourself why you love it. And then you figure it out and you get through another day.

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Photograph of Laura Lippman by Lesley Unruh.


Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian living in Toronto. Her agent promises that someday, somewhere, you will be able to read her novels. Until then, find her on Twitter @msevav. More from this author →