Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Poe Toasters and celebrity chefs: an interview with Laura Lippman

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. At the end of May we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

Thanks to a number of great crime authors giving their time during the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and on other recent occasions, I have several terrific new interviews 'in the can', which I'll be publishing over the coming weeks. Lots to look forward to!

If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome a true superstar of the crime world to 9mm, the wonderful Laura Lippman. You may have recently seen plenty of acclaim about the place in relation to her latest novel, WILDE LAKE, which is a tour de force of a crime tale. Read Ali Karim's review here. I wouldn't surprised if that very fine book adds to Lippman's impressive mantelpiece of literary awards, which already includes the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Nero, Gumshoe, Quill, and Shamus Awards.

The former Baltimore Sun reporter debuted as a crime writer with BALTIMORE BLUES in 1997, which introduced private eye Tess Monaghan. Lippman has been a finalist for the Dagger Awards on this side of the pond, and has now written a dozen novels in her Tess Monaghan series (the latest being last year's HUSH, HUSH), as well as short stories, and nine standalone novels.

I met Lippman briefly, in passing, at my first Theakston festival in 2012, so I was very pleased to be able to sit down and interview her at this year's festival. She's an interesting and engaging person, as well as an excellent crime writer. In one of life's random moments, I'd actually been reading WILDE LAKE on the train from London - and it turned out Lippman was sitting a few seats behind me in the train carriage. I'd been so engrossed in the story (I read the whole thing on the train journey from South London to Harrogate), that I hadn't noticed the author was only a few metres away. As we got off to transfer at Leeds, I was clutching her book and looked up to see Lippman right in front of me. It was quite the memorable writing festival moment, before the festival even started.

I'd highly recommend getting your hands on WILDE LAKE, as well as reading Lippman's impressive backlist. But for now Laura Lippman becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Sam Jones appeared in a series of books by Lauren Henderson during the 1990s and early 2000s. She was a punk Miss Marple. It was an amateur sleuth series about a sculptor in London with a very meta sensibility about Golden Age mysteries. And very fun and funny.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I think it has to be a book called BETSY-TACY by Maud Hart Lovelace, which started a series of books about a girl called Betsy Rae growing up in the American Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. It starts from when she's five and goes up 'til she's married. It's about a little girl who wants to be a writer, and no one in her family ever doubts her. Even though they were set 60 years before I born, she was a role model to me. I wanted to be that little girl. The books are still in print, and they're really beloved by a small amount of women. There's a Betsy-Tacy Society who's catch-cry is "I thought I was the only one". The stories have a really modern sensibility. I would love - I openly yearn - to be a keynote speaker at a society gathering.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was a journalist. I had studied fiction writing in college and took it pretty seriously. I got As in creative writing but not journalism - I should have paid attention to the writing on the wall! In my 20s I wrote the obligatory serious autobiographical novel, but not much had happened to me. It was like the same 60 pages over and over. Then I realised that in crime novels something has to happen. The unfinished crime novel has no reason to be - it's either bad and no one wants to read it or it's 'what happens next?'. So I switched to 'what if?' scenarios.

In the early 1990s there was a recession in the United States, and I was low on the totem pole at the Baltimore Sun, so I feared for my job. I wrote the first Tess Monaghan novel based on what might happen if I lost my job. A colleague had talked about being a private eye for an insurance company if he ever lost his job. It gave me the idea of what career opportunities would be open to me.

So I learned how to write a crime novel, which meant I had to learn how to plot, how to have things happen, which solved all the problems of these autobiographical literary novels. I started with the character of Tess, and a situation.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love to eat. I love to exercise. I love to travel. I love to read. I love to watch reality TV, the Real Housewives channels. One time on one of my husband's shows [ed note: Lippman is married to David Simon, writer/producer on Homicide: Life on the Street, and creator of The Wire and Treme], they had a lot of real-life chefs guest starring, so I went to the set - I usually didn't - to meet Tom Colicchio (Top Chef) and the other top chefs.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) devoted to "outsider art", has a wing showcasing a Baltimore art form, 'painted screens'. In working class Baltimore where people lived in narrow row houses, the custom emerged of people painting bucolic scenes on window screens and doors. It became recognised as a legitimate form of folk art.

I'm the very proud owner of a painted screen that has Edgar Allan Poe's grave and roses on it. Dee Herget painted one especially for me when she heard my story of losing my screen after my first marriage break-up. The Poe Toaster was a Baltimore tradition - he used to go to Poe's original gravesite on his birthday and leave three red roses and a bottle of cognac. I witnessed it one year (had to get permission as on private property). It was one of the coolest things, but now he's stopped, after doing it for almost 80 years.

My husband David will also take people on Homicide tours of Baltimore.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Susan Dey, who played Laurie in The Partridge Family. When I was young and she was young, there was an uncanny resemblance, flattering myself. Or the person I'm a dead ringer for is the female reporter Sweet Polly Purebred in the cartoon Underdog.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Right now it's probably WILDE LAKE. I have a complicated relationship with it. My Dad died while I was in the middle of writing it. He hadn't been my Dad for a while. He wasn't as sharp in the last three to five years of his life. He was still lucid, but quieter. He'd been really funny and quick. When he lost that quickness, he deflated and went into himself. His death was liberating in a way because I didn't have to worry about how much he'd project into the father-daughter relationship. It's a book that I'm proud of, but it's impossible to imagine what the book would have been if my father had still been alive. It's like that Updike quote, "The great thing about the dead, is they make space".

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
It was a beautiful October day in 1995 and I came to work and my agent said there was an offer... there wasn't a bidding war but there were a few offers, so by the end of the day I'd have a book contract. My friend and colleague Rob Hiaasen - Carl's younger brother - and I went across the road for coffee. I saw David Simon there, one of my colleagues who'd published a book, and he bought me a cup of coffee to celebrate as he knew the thrill of getting published. We were both married to other people at the time - five years later we weren't and he asked me out. It's funny how it circled back.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
It's a little bit bragging, but it made me happy. In 2007 I was in Colorado, and I'd just landed my first book on the New York Times bestseller list. A woman came up to me in Denver airport and said 'Are you Laura Lippman? She was from Baltimore, where I'm a little bit of a public figure, compared to everywhere else. She asked if her daughter could meet me. 'This is Tess'. She'd named her daughter after my character, which was such a cool feeling. I knew I could have a career at this.

Thank you Laura. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about Laura Lippman and her books at her website, or follow her on Twitter

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely interview! Laura is articulate and interesting. I have just one small comment - in the Betsy Tacy series, Betsy's last name is spelled "Ray" instead of Rae. Thank you!