You know the one about the writer who “saves it all for the page”?
Well, Laura Lippman is not that writer. The 49-year-old creator of the hugely popular Tess Monaghan mystery series and several stand-alone psychological thrillers is as friendly and outgoing and Baltimore-obsessed as her heroine alter ego. What Robert B. Parker is to Boston and Carl Hiaasen is to South Florida, Lippman is to her adopted hometown.
She's obsessed; she can barely stop talking about it. When I told her I'd train down from New York for this interview, her first reaction was to offer me a tour of any part of Baltimore I was “dying to see.” When I get there, she picks me up at the station and drives me around for almost an hour, spinning tales of Baltimore's politics, its neighborhoods, its history. As we drive, she points out several houses in which Tess has lived. Like all good writers, Lippman talks, and writes, about what she knows, and this longtime Baltimore Sun reporter knows people, crime and, above all, the city she has transformed into a living, breathing character.
Lippman and her husband, David Simon, the reporter—turned—TV writer/producer behind the TV series Homicide and The Wire, are something of neighborhood royalty. Clearly well known at the coffee shop she takes me to this morning, Lippman banters with the waitress about local sports scores and politics. This daughter of a librarian and newspaperman (her father moved the family to Baltimore to take a job at the Baltimore Sun when Lippman was in grade school) wrote seven of her early books while working full time at the Sun (she finally resigned in 2001). She's known for being compulsively on deadline—“I was a journalist for a long time,” she says. “I work well on deadline. ” She writes just about every morning (even on vacation or book tour, she says, “What else would I do, hang around a hotel room?”), teaches fiction at an Eckerd College workshop run by her friend Dennis Lehane, and produces one book a year. (In her “free” time, she volunteers at a local soup kitchen.)
This year's book, Lippman's 15th is Another Thing to Fall (Morrow). It's a Tess novel—Lippman says she tries to alternate annually between series and standalone—set, as usual, in Baltimore, but it's also about something Lippman has only recently come to know well: the making of a TV series. While she is quick to point out, both in her author's note and in person today, that the show in the novel and the characters are not stand-ins for either Homicide or The Wire, she acknowledges that what she's seen and heard in her life with Simon was an inspiration. She read call sheets and hung around the set, but when it came time to write, she created a story of goings-on far creepier than any she saw close up, with characters both fresh and familiar: the washed-up actor for whom the new series is a comeback opportunity; the producers and writers vying and backstabbing; and, most fun, the ditzy young actress who turns out to be a whole lot smarter than she looks.
Another Thing to Fall is vintage Lippman in that it is curiously unredemptive: the good guys don't always win, and the villains are multidimensional. “Sometimes, in the series, my editor [Carrie Feron, editor for all of Lippman's books] would say, 'Well, how does this or that change Tess?' and I'll stop and think about it. But generally, I'm not big on stories that exist to redeem the main character. Crime and murder are not character builders.”
Thanks, perhaps, to her time at the Sun, Lippman has deep psychological understanding of both criminals and victims, especially when either or both are young women. There was Every Secret Thing (Morrow, 2003), about two missing girls; To the Power of Three (Morrow, 2005), about three high school girls and a mysterious feud; and, last summer, the stellar standalone What the Dead Know (Morrow), about a woman who may have disappeared from a shopping mall decades before. “There's usually someone really young in my novels,” says Lippman. “Childhood is so vivid to me.” Which may be why she wasn't offended when a reviewer once called her books “chick lit with guns.”
Today, she shrugs: “I sometimes think that I'm just a YA writer who lost my way.”