It’s January and Laura Lippman has just had an annoying run-in with the TSA. While returning to Baltimore from a stint teaching at the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference in Florida, she was dinged by an airport security machine. After some confusion, she followed a TSA agent’s instructions and got in another screening line, where a different agent asked her if she really needed to be there.
“Unfortunately, I do,” Lippman told the agent.
The agent accused her of copping an attitude, and Lippman promptly folded. “After that, I did not say anything,” she recounts over Skype. “I’m not going to fight with somebody who can make my life miserable.”
Once she arrived at her gate, Lippman opened her laptop and tweeted, “To the TSA person in Terminal C: In fact, I do need to have that attitude.”
She certainly does. The author of 23 crime novels, Lippman has a sharp wit and a sensitivity to power dynamics that make her books compulsively readable. (Those sensibilities also make her Twitter feed a delight—she has more than 27,000 followers.) Her fiction explores the conflicts and thwarted desires that compel people to transgress. Now, in her debut essay collection, My Life as a Villainess (Morrow, May), Lippman comes clean about her own misdeeds, admitting to being a bad friend, stealing penny candy, and, well, just being an occasional jerk.
“My agent and my editor worried that I was too hard on myself in the book, and I said, ‘No, I’m okay with it.’ ” Lippman recalls. “Part of being happy with who I am is that I feel very free to criticize who I used to be. I think a lot of people feel very protective of their younger selves and want to go back into the past and put their arm around them and say, ‘Oh, if you only knew what I know, it would be okay.’ I’m not inclined to do that.”
At the same time, Lippman is unrepentant in arenas where women, especially, are often held suspect. She’s glad she hired a full-time nanny. She doesn’t self-deprecate. And she’s willing to deliver a stinging rebuke, though only if she thinks you can take it.
“I have no patience with people who are what I call mean down,” Lippman says. “Although there are people who would look at my encounter with the TSA agent yesterday and say, ‘You were mean down.’ But I had no power in that situation.”
The candy-stealing incident occurred when Lippman was a young reporter working at her first job at the Waco Tribune-Herald. She was trying to establish a career in journalism while also writing fiction and pursuing her goal of becoming a novelist. Like many ambitious, not-yet-successful people in their 20s, Lippman says she was frequently miserable. She jealously followed the careers of contemporaries who were publishing novels and felt particularly envious of her future friend Ann Hood. Lippman also had a minor eating disorder, and in her essay “The Waco Kid,” she describes the supermarket trips when she’d open up a bag of candy, pop a few pieces in her mouth, and then shove the bag to the back of the shelf.
“The thing that bugs me about it is that I really didn’t understand that I was stealing,” Lippman says. “I was so caught up in my weirdness about food and wanting candy and feeling hungry all the time. But I skipped past the part where I was stealing, which is indefensible.”
Lippman wrote novels while working full-time as a reporter for 20 years, spending the last 12 at the Baltimore Sun. She was 38 when she published her first novel, Baltimore Blues, in 1997. The novel was the first in her Tess Monaghan series, and over the next four years she continued writing the Monaghan books while working in daily journalism.
In her fiction, Lippman focuses on ordinary people whose desires and blind spots clash with the world around them. For example, her bestselling 2019 novel, Lady in the Lake, tells the story of Madeline Schwartz, a middle-aged woman struggling to begin a newspaper-reporting career in 1966. Maddie’s driving ambition is necessary to confront the sexism and structural obstacles she faces, but it also blinds her to the harm she causes. She can be arrogant and selfish, but she’s not a sociopath.
“I have no desire to write about big, evil characters,” says Lippman, who recently encouraged her Eckerd College students to avoid them too. “They heard me say again and again, ‘Do less. Take it down a notch. Don’t make your characters so big and broad, whether they’re heroes or antiheroes. Bring them closer to a human scale.’ ”
When Lippman began writing personal essays, she wasn’t sure how her own life-size problems would land. But she saw they were a great way to find new readers and promote books, so early last year she contacted editor Sari Botton at the long-form web magazine Longreads about writing for her Fine Lines series on aging.
“I was surprised and thrilled when Laura wrote to me,” Botton says. “She was really humble about it, which was so refreshing for a hugely successful novelist.”
A few months later, Longreads published “Game of Crones,” in which Lippman describes two very particular aspects of her life: being the 60-year-old mother of a third grader, and being married to a very successful television producer—The Wire creator David Simon—whose work frequently keeps him away from home. It was the first truly personal essay Lippman ever wrote, and she was shocked when the story of her unique circumstances became one of the most popular pieces on the site. “It was interesting to see that when you’re really specific about what your life is like, you still find universality,” she says.
Lippman subsequently published two more equally popular essays with Longreads. “The Whole 60” is about ditching diets and, after years of struggling with food, declaring herself beautiful. In “The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People,” Lippman examines her culpability in friendships that have ended. She doesn’t feel guilty about a friend who ghosted her, but she deeply regrets losing touch with a friend who died in the 2018 Annapolis Capitol Gazette shooting. She confesses that she’s let other friends down, and she feels grateful for those willing to have difficult talks and give her another chance.
In these turbulent times, being willing to hear tough feedback is important, Lippman says, noting that in the American Dirt controversy, some writers who initially praised the book now feel defensive. “My take is, can you just listen and understand that when people explain to you the things that they find offensive or inaccurate or stereotypical, they’re not saying this to hurt your feelings? They’re not even saying this to assert anything about your character other than that for whatever reason they saw something you didn’t see. Isn’t it of value to see that thing? Isn’t it of value to always be self-interrogating?”
For Lippman, the answer is clearly yes. My Life as a Villainess may be complete, but Lippman hasn’t finished thinking about the issues it explores. She wants to be a better writer, a better person, and a better parent.
Lippman notes that her daughter recently said something mean to her. A wicked retort popped into Lippman’s head, but she held it together, neither speaking nor tweeting. “I felt so triumphant that I persevered over my own childish nature, knowing that maybe the next time I wouldn’t,” she says. “But it’s okay. Today I’ll give myself that little victory.”
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single (TarcherPerigee).