Lippman takes inspiration from James M. Cain and Anne Tyler in Sunburn (Morrow, Feb.), a crime thriller set in 1995 Delaware.
Ten years ago, I decided to take singing lessons. My stepson is an extraordinarily gifted pianist, and I wanted some insight into his passion. I studied with a woman whose coursework was titled The Voice Within. She encouraged me to think of my singing voice as an instrument, but not in a grandiose way. An instrument responds to teaching and practice, it can be manipulated.
Although I had written a dozen novels at this time, my innate writing voice was a bit of a disappointment to me. I had started out hoping to be James M. Cain. Stark, cynical, a true noir writer with a penchant for capturing the quotidian details of whatever subject caught his fancy. Cain, like me, had worked at the Baltimore Sun, liked opera, and, as he once wrote, “I am a registered Democrat. I drink.” But I wasn’t hardboiled. I had a runny, messy yolk of a heart, a rueful optimism about the human condition that seeped through my books. I consoled myself: “I am not James Cain/ Nor was I meant to be.”
Okay, I never made that highfalutin’ allusion. But I did abandon my Cain-esque dreams and accept that I was working in a different range.
When my daughter was born in 2010, I had to give up my singing lessons. After watching an episode of Glee during a 2 a.m. feeding, I made a joke on Facebook about my yearning to hit the high note in “Defying Gravity.” My former singing teacher chimed in, “Oh, you can hit that note in your head voice.” That glancing observation stuck with me. If my literal voice had more range than I realized, maybe my writing voice, too, would expand with effort.
Meanwhile, I had long been obsessed with another Baltimore icon, Anne Tyler. How can a Baltimore writer not be obsessed with Tyler? The thing about Tyler is that she’s a novelist who lives in Baltimore, not a Baltimore novelist. The city is not her subject, only her backdrop. But she is our greatest writer. I particularly love Ladder of Years, her novel about a woman who abandons her family on a beach vacation. Because Tyler is Tyler, it is a funny, surprising, compassionate novel. But imagine that idea in the upside down, as it were. Isn’t it dark as hell? What kind of woman walks away from her family? What if Cain had written a novel based on this premise? What if the genders in The Postman Always Ring Twice were flipped, and the gorgeous drifter was a woman?
I found myself typing: “It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him.”
Maybe my singing teacher was right. Maybe I could hit some new notes.