The Tirelessly Prolific Laura Lippman Enters The Superstar Stage of Her Career
Laura Lippman was just beginning the promotion for Another Thing to Fall--her latest Tess Monaghan mystery, the 10th book in a series about the Baltimore private eye whose journalism background, height, and rowing hobby mirror Lippman, who worked at The Baltimore Sun for 12 years--when she sat down to breakfast for this interview last spring. It was a busy month for both the tall blonde, who honestly looks a solid 10 years younger than her late 40s, and her husband, David Simon, whose The Wire grand finale aired just hours after this discussion. Yet Lippman has reached Joyce Carol Oates proliferation levels lately, with a serialized Tess Monaghan mystery in New York Times Magazine, titled The Girl With the Green Raincoat (the first installment appeared in the Sept. 5 issue); a deliciously dark collection of short stories out this month, titled Hardly Knew Her; and her next standalone novel, due out in early 2009. Oh yeah, she's also the American guest of honor at Bouchercon 2008--the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention--which takes over Baltimore this weekend.
"I like writing a book a year," Lippman says, wrapping her hands around a cup of coffee, her light blue eyes and fair skin a contrast to the black V-neck sweater and silver necklace she's casually sporting. "What I can't do, is I can't write kind of gut-wrenching books back to back. And so, if I'm going to write a book a year, I've got to make careful emotional choices."
Her last novel, last year's What the Dead Know, which didn't feature Tess and was a New York Times best seller, was an intensely psychological drama about the disappearance of a pair of sisters from Woodlawn's Security Square Mall and the messed-up woman who shows up 30 years later claiming to be the younger of the two. It's not that the Tess series is easy or silly, but it's not a new world with every new mystery. "I've been varying standalones that kind of wipe me out and then I go back to the world of Tess, which is more contained and change is more incremental," she says. "I'm not going to use the character up because she's a series character."
Lippman says Another Thing to Fall was written almost as an antidote to What the Dead Know. "I need to write something that's going to be funny, to me--I don't know how the rest of the world feels," she says. "But, if I'm going to write a book that year, it had to be much breezier."
And so she had fun with Fall, which takes Hollywood, plants it in Baltimore, and plays with the contrast of differing sensibilities: high maintenance vs. easy living, humor with violence, a cup of joe vs. a nonfat tall mocha. Which is not to imply that she takes everything about it lightly. "It's hard to say you've ever written a funny book when people are being killed in just horrible ways," she says.
There is a considered difference in the violence and murder between her series and standalone books--the Tess stories contain less graphic scenes, more personally motivated crime, and less sex--and Fall's Hollywood types aren't there simply because her husband has been working on The Wire for most of the '00s. "They are foils for [Tess]," Lippman says. But the book's often casual subject matter--actors, props, a time travel show--belies a deeper theme. "There is something very deliberate in this book. It's difficult to talk about without it being too much of a spoiler, but in the climax of this book, Tess has a moment of thinking, If I can get out this situation with no one dying, I would be a very happy person."
Tess and Lippman are not the same person, but it sounds as though she's not just concerned with her character's psyche when she discusses the effects of witnessing all that violence in book after book of whodunits. "Tess has killed only one person in 10 books," Lippman says. "That was so important to me because there are series where you do wonder about the character's ability to go on without being increasingly traumatized by what they're doing. How can you have a person who is killing someone every couple of months and not have them just wrecked?
"It took me seven books to let Tess kill someone in the most extreme circumstances, and I think it's the most disturbing thing I've ever written in the scene where Tess fights for her life," she continues, and she leans in to underscore the intensity. "She gouges a man's eye out with a pair of scissors. It was meant to be really awful. I wanted it to be gross--because it should be gross to kill someone."
Another Thing to Fall opens with scenes of an older man taking pictures of a young woman sitting on a park bench, describing his feelings of wanting to capture an innocence that might already be gone. It's probably the creepiest moment in the book that otherwise follows Tess as she becomes part of the Mann of Steel set, hired as a bodyguard to the young, seemingly stupid lead actress Selene. Tess soon finds herself investigating the murder of an assistant on the set while being helped and hindered by director Flip Tumulty and writer Ben Marcus. The plot and dialogue is rather light fare, and making up local celebrities in a city of local celebrities was part of the fun.
"One of the things about this book is that I know people read it and go, Oh, that's so and so, because that's how people read the books, especially in Baltimore," she says. "I knew people would say, `Oh that [Flip's father]'s Barry Levinson,' except Barry Levinson doesn't have a son who's a writer/producer, and I created this really specific filmography for Flip Tumulty: Mildred Pierced, Ottoman's Empire, No Human Involved.
"It was just enormous fun," she laughs. "It was the best time in writing this book when I got to make up television shows and movies."
But making up fictional résumés for fictional actors, producers, and directors is one thing; it's quite another to have your main character Tess--a loyal Baltimore native with slightly cynical view about, well, everything--enter the world of Hollywood by way of the waterfront. Mann of Steel has no relation to The Wire, but Lippman definitely used her experience of being around a real TV show to inform the fictional TV set into which Tess literally rows. Lippman makes it very clear in the book's afterward that she wasn't writing about The Wire, David Simon, or the people she's met through that involvement. Readers are bound to draw comparisons, but that doesn't bother her at all.
"I'm not concerned about it," she says. "I know it will happen, and there's nothing I can do about it. If people can't see the distinction between Flip and Ben, who are very much of Hollywood, and the people who worked on The Wire, who are very much not of Hollywood, there's nothing I can do about that."
A fictional account of a fictional show in a real city that hosts sets of real movies and television--is that asking for more suspension of disbelief from the reader than is possible? "The really interesting thing about fiction is that even the most sophisticated readers just can't stop asking themselves what's true," Lippman says, and she's right: Baltimoreans are used to seeing their city in the background of more than their own lives.
This Tess mystery is an entertainingly quick read, and it's easy to see how it and Lippman fit alongside serial mystery writers--Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton and her letter series, Dick Francis and his horse-racing set, etc.--with huge fan bases. It's a solid tradition, and Lippman's Tess has the legs for it. But, and perhaps this is a stupid question for the creator of a moneymaking main character, does she ever imagine letting Tess go?
"Yes, I think about it a lot," Lippman answers quickly. "I'm very conscious of the fact that in a bizarre way I stand between Tess Monaghan and settling down, having a baby. I can't write Tess with a baby.
"In my fantasy, Tess goes away for maybe 10 years," Lippman muses. "And, when she comes back, maybe more than 10 years will have passed in her lifetime. [Time has] always been a very flexible concept in the Tess Monaghan world--she's aged only five years over 10 [books], so perhaps in 10 years she can age 20." But Tess' future is flexible in her creator's mind: The Tess of The Girl in the Green Raincoat has only aged a year--just long enough to get knocked up and into her third trimester.
And as Tess evolves, so does Lippman's success. Her last two novels have more than proven her abilities not just as a series writer but as a novelist who understands how to keep the mystery alive, and her first collection of short stories (most of which have been previously published in anthologies) displays a twisted side unseen in any of her previous longer works.
It seems the mystery writer enjoys a challenge. "This is when I'll know that I have to stop writing about Tess--if I ever sit down and I think, This is easy," Lippman says. "Then I'm in trouble. The minute a writer says to himself or herself, `This is easy,' I think that's the sign that you shouldn't be doing it. I don't think--again, it's for others to say--I don't think I've written the same Tess Monaghan novel twice."
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