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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Laura Lippman - an interview on 8/21/12

Baltimore author Laura Lippman visited MBTB when she was in Portland recently to promote her newest book, "And When She Was Good." She began her Tess Monaghan private eye series in 1997 with the award-winning "Baltimore Blues." Since then she has won several more writing awards. She finally quit her job as a journalist at The Baltimore Sun to write full-time. She and her husband, David Simon, currently divide their time between Baltimore and New Orleans. She talked to us about topics that ranged from a virtual wardrobe consultant to "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Lippman takes her responsibilities seriously as a blogger and Facebook user. "My latest post on Facebook is that I plan to go to Voodoo Donuts before I leave Portland tomorrow," she said. She ponders how to juggle a box of doughnuts on the airplane on the way to Seattle to visit a friend. "My Facebook page is like my id," she adds. "There's a lot about kale -- because I really love crunchy kale."

She maximizes her use of what technology has to offer and has even received an emailed wardrobe intervention from her friend Libby. If you seek Libby's advice, however, "you have to be able to take very straightforward, emphatic statements." When Lippman sported a pair of capri pants that made Libby cringe, Lippman was asked, "Do you want to ever have sex again as long as you live?"

For the record, she was wearing a black outfit with black boots. "I know today I look a little like an airline stewardess, but I still like this dress." 

On the other hand, technological social media is not for everyone. "I don't think writers should do anything they don't want to do because they won't do it well." 

Baltimore is more than just where her books take place. She loves the city, and "until the fall of 2009, I would have said to you that I couldn't live any other place than Baltimore. Then my husband's [David Simon, producer of HBO's "Treme"] work made it necessary for us to live part-time in New Orleans," a city she now also loves. Now she knows that "there are a lot of places I could live."

Lippman was a reporter at The San Antonio Light briefly and then The Baltimore Sun for many years. Was it difficult to change her writing technique from an investigative style to narrative fiction? No, she said, "I wanted to be a novelist. I started writing novels while I was at the paper and I found the two disciplines complementary." And the difference between the two?  "When you are a journalist and you find a story so amazing that people can't believe it's true, that's considered really great, unless you made it up, in which case that just means you're a very bad fiction writer." The near-misses and coincidences that elevate true stories make fiction sound "hackneyed and cliched."

Lippman has temporarily set Tess Monaghan aside to write "And When She Was Good," a standalone novel. The main character, Heloise, is a single, suburban soccer mom who is also the owner of a high-priced call girl operation. "How else are you going to have flexible hours, maintain the mortgage on the big house and be able to hire all the childcare you need?" Lippman asks. Only a sympathetic cop and her babysitter know about Heloise's dual life. "I will say that as the mother of a two-year-old that my babysitter knows everything about my life." The tension in the story comes from what Heloise must do to protect her son from the unsavory, duplicitous, and murderous people who enter their lives. Lippman sums it up: "You could say to her if you want this life for your son, then ten people have to die. She'd say, so be it, then ten people have to die."

Tess Monaghan hasn't been seen since 2009. Has she been abandoned? "Tess is in this book," she declared. "She's not named, but Heloise mentions that she has a female private detective in the city who runs background checks on all of her clients. That's the easter egg."

Does she add hidden items like that or references to other mystery writers as a game for her readers? "To write a book that's devoid of pop culture seems fake to me," she answered. "Lauren Henderson -- who wrote the wonderful Sam Jones novels -- [said] what I thought was an interesting point: people in crime fiction never read crime fiction. I mean, would they exist in a vacuum? Would your private detective be aware of the fact that they work within this industry that has a really big cultural impact? I enlarged it to: Of course people read, of course people watch TV shows." Furthermore, Baltimore really is a "small town," so why wouldn't Tess "end up showing up in all these other people's stories -- that there would be this cross-pollination. I was influenced by Richard Price that way. In 'Clockers,' 'Freedomland,' and 'Samaritan,' even though his characters don't repeat, you feel that everyone's moving in that world, as though you might see a character in a previous novel passing through."

Why won't she sign books on Army PX bases anymore? Apparently, Lippman is game to try any type of signing event at least twice (just in case the lack of success the first time was a fluke). The first event at a PX wasn't wildly successful, but she tried again. Unfortunately, she didn't have the proper ID and couldn't enter the base, "so I sat outside in front of a table of books. In order for people to buy the books, they had to encounter me twice. They'd go in and they'd come back out and then, no, you have to go back in and buy it. It just didn't work."

Worse yet was a signing at an airport -- on the travelers' side of security. Enroute to a bar mitzvah in Buffalo, New York, Lippman took time out to plop herself behind a table and try to interest wary travelers in her books. "People behind security in airports are looking for less human contact. The only way that an airport book signing with an author is going to work is if it's December 23 and the airport has been shut down in a massive blizzard and people need some emergency Christmas shopping."

Lippman spoke extensively about the future of print books and rabid readers, of which she is one.

Despite her long association with newspapers and book publishers, she said, "I didn't see the implosion of newspapers coming. I am by nature Pollyanna-ish and I feel pretty positive about the future of books. One thing I'll steal from the writer John Connolly is he said, when you start talking about the end of physical books, it might do good to remember that's a first-world problem." In fact, she has been to Zimbabwe and worked to provide books to third-world countries. "There the issue is not should I get a digital download or should I buy the hardcover," Lippman said. "It's where can I get a book, what will it take to get books here."

Citing an article by Laura Miller of "Salon," an online magazine, Lippman said that there's a lot of junk to wade through in digital bookstores. She added, "What fascinates me is how any human being on the planet could think for a second that they don't want their consumer experiences curated. The idea that anyone wants to wander into a vast digital warehouse with millions of titles with virtually no guidance except for these deeply flawed algorithms that think they know what I want -- I'll tell you as someone who shops online quite a bit, they're so wrong." There are so many different "factions" of publishing now, including "indie" publishing. "Independent of what -- editing, punctuation, what?" she asked. "The very classy Little, Brown editor, Reagan Arthur, said if you say to me you're indie-published, you better be published by Norton."

Even when she was struggling to make ends meet in her 20s, she still found a way to buy books. (By the way, the waitress job Heloise has in "And When She Was Good" was based on the job Lippman needed to supplement her first newspaper position.) "I was a reader before I was a writer. I'll be a reader after I'm a writer." Her fanaticism as a reader has given her another way of looking at her own books: "I became my focus group of one. I began watching how I bought books. Of course the covers matter, of course staff selections matter, of course the end caps matter [displays at the ends of an aisles], of course the experience of the bookstore matters, all of this stuff matters."

Lippman was dismayed at the buying choices of the public.  "Is it true that '50 Shades of Gray' has sold 20 million copies?" she asked. "You know what that means? That means that 19,800,000 people who aren't going to buy another book this year bought that book. If only everyone who bought "Shades of Gray" would buy five more books this year, do you know how healthy publishing would be?"

Laura Lippman: Opinionated, interesting, articulate, and entertaining. And funny.

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