Friday, April 24, 2009

Laura Lippman Interview, Part III

By G.M. Malliet

Q: What advice do you have for new authors in dealing with the “mechanics” of writing—all those “he turned”s and “she turned her head”s, and all the business of getting people in and out of a room and settled into their chairs or whatever. Any tricks you can offer for smoothing out the rough edges?

A: I feel like such a fraud answering that question because I struggle with the same things. But I will say this much: “Said” is good. “Said” and “Asked” are pretty much all you need, and use them as sparingly as possible. (As James M. Cain said, “What else would they be doing? Gargling?” That’s a paraphrase, but close enough.)

I do think reading one’s work aloud is essential. As you move from draft to draft, no matter how carefully you try to read, the eye will start to skim. At least, mine does. But the mouth can’t skim and you’ll find that if you read work aloud in the final stages, your ear will catch things that the eye has missed. The overuse of certain words, even factual tendencies.

This may sound moronic, but I confess, I like some of those decorating shows on television and the experts often speak of “editing” a room. Of course, we all know we’re supposed to edit our work, but if you think about this more concrete practice – removing items, moving items about – it can be very helpful. This is, of course, another variation on “Kill your darlings.” It is remarkably sound advice, which is hard to take, because it means admitting that we simply can’t learn from past mistakes. I’ve written fifteen books and my fear is that I didn’t kill enough darlings. There’s a passage I love, from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, where the main character, a Roth-like writer, is confronted by a wannabe, who demands a critique of his work. The writer objects to one line, says it sounds labored. No, it came easily. And the writer says that might be the problem. The wannabe sees this as a frustrating contradiction, but the writer is right: It can come too easily, it can be too labored, but chances are, if you love, love, love a passage, it’s a candidate for deletion.

Q: Please name the writers (mystery or otherwise) who have had a major influence on your writing.

A: You know what? Every writer I read has an influence on me, some profound, some just as horrible examples. I am mindful of the fact there are writers who may not be considered great, yet have this amazing talent for getting readers to turn pages. That’s something that can’t really be learned, I think, because it flows from sincerity, an absolute belief in the material. You can’t fake your way through a page-turner, which is why some literary writers fail when they attempt crime novels; they don’t really believe in what they’re doing.

Q: What can we look forward to next from Laura Lippman?

A: Life Sentences is the newest novel (March 2009). After a shockingly prolific ’08 – a novel, a novella and a short story collection – it feels absolutely carefree to be back on a book-a-year schedule. Although, come to think of it, I owe two short stories as well.

More at

Here are links to Parts I and II of this interview.

Photo by Jan Cobb


Jess Lourey said...

Laura, and anyone else who writes both short stories and novels, which is more challenging? If you take time out of the equation, that is. Is it more satisfying to crunch a whole world and a character arc into 30 or fewer pages, or would you rather stretch out for the length of a novel?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

For me, the key element in this Part III was the phrase "they don’t really believe in what they’re doing."

That's the key ingredient in doing anything well - believing in it. If you don't, people will smell a fraud.

Laura - thank you so much for gracing us with your wonderful advice and charm.

G.M. Malliet said...

Jess - I'm not a big expert, having written only a few short stories, but I tend to use them as palate cleansers, or to experiment with an idea I wouldn't be able to sustain for the length of a novel.

Both forms are satisfying, novel and short story, but for me the short story is more difficult. The polishing is endless.

Alan Orloff said...

Great interview, Laura and G.M.!

I'd never really thought about it, but Laura makes a great point when she says that great "page-turning" writing flows from the author's sincerity.

And she offers up some good pointers, too: Kill Your Darlings, stick to "said" and "asked," and reading your words aloud. (I read "aloud" in my head and can "hear" the words. Does that count, or am I just fooling myself?)

G.M. Malliet said...

I do the same, Alan - read aloud in my head. But reading aloud for real might be good practice for those public readings that are sometimes unavoidable.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks, Laura, for a terrific interview. Much continued success.

Terri Thayer said...

Thanks, Laura. I am a huge fan and just finished reading Life Sentences. Great book.

Susan Breen said...

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful interview. I teach creative writing and sometimes students will come up to me and say, "This story was so easy to write. I did it in half an hour." And I always think, Oh oh.