Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Laura Lippman Interview, Part I

By G.M. Malliet

Our guest blogger today at Inkspot is Laura Lippman, who is having quite a year. Most recently, at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, her novel What the Dead Know won the Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards for best novel, while "Hardly Knew Her" won the Anthony for best short story.

Her work has also been awarded the Edgar®, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, and the Gumshoe awards. Nominations for numerous other awards include the Hammett and Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association.

Her achievements are so many, in fact, I am in danger of leaving out something important. You can see the full list of what Laura has accomplished here.


Q: Laura – that’s a lot of achievement since Baltimore Blues was nominated for the Shamus Award for best first PI novel in 1997. In a little over ten years, it looks like a clean sweep of all the major awards. But you didn’t give up fulltime reporting for The (Baltimore) Sun until 2001. How did you manage during those four years? Late nights and early mornings, or did you just give up sleeping altogether?

A: I started writing Baltimore Blues in late 1992, so it was actually nine years of fulltime work and, from 1995 on, writing a book a year. (By the time Baltimore Blues sold, in October ’95, I was halfway through my second book.) I’m a morning person, however, which worked well for me. I got up at 6 or so, wrote for two hours, went to work. I have always compared this to the old adage about saving money: Pay yourself first. I skimmed the first two hours of the day off the top, gave them to myself and then never had to worry about whether I would work late, or be too tired to write in the evening. Whatever happened at work – and a lot can happen in a typical day at a newspaper – I had gotten my writing done.

One thing I often omit when I tell this story – for years, I had been a morning exerciser, so my writing routine really entailed moving my work-out from before-work to lunchtime, or just after work.

Q: Was there a single defining moment when you felt it was safe, financially and otherwise, to leave the day job, or did you simply feel that, come what may, you had to follow your heart?

A: I worked for the Sun for twelve years, eleven of the happiest years of my life. The final year was like the end of a marriage – sad, awful, depressing. I was looking for another gig, in fact, when my longtime publisher offered me a contract that would allow me to quit. There’s actually a formula of sorts for calculating what you need to quit your day job; the blogger/novelist John Scalzi has written about it at length. Basically, look at your day job pay and add 30 percent. That will cover the benefits you don’t have as a freelancer – if you’re very lucky.

And if you’ll permit me here a moment on my soap box: There’s often a lot of hand-wringing about how government regulation/intervention stifles entrepreneurship and creativity. But the single stifling thing I’ve seen is the lack of health insurance. I have friends who left the Sun and easily replaced their salaries via freelancing and teaching, some combination thereof. But if they didn’t have spouses with health insurance, they couldn’t do that. I was lucky – I had only myself to support and I could afford COBRA for 18 months, which meant that I could then join a private insurance company with no underwriting, no restrictions. I don’t often speak of specifics, but I will note that COBRA cost me $400 a month, more than $7,000 over 18 months. I was lucky enough to be able to afford that and then join a traditional health care plan that is a fourth of that cost. But for people with families – forget it!


Photo by Jan Cobb


Jessica Lourey said...

Great beginning to an interview, Gin! And Ms. Lippman makes an excellent point about how health insurance can be the deciding factor between choosing a life of innovation and staying with a "safe" career. It's one of the best arguments for universal, accessible, affordable health care in the U.S. that I've heard.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Laura hit the nail on the head on why many of us struggle to balance day jobs with our writing - health insurance. I did the 30% calculation and it looks like I'll be doing my paralegal gig for a long, long time. But like others, I keep the faith.

The next time someone who is not a national name and best seller tells you their writing supports them, check to see if they're married to someone with a regular job with regular benefits.

Terri Thayer said...

Great job, Gin. Thanks, Laura. I'm a big fan.

G.M. Malliet said...

The healthcare issue is a real hot button for me (and no, I didn't coach Laura to talk about it)!

If you want to stifle creativity and reduce productivity in this or any other country, keep people chained to jobs they dislike and for which they may have no particular talent. That was pretty much my job description for years ;-)

All I wanted to do was write but I had to have those benefits, as we all do.

G.M. Malliet said...

Write fiction, I meant.

Keith Raffel said...

In a conversation with Laura a couple of years ago, I congratulated her for making the NY Times bestseller list. She pointed out it was her 10th book. Inspiring for writers, said I. A lesson for publishers on the need to be patient, to foster and build careers, said she.

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks, GM. Thanks, Laura. I can't wait for parts II and III.

Laura provides a lesson (by example) in discipline and perseverance that many writers would be wise to emulate. Waking up two hours early? Man!

Since Laura mentioned juggling her schedule to include exercise, I'd be interested to know if she finds that exercise increases her writing "stamina," too?

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Hi, Laura, we met when you were a guest at the Jewish Book Festival here in St. Louis. You are right about the cost of health care and the "knock on" impact of that burden. My husband is a small business owner. At this point, to add an employee would cost us double the salary (with health care expenses) because we have one long-time employee on the payroll who has had numerous health problems. His poor health causes all our employees into a higher bracket. So, not only do we creative types suffer, so does our entire economy. We can't grow new jobs without universal, afforable health care. When we lived in England, they constantly wondered how a country as advanced as ours could be so backwards in this vital area.

Lisa Bork said...

Two hours of writing then eight plus hours of work in addition to exercising daily?! All I can say is Laura deserves her success. And affordable health insurance.

Anonymous said...

You're so right about health insurance. However, do check out the Freelancers Union in NYC. They formed to generate group initiatives of this sort for all freelancers. In the process, they also developed tax seminars, freelance networking opptys online, and lately, just came up with a retirement plan. A great consideration, and membership is free: When the group founded themselves a few years ago, the pledge was to establish their base in NYC and move national. Retirement, you can join up now, I would think. Healthcare, you must wait until they establish a base near you, from what I can gather.

Julia Buckley said...

Some really interesting points here, Laura and Gin. I admire Laura, the "morning exerciser," for adapting her schedule so that she still exercises. I was a "never exerciser" when I started writing, and writing is a very sedentary gig. So I'm trying to become more fit even though it is not an instinctive need. :)

Deborah Sharp said...

Great to have Laura on board today. She says:

''There’s actually a formula of sorts for calculating what you need to quit your day job; the blogger/novelist John Scalzi has written about it at length. Basically, look at your day job pay and add 30 percent . . . ''

Uh-oh, looks like I shouldn't have quit the day job yet!

Laura said...

Hi, folks. It was a pleasure doing this interview. I should have been clearer on the insurance question: It stifles a lot of entrepreneurial creativity, not just the creativity of writers. The frequent argument is that taxes/fees stifle small business owners and perhaps many of them feel that way. But I've seen far more people imprisoned by health care costs.

One small clarification: it was actually my 12th book that landed on the Times bestseller list. I know people say publishers don't give writers time to develop, but mine did and deserves credit. But then, Morrow is home to a lot of writers with slow builds: Elizabeth Peters, Peter Robinson. Even Lehane required a little time, hitting the list with his sixth book.

Don't get me wrong: I've seen friends, good friends with good books, lose contracts when they're earning out. There are a lot of market forces that affect such decisions. Now, more than ever, publishers have a finite number of dollars and are trying to figure out where to put them.

And, yes, I think exercise helps to create mental stamina. I think Sue Grafton preaches this, too.