Thursday, April 23, 2009

Laura Lippman Interview, Part II

By G.M. Malliet

Q: How easy do you find it to alternate between your Tess Monaghan PI novels and your suspense novels?

A: I don’t know how easy it is; I’m not sure that writing a novel should ever be described as easy. It’s not physically demanding work and it can be incredibly invigorating, but if it were easy, I would worry.

That said, I find the switch keeps me on my toes. The writers I admire most tend to have large ranges – Stewart O'Nan, Jane Smiley, now Dennis Lehane. I don’t think my range will ever be that large, but I’d like to keep trying new things to stay fresh.

Q: As it happens, you and I were in approximately the same wave of post-Watergate students jamming the corridors of the journalism schools. You’ve said that where you really excelled even then, however, was in creative writing. Do you ever think you should have enrolled in something like the Iowa Writers' Workshop instead? Or in hindsight, did your career evolve exactly as it should?

A: Iowa would have destroyed me. I had led a somewhat sheltered life, through college. I needed to be in the world. That’s speaking strictly for myself. Eudora Welty, in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” notes that a sheltered life can be a daring one, because all serious daring starts within. And if one is an Ann Patchett – an Iowa alum – or someone else of similar talent, a writers workshop might work very well for you.

Then again, I was just re-reading Patchett’s “Truth and Beauty” last night and it’s when she’s left Iowa, gone through a divorce and ended up as a waitress at TGI Fridays that she really begins to get serious about her work. She has this epiphany while watching television in the middle of the night in Aberdeen, Scotland. So maybe we all need a little grit in our lives to get where we’re going. The sad fact is, the vast majority of Iowa graduates, of all MFA program graduates, won’t have particularly notable careers. Faced with those odds, I would have folded. I benefited from the bliss that is ignorance.

Q: What the Dead Know is based loosely on real events. Would you talk about the background for this book? And did you find it easier or harder to write because it had its roots in reality?

A: Most of my novels have been rooted in reality, just less well-known realities, if you will. But the disappearance of the Lyon sisters, in 1975, was a very well-known local story. They went out into their safe, suburban neighborhood one day during spring break and were never seen again.

Yet once I extracted that basic idea from reality – two sisters disappear in 1975 – and then added, “But someone shows up 30 years later, claiming to be the younger one,” I had left the real-life story behind. In real life, the horrible, gigantic pain is that the story has no answers. My novel is quite the opposite.

I was mindful of the real family’s pain and aware that my novel would do nothing for that pain. But I wasn’t really writing about them. I ended up writing about very particular, even peculiar people that I created. The parents, an obsessed detective, this rootless woman who may or may not be one of the missing girls. Again, I don’t think any book should be easy to write, but the challenges I faced while writing What the Dead Know had everything to do with structure, and very little to do with its origins.

Q: Every Secret Thing (2003) seemed to mark a major departure for you. Can you tell us—do you remember—what the original impetus was for writing this book?

A: The Bulger case in England, where two 10-year-olds killed a toddler. But it wasn’t the initial crime that inspired me. I was in England in 2000 when a judge was asked to determine if the two killers should be sent to an adult prison when they aged out of the juvenile system. He declined and said they would have all the usual protections of young offenders, including new names. The UK also has very different laws regarding the press, so he could essentially forbid newspapers from “outing” these young men once they rejoined society. I thought, "It wouldn’t work that way in the U.S." and my imagination took off from there.


(Here is a link to Part I.)

Photo by Jan Cobb


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Thanks, GM, for bringing Laura to Inkspot. This is a great interview.

Jessica Lourey said...

I see why people are so fascinated about where author's ideas come from. I wonder how different that "kernel of an idea to fleshed-out plot" process is for everyone?

G.M. Malliet said...

I only discovered Stewart O'Nan a few months ago. His book, Last Night at the Lobster, had me practically button-holing people and demanding that they read it.

The book takes place just before Christmas at a Red Lobster that is being shut down by the suits at HQ, and it simply tells the story of the impact on the employees and customers through the eyes of the restaurant manager. I remember thinking it was like Christmas Carol for the modern age. It is a small book, less than 200 pages, and I can almost guarantee it will amaze you.

Laura Lippman said...

You cannot go wrong with O'Nan: The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, Snow Angels, Songs for the Missing.

Lobster is amazing, and a very timely book.

Keith Raffel said...

Interesting what Laura says about the Iowa program. I just blogged on practically the same thing. I agree with her. Nothing wrong with writing programs. But life's experiences form the sourdough starter from which good writing rises. (Sorry about that metaphor. Must come from living in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Did anyone see the article in the NYT about creative writing programs?

The author called them "Ponzi Schemes." He concludes that writing may be a profession practiced by those who can do it for nothing or who can support themselves by teaching.

I think more importantly, he wonders where, if, and how we can learn to write.

Alan Orloff said...


You said you want to "keep trying new things to stay fresh."

What's next/fresh on your plate? (Another series, a book of poetry, a novel for the cell phone?)

And what obstacles did you encounter when you ventured from Tess to write your first stand-alone?

Lisa Bork said...

I distinctly remember enjoying What The Dead Know and admiring its premise. Thanks for sharing the background with us, Laura.

As for creative writing programs, my personal favorite was a local offering: Writing the Bestseller. The instructor explained how to do it and wrote a whole book on how to do it. But his book never sold.

Keith Raffel said...

Lisa, love the irony. Yes, Joanna, saw the article which in turn inspired my posting. (At

G.M. Malliet said...

Lisa: LOL!