An Interview with Laura Lippmann
by Jon Jordan
Reproduced with the permission of http://www.booksnbytes.com/
and Jon Jordan
Jon: For those who haven't picked up any of your books yet, how would you
Laura: They're PI novels, plain and simple. Sometimes, I think they read a
little bit as if they're PI novels written by JoAnna Trollope or Cathleen
Schine after a one-night stand with Robert Crais or Robert Parker, but I'm
flattering myself. They're PI novels. It's a tradition I love, and one in
which I'm proud to work.
Jon: The books take place in Baltimore. How important to the books is the
city. it seems as though you know the city real well and it come through in
Laura: I know parts of Baltimore well, but it's an extremely complicated
city. I'd be skeptical of anyone who had claimed to master all its cultures
and subcultures, not to mention its history. It's like a really good song, a
standard that a lot of people have covered over the years. Say, "My Funny
Valentine." I have my version, and it's authentic, but it's not
Jon: How close did the show Homicide capture Baltimore?
Laura: Very well, in just the manner I described above.
Jon: and.... Is it true you used to work out at the same place as Kyle
Secor (Bayliss) ?
Laura: Yes. Andre Braugher worked out there, too, and Clark Johnson. But
Braugher was particularly notable, keeping up a running monologue about how
much he hated exercise and how much he wanted a cigarette, even while he was
running on the treadmill.
Jon: Are there many similarities between you and Tess? Besides you both
having been reporters?
Laura: The verbal style is certainly similar. You know how some writers say
that they give their characters the funny lines they think of too late? I have
a bad habit of thinking of them and saying them. This has not been good for my
Jon: In your books, Tess has a significant other. Do you get requests from
fans concerning the relationship?
Laura: Not requests, but A LOT of opinions. I think that's inevitable,
don't you? I really don't have a blueprint for Tess's love life. I'm just
following along, waiting to see what happens.
Jon: Is it gratifying to move from PBO's to hardcovers?
Laura: Yes, because there are more reviews, more attention paid.
But my primary goal is to be read, and I know a lot of fans can't purchase
the books in hardcover. When I was publishing as a PBO, I could say to someone
in a bookstore, "C'mon, you probably spent more on lunch yesterday."
Jon: What do you think of the new trend for authors to write stand alone
books? Do you have any plans to do so?
Laura: I'm for anything that lets writers stretch, in or out of their
series. I also like to see writers reach bigger and bigger audiences, and
stand-alones have allowed some of them to do just that.
I might write one, but I have no plans to abandon Tess.
Jon: Are you published in foreign markets?
Laura: The UK, Japan, France, Norway and Portugal.
Jon: I was told you have a very interesting Jimmy Breslin story. An chance
of you sharing it?
Laura: Are you sure it was Jimmy Breslin? Because the Mike Royko story is
much, much better. Not to mention the Bob Greene.
I'll tell the Royko one here, and not just because he's dead and can't be
libeled. When I was 19, three of my friends and I traipsed down to the Billy
Goat in Chicago to celebrate the end of finals. Royko, a widower at the time,
was at the bar. He became quite smitten with us. I was -- am -- a big-boned
girl and he kept calling me "the one with the thighs." He also told
us some wonderful stories about his career and noted that it was unusual to
meet young girls who still blushed. Charlie Finley came in and bought us
cheeseburgers. A drunken yuppie punches me in the stomach when I said
something smart-ass. He was ejected from the bar. (See, I told you my mouth
gets me into trouble.)
We thought the evening was a glowing success, down to and including the
impromptu kiss Royko bestowed on one of my friends as we were leaving.
("I had a Pulitzer Prize winner's tongue in my mouth!") A few days
later, Royko wrote a column saying he believed in keeping the drinking age at
21 because he was tired of tripping over "apple-cheeked boozers" in
his favorite bar.
Jon: You do some events with the gals over at Tart City. (Sparkle Hayter,
Katy Munger, Lauren Henderson) Are you one of the tarts or more of an
Laura: I'm the mascot, tagging at their heels, eager to be one of the gang
but not quite tuff enough. (Sort of like Anybodys in "West Side
Story.") They are very kind to me, encouraging my inner tart. The story I
wrote for the Tart Noir anthology is very different than anything I've written
to date and I credit their influence. But I do think I have a Tart
sensibility. My first book, "Baltimore Blues," inverted a lot of PI
stereotypes -- the women are strong, surrounded by slavish, adoring men who
would do anything for them.
Jon: Harlan Coben said that you work a room better than anybody in the
business. Do you enjoy doing signings and meeting
Laura: Harlan said that? Hmmm, talk about the pot calling the kettle . . .
Seriously, I am unusual as a writer because I am almost pathologically
outgoing. Most writers are shy. I'm not. I'm used to meeting people all the
time through my work, sometimes in extremely painful or difficult
circumstances. Talking to mystery fans and writers is easy, because we do have
a common interest.
Jon: Harlan's comment was actually in regard to you winning the Agatha,
Shamus, Anthony, and the Edgar in one year.( way cool!) Do you attribute this
to having crossed genre's or a larger reader base? What do you think makes you
series so much more accessible?
Laura: I don't think I managed to do that in one calendar year, for the
record. At any rate, it would be folly for me to speculate. Fans and judges
have been very supportive of my work and I'm grateful.
Jon: Who are some of your favorite new writers? And who would you consider
your writing heroes?
Laura: Steve Hamilton already seems like a wily veteran to me, but I'll
mention him here. I've read Karin Slaughter's new book and consider myself a
fan/friend. Keith Snyder has been around longer than I have, but he's so young
I consider him "new." I'm a big fan of Peter Robinson's work. Talk
about cross-over appeal. Long-time cozy lovers and hard-boiled aficionados
would be comfortable with his work. I was a fan of the Tarts before they were,
officially, Tarts. As it happens, Katy Munger's first Casey Jones book and
Lauren Henderson's first Sam Jones book got me through two separate crises in
My heroes include all the women who broke through first -- particularly
Grafton, Paretsky and Muller. Outside the crime genre, I read everything that
Philip Roth writes. I'm a big champion of Richard Russo (not that he needs
anyone to champion his work, but I've been telling people for years that he's
the new, better John Irving.) I also was an early Michael Chabon fan. I love
early McMurtry. And I love, love, love a book called "Emma Who Saved My
Life," by Wilton Barnhardt
Jon: When do you write? All the time, mornings, late at night? Outlines,
from the hip?
Laura: It took me awhile to find a schedule, but since I began working on
my third book, I've been a morning writer. I get up at 6 and work for two
hours. I work on the weekends (although I usually give myself one day off) and
I'll pull a few evening shifts toward the end. I'm a morning person, which is
a hideous thing to be. No one likes morning people, not even other morning
I use outlines of a sort. I try to think it through beforehand, but
I also know some things will become clear only after I'm in the thick of it. I
begin each book with a challenge to myself. In "Butchers Hill," for
example, I wanted to write about race because it's central to daily life in
Baltimore. With "In a Strange City," I felt obligated to deal with
Poe because he's the father of us all.
Jon: If you could go back in time and talk to Laura at 16 or 17, what
advice would you give her?
Laura: Borrowing a line from Miss Trixie in "Paper Moon," I'd
tell her she had nice bone structure. I'd also tell her to stand up straight
and to have a little more fun.
Jon: Aside from your writing, what occupies your time?
Laura: Baltimore. I really like to explore the city -- go to new places,
read the various historic plaques, drive around. I love to eat. And I'm a
world-class eavesdropper. I sat at an outside restaurant the other night,
listening to two suburban men indulge in what sounded like a very bad David
Mamet play, all about making the deal, etc., with a little side order of
misogyny. ("Big breasts, pretty and smart -- no one gets all three of
those. Except, maybe, in Hollywood.") I wanted to wave my hand wildly at
them and tell them I knew several women in Charm City who could hit that
Jon: Do real events ever have a way of creeping into your books?
Laura: All the time. In fact, I think every book I've written has been
inspired by a real event. " Charm City" came from Baltimore's mania
over getting a new football team. " Butchers Hill" was inspired by a
real-life case. " In Big Trouble" was my way of going back and
re-visiting a notorious Texas murder case. " The Sugar House" began
with a newspaper story that caught my attention. " In a Strange
City," about the "Poe Toaster's" annual visit to Poe's grave
here, seemed almost pre-destined.
Even the unnamed seventh book has a real-life inspiration, although it
won't be very obvious to those who read it. And I'm already thinking about a
Tess book based on a story that I reported for the Sun, only to see it spiked.
Jon: What are some of your favorite movies? And what is some of your
Laura: "Citizen Kane" is my all-time favorite movie, bar none. I
also love "Miller's Crossing," "Manhunter,"
"Nashville," "1900." (I'm trying to name some more
off-beat things here because, like so many people, I love the first two
"Godfather" films and "Goodfellas" and
"Chinatown.") One of my favorite guilty pleasures is "Crossing
Delancey." The one thing I really wished I owned on video are the two
made-for-television movies about the Betty Broderick case. I could watch those
As for music, my tastes are eclectic. Elvis Costello is my all-time
favorite. I listen to a lot of jazz, primarily the great female vocalists, and
I am very fond of the late cabaret singer Nancy Lamott. I adore the work of
Stephen Sondheim. I like musicales in general. They make surprisingly great
running tapes. I recently did five fast miles to "Gypsy."
Jon: Is there anything about you that people would be surprised to know? I
mean like playing the accordion or something, nothing like, you don't pay
Laura: I can do an imitation of Ethel Merman singing
I'm a native Southerner, born in Atlanta. My family moved to Baltimore when
I was 6, and the Lippman name comes from my father's paternal grandparents,
who fled Germany in the early 20th century and settled in Alabama. But my
family is really, really Southern -- I had two uncle Bubbas, and grandparents
that we called Big Mama and Big Daddy.
I also had ancestors who were slave-holders, which is a difficult piece of
family history to say the least. In a recent New York Times article on the
subject of modern attitudes toward our slave-holding past, the writer noted
that we all want to be from "innocent origins." I _know_ I'm not.
Then again, I suspect most of us are not.
I carry in my datebook a piece of paper that my mother copied out for me,
from the 1840 Census. Hardy Callaway Culver of Hancock County, Georgia, had 42
slaves, 31 "employed in agriculture." Culver was my
great-great-great grandfather. I carry this piece of paper with me every day
because I don't want to forget. I don't know what to do with the information,
but I don't want to forget it.
Jon: How many drinks at Bouchercon to get you to do the Ethel Merman
Laura: :) No one could afford it. Besides, inebriation is not enough. I've
never done this for a large audience
Jon: Are you the same Laura Lippman who wrote Shakespeare's Henry V and
Urban Schools: The Challenge of Location And Poverty?
Laura: No, I'm not, but we're forever linked through the wonders of
Amazon.com. It's a terribly common name.
Jon: Any thoughts on who in Hollywood would make a good Tess?
Laura: Not really. If that day comes, I hope only that she's tall. I know
they'll make her really skinny, but it would be nice if she could be tall and
Jon: Do you want to keep reporting as you write, or would you like to be
able to just write the books?
Laura: That's a very tricky question at this point in my life. It's not so
much about money as it is about energy. Reporting is pretty vital to me. It
keeps me connected to the world. A 40-hour-per-week day job may be less
feasible as time goes on.
Jon: What is the one thing that is always in your refrigerator?
Laura: A Tupperware container with something way past its prime.
Reproduced with the permission of http://www.booksnbytes.com/
and Jon Jordan