Laura Lippman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Laura Lippman
Jim Burger

Laura Lippman

An interview with Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman chats with Jon Jordan in a wide-ranging discussion about her books, her life and a whole lot more.

Jon: For those who haven't picked up any of your books yet, how would you describe them?

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 the writing.

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 definitive.

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 journalism career...

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 associate?

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 life.

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 people.

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 trifecta.

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 favorite music?

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 every week.

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 taxes :)

Laura: I can do an imitation of Ethel Merman singing "Satisfaction."

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 impression?

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 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 broad-shouldered.

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 and Jon Jordan

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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