Profile of Laura Lippman

Siren of Baltimore: Edgar-Winner and Journalist Laura Lippman
by G. Miki Hayden

First she belted out the Baltimore Blues (Avon, February 1997), then mesmerized us with the second in her Tess Monaghan series, Charm City--the name Baltimore boosters use for their town. Third, came the equally seductive Butcher's Hill, dubbed thus after an actual Baltimore section (and not a reference to a murder) After In Big Trouble, which sent Tess to a distant city--San Antonio--Lippman's protagonist is headed back to her home town with The Sugar House, the first hardcover for Tess, issued by Morrow. To come next are two more Monaghan books slated for fall 2001 and fall 2002. Lippman's list of honors for these titles is a long one, amounting to 13 nominations for prestigious mystery awards. Every book of the series has received some of these kudos. Charm City won the Edgar and the Shamus, while Butchers Hill won the Anthony and the Agatha. "This roll call strikes me as unseemly," blushes Lippman, "but I am pleased that I've been honored both by my peers, who read for the Edgar and the Shamus, and the fans, who choose the Anthony and Agatha winners. Clearly, I wouldn't have so many nominations if it weren't for contests that recognize the paperback original, but the Agatha and the Macavity don't have such categories and it means a lot to me that I became one of the few paperback writers to win 'best novel' at Malice Domestic [which grants the Agatha]."

All This and Journalism, Too
Not one to laze around simply writing fiction and winning awards, Laura Lippman continues to work as a feature writer at The Baltimore Sun, where she interviews the literary likes of Doris Lessing, James Ellroy, Erica Jong, and Walter Mosley. Her work is often syndicated nationally, and a few years ago the local city magazine named her as The Sun's best writer. Lippman first tried writing in her twenties, penning the kind of sensitive, autobiographical novels at which so many young women take a stab. "Luckily, I never inflicted those on the world," she now laughs. "I knew I needed a story to tell, a reason for the reader to go from page one to page 300." She found that plotline in her fleeting fantasy of killing a friend's boss. Then she nursed the idea for this novel for years, like a secret grudge, until finally her husband's confidence in her writing ability--and a new computer--inspired her to write the book that became Baltimore Blues.

When Lippman finished writing the book, she showed it to a friend who helped her find a top agent. After a few minor revisions, the agent submitted the book to 10 publishers, three of which bid for the work, an incredible result. Lippman soon signed a two-book contract with Avon, followed by a second two-book contract.

In addition to the private investigator Tess, the most prominent and vivid character in Lippman's books is her city, Baltimore. "I'm not a native," the author acknowledges, "but I always refer to that as my parents' migratory mistake. They didn't come north soon enough." Lippman was born in Atlanta, lived briefly in the D.C. suburbs, then moved to Baltimore at age six. She went away for college at Northwestern University, and subsequently spent eight years in Texas at the Waco Tribune Herald and the now-defunct San Antonio Light, lobbying The Baltimore Sun to hire her.

At the Sun, Lippman covers rather "highbrow" literature, which some of her friends consider a distinct contrast to the mysteries she prefers to produce. "They don't realize the incredible depth and breadth of mysteries," Lippman explains.

"In the way that it so often happens, the story chose the teller. When a lot of people I knew lost their jobs in journalism, I imagined the life of a young woman who had lost her job on a newspaper, too. If she couldn't be a reporter, then maybe she could be a private detective, which is what happened to my protagonist, Tess."

A "Best Friend" Protagonist
Tess and her creator have a complicated relationship. "She's not me, and yet she's also not not me," Lippman seeks to clarify. "Have you ever met a younger person who reminds you of yourself, someone who inspires equal parts exasperation and nostalgia? That's how I feel about Tess. I see her making all the mistakes I made and I want to shout out to her. But she can't hear me and even if she could, she'd pay no heed. She just knows she's right."

Because Lippman has that day job, her fiction must be written in the morning. She gets up at 6, eats breakfast, and then heads into her study, where she works steadily for two hours. On the weekends, she sleeps later, but the routine is pretty much the same.

"Sometimes, especially when the end is in sight, I'll take a week's `vacation' and do nothing but write," she says. "That feels incredibly luxurious."

Mystery Writing Technique
In writing her mysteries, Lippman starts out knowing who the killer is and why he or she has killed. She sometimes writes pretty extensive outlines. "The trick is then trying to get Tess to figure out what I know myself. I have this image of a person crossing a stream, jumping from rock to rock. I think the hardest thing is layering a book with surprises, but still playing fair."

As a reader, Lippman hates it when authors don't play fair, with incredible twists and impossible plot points, so she tries to avoid these. "If a book is so good that I don't second-guess it until about 90 seconds after I've finished the last page, I think the writer has pulled it off. It's when I start saying, 'Hey wait a minute!' while I'm reading that I get annoyed."

She has other strong convictions about mystery writing, too. "I never want to write a `menace' scene set in a parking garage. I don't want to write stories in which child molestation drives the plot. And as for serial killers--well, Thomas Harris set the bar pretty high in Red Dragon. I've used a serial killer as a secondary character, but he was actually pretty pathetic, not a criminal mastermind.

"The best mysteries have at least one scene that resonates, that remains in your head after the rest of the plot has faded--a little freeze-frame that you can't forget."

Sadly, Lippman's greyhound who figures largely in her novels died in January of this year." It's a sad story. She was on the road with me while I was touring for In Big Trouble and she developed a terrible wheezing cough. We were in Richmond, staying at the very posh Jefferson Hotel and attending the International Poe Conference--preparation for my sixth book-- when it became apparent that we needed to find an emergency vet. He took some X-rays and it turned out she had heart disease. Her heart was so huge it was pressing on her other organs, and causing her lungs to fill with fluid.

"Still, on medication and with plenty of bed rest, she had three happy, carefree months. A day or two before she died, she even romped in the backyard. Her loss has made the character of Esskay even more precious to me."

Lippman labors on at the Sun, still keeping the same writing habits, still usually a book ahead in her mind. "I think this gets harder, in some ways," she admits. "But I love it."

G. Miki Hayden, the author of two books in print, teaches Writing the Mystery and Maximize Your Writing Sizzle at Her Writing the Mystery will be out from Intrigue Press Fall 2001.

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