Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Conversation with Laura Lippman

As you begin to get rolling as a writer, I think your influences become clearer - beyond the very basic “I like this person’s work” to a more fine-tuned sense of where certain things come from and why. 

When the germ of Pete Fernandez popped into my head, I figured it had something to do with the books I was burning through at the time - the Nick Stefanos trilogy by Pelecanos, the Pat and Angie books by Lehane and Laura Lippman’s excellent Tess Monaghan series. It was only over time, as I wrote more (and hopefully got better) that I started to see the influence come into focus. That process gave me a deeper appreciation for Lippman’s work specifically - her smooth prose, flawed characters and a deep-seated sense of place. These are just a few of the great things in store for you when you read a Lippman book, whether it’s a Tess adventure or one of her many acclaimed standalone novels.

I’ll admit, I get antsy when series characters go away for a while and come back. And, it’d been a little while since Tess was around. But I needn’t have worried. Hush Hush is arguably Lippman’s best Tess novel, and not only pulls the accidental detective through her most challenging and dangerous case, but also asks important and unexpected questions about who we are and just what it means to be a parent and individual. In short, it does what the best crime fiction should do: make you think while telling a great story.

I had the chance to speak to Laura about her new novel, her work in general and what’s next. It was a pleasure and I’m thankful she took the time.

Hush Hush is a great crime novel - and like the best crime fiction, takes a look at bigger issues, specifically parenthood and the day-to-day challenges of having a child. I imagine a lot of the experiences were drawn from your own life and people you know. When you first put pen to paper, did you have that in mind as part of what you wanted to accomplish with this book?

I definitely wanted to write a book about how judged we feel as parents. Until I had a kid, I didn't feel as if I were constantly being evaluated all the time. Maybe I was, but I didn't feel that way. As a mom, I hear the things people say under their breaths when I get on a plane with my kid -- quite unfairly, she's a pretty good traveler -- I have to endure really personal questions and unsolicited advice from strangers.

One of my favorite things about Tess is that she's supremely human - she doesn't feel like someone's idea of a PI or an idealized version, she evolves and changes and is flawed in believable ways. Each book has consequences and situations that affect her beyond the pages of that installment. Did she spring into your head fully formed? What do you think has kept her around this long?

Tess did, in fact, spring into my head fully formed. There are some details I regret in the earlier books -- I think the tension with her parents in the first book is a little overblown. But, luckily, she was a young woman, so I had the advantage of letting her mature. I guess we both learned from my mistakes.

What are some of the challenges of keeping a series like this going? I don't think it's a stretch to say that a lot of people were probably wondering if you'd finished up your run of Tess books before The Girl in the Green Raincoat - and on the flipside, I think the last two Tess books are two of the strongest entries in the series.

It's an interesting question. The pleasures of a series tend to be static. We return to them because we don't want things to change too much. And yet if Tess hadn't changed, she would have been a terribly callow person. I do think, however, that it's nice for series to have fixed endpoints and I'd like to think I'm going to design a graceful, organic way for the Tess series to end.

I'm a huge fan of Edward Eager, an American children's writer who was very much influenced by E. Nesbit. In Eager's books, children discover some source of magic -- a coin, a book, a thyme garden. But it's always understood that the magic is finite. Tess, to me, is like one of those magic talismans in an Eager book. She can't go on forever.

Hush Hush doesn't feel like a "reunion record" book, if that makes sense. Or, an author returning to a series to try to recapture something lost. It feels like we're picking up with an old friend facing a new and polarizing challenge - in HH's case, it's Melisandre and the questions she raises. Was that more a byproduct of the story coming to you as opposed to you deciding to write another Tess book?

I honestly don't remember why I decided to write Hush Hush when I did. I have zero memory of how it came about. I know that I figured out at some point that I needed to run straight at the challenge of Tess being a mother. And I read a lot about infanticide, an interesting thing to do when one is the mother of a young child.

My favorite detective series feature place in a meaningful way. The way you portray Baltimore in the Tess books (in all your books, really) seems hugely informative but effortless at the same time. How important is it to you to show how your city is and evolves?

It's very important and it occurs to me from time to time -- I need to get out more! Because Baltimore is changing, all the time. The other day I was running errands and I stopped at this new-ish butcher store/restaurant in Remington and there were all these young men with interesting facial hair and artisanal pickles. I kept expecting to see Crow and Carla Scout, eating boudin and German potato salad.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on a novel set in Columbia, Maryland, the so-called New Town that was created in 1967. I went to high school there and it always seemed like a very rich setting to me.

No comments: