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An Interview with Laura Lippman, Author of I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel

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Laura Lippman is one of my five favorite crime writers and one of my two favorite female writers — the other being Lisa Lutz.

Lippman is consistently interesting and intriguing. She is always trying new things. A few years ago she decided to do a stand alone book despite the success and critical acclaim for her detective series based in Baltimore starring Tess Monaghan.

I interviewed Lippman in 2006 about a collection of short stories by various authors she edited called Baltimore Noir. In it she gave the best and most concise definition of noir I have ever come across: “dreamers who become schemers.”

Her standalone books — which have included To The Power of Three, What the Dead Know and Life Sentences — have been some of her most successful works, both in term of sales and critical acclaim. Her short story collection, Hardly Knew Her, is similarly breath-taking.

I am jazzed about interviewing her again about her latest book. It is rare in interviews that her husband’s name doesn’t also come up since he is David Simon, who has been heavily involved in some of the best television, from Homicide (he literally wrote the book on which the series was originally based) to Generation Kill to The Wire to Treme.

And with that let’s get to the interview…

How did the idea for this book develop?

It might sound odd, but this is a novel about intimacy. What does it mean to know someone? What are the inherent responsibilities, if any, in knowing, truly knowing and understanding, another person? Few of us will ever be literal hostages to another person. But many of us may have friends, spouses, family members who have the same effect on us that Walter has on Eliza. We want to be free of them, but we feel burdened by our knowledge of them and are unclear what we owe them.

Was it hard to write about something so dark?

Unpleasant, but essential. When writing about Walter, I had to see the world through his eyes, I had to find humanity in him, crabbed and stunted as it might be.

I miss Tess Monaghan. Are you going to have more books centered around her at some point or are you going to continue to focus on stand alone books?

Part of the reason that I haven’t written a novel about Tess since 2008 is that I wanted the novella, The Girl in the Green Raincoat, to appear in book form before I continued the series. The novella first appeared as a serial in The New York Times Magazine, and it advances Tess’s story in a pretty significant way — she’s seven months pregnant in chapter one. And while the serial was available online in 2008, a lot of people haven’t read it. So I didn’t see how I could continue writing about Tess until that was out in the world. And I’m happy to say that it’s going to be published as a trade paperback in January 2011.

What are the advantages and disadvantages, as a writer, in stand alone books versus series?

I don’t think about it in terms of advantages or disadvantages. There are differences. Some metaphors occur, but I think they’re unfair to series fiction, which has its distinct set of challenges. The primary difference is that a stand-alone has novelty — all new characters and situations. After the first book, a series can’t have that again.

I never thought I’d see a Wham song (“Careless Whisper”) mentioned in a new book by an author I liked. How did you go about deciding to include ’80s songs and how did you choose them?

It started with a cursory interest in the pop culture of the time. I knew that young Elizabeth would be one of those Madonna wannabes, and I started watching videos on MTV’s website to remind myself of the various trends. And one of the big themes in pop songs is obsessive, even damaging love. And then I started thinking about General Hospital’s Luke and Laura — Luke and Laura! I wonder if anyone who tut-tut-tuts about the Twilight series has ever considered what a strange notion that was, to show a rapist and his victim GETTING MARRIED, to portray his love as true and pure. The messages about love and desire and yearning were mixed, to say the least. Are still mixed, I guess.

At any rate, Walter and Elizabeth spend a lot of time in the car and, in 1985, that meant listening to the radio. I used pop songs, without explanation, as the section headings because that was the soundtrack of Elizabeth’s life. At least, it was the soundtrack when she got to choose the radio station. I decided not to explain it in the text, although Walter makes an indirect allusion to the meaning of it all. I thought about a 15-year-old girl, held captive by a sexual predator who had yet to make his intentions known to her, listening to all these “romantic” songs, and I found it sad and ironic and horrible.

The book’s questions about capital punishment left me wondering where you stand. I thought I knew where I stood until I covered a serial killer’s trial and felt my principals challenged (I wrote about that here). Has that happened to you — either as a journalist or as a novelist — where you’ve rethought stands on this issue because of real events?

My views on capital punishment are very strong — I’m against it. I believe that if it’s wrong to kill, it’s wrong to kill. But then, I have the advantage of considering the issue theoretically. In the book, Trudy and Barbara are two sides of the coin. For Trudy, the issue is strictly personal. For Barbara, it’s theoretical. Eliza sees it in both contexts. And that was intentional. I didn’t want to change anyone’s mind. I don’t think it’s possible to change people’s minds at a certain point.

There’s a famous saying — attributed to Churchill, but not accurately it seems — that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain. Yet I’m not sure I’ve changed my stance on any key issues in adulthood. I was with a friend when a sonogram showed that a fetus, one of two she was carrying, had not survived the first trimester and I was surprised at how overwhelming it was, emotionally, for both of us, but it didn’t change my mind about abortion rights.

At the same time, I try to be very open-minded. I want to hear sound, reasoned arguments that are contrary to my own beliefs. Unfortunately, political discourse in our country has fallen so low that it’s more shouting and name-calling than persuasive reasoning.

I saw your video for your new book (you can see it here.) What do you think of this trend that even The New York Times has written about where authors make videos to promote their books?

I’m happy to try almost anything to promote my books because I believe in them and would like to reach as many readers as possible. I don’t know if videos work. I don’t know what works. Over time, I’ve learned that a few things definitely do NOT work. (I will never again sign books at an army base PX.) Some things work brilliantly for some writers, but don’t have the same impact for others. I’d rather obsess about my work.

Am I to understand part of your goal with this book was to put the reader in the position of being the one who got away alive, the one crime victim who survived? Was that hard, to create characters from that perspective?

I was interested in what it means to survive, what the inherent responsibilities are, if any. I also wanted to show a crime victim who was, for the most part, pretty healthy and strong. I found Eliza to be one of the most pleasant characters I’ve ever spent time with, second only to Tess.

Do you think you will ever write — or live in — another city besides Baltimore? Do you think you and your husband will ever do a joint writing or television project?

I already live part-time in another city, New Orleans. I don’t think I’ll write about it, though. My husband and I are working on a project together. I’m not at liberty to discuss it, but it’s not for television and it’s hard to know if it will ever come to be. Another writer is involved and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could hold my own in their company, in terms of expressing my ideas and making a case for them.

What is the biggest misconception or stereotype of you? Here’s your chance to set the record straight.

I’m not a Baltimore native! I was six when we moved here.

What are you working on next?

A novel about two generations haunted by a single incident, although for very different reasons.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.