Laura Lippman is one of my five favorite writers and one of my two favorite female writers.
She first came to my attention with her series about Tess Monaghan. Both Lippman and Monaghan were previously newspaper reporters, both writers for Baltimore newspapers. Lippman started writing the series so she had a backup plan in case she was laid off. I interviewed her at Blogcritics about one of her Monaghan books, No Good Deed.
While those books were great she has in recent years written some amazing standalone novels which have been even more amazed. I talked to her again at Blogcritics about one of those, I’d Know You Anywhere. Her other great stand-alones included Every Secret Thing and The Most Dangerous Thing, among others.
She has a new novel out, and it’s another amazing one. As with some of the other stand-alones, After I’m Gone is based in part on a real life crime story, dissected here by the Baltimore Sun aka Lippman’s prior employer, about a person who disappeared, presumably leaving Baltimore.
Quick note: She mentions this book’s topic was suggested by her husband. You may not know it but you should know him. His name is David Simon and he literally wrote the book, Homicide, which was the basis for the excellent TV series of the same name. He was a writer-producer for the series. He went on to be the creator, show runner, head writer and executive producer of the HBO drama series The Wire, considered by some critics the best television series ever.. In recent years he created and helmed the series Treme. Stated simply, when Simon has an idea pay attention.
Now back to Lippman, let’s hear/read what she has to say this time in another enjoyable email interview.
What sparked both this novel and the approach you took to it, namely alternating between the past and the present?
My husband suggested the idea, which was inspired by a real-life case. I didn’t see it for a long time. As for the structure — I don’t know, it’s almost like trying to analyze a leap you were forced to take. I landed safely, I think, and am grateful for it, but I don’t remember the conscious choices, just that there were a lot of failed efforts in the early going.
Can you tell me about the real missing persons case on which this book is based or inspired and how much it differs from the one in the book?
In real-life, Julius Salsbury, the head of a large illegal gambling enterprise, is sentenced to 15 years in federal prison and disappears while appealing the sentence. He leaves behind a wife, three daughters and a girlfriend. There’s no murder, no real mystery. Lots of gossip and lots of apocryphal stories about how he sneaks back into Baltimore on occasion.
Why did you decide to focus on the people left behind rather than the person who disappeared?
Because the person who disappeared is gone. If you think about it, the book also works as an allegory about any one who absents himself (or herself) via workaholism, other preoccupations.
You levy some heavy criticism about the Baltimore newspaper and how they are missing important stories and such. Is this based on changes you have seen at the Baltimore newspaper – the Sun in real life the Beacon-Light in the novels — or newspapers in general?
Did I? I don’t even remember those passages. Look, it’s inevitable that newspapers are missing stories. The staffs are smaller. People need to understand that the newsstand price of a newspaper was only a small portion of the cost. For years, we enjoyed a heavily subsidized product. Those days are over, and there’s going to be a big cost.
How did you go about researching this book? I understand you do more cultural research than historical — can you talk about how you do that?
First, Donald Worden, a retired Baltimore homicide cop, helped me with the particulars of cold-case investigation. That was key. As for the cultural research — or, perhaps, social history is a better term — I’d write the scenes, then go back and research those times, usually via news weeklies. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if the bubble skirt had appeared by spring 1986. (It hadn’t, alas.)
I miss Tess M. Do you miss her too? Do you have any plans to bring her back for a future book? Why the long absence for her?
I’ve had the advantage of spending a year with Tess, writing a book about her that will appear in 2015. It took me a long time to figure out how to write about Tess now that she has a small child. I decided that, as is often the case, I just had to run straight at the problem, make the book about motherhood.
I hear Every Secret Thing has been made into a movie. What is it like to see something you wrote portrayed on screen?
It was surprisingly overwhelming.
You have won so many awards for your books – which one is the most significant or important to you?
They’re all significant, in the sense that it’s always nice to get an “attagirl,” whether from fans or peers. But I suppose the Edgar, the first award I ever won, stands out.
If you could choose just one book for a reader new to you to read which would it be and why?
The Most Dangerous Thing. It’s very dear to my heart because of the setting, which is the neighborhood where I had the loveliest of childhoods.
What question are you most tired of being asked and why?
Nothing annoys or tires me, but I wish there was less attention paid to the real-life stories that inspire me, but only because it clouds the actual process. It sometimes feels as if I’ve knocked myself out, fixing a twelve-course dinner and everyone wants to talk about my shopping list.