Arts & Culture

Q&A With Laura Lippman

Baltimore crime novelist discusses her latest book Wilde Lake.

For two decades, Laura Lippman has won acclaim and gained fans across the country (including comedic actress Mindy Kaling) with her spine-tingling crime novels. Her latest work, Wilde Lake, will be released in May, and Lippman joined us to talk about coming up with characters, life with husband David Simon (the mind behind HBO’s The Wire and Show Me a Hero), and her favorite cheeseburger. (Spoiler alert: We get right into one of the big surprises in the book, so read at your own risk.)

How did the idea for this book come to you?
Well, it’s a little bit of a convoluted story. It began when the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow story surfaced again. I read a lot, and I thought a lot about it. The conclusion I came to is that as an individual, I was going to believe people who said they were sexually assaulted. I just decided for my own humanity that I would start always at a place of saying, ‘Yes, the victim is telling the truth’ . . . But then I thought, if you really embrace this idea, how do you deal with the story told in To Kill A Mockingbird? Big disclaimer: I don’t think Tom Robinson is a rapist. He’s clearly innocent. But, I thought, what if you thought of it differently, but not in the pre-Civil Rights era? And where would this story be most interesting? It’s about an African-American man who is handsome and is generally seen as a good person. He is accused of raping a young woman who’s seen from being from the other side of the tracks, not as being a particularly well-thought-of member of society . . . I thought about the era in which I grew up, and the place I went to high school, and I began thinking, ‘This is a story that really fits Columbia in the 1970s.’ I took that and I ran with it.

How long did it take for you to figure all that out?
It was probably between April and May of 2014 when I started writing this book, and I can usually write a book in about 11 months. People think that’s very fast, and I struggle with the idea that I’m a fast writer because somehow that seems to discredit me. It’s like, ‘Well, how good could it be, look how fast she wrote it.’ But I am a very, very fast writer. I maintain that the one thing the Medill School of Journalism [at Northwestern University] was good at teaching was one’s maximum speed limit as a writer. I always say that one’s writing speed is a bit like your body type, your metabolism. You can adjust it, but you’re sort of born with it, and I’m fast.

But this book took me 14 months to get a draft to send to my editor. It’s the first time in my life, first time in my career as a novelist, that I’ve said, ‘I’m not going to turn my book in on time.’ I was an entire month later. By the way, people in publishing think it’s hilarious that I consider 30 days late, but I did. I took it really seriously. The other thing I did with this book that I’ve never done before is I put myself on my own writing retreat at a crucial time. We’re lucky enough to own another property in another city and I went there by myself for a week. . . So this is the longest I’ve ever worked on a book, and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve written.

By the time my editor got it, I had probably gone through three drafts, and, while she had it, I did another draft. So this is the seventh draft. I’m pretty unapologetic about how much I edit and proof. I never think of myself as a perfectionist, because I think of perfectionism as somewhat crippling. But being married to [writer and TV producer David Simon] I’ve had the chance to observe someone who has an amazing drive to get things as good as they can be and does so in a medium where there are a lot of things outside his control. There’s so much you just have to live with and accept, and yet he still pushes to get it as right as he can. That’s made me see that it’s inexcusable when I have a much easier gig not to push myself to get it as right as I can.

You think of your job as easier than his?
Oh my gosh, it’s so much easier. First of all, there are no other people. Yeah, I have an editor, but I work by myself most of the time, and that always simplifies things. It doesn’t necessarily make things better, but it makes it easier.

Obviously, you’re very comfortable in your own mind, because I’m sure some people would find working alone terrifying.
Yes. I’m a very outgoing person and a very social person, so I’ve had to make sure I tend to that energy because it’s no longer being served in a workplace. But hey, luckily there’s social media. I have a lot of good friends who are writers and we’re pretty far flung but we keep in touch through social media, and that does give a sense of that collegiality, that around the water cooler thing. It is important.

Why do you think you took more time with this book?
Part of it was that I had to figure out how to tell the story. It has an unusual structure in that about 40 percent of it is told in this first person voice that is speaking in the past tense. We are hearing [the main character] Lu tell the story and the other 60 percent of the novel, we’re seeing Lu live the story, and that’s told in third person present tense. There’s actually a line in the book about how the present is so full of regard for itself but it doesn’t know what the past knows. Lu has to live it before she can understand it. Finding that structure made it really hard, and that was a big part of the battle. And it’s a very sad, middle-aged book. It’s about that moment when parents become frail, heroes get shot down, and we have to accept the limitations of people we admired and maybe even had up on pedestals. It’s a book about coming to terms with one’s mistakes, judgments, and actions. No two books are alike, and I generally go into my books knowing the big secret. I went into Wilde Lake knowing what happened on that pivotal night that the allegation of rape is made, I knew what happened in the present-day homicide that is interwoven with the story that affects the Brandt family. And it’s a darn sad story. If you know all the facts of the story, you know it’s not going to end happily, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get there.

It sounds like you knew how sad it was going to be while you were writing it.
I did. [Laughs] I don’t even know why I write such sad books. I have such a nice life and I’m actually really optimistic by nature. I don’t even like that much pessimism around me. I read a lot of crime fiction, but I don’t think I’m necessarily drawn towards dark material . . . Part of it is that I was really aware that I was only going to write about Lu once. She’s not a character that can ever come back, and this was my only chance to be in her company. I’ve learned from writing my stand-alone books that I’m going to miss the characters when they’re gone. Maybe I’m beginning to slow down because maybe this is the only time I’m going to be in the company of these women, and I enjoy their company.

How do you come up with your characters?
No one believes this, but they’re pretty much figments of my imagination. People who know me want to say, ‘Well, that’s so and so,’ and certainly people are aware that real stories have inspired my books, and they have. But I don’t know those people . . . and the things that are true are so small and inconsequential—the pizza place that the Brandt family goes to is the pizza place my family liked. I’m not going to worry about what people think is true or untrue because then I wouldn’t write anything at all.

I don’t have any fear of writing unlikeable characters, and I have found so far that this is the general response to Lu. That’s how I intended it. She’s a tough cookie. At first, I was working off the template of To Kill A Mockingbird—there’s a widower father and two kids, a brother and a sister. Then Lu just becomes herself. She’s scrappy, she’s super smart, she’s incredibly competitive—I definitely tapped myself for the competitive part. She just kind of took over . . . her voice was there the minute I wrote the first chapter. I just got her.

You mentioned that you knew the book was going to be sad. But what was the most fun part of writing this book?
I love food as a marker in people’s worlds, and I love that my mom said when she was done with the book, ‘Should I be going to Five Guys now?’ I think very highly of the Five Guys’ cheeseburger. I have argued that it’s better than In-N-Out. I’m pretty firm in that opinion, but that’s because I like to get jalapeños on my cheeseburgers, and you can do that at Five Guys. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Lu has to make a luncheon appearance where she describes what she is always served at every luncheon, and how she never gets to eat the dessert. I might have been to a luncheon or two like that, though I’ve been to many luncheons with lovely food. But I’ve known that sad little salad.

What was it like to have your book Every Secret Thing become a film?
It was fantastic. I had one of the greatest experiences anyone could have watching their work go from book to film. My book was optioned by the actress Frances McDormand. My agent lives in the same building as Fran and Joel [Coen, of the Coen brothers, and McDormand’s husband] and she handed her Every Secret Thing on the elevator one day. It was optioned in 2006, so it took almost a decade to be released. And no, it wasn’t a big deal, it was a small release. The reviews for the film were probably somewhat mixed, but I thought it was terrific. I thought they honored the material and any flaw that I spotted in the film was from the source material, and I’m not being self deprecating. I didn’t really work with them, I let it go. They would consult with me, and they would show me versions of the script. I was kept in the loop, I visited the set once. I was just so honored that Fran cared enough to have it made. I loved the director Amy Berg, and the fact that there were people in it like Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning—so many terrific performances. It was great, everything you’d want it to be, and I even got a nice check.

I don’t have anything optioned right now. The [Tess Monaghan] books have been optioned twice, and I now believe I’m the person who should adapt the Tess books for television, but I don’t have the time to get it done. I have talked to my film agent, and I have a very specific vision for what would be the Tess Monaghan television series. But it’s a little bit daunting – mainly it’s the time.

I’m sure, because you probably have other books in the works, right?
I have started my next book. It’s set in a fictional town in Delaware in 1995, and the choice of year is very deliberate. I get up every day and write 1,000 to 1,500 words, and I have no idea what’s going on. But the characters just talk to each other, and things are happening, and there are lies and double crosses. And as far as the reader knows, no one’s dead—yet.

But maybe you’re moving in that direction? And how do you juggle all of this?
People tend to say to us, ‘Your life is so insane.’ To us, our life is normal. It’s a busy life, there’s a lot of travel, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. There’s a rhythm to it, and there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of fun to be had, too, and we’re trying to find the best balance. It’s an interesting time. [David’s] going to be working in New York through the summer, but we’re kind of used to that. I swear I felt like Show Me A Hero went on for 18 years, but I’m sure the calendar shows it only filmed for four months. That was our first time living in different cities, necessitated by the fact that our daughter had to be in school somewhere and I’m not going to homeschool her. We had to pick a place, and Baltimore is the place. I actually feel like we’ve got it figured out now.