Big Fish Q&A with Baltimore Novelist Laura Lippman

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Laura Lippman knows “The Streets of Baltimore,” to cop the title of the mournful 1960s country song. She knows them from growing up/attending grade school here, from reporting about them at The Sun, and from walking/driving/shopping them as a longtime resident.

That municipal intimacy flows through Lippman’s 11 best-selling Tess Monaghan mystery novels, as her fictional detective makes pit stops at Jimmy’s and Bertha’s (Fell’s Point), the Helmand and Penn Station (midtown), the Domino Sugar sign and Cross St. Market (South Baltimore), and Video Americain and Eddie’s (Roland Park), among dozens and dozens of other local name-checks. The city also plays a role in some of her six non-Tess crime fiction novels, particularly the just published The Most Dangerous Thing, set in Dickeyville, Lippman’s girlhood West Baltimore neighborhood — not forgetting her 2009 short-story collection Hardly Knew Her and 2006’s Baltimore Noir, a collection by local authors, including Lippman, which she edited. That output has resulted in Lippman winning the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, the Gumshoe, and the Barry writing awards, which, collectively, sound like the crime fiction prize equivalent of the Seven Dwarves.

Lippman’s DNA brims with books and journalism: Her mother, Madeline, worked as a city school librarian, while her father, Theo Jr., made his rep as a respected Sun editorial writer. After graduating from Columbia’s Wilde Lake High School, Lippman earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University in 1981, and then wrote for newspapers in Waco and San Antonio before joining The Sun in 1989. Starting with Baltimore Blues in 1997, she knocked out seven Tess Monaghan novels while working full-time at the newspaper, which she left in 2001 to concentrate on fiction.

Now 52, she lives in South Federal Hill with her husband, David Simon – a former Sun reporter, author (Homicide, The Corner), and creator of TV’s “Homicide,” “The Wire,” and “Treme” – and their toddler daughter.

One last thing: Don’t conflate Lippman with Monaghan, even though both are ex-newspaperwomen. “The relationship is more like Patty and Cathy on the old ‘Patty Duke Show,’” Lippman explains on her website. “I’m Cathy, the cultured one who has traveled widely, while Tess has only seen the sights a girl can see from O’Donnell Heights.”

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Maybe I should really stop brooding so much.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

Goals are a work in progress. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to be a full-time novelist. Ten years ago, I wanted to be a New York Times bestseller. Now, I want to be a really good parent — who still works full-time as a novelist.

 

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?
 
Start your second book now. (This was from my mentor, Michele Slung, who had read a manuscript of my first novel. The result was that I had almost finished my second novel by the time I sold the first.)

 

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?
 
I never ask for advice unless I really want it, in which case I find it’s almost always valuable, even if I decide not to follow it. So the worst advice had to be unsolicited, which means I tuned it out.

 

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) Nobody really notices or cares what I wear.

2) You can’t expect anyone else to value your time.

3) Almost no one has a good memory, and the people who are insistent that they have great memories probably have the worst memories of all.

What is the best moment of the day? 

Morning. The first part, which I have all to myself, but also the ensuing hour in which everyone else in the house begins waking up.

What is on your bedside table?

I don’t really have one, so there’s a pile of books on the floor. For a while, my bedside table was a pile of art books.

 

What is your favorite local charity?

Four-way tie: Viva House, Health Care for the Homeless, Greyhound Pets of America-MD chapter, and the Enoch Pratt.

 

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Focus on writing, not publishing.

 

Why are you successful?

I never claim to be, but to the extent that I am, it’s because I’m enormously lucky. But also because I did the work. Because all the luck in the world won’t help you if you haven’t done anything. Nobody knocks on your door and says, “Hey, I’m from the sweepstakes that wants to publish the novel you’ve yet to write.”
 
Of which of your books are you most proud? Why? And why do you think that some literary fiction readers — and writers — cop a condescending attitude toward the mystery genre?

I’m proud of every book I’ve written, although the reasons vary. I’m proud I managed to write the first one, win a big prize for the second one, that I tackled the issue of race in the third one — so on and so forth. Mainly, I’m proud that I’ve written almost two million words of fiction in less than two decades.

As for the condescending attitude — it just comes from unfamiliarity, as does much bigotry.
 
You grew up in Dickeyville, live in South Federal Hill, reported on Baltimore for The Sun, and have written about the city repeatedly as a novelist. By now, you must possess a strong sense of the citizenry’s psyche and idiosyncrasies. Cite Baltimoreans’ most endearing general characteristic — and their most unappealing one.

I love the fact that true Baltimoreans don’t look outside the city for validation — don’t care how it’s done/said/worn in New York or D.C.

I worry that our nostalgia allows us not to confront some of the ugliness in our past and that we can be incurious about newcomers.  
 
Are you aware of the fact that your name qualifies you to be an officially sanctioned Superman love interest, as in Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, Luma Lynai, et al.? How does this make you feel?

Very aware! And very proud. I used to play at being Lois Lane when I was very small. Then one day it occurred to me that she spent a lot of time bound and gagged, waiting for Superman, and I decided I’d rather be Supergirl.



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