Keeping Things Fresh
By Alex Segura
Laura Lippman doesn’t like repeating herself.
Whether Lippman, the bestselling and acclaimed author of more than 20 novels, is chronicling the adventures of her beloved PI, Tess Monaghan, or crafting unique and memorable standalones like the sexy, noir-soaked Sunburn, one thing holds true: each book sings a different tune, and takes readers down a new, winding road. Different paintings in a sprawling, bustling gallery.
But what carries over from one book to the next are Lippman’s many strengths as a writer—her clear, warm voice; her blend of memorable and conflicted characters; a sharp, enviable ability to drop a killer twist; and an undying appreciation for the work that’s come before—and how to build on it. Lippman’s novels feel lived-in and real, the sounds and smells of her native Baltimore jump off the page and envelop the reader, whether we’re walking the city’s streets today or 40 years prior.
“I seem to be constitutionally incapable of following up a successful book with a book that’s similar to it,” Lippman says. “For better or worse, it’s who I am. And I don’t consider myself a particularly brave or principled person. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, I’m an artist. I must do something new.’ But I recognize that if I don’t make it hard and difficult and different for myself, chances are I won’t write the best book I can write. If I try to do a version of the book I’ve just done, I’m doomed.”
Lippman’s latest, LADY IN THE LAKE, is no exception, and pulls readers back to Baltimore in 1966, a time of tumult and tension for the country, and the city Lippman calls home. The novel centers on happy, comfortable housewife, Maddie Schwartz, who—in a moment of clarity—realizes that she’s failed to live up to a promise she made to herself decades before: to live a life with meaning and passion. Maddie’s desire to count leads her to bail on her 22-year-old marriage, and embark on a mission to make a difference.
Few people seem to care about what happened to Cleo Sherwood—a young, African-American woman who liked to party. Except Maddie. And…Cleo’s ghost.
Maddie wants to uncover the truth. Cleo wants to be left alone.
The novel follows Maddie’s quest for the truth, as she tries to check the box that haunts her. But unbeknownst to Maddie, her hyper-focused journey will inadvertently create heartache and crises for those close to her.
Though Lippman had some general, broad strokes in mind before she dove into the novel that would become LADY IN THE LAKE, one key component wasn’t there yet: the newspaper. A former reporter, Lippman found herself hesitant to revisit the newsroom setting, even if it was one set decades before she’d put in her time.
“I started simply with the idea of 1966,” Lippman says. “I knew that there was this governor’s race in Maryland that felt very much like an allegory about the 2016 Presidential race. There were these incredible overlaps. And it had long been established in the world of Tess Monaghan that that is how her parents met in the 1966 governor’s race.”
A key piece of inspiration came to Lippman in an unexpected form—Marjorie Morningstar, the 1955 novel by Herman Wouk. The poignant love story, sprawling and bittersweet, popped into Lippman’s mind as she pondered just where her new novel might go—and what it might become. The questions that had bounced around Lippman’s head when she finished Morningstar begged to be answered, and she now knew how to go about it.
“The thing that kind of snapped it all together for some reason, and it has nothing to do with the book, is that I came home and I signed onto social media one winter morning right before I started the book, and Megan Abbott had shared a bunch of photos of these old resorts in the Catskills,” Lippman says. “And that was like, ‘I think it’s a sign—it’s a sign I’m supposed to be writing about Marjorie Morningstar, but in 1966.’ And I really looked at the end of that book and I thought the end of this book has always been so infuriating. Why did he give the final pages to this male point of view after having crafted a pretty terrific female character who’s utterly credible? Why do we have to go back to the man’s point of view, why did it shift? And I wonder what Marjorie’s side of that final meeting was between her and the boy who loved her when she was 19 years old.”
The seed firmly planted, Lippman knew where to go next.
“I had found my character, which is this woman who was happy enough, had been happy, but is reminded of the promise she made to her young self to do something important and vital,” Lippman says. “And the bill has come due and she simply has to go in search of that, and not in an altruistic way. It’s a very self-centric mission. She doesn’t want to make the world a better place. She wants to matter.”
The 1966 newspaper setting was not just professionally familiar to Lippman. Her father had worked at The Baltimore Sun around the same time, and the research for the novel opened the door for her to contact old friends that had worked alongside him, to help her fully portray Maddie’s world and day-to-day.
“I was reaching out and I would talk to one of my dad’s old colleagues to try to get those little details,” Lippman says. “The big picture’s easy, but it’s that what did it smell like? What did it sound like? A mid-’60s newspaper would have been a very loud place. And smoky, with people smoking in the building. Not to mention people screaming into telephones. It also reminded me of the times I would visit my dad in the mid-’60s at his newspaper. But I was so young and I wasn’t really collecting the important details that I would need.”
With the setting in place, Lippman was able to let Maddie loose on the world, and see what she’d do—and what kind of reporter she would be.
“So it became a newspaper novel. And once that was underway, the next thing presented itself, which was that this woman moving through the world, so ambitious, so focused, so intent on telling a singular story, was going to actually be missing all of these stories around her,” Lippman says. “And I think you can almost say that there are two camps in newspaper reporters. There are definitely people, and I was one of them, who believed that you should be able to open a phone book, put a pin on a name, call that person up and write a story about them. Maddie’s not one of those people. There’s a line in the book about how she’s figured out that she’s really always writing about herself. And so she has the self-knowledge, but she doesn’t have enough self-knowledge to ever really change.”
The book, like any novel, was not without challenges. But Lippman, who’s taught writing for almost 15 years, stuck to the advice she’d hammer into her own students: drive toward the problems, don’t avoid them.
“The worst thing you can do when you have a problem or a challenge or a pitfall, whether it’s in the plotting or in the daring, is trying to paper over it and hoping the reader doesn’t notice,” Lippman says. “People will notice. When I wrote the book Hush Hush, the question was, ‘How do you write about a private eye with a kid?’ Well, you make it about mothers. Don’t pretend she’s not a mother, make it all about being a mother, and write about the private eye as a mother. And so with this, it was ‘How do you tackle the issue of appropriation? How do you deal with being a middle-aged white woman writing about a young African-American woman?’ You write a book about it. You make the book about that. This is a book about appropriation. Cleo calls it early on, when she said, ‘You weren’t interested in my life; you were interested in my death. And they’re not the same thing.’ So this idea of black pain, of appropriating black stories, appropriating black voices, Maddie’s trying to do that without realizing it, without being in a time where that’s even talked about.”
The idea of appropriation and misrepresenting the voices of other, marginalized groups is—deservedly—a hot topic among literary circles, and it’s one authors should approach thoughtfully—but not fearfully. Her advice to writers looking to write across racial and gender lines? Go for it.
“I’d tell them to be fearless and not to seek permission,” Lippman says, referencing an essay she recently wrote for The Washington Post. “People need to try things and fail as writers. They need to be willing to fail. I don’t think American literature is going to be enriched by people not attempting to write across race, gender, sexual orientation. And all I can say to writers out there is to really open their ears and eyes and really pay attention to where you center people in the story.
“So I guess what I would urge is that, for any writer who wants to write across their own identity, who wants to attempt to write about people who are not like themselves, the first thing you should do is imagine yourself failing at it. And you should try to think about what you’ll get wrong. And I think, for example, a lot of men really don’t understand how women move through the world in a steady state of assessing risk and of sizing up pretty much every man as to whether that’s gonna be someone who’s going to interfere with me, heckle me, take up my space. I think people… It’s natural to think well of oneself. It’s natural to think, ‘I’m not a racist so therefore I will just go ahead and write about people of a different race and I’ll get it right.’ And that’s grand and that’s lovely, but chances are you’re probably wrong.”