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Meet the WritersImage of Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman was a reporter for 20 years, including 12 years at The (Baltimore) Sun. She began writing novels while working fulltime and published seven books about "accidental PI" Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001. Her work has been awarded the Edgar ®, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Barry awards. She also has been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field, including the Hammett and the Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor's Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association.

Ms. Lippman grew up in Baltimore and attended city schools through ninth grade. After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., Ms. Lippman attended Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her other newspaper jobs included the Waco Tribune-Herald and the San Antonio Light.

Ms. Lippman returned to Baltimore in 1989 and has lived there since.

Biography from author's website.

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Good to Know
In our interview, Lippman shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:

"I can do an imitation of Ethel Merman singing ‘Satisfaction.'"

"I'm not a Baltimore native -- I arrived here about six years too late for that. But I love the fact that I've convinced the world that I am."

"Like my character, Tess Monaghan, I used to row. Unlike her, I was very, very bad at it."

"I've written eight books in my series -- one not yet published -- and a stand-alone crime novel, but my subject is always, on some level, Baltimore.

It's a problem-place, neither northern nor southern, somewhat addicted to nostalgia, yet amnesiac about the more dicey parts of its past. I used an epigraph from H. L. Mencken in one of my books: ‘A Baltimorean is not merely John Doe, an isolated individual of Homo sapiens, like every other John Doe. He is a John Doe of a certain place -- of Baltimore, of a definite home in Baltimore.' I am a person of a certain place, and that place happens to be Baltimore."

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In the fall of 2003, Laura Lippman took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It wasn't so much a book as a single line in a book -- the last line of Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings. She writes: "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

I, too, had led a fairly sheltered life at the time I read this. But Welty's words persuaded me that this was an obstacle that could be overcome; if I worked hard to develop my empathy and curiosity, then no world, no topic would be off-limits to me. Yes, writers should write what they know about --but knowledge need not end with autobiography. All I had to do was venture out into the world and see things. My newspaper career provided just the window on the world I needed.

Welty, by the way, worked as a photographer as part of a WPA project in the 1930s. That's not mentioned in her memoir, but the detail seems relevant to me.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- It's a funny story how I began to read Lolita. I was reading a collection by Jean Kerr, the humorist best known for Please Don't Eat the Daisies, and she had a lovely parody of the magazine feature "Can This Marriage Be Saved," featuring Humbert and Lolita. Way over my head at the time -- I couldn't have been more than 11 -- but I gleaned that this was a controversial book, perhaps even a dirty book, and I procured a copy, keeping it under my bed. I probably read it two or three times before I was a high school senior, and I couldn't begin to figure out where the dirty parts were. But I fell in love with the language.

  • All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry -- I read the first line of this book on a Greyhound bus en route to San Antonio, and it was an oddly perfect marriage of book and venue. It's such a simple line: "I think I fell in love with Sally while she was eating breakfast, the first morning we were together." Such a simple line, yet it holds that inherent promise of a narrator in charge of his story. Conventional literary wisdom holds that this was the last of McMurty's regional novels and, thus, lesser. And, of course, Lonesome Dove is a contender for Great American Novel in a way that this book will never be. But I love it and I've been forcing it on people for years.

  • Love Story -- A memoir by Ruth McKenney, best known for her "My Sister Eileen" stories. A funny and poignant account of a marriage between two writers.

  • The Group by Mary McCarthy -- Again, I think I read it for the salacious content, only to find discover it was a brilliant novel. Led me to read McCarthy's memoirs, which are quite good.

  • Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley and Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky. I've grouped these three books together because my discovery of them in one single summer inspired me to write crime fiction.

  • Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain -- So dark, so funny, so much better than the film version. I love all of Cain's work, but the female characters tend to be presented through a man's POV – a POV that's often clouded by desire. The view of Mildred is unfiltered, except by Cain's ironic gaze, and it's a really fascinating portrait of a dogged woman with absolutely no gift for introspection.

  • Victory over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist -- A brilliant collection featuring the best work of one of America's best short story writers. I feel sorry for anyone who hasn't read the early Rhoda Manning stories.

  • Trouble Comes Back by Keith Snyder -- This novel deserves to be a cult sensation. It's for anyone who loves hardboiled fiction, or anyone who's ever been young. It should be this millennium's A Separate Peace. A small story, but Faberge eggs are small, too.

  • The Zuckerman books by Philip Roth -- Actually, I'd like to put all of Roth's work here. He is my favorite writer. Again, the theme of prohibition emerges -- I was drawn to his work at a time when revisionist thought held that it was very anti-female, almost misogynistic. Perhaps an argument could be made that his characters are, but I don't think the novels are. I believe Roth's characters are perplexed by women and that seems in line with what I know about most men.

  • The complete works of Lenora Mattingly Weber and Maud Hart Lovelace. I'm a writer and a reader because of those two writers. It's that simple.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • I love gangster films, particularly Miller's Crossing, the first two Godfathers, Once Upon a Time in America and Scarface for its camp value. Just very cathartic films.

  • Groundhog Day is one of the most perfect comedies ever made. I don't think it's an accident that an SCTV alum Harold Ramis wrote the script. Like the best skits from that television show, it's an idea that builds and changes.

  • Crossing Delancey -- The heroine doesn't deserve her good fate, but I root for her anyway.

  • Citizen Kane.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I listen to practically everything -- jazz (primarily the great vocalists doing standards), traditional country and bluegrass, the usual suspects in rock and roll, opera, and show tunes. I don't listen to music when I write because it would be wasted: when I'm working hard, I don't hear anything, even construction on the street outside.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    One of the great books that I haven't tackled -- Ulysses comes to mind -- or history, perhaps Toynbee. The gaps in my knowledge are alarming.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Books that are meaningful to the giver.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    My desk includes a Colts mini-helmet signed by Johnny Unitas, a Brooks Robinson baseball card and a small army of "Strong Women" -- a phalanx of Pez containers led by Wonder Woman, whose entourage also includes a Roberto Clemente bobblehead and a pair of wind-up sumo wrestlers purchased in the company of one of my oldest and best friends 20 years ago. There are also objects that would be familiar to careful readers of the Tess Monaghan series, most notably an old blue-glass Planters peanut container, which I used for receipts.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I've been at this about a decade and I think I've been lucky for the most part. The toughest thing for me was finding an agent, a search that took almost a year. My book had already been accepted by the time the rejections started rolling in, so I could philosophical about those.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    To focus their energies on writing, as opposed to publishing. In fact, it helps if you can split your consciousness, use two different parts of your brain, because the two things don't overlap as much as you might think. The writer part of you must never think about what is trendy, or what might sell, or what might hit the zeitgeist bulls-eye. You really shouldn't even think about what readers want, except within the context of the story you've created. If you're going to write in a genre, you can't cheat the genre, or disdain it. Readers may not know what your precise goal is in writing a book, but they'll know if you cheat.

    You're building something complicated and, one hopes, even beautiful. Outside voices, outside agendas, make that task impossible. You're not writing to emulate some other writers' material success or lifestyle. You're writing in hopes of stirring in someone else what you felt when you read a seminal book.

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  • About the Writer
    *Laura Lippman Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    In Our Other Stores
    * Signed, First Editions by Laura Lippman
    *Baltimore Blues, 1997
    *Charm City, 1997
    *Butcher's Hill, 1998
    *In Big Trouble, 1999
    *The Sugar House, 2000
    *In a Strange City, 2001
    *The Last Place, 2002
    *Every Secret Thing, 2003
    *To the Power of Three, 2005
    *No Good Deeds: A Tess Monaghan Novel, 2006
    *What the Dead Know, 2007