Elinor Lipman began writing fiction in her late 20s, when she enrolled in a creative writing workshop. Since then, she has written a string of bestselling novels, as well as short stories and book reviews. Her books are more than just romantic comedies; Lipman writes entertaining characters who enlighten the plot with their human idiosyncrasies.
Her first release was a collection of short stories, titled Into Love and Out Again (1986). This charismatic collection of stories contains early elements of the thing that would make Lipman a loved novelist: finely drawn characters and page-turning plot twists. The theme of these sixteen stories is the stuff of modern domestic life -- marriage, pregnancy, weight gain and true love.
When Lipman released Then She Found Me (1990), Publisher's Weekly called the debut "...an enchanting tale of love in assorted forms ... a first novel full of charm, humor and unsentimental wisdom." When 36-year-old April Epner suffers the death of both of her adoptive parents, she seeks solace in her quiet, academic life as a Latin teacher in a Boston high school. Bernice Graverman is April's opposite. She's a brash, gossipy talk show host who lives her life with all the tranquility of a stampede. She's also April's birth mother. Lipman's story of their mother and child reunion is unforgettable.
In The Way Men Act (1993), Melinda LeBlanc returns home to Massachusetts to work in the family business. She finds a friend in neighboring shop owner, Libby, and has a one-sided love infatuation with Dennis Vaughan, another small town shop owner. Lipman takes on small town values by portraying the story's interracial relationship with wit and intelligence.
Filled with surprising friendships, Isabel's Bed (1995) tells the story of Harriet Mahoney, a writer at the end of her rope. When Harriet's long-term lover leaves unexpectedly, she moves from Manhattan to Cape Cod for an unusual writing assignment. Harriet has agreed to write the life story of tabloid darling Isabel Krug, a vivacious woman who earned her fifteen minutes of fame for her role as the other woman in a high-profile murder case. Their unusual partnership is the basis for this twisting, hilarious comedy of friendship and trust.
The Inn at Lake Devine (1998) is loosely based on a true story. The serious issue of anti-Semitism is treated with humor -- something Lipman is able to do so wonderfully in all her novels. When Natalie Marx's family is denied entry into the Inn at Lake Devine in Vermont, she plans revenge. But her plans are complicated by a friendship with Robin, fiancé to the son of the Inn's owners. Lipman's deft treatment of the play between discrimination and friendship creates a novel whose characters and setting may as well walk straight off the pages; and readers will find themselves laughing at the most serious of issues.
A committed spinster, Adele Dobbin is reunited with the man who left her at the altar thirty years earlier in The Ladies' Man (1999). Nash Harvey arrives, unannounced of course, on Adele's doorstep, and brings chaos into the lives of Adele and her sisters (also single, aging baby-boomers). In a rousing game of sexual politics, Nash unintentionally forces the sisters, particularly Adele, to examine their desires. Five distinct plot lines weave together seamlessly around Nash and his haphazard, womanizing lifestyle.
Sunny's homecoming in The Dearly Departed (2001) is equally life-altering. When her well-loved mother passes away, an entire small town mourns her departure. Back at the scene of her unhappy teenage years, Sunny dreads facing her former classmates, employers and so-called friends. What she finds is unsettling, but in a healthy way: the small town and its citizens are not nearly as malicious or clueless as she mythologized. Likewise, she realizes, neither was her mother. In a touching blend of social commentary, family drama and romantic impulses, Sunny learns that you can go home again.
The Pursuit of Alice Thrift (2003) is classic Lipman. Serious and shy, Alice aspires to be a philanthropic surgeon, using her skills for charity more than personal gain. That is, if she can make it through the rest of her medical internship. Alice is shaken (and confused) when she falls in love with an eccentric, foul-mouthed fudge salesman. But don't expect too much sentimentality here: Lipman gives away the ending in the first chapter, telling readers that the relationship was kaput, but the fun in reading this book is discovering why the two characters even glanced at each other in the first place. It's a great read -- Lipman places Alice on an unthinkable, yet totally believable path and we get to watch her find her way through.
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In our interview with Lipman, she shared some fun facts about herself with us:
"I was nearly fired from my second job, which was writing press releases for Boston's public television station. I couldn't do anything right in the eyes of my newly promoted and therefore nervous boss. I quit after three months, one step ahead of the axe, feeling like an utter failure."
"Tom Hanks and his production company have optioned my fifth novel, The Ladies' Man. Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody's Fool, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, The Human Stain) is signed on as director and screenwriter."
"I was runner-up for the Best Actress award at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts, class of '68, after playing Gabrielle (the Bette Davis role) in The Petrified Forest and Elaine (the ingénue/niece) in Arsenic and Old Lace. And I was grievance chairman for the staff union when I worked for the Massachusetts Teachers Association in the late 1970s. Both of these inclinations come in handy to this day."
"I knit all the time."
"I wear a pedometer, aiming for five miles a day -- don't be too impressed; that includes walking around my house and food shopping. Sometimes I walk no farther than my own driveway because I can hear the phone ring -- 12 round-trips equals one mile."
"I cook quite seriously, which I think is an antidote to the writing -- i.e., I finish the project in an hour or two and get feedback immediately."
"I watch golf on television, although I don't golf -- except for visits to the driving range in spurts."
"I wake up at 6:00 a.m. no matter what time I go to bed."
"I was a roving guard on the Lowell Hebrew Community Center's girls' basketball team all through high school. My specialty was stealing the ball, but my only shot was a lay-up."
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In the summer of 2004, Elinor Lipman took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It was New Year's, 1979. I had three days off and a library book, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Every word of the book enthralled me, but the portrait that held me in the tightest grip was a collective one -- Sexton's poetry workshop at Boston University, taught by Robert Lowell; martinis after class at the Ritz. "Maybe I should try that," I thought. I signed up for the first course advertised in the first circular that came through my mail slot, "Beginning Fiction," at Brandeis University -- ten weeks for $40. Cold feet struck the first night, but I scolded myself into action. After class, I thanked the teacher, Arthur Edelstein, but said I didn't think I'd be back: My classmates were too advanced -- seemed to have come that night with novels in progress.
"C'mon," he said. "I'll assign exercises. It'll be fun."
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor -- It is the day-to-day inner landscape of a famous -- and famously unpretentious -- writer. I reread it frequently and quote it often.
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields -- It's so smart, so witty, so wry, so delicious. Long live the late, fabulous, and beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham -- This was the novel I reread in college probably a half dozen times and pressed on all my friends.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- As much as I like to plug live authors, this is a book I threw myself into as a teenager and remember vividly.
My favorite young adult book of all time (which I devoured -- no exaggeration -- 25 times) is Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, a novel in letters and utterly charming from first page to last.
The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon -- My favorite Weldon -- funny and daring and simply an addictive read.
Waking the Dead by Scott Spencer -- A thrilling novel about a budding politician who is haunted by the memory of his deceased lover and the possibility that her politically motivated death in a car bombing was staged.
All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward -- I'm a news and political junkie, so this was reliving those glory days (for me, at least) of Watergate. It's fabulously paced and cleanly written. It reads, for those of my inclinations, like a thriller.
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher -- Do yourself a favor: Find this book, published in England by Persephone. It was first published in 1924, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's about a husband who is miserable going out to work and a wife equally miserable staying at home. Only after he is disabled and she goes to work in a department store can each find happiness.
Host Family by Mameve Medwed -- It's funny all the time, smart, quirky, and dedicated to me. And then read her others.
Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger -- My favorite short story of all times, "For Esmé -- with Love and Squalor" is contained therein.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Tootsie -- Wall-to-wall perfect timing and delivery in this ensemble triumph and deeply funny 1982 classic. And speaking of Bill Murray....
Groundhog Day -- A brilliant premise, wonderfully executed: funny, sweet, ingenious.
Clueless -- Amy Heckerling's Haitian speech (Cher in debate class) is worth the price of admission. Language is a character is this movie, which doesn't get enough credit for soaring out of its teenage pigeonhole. If anyone minds, I'll plead Emma.
Election -- What could be better than (director) Alexander Payne meets (author) Tom Perrotta meets early Reese Witherspoon?
About Schmidt -- Deeply witty, poignant, truthful, subtle, and more from the genius of A. Payne. Even though Louis Begley's wonderful novel is only a distant cousin many times removed, I made peace with that occupational worry.
Kramer vs. Kramer -- Fabulous acting; Robert Benton wrote and directed it, and he gets my lifetime achievement award.
Best in Show -- Fabulous dialogue, fabulous acting, every scene a comic jewel.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm not a music fanatic, far from it. My family says my attitude toward music is: background noise. That's a little harsh. I have my favorites in classical, and do keep a CD of Schubert's Impromptus by my computer. I own everything recorded by James Taylor, Paul Simon, and the Beatles, which I think shows my age. Happily, my husband is an audiophile, so I have lots of options without having to actually leave the house. When I cook I often listen to the soundtrack of Guys and Dolls -- the Nathan Lane and Faith Prince set.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'd nominate Carol Shields' last novel, Unless -- a reflection on what it means to be a writer, a parent, a woman, a wife, and a friend. It's brilliant and funny, evidencing all of Shields' trademark sly social commentary and warmth.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Cookbooks, funny novels, biographies, and, occasionally, poetry. The last eight book-gifts I gave were Mary Jo Salter's Open Shutters (poems), Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff, Bistro Cooking at Home by Gordon Hamersley and Joanne McAllister Smart, Act One by Moss Hart, Ghost Light: A Memoir by Frank Rich, In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle by Madeleine Blais, Auto da Fay: A Memoir by Fay Weldon, and The End of an Error by Mameve Medwed.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I try to begin by 8:00 a.m. I have to have a cup of coffee in hand. My desk is usually a mess, just enough room for my mouse on my mouse pad. My to-do list, the Stickies, the Post-its are always reminding me of the practical side of life -- calls to make, thank-you notes to write, errands to run. If I had a stronger will, I'd shut off the email and phone until I met my daily quota (500 words), but I'm too weak.
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 wrote my first fiction in 1978 in an adult education workshop. My first published story (which was actually my tenth story) appeared in Yankee in 1982, and my collection of stories was published in 1987. I vividly remember the conversation I had with my agent as I was contemplating a second book. Should I try a novel? I asked her. She said, "It's easier to sell a novel these days than it is to sell a story." It turned out that for me, stories were just a transition to my true calling, novel writing. The most demeaning rejection: Pig Iron Press sent back my story in the self-addressed stamped envelope I'd enclosed. Not only had they rejected it, but had snipped off my first-class postage and replaced it with a lesser denomination.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Joan Leegant, whose first book, An Hour in Paradise, just won the PEN Winship Award. I heartily endorsed it on the jacket by saying, "Each story is a gift, a guided tour of a perfect small calamity of the heart and soul."
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The most heartening thing I've ever heard from an editor, when she was asked, "What are publishers looking for? Are they looking for big commercial books about war and submarines and socialites?" was her answer: "I'm looking to fall in love on the first page."
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