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Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling crime novelist, is not what you’d call a practitioner of the big bang theory. Her novels — and she’s written 21, the latest being “Wilde Lake” — don’t tend to feature the kind of bloody explosions and breathless chases you might find in, say a Lee Child or James Patterson novel.
“My books kind of reflect that I don’t deliver big thrills,” Lippman says, on the phone from her home in Baltimore. “They’re not roller coaster rides.”
Sometimes, she adds, “I’m caught short because people will say these books are quiet or they don’t move very quickly, or there’s not much going on. And I’m, like, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ I look at ‘Wilde Lake’ and it’s a story about a murder case and the only scene that takes place in a courtroom is the jury selection. I have a fascination with the day to day, the quotidian. I’m interested in how other people live in their most ordinary days.”
And what secrets and lies might be revealed over time in those lives.
Lippman, 57, writes in a genre that might be called literary crime fiction or, as the Chicago Tribute put it recently, “Ultimately, ‘Wilde Lake’ is not so much a crime novel that rises to the level of serious literature as serious literature that rises to the level of great crime fiction.”
“It’s not for me to say whether I’m ‘literary,’” Lippman demurs, “but because I believe the crime novel can be literary, well, that’s cool. I’m trying to write the best novels that I can and I’m trying to write novels that would interest me, which means they’re character driven.”
“Wilde Lake” is set in 2015 in Columbia, Maryland, and one of its villages, Wilde Lake, where Lippman went to high school from 1974 to 1977. It centers around Luisa "Lu" Brant, a 45-year-old widow and newly minted state’s attorney who is in charge of prosecuting a homeless man in the murder of what seems to be a randomly chosen middle-aged woman.
But it also flashes back to Lu’s more awkward and lonely childhood in 1980. Her mother had died, her father was a well-respected, but remote, state’s attorney; her brother AJ was a rising star whose heroism extended to saving his best friend Davey Robinson after he was assaulted, with one of the attackers killed. Davey, a rare black kid in a white suburb, had been accused of rape.
Lippman not only jumps back and forth between these time-frames — and you know there will be connections eventually — but uses Lu’s voice in two distinctly different ways.
As a young girl, says Lippman, you hear Lu “in the first-person voice speaking in the past tense.” That alternates with a third-person-limited point of view when it’s set in the present day. Lippman says she used that device to give young Lu a “melancholic, weighed-down sad voice” and middle-aged Lu a voice with “more confidence, more attitude, more certainty about things.”
“All of this knowledge and wisdom we’ve gained about what’s happened to us, it still doesn’t take us past this moment that we’re in right now,” says Lippman. “I wanted to look at that state of mental being.”
Lippman sets many of her novels around the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. She and her late father Theo Lippman Jr. both wrote for The Baltimore Sun and her husband, showrunner David Simon, put Baltimore on the 21st century TV map as well with his brilliant, gritty series for HBO, “The Wire.”
The case can be made that Lippman has done for Baltimore what Elmore Leonard did for Detroit and Dennis Lehane has done for Boston. “That’s keeping good company,” says Lippman. “Leonard is a hero of mine and Lehane is a friend of mine, so I’m proud to be mentioned along either one of them. Setting drives a lot of my stories and I’m curious about the place. I’m trying to find a connection between the place and the things that happen here.”
Unlike John Irving — who famously knows the last sentence of every novel before he begins writing — Lippman says, “I usually don’t know the last sentence of the book, though I might know the last image. I end a lot of books with women sitting in the dark, drinking.”
Lu is not a particularly likable character, which is fair enough. Protagonists need not be necessarily likable, but conflicted — the way we all are.
“We often talk about how we feel about characters who have granted us access to their most inner thoughts,” Lippman says, “and no one would be likable under those circumstances. If people knew what was going on in my head every day, nobody would like me.”
What she does share with Lu, Lippman says, is a sense of competitiveness. She had it with her late dad and she has it with other crime novelists. “In my head I compete against a lot of my friends as a crime writer,” Lippman says, “and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it was Lehane, one time, who said, ‘You read a really good book and it makes you want to go swing from the fences.’”
When it comes to devising the plot, Lippman says, “I have a way of describing what I do as the distant shore school of plotting. You think of your novel as a river your characters have to cross. You can see the other side and think you know what you see, but what you don’t know is how fast the current is, and where they’re going to come out. They might not come out straight across. The boat might spring a leak halfway. Or they get across and what they thought were dragons, were windmills.
“I generally think I know the ‘big secret’ when I start, but that can change when I’m writing. The characters dictate a lot. Once the characters are in situations, certain things can happen and certain things cannot happen — it wouldn’t be credible.”
By any stretch, Lippman would be considered a prolific writer. Since publishing her 1997 debut novel “Baltimore Blues,” featuring private investigator Tess Monaghan, she’s written 11 other novels with Monaghan and nine standalone mystery/crime novels.
Lippman says her husband used to be her first reader, but now she says he reads the finished book like any “ordinary fan.” As to any completion, she figures Simon — whose credits include “Treme” and “Show Me a Hero” — is in the 99.9th percentile of the best showrunners to ever have the job. And she’s working as a novelist in a field preceded by Cervantes. Tolstoy and Flaubert, to name three, she says, “I don’t feel competitive with my husband and if I did I’d be insane over it; I can’t win that competition.”
There’s a work-in-progress that is a first for both Lippman and Simon: It’s their first collaboration and it’s a musical — which neither has done before either. It’s being created with novelist-friend George Pelecanos and in conjunction with the Celtic punk band, The Pogues. It’s called “Fairytale of New York,” after that most-famous Pogues song, and will be directed by Ireland’s Tony-winner Garry Hynes.
Lippman says the late Pogues’ guitarist Phil Chevron talked to them about doing something around nine years ago, meeting with Simon while he was co-producing “Generation Kill” in London. A big fan of musicals, Chevron said he wanted to use the Pogues songs to frame a story told in America. Lippman says Simon wasn’t quite following what he was saying so she explained, “He’s not saying he wants it to be like ‘Jersey Boys’; more like ‘Mamma Mia!,’ but good.”
“It’s a very unusual project,” Lippman says. “David knows nothing about American musical theater and Phil knew everything. Over time, it evolved that I would help write this because A — I know musicals and, B — I think I had a lot to bring to some of the female characters. We actually workshopped it in the spring of 2014 and last fall, we met with Oskar Eustis [artistic director] at the Public Theater and he gave us a bunch of really tough notes. We’ve seen the light. We’ve kind of figured it out and know where we’re going now.”
But novels are Lippman’s bread and butter. Her upcoming novel, set in Delaware in 1995 is a standalone, slated for publication next year.
Like all contemporary authors, Lippman is confronted by the theory that reading is just too old-school and non-interactive. “I think reading is darn interactive,” Lippman counters. “We tend to think about interactive as something that happens between us and a machine or touching something, but reading fiction has always been interactive. We imagine the characters, we play guessing games with the plot. I’m terribly involved with these people [when I read] and I hope people become involved with my characters.”
Lippman says she’s gleaned valuable insights about life from other novelists. “I read novels as if they were advice books,” she says, “and every now and then I stop myself and think, ‘You know, this was written by another ordinary human being just like you. You do this. Why would you think there is wisdom?’ But I do believe other novelists have things to tell me about how people live and love and conquer their demons and I would rather read a novel than a self-help book.”
So, might Lippman somehow serve that role of wise sage for her readers?
“No, I think that’s ridiculous because I know nothing,” Lippman says with a laugh. “I would be terrified if people thought I had anything. Stop! You’ve come to the wrong place!”
Lippman will read Tuesday, June 14, at 7 p.m. at the Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
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