In her popular Tess Monaghan series, Laura Lippman writes about Baltimore with great affection, humor—and candor. In her latest standalone novel, Life Sentences, the best-selling author (and wife of The Wire's David Simon) tackles memory, the subconscious, and race.
Where did you go to school?
Thomas Jefferson Elementary, then the brand spanking-new Dickey Hill Elementary, Rock Glen Jr. High, Western High School, Wilde Lake High School, Northwestern University. (A true Baltimorean would have provided only the high schools.)
What book or film most changed your life?
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry. I read the first line and thought: I want to make someone feel the way I feel right now, all atingle with pleasure at the thought of the book ahead. I just knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller who was going to take me on a wonderful journey and deliver me to a carefully chosen destination.
Who is your favorite Baltimorean, living or dead?
Whoever was sitting at the bar in the Calvert House, circa 1998, who suddenly announced: "I have such a goddamn fetish for fried chicken."
What is the best advice you ever got?
Don't learn to write cutlines, do the weather chart, the police blotter or anything else like that because then you'll have to do it all the time. (Reporter Mark Parrent, my first week of work at the Evening Sun.)
What is the biggest mistake you've ever made?
Being a picky eater as a child. I missed so many lovely things.
What's the bravest thing you've ever done?
Moved to Waco, Texas, at the age of 22, knowing nothing about Texas and not a single soul there.
What is the greatest problem facing Baltimore today?
As my father editorialized for years, most of Baltimore's problems stem from its unusual geography. Very few U.S. cities are surrounded by counties that are completely separate political entities with zero overlap. Merge with the country and most of our dire stats—the homicide rate, for example—would fall dramatically.
When were you most tempted to leave Baltimore?
When would-be actors began showing up on my doorstep, looking for my husband. (By the way, this is guaranteed NOT to get you a job.)
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
I want to say Frances McDormand because I've never met anyone whose bookshelves more closely resemble mine. But if I'm honest about who comes closest to me in terms of appearance, hair, height and general demeanor, I think I have to say Jason Segel.
What is your guilty pleasure?
A Lenora Mattingly Weber YA novel and a bag of peanut M&M's.
If you could write Baltimore's motto, what would it be?
Baltimore—where trends come to die.
Your protagonist in Life Sentences, Cassandra Fallows, is not all that sympathetic. Was it liberating to write a character who was so blithely self-centered?
Yes, and it became even more fun after I was warned that some readers would assume she was my alter ego. I'm not sure why, but that made it even more fun to make her so obnoxious.
She's also a memoirist. Would you ever write a memoir? And what are your thoughts on our memoir-mad culture?
Memoir's not for me. There are too many people in my life who have a legitimate and sincere desire to live privately. But, as a reader, I love the form and admire people who do it well.
Race relations are a central part of Life Sentences. How did you have the nerve to tackle such a potentially thorny subject?
Race is part of life in Baltimore. It seems to me that ignoring it is what would really take nerve.
You wrote a serialized novella for The New York Times. Did that force you think about writing in a different way?
It was a great challenge because each piece had to be the same length and crime novels are reliant on varying chapter length to manipulate pacing. I also felt that each section needed a story within the story, for that rare odd bird who might be willing to read, say, Chapter 7, despite missing chapters 1-6.
Tell me a quality that Tess Monaghan has that you wish you had yourself?
She says what she thinks. Often at a great cost.
Tess is so popular. Does she ever feel like a both blessing and a burden?
She's never a burden. A series, however, has its special challenges because it's never over, which means it never truly climaxes. I can't use Tess up. In the standalones, I can take a character from A to Z. In a Tess novel, it's A to B, B to C, C to D . . . A million words, 10 novels and a novella later, we're not even halfway through the alphabet.
We heard tell that you have a state-of-the-art new kitchen: Is a cookbook in the offing?
I am a happy but mediocre cook, content to follow others' recipes. But the Mark Bittman motif in Life Sentences was an homage to one of my favorites, How to Cook Everything. Before writing this book, I would have said I was like the Cassandra character, very sure about everything. When I finished, I realized I was more like the methodical baker, Callie, who wishes she could be so adamant, who likes cooking because it's so predictable.
We would be remiss if we didn't ask for your take on the deterioration of The Sun and the newspaper industry in general.
I was a second-generation Sun reporter and feel the paper's deterioration very keenly. But I don't think readers will realize what they've lost until it affects them on some very personal, basic level. Say, when a strip club opens up in a residential neighborhood because no one's covering the zoning board.
John Waters married you and hubby David Simon? Dish!
There's truly no dish to dish.
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in the August 2009 issue of Baltimore magazine