Photo by Jan Cobb
Laura Lippman talks about crime fiction, journalism and the social novel. [30:30]
Laura Lippman: Well, I always wanted to write fiction, and I became a journalist because that was the only gig I knew where you got a weekly paycheck for writing. So that's what I decided to do. Journalism influenced me as a novelist in the most basic way it created for me an understanding of what it meant to be professional. Â Do your work. Do it on time. Don't be a diva about it. You're not inventing the wheel. This is what you do. This is your job Sit down. Do it. And then you come in the next day and you sit down and you do it again, and that's been really good preparation for writing novels at the clip of a book a year.
Jo Reed: That's novelist and Baltimore native, Laura Lippman.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artist to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at The Baltimore Sun. She began writing novels while working fulltime. Laura Lippman's first book, Baltimore Blues in which she introduced her incidental private detective, Tess Monaghan; both Laura and Tess captivated the critics and public alike. Still, it took six more books before Laura Lippman left daily journalism in 2001. After 17 books, Laura Lippman has since won virtually every major award given to crime writers, including the Edgar, the Shamus, and the Quill.
Laura Lippman's books are all centered in and around her city of Baltimore. Her crime fiction is the vehicle by which she explores some of the social issues plaguing her hometown. She is one of a handful of crime writers who have used that genre to examine the ways in which ordinary people live their lives under often extraordinary circumstances while at the same time expanding the boundaries of mystery fiction and psychological suspense.
Her latest book, The Most Dangerous Thing is no exception. The Most Dangerous Thing is set on the western edge of Baltimore, in the town of Dickeyville. It is the story of five childhood friends who were party to a deadly crime. Years pass, they grow up and they grow apart until the death of the most troubled of their one-time group brings them together and the past into focus. Once again, in Laura Lippman's hands, a book about a crime is an examination of class, race, secrets, memory and forgiveness. I spoke with Laura Lippman in her Baltimore office about her recent novel, The Most Dangerous Thing, and about crime fiction in general. Â I began by asking her how her background in journalism informed her ability as a fiction writer.
Laura Lippman: As it happened, when I came back to Baltimore in 1989 to work at The Evening Sun, I was given what was called the Social Service's beat, and it was like being given a key to the city that I didn't grow up in. And for the first time in my life I was going into the homes of wretchedly poor people, homes that I'd only seen from the outside in a car going downtown when I was a kid. I was seeing all the parts of the city that had been hidden from me as a nice middle class girl, and it really enriched and deepened my sense of what Baltimore is, of what any city is, and it created in me a belief that I'm part of a larger community, and that everything that happens in Baltimore on some level is my concern. Since this report came out last week one out of four Baltimoreans live in poverty. Just because you're part of the other three doesn't mean you can shrug your shoulders and go on with your life. I do think covering that beat made me a different kind of citizen, I guess I would say, and made me feel that there may be communities that are physically gated and cut off from other places, but that's an illusion, and it's an illusion I prefer not to succumb to. That if this is where I live, and this is where I have a family, then everything that happens here on some level is happening to me, and I need to care about it.
Jo Reed: What inspired The Most Dangerous Thing?
Laura Lippman: I was very enamored with the concept in pop culture that was new to me, although probably not new at all, but I never really thought about the term mashup, and all of a sudden it seemed to be everywhere. And I just said, "Oh, that's interesting." And it happened just weekend before last I was at the annual conference for mystery writers that's known as Bouchercon. And my friend and fellow writer, one I admire greatly, a young writer from Philadelphia named Duane Swierczynski, he was on a panel that I was moderating and we were talking about the novel and the idea that the word novel means new, make it new, can we make it new, are there new stories. And Duane said, "Well, I was the kid who always wanted to put my Spiderman action figure into the trash compactor from Star Wars." And I would argue that the moment you do that you have made something new, and I was really touched by that because the fact is, is that I was taking a lot of old ideas, Five Friends With a Secret. I was inspired in a very bizarre way by Great Expectations, about the idea of meeting someone in a dark and wild place, and they turn out to be someone utterly different from whom you imagine that person to be. Obviously, in The Most Dangerous Thing he's not as obvious a benefactor, but he is a mysterious person that they meet in a dark and wild place. And so I was interested in that. And ultimately I was also thinking, for reasons I'll never really know why, I was thinking about the film Nightmare on Elm Street and how it's a story about a child molester, who works in a school, who is killed horribly in vigilante action by parents. But when he comes back to exact his revenge he doesn't bother the parents. The parents are barely even sketched in. He knows that the most horrible revenge he can exact on those parents is to go after their kids. And I just thought, "Such a smart idea inside a pretty gory movie." Wes Craven went to the Johns Hopkins writing schools, and I believe received his degree, his MFA there, but I know he did go to the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins. And I was like, that's a really interesting idea that I don't think a lot of people have paid much attention to because Nightmare on Elm Street became known for so many other things. It actually created other tropes within horror fiction. And people think about the gore, and about creating this continuing character, who I think has lots of puns. And it's about dreams, and it's about nightmares, and it's about teenagers, but I was like, wow, the parents are just utterly missing in this story, but they did this. They did this to their own kids. And yes, they did something that a lot of people in their hearts might say, "Yeah, I would feel the same way too if someone did that to my kid." But it's not defensible, and so all of those things kind of went into this, ofâ¦. and I thought that was really what I wanted to do with this book.
Jo Reed: Why don't you give us a thumbnail sketch of the book, The Most Dangerous Thing. Â
Laura Lippman: Again, thank you. It's a very personal book because of being set in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's an old story, many people have told it in many ways. And it's a basic story about a group of people with a secret who have decided for various reasons that there's nothing to be done about something awful that has happened and the only course of action is to never speak of it again. And as I said, the story has been used in many genres, it has many motifs. But what almost always happens is a member of the group dies and they have to wonder if this is connected to the secret. In the case of these five people, they've been guarding the secret for about 30 years. And it goes back to the days when there were three brothers, Tim, Sean, and the youngest, who is known as Go-Go, and two girls, Gwen and her friend, Mickey, who for a couple of summers, for a brief span in time, formed a really tight group and explored the wild and overgrown park around Dickeyville, Leakin Park. And it belonged to them and they belonged to it and it was a time that they all remember as being particularly joyous. And then something awful happened. There was a death and they felt responsible, but they didn't know what to do about it. They didn't know how to talk about it, whom to tell, what they would tell if they did tell, so they just decided never to speak of it again. And the group drifts apart from each other. Even in some ways, the brothers drift apart from each other. And they go on and they become the grownups they become. And then one of the group dies in a way that seems like it possibly was a suicide.
Jo Reed: That happens in the first chapter of the book.
Laura Lippman: The very first chapter. That's right. So it gives away nothing to say that we lose the youngest of the five, the boy known as Go-Go, dies in the very opening chapter. Clearly troubled and upset about something and really being tormented by demons.
Jo Reed: What is it about that theme of keeping secrets that you found appealing?
Laura Lippman: I was just in the mood to do a story that had been done before and to see what I could bring to it. And the primary idea that I brought to it that I hadn't seen done before, but of course everything's been done before, so I make no claim for being new, being new only in my own experience as a reader, is that this is about two groups of people with a secret. It's about the kids, but the parents also have secrets. And the real tragedy in the story is the silence between the two generations, which I think, I think it was not peculiar to that generation of kids in the '70s, it was probably even more true of previous generations. But here are kids who are coming of age in a pretty touchy-feely time where people were encouraged to talk more and more about their feelings. But sort of the last frontier in that was parents talking to children and children talking to parents about certain topics. I see parents today, and they have incredibly close relationships with their children. And to the extent that they don't talk about things, it's certainly not because they think such conversations are taboo, it's because they have chosen not to confide either to the parent or to child about certain things. But there's a real openness between kids and parents today that's generally healthy I think. One of the big things about this book is that I have no patience for people who think everything used to be better. Some things used to be better and some things used to be worse. And there are things that people used to accept in the most nonchalant, blasÃ© way, relationships between much older men and much younger women being one of them, that these days people are a little bit more sophisticated about. And if you met a couple like the couple in the novel, where he was a man in his 30s and a friend of her uncle and she was a high school senior and they ended up getting married when she was 19, nowadays you'd gossip behind their backs if not to their faces. But you certainly have the sense that in the late '50s, early '60s, that people found that not that unusual, you know, the idea of a girl marrying at 18 barely caused anyone any consternation at all. And you think of today's modern father. Can you imagine most of the fathers you know right now opening the door to their 18 year old daughter's date and having it be a man in his 30s. I think not. So I think in some ways there are things about relationships and what we think is appropriate that has changed for the better. And there are some things that have not changed for the better but, you know, so it goes.
Jo Reed: The wildness of that part of Dickeyville. I mean, it was a national park that they would go romping through. But there was an enormous amount of freedom that the kids had.
Laura Lippman: That's what's gone, and that's where you have to argue it's gone and that's a shame and it's gone and maybe that's for the best. It's so interesting to me that in the era where we have more technology than ever, where your kid could literally just be the tap of 10 digits on your cell phone away from you, it's unthinkable that you would let your kid just wander out the door and go wandering all day in some big untamed park near your home. And yet at a time when there was essentially no way to stay connected except the shouting distance of a parent's voice, kids had a lot of freedom. And I don't think it was because people were naÃ¯ve, I don't think it's because people didn't know that there were certain dangers, but they didn't really see those dangers as being associated with being outside, wandering around. Whatever the parents thought about what their kids were doing, they weren't worried about the kids running into other people. They thought they were traveling in a relatively unpopulated place. But that's just over. It just is. And I can't say that's entirely a bad thing. I'm glad I knew the world that I knew. I'm glad that I had the freedom I had. But at the same time, I can't imagine granting that to kids today. I just don't see it happening again. It's something that's passed.
Jo Reed: So when you were a kid and you'd come home from school, you could then just hit the road.
Laura Lippman: Mm-hm. Put my books down. I can't even remember what the rules were. I don't remember homework being that burdensome when I was a kid. So if we were supposed to do homework first, I know I got it dispatched very quickly. I think the rule was homework before dinner. I think that was the important rule that because after dinner then bath time then bedtime and homework should not wait for that. My family ate dinner at a relatively late time for the era. So yeah. And I lived in a place like this where I could just, you know, shoot right up the hill and there I was at Leakin Park. It ran into my backyard. And I knew every inch of it, and I had the freedom to ro m the neighborhood. And the warnings were basically about don't fall in the stream, it's polluted. Don't eat these certain red berries because everybody knows they're poisonous. I don't think I was ever in my life told not to talk to strangers. And yet, that was implicit that you would be cautious about strangers and people you didn't know. But the sense was that we were so close to so many people we did know. I mean, I knew everybody in the neighborhood, everybody knew me. There were very few strangers in the little neighborhood where I grew up. Everybody knew everybody, knew what house they lived in. There were only 200-some houses.
Jo Reed: You have many narrators in this book, The Most Dangerous Thing. Some chapters are narrated by parents, some chapters are narrated by the four of the individual kids now grown up. And then you have this collective voice of all the kids. Tell us about that.
Laura Lippman: Yes. There's a first-person plural section of the book. I debated a lot about explaining it. And I thought, you know, the book changes from reader to reader anyway, so I have an explanation for it. What I believe is that you had a group of five people who experienced a time when the whole really was greater than the sum of the parts, that they had a synergy as five that they never had again once the group broke up. And now one of them is dead. They can never be five again. And that's the inherent tragedy. When you lose someone you've lost them. You don't get them back. And what I believe, I believe that all of the sections detailing what happened to them as kids is the last consensual act of the surviving four. They have agreed to come together one last time as a group and come to an understanding about what happened. And as a result, the one thing that I was really clear on showing, no one comes off very good in those collective chapters. Fault is found with every character. So these chapters are not flattering to any of them and that is their attempt to make amends the best they can. It has been pointed out to me, I really didn't think about it, that no real justice is done in this book. Someone dies and it's barely acknowledged in the world at large, certainly traditional forms of justice are not a part of it. Justice, while once possible, was no longer anywhere close to being remotely possible. And this is the closest they come to justice is to say, "This is who we are and this is what we did, and we can't change a single bit of it." They've all grown into pretty good citizens, if you will, more or less. One of them is more complicated than the others on that score, but they're good, responsible members of society, people with jobs who pay their taxes, some of them raising children, raising good children, they're good parents. They're trickier on the topic of being good spouses, but so it goes. But they're generally good people. It could be your neighbor, it could be someone you know from work, someone that you think well of. And they have this thing that they did wrong and they can't make it right. To me that's really important, to just acknowledge that such things happen. I don't think it's a message that a lot of people are necessarily eager to hear, that there are things that we do wrong that we can't make right. But I happen to believe that there are things that we do wrong that we can't make right, even if we live a spotless, unimpeachable life from the moment on of our crime, used in the most broad sense. No, you can't necessarily make it right.
Jo Reed: This book deals with memory and the trickiness of memory. And the same incident remembered differently. And it's sort of hard to get your hands on.
Laura Lippman: Well, everybody has a reason not to remember it that well. And then there's this vast conspiracy of silence around it. No one talks about it, so no one's comparing their memories, no one's trying to get to the truth of things. People in this novel spend 30 years running from the truth. And among the kids, they all know what happened, although even within their group there are different versions and therefore they're experiencing their memories differently. Among the parents, some of the parents are in truly blissful ignorance, they have no idea what happened, a couple of the parents. And some of the parents are burdened with secrets and shame that are much greater than what their own children are experiencing.
Jo Reed: Even though we talked about the fact that many people have done things that they can't put right, nonetheless, this novel also looks at forgiveness.
Laura Lippman: Well, I'm fascinated with forgiveness. I think it's one of the greatest gifts that a person can bestow on another person. But the other thing I believe about forgiveness is that it is always a gift. That you cannot go to someone and say, "Forgive me. You must forgive me. I demand that you forgive me." You can't even say, "Please forgive me." It's not something you can ask of another person. It's a big thing. And everyone wants to be forgiven. I mean, I think that's pretty much understood. It's implicit in confession. No one's ever confessed without wanting to be forgiven on some level. No one's ever just said, "Well I think I'll confess because I just have a mania for telling the truth." No. The act of confession always comes with some sort of expectation that confession itself will be rewarded. But I just don't think those who wish to be forgiven get to set the terms on any level. And I think that those of us who've wronged others need to accept that there are certain wrongs that we will not be forgiven for, and that that is not a flaw in the other person. Instead I think we should focus on the fact that those who can forgive, and I'm talking about people who can forgive enormous hurts and assaults, that those people are extraordinary. I mean, I'm always so impressed. I don't even believe in the death penalty, yet nothing impresses me more than someone who's lost a loved one to a horrible crime and can say in sincerity, "I don't want the state to put this person to death." Because I think if I'm really being honest that I would still in principle be opposed to the death penalty but I might do something that would be kind of a cop out and say, "Well, I am opposed to the death penalty but I am not trying the case and it's not about what I think is justice." But that would be an excuse, a rationalization, because I'd probably be thinking, "Yeah. Yeah, even though I know it's wrong, please kill that person." So the people who rise above that kind of feeling, I think they're amazing. And I think true forgiveness is one of the most wonderful things that a person can accomplish. But I think it's pretty superhuman in some cases.
Jo Reed: But you also say it's hard to be forgiven. I thought that was very interesting.
Laura Lippman: Isn't it?
Jo Reed: Because I have thought that...
Laura Lippman: Well, because to be forgiven is to be in the wrong. And in some ways, it almost makes it worse. Like you almost would prefer the person get really angry at you or do something that at least would mitigate it. And when someone shows they're a bigger person than you -- this is a really minor story. Just like a couple weeks ago I was not particularly nice when I was laboring under the misapprehension as it turned out that my husband had broken something that I cared about. I mean, I wasn't horrible about it, but I wasn't very nice about it. And I not only did not forgive him, which it turned out wasn't in me to do because he didn't actually do the thing that I thought he did. But I defended my right to not be very nice about it. Like, "Well you did this and you did that, and it's your fault." And then like a week after that, I cracked up his car. And he was so nice about it. And I was completely at fault. And there's no mitigation, there's no rationalization. I miscalculated the width of an alley and I basically raked his car across a utility pole. And he was just so nice about it. And by the way, he didn't make the connection that I hadn't been nice, he's never said that. He was just like, "It's no big deal. It's fine. Just find a body shop." Boy, I felt awful. Whereas if he'd been kind of cranky about it, somehow that would have made me feel less awful. It's very hard to be forgiven, because being forgiven means you've been in the wrong. You know, and I think when a lot of people talk about being forgiven, they don't really want to be forgiven. They want the other person to say, "Oh, it wasn't so bad." Or, "It didn't hurt me that much." Or, "I understand why you did what you did and I would have done the same thing in the same circumstance." That's not really forgiveness. Forgiveness is saying, "Yes, you did a horrible thing but I'm not going to rake you over the coals for it, I'm going to let it go."
Jo Reed: You're married to writer/producer David Simon. What are the challenges, possibly joys, of living with somebody who's also a writer?
Laura Lippman: There are no real challenges. There's less overlap than one might think. The nice thing about being married to a writer is that a writer understands what a writer's bad day is like and what a writer's good day is like. It's interesting to me to live with someone who, frankly, is much, much better known than I am. It's not that I'm unknown. My books hit the bestseller list. I get reviewed in a lot of places in the crime genre, I think I am known. I've been President of Mystery Writers of American, but as a writer I still lead a fairly anonymous life whereas my husband cannot go out to get yogurt without someone putting it on Twitter. I have to say that I've thought about it, and I was like, "I'd rather be the person who could go out anonymously for yogurt." I think he's pretty gracious about the spotlight that he's in, and I think there's a lot of responsibility in it, and I'm glad not to have it. It's so much more interesting to watch it happening to another person than to have it happening of one's self. And I was thrilled when he was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation. And just this week he went and got an award from some school out west, and it's an award for social justice. I thought that's pretty cool. That's pretty cool for him to be recognized for the fact that he cares passionately about certain ideas and principles and that a television producer can, in fact, through a popular drama be engaged in something as lofty as social justice.
Jo Reed: Well, that kind of brings us full circle because that's not unlike crime fiction which as we said is one of the few places where social issues are explored.
Laura Lippman: I'm pretty much a booster of crime fiction as it is today. By the way, it's legitimate to not like to read crime novels. It's legitimate to have preferences within one's reading, but it's amazing to me how many people don't understand that their personal preference is not necessarily indicative of a failure within the genre. Any genre can be executed at a very high level, and I mean romance novels, westerns, obviously, science fiction, every genre has extraordinary achievements within it that stand next to literary fiction. And literary fiction is, I mean the term is not very helpful. The real question is; who's writing immortal fiction? Immortality as a writer is granted to very, very few. Now we're talking-- I'm not even sure we're in the triple digits when you talk about people who are being read a hundred years after their lifetime. And no one seems to have any idea who they're going to be. And technology, I guess, is changing that in that more books will stay in print now somehow through digital rights, but it's still, who will actually be read a hundred years from now? I don't have a clue. But it's what everyone really wants, right? I mean, why do you do this? I mean, it's because there's something about the act of creation that is a little bid for immortality because everybody has to die, but if you write a bunch of books, and they stay behind, in a weird way you kind of live on. I mean, isn't Shakespeare alive? Isn't Dickens alive? They are very much a part of daily cultural life in their own ways.
Jo Reed: Laura Lippman, thank you.
Laura Lippman: Thank you, Jo. It's always a pleasure.
Jo Reed: You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from âForeric: piano studyâ from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
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Next week, National Heritage Fellow, Irish Fiddler, Liz Carroll.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.