| || Meet the Author |
In Big Trouble with Baltimore mystery author Laura Lippman
by Ellen Healy
Laura Lippman, author of the acclaimed series starring Baltimore newspaper reporter turned private investigator Tess Monaghan, knows whereof she writes. A long-time resident of "Charm City," Lippman has been a newspaper reporter for the Baltimore Sun since 1989; prior to that she worked for the San Antonio Light and Waco Tribune-Herald.
Baltimore Blues, the first in the series, was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel in 1996. The next book, Charm City, won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original in 1997 and the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. The third Tess Monaghan mystery, Butcher's Hill won an Agatha Award in 1998 and was also nominated for a Shamus Award and a 1998 Edgar Award.
In Big Trouble finds Tess Monaghan confronting her own past. She and her ex-boyfriend Crow have been broken up for some time, but when Tess hears that Crow has mysteriously disappeared, she is concerned. When she receives a photograph of Crow along with an anonymous note saying merely "In Big Trouble," she decides to investigate. The trail leads Tess far from Baltimore and down to San Antonio, Texas, where the answers lie in a world of good-time music, old-fashioned ambition and rich people's games.
MysteryNet: Writers are often advised to "write what you know." Given that thought, how much is Tess like you?
Laura Lippman: I think it's excellent advice, but I always like to add: Your life story isn't the only thing you know. When I wrote my first book, I made a list of things I knew as a result of working at newspapers. I knew, obviously, how newspapers worked. I knew a lot about nonprofits and charitable organizations. I knew how to row, although I no longer did it. I knew where I would drink and eat in Baltimore if I were a young woman with limited funds.
But there are, inevitably, many overlaps between Tess and me. She's the person I might have been if I had lost my job in my 20s-- a rougher exterior, but a much softer interior, full of self doubts. Like many fictional characters, she gets to say the rude/funny things I would never dare to say out loud. She is brave and principled, two things I like to think I am, but perhaps not to the extent Tess is.
MysteryNet: What influenced you to become a reporter and then a mystery writer?
Lippman: I wanted to write for a living. Not teach writing-- write. My father was a newspaperman, an editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun from 1965 on, so it didn't take me long to figure out how one made a living as a writer. My first job was at the Waco Tribune-Herald in 1981, and I made $175 a week. It wasn't quite enough. Until my salary was boosted to $200 at the six month-mark, I waited tables at a mediocre Italian restaurant to make ends meet. Still, I am proud that I have been a professional writer for 18 years.
I began to write mysteries because I had gone through a bruising merger here in Baltimore, where the Evening Sun (my employer) was absorbed into the larger morning paper. Writing Baltimore Blues was a way to survive that time, when editors were telling me I couldn't write. Six months before Baltimore Blues was published, I was named the Sun's best writer by our local city magazine. That meant a lot to me. And you just know that I make sure the Sun editors know every time I get nominated for a mystery-writing award.
MysteryNet: Tess moved from reporter to P.I.-- do you ever see yourself following that pattern?
Lippman: Let's say I'm mindful of the fact that I might come to my own professional crossroads. I love my current job-- writing features-- but things could change. Would I become a private detective? Probably not. I like regular hours.
MysteryNet: Which part of the book is most important to you? The beginning? The middle, to build up the excitement? Or the end, to resolve all of the plot lines?
Lippman: At the risk of sounding trite, I think they're all important. Beginnings are easy, I think, just the way the beginning of a romance is easy. Everything seems fresh and possible. Middles are the hardest.
The romance analogy breaks down with endings. I adore writing endings, and only a sadist (or a masochist) could adore the ending of a relationship. Not just because they mean I'm finished, but because I find in each book the most amazing possibilities that I never planned. An offhand detail in chapter five can, with several revisions, become an opportunity in the final chapter.
With each book, I've had in mind some scene toward the end that I'm itching to write. With Baltimore Blues, I knew from the beginning that it would end with Tess watching light play on various objects she sees on the observation deck of the Baltimore boat house. The yearning to write the ultimate, or penultimate scene, keeps me going through the manuscript. I hope the yearning to read it is what keeps the reader going.
MysteryNet: Have any authors influenced your writing? What is your favorite book? What authors are included on your favorite reading list?
Lippman: Favorite book? Lolita, which does have whodunit elements and quite a few clues sprinkled throughout. In the mystery field, I was heavily influenced by James Cain, Sara Paretsky, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley and-- inevitably, I suppose-- Raymond Chandler. One of my all-time favorites is Phillip Roth. I also read a lot of what I call "girl fiction," a term I use with great affection and the highest respect for the work of Joanna Trollope, Alice Adams, Gail Godwin, Cathleen Schine and Laurie Colwin, among others.
MysteryNet: What caused you to write about greyhounds in your books? Do you have a pet?
Lippman: We have two dogs-- Dulcie, a retired racing greyhound who inspired the character of Esskay in my books. And we have a springer spaniel, Spike, who sleeps at my feet as I write. Muse-ing, we call it. This Spike was named after a springer we call Spike the elder, who was killed in a hit-and-run. He lent his name to the bookie-bar owner in the books.
MysteryNet: On a different note-- what would surprise people about you if they met you for the first time?
Lippman: That I begin to speak in a Southern accent after more than two drinks. Seriously-- unlike Tess, a native Baltimorean with two working-class parents whose Jewish-Catholic-Eastern European-Irish roots are common in this city, I was born in Atlanta, the daughter of two college-educated Southerners. We moved to Baltimore when I was 6, which was 34 years ago, but that makes me a relative newcomer in my adopted hometown.
I also have a shockingly loud laugh and, as noted above, I don't row anymore. But I do work out pretty seriously, running 15-20 miles a week and lifting weights twice a week, with a yoga class squeezed in here and there for peace of mind.
MysteryNet: Last question. Can you give a hint of what's coming in the next Tess Monaghan book?
Lippman: The book that's just out, In Big Trouble, is the first one set outside Maryland's boundaries. Tess goes to Texas in search of an old boyfriend. I lived in San Antonio for a while, and I loved writing this book.
I am just finishing The Sugar House, which finds Tess back in Baltimore and involved in what may be her most challenging case to date, a Jane Doe murder. The killer has been caught, but no one knows who the victim is. When Tess begins to close in on the girl's identity, she has to cope with the fact that her work has grave implications for her father, a long-time player on the state's political scene. The book also touches on the problems of eating disorders among young women, a subject that has always fascinated me.
Ellen Healy is a former library assistant who is living her dream of working in a mystery bookstore. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two teenage sons, and her books.