Brought to Book: Laura Lippman on our hunger for meaning

Former reporter says novelists make a fetish of research – ‘it’s not that hard’


Laura Lippman has been awarded every major prize in crime fiction. Since the publication of What the Dead Know each of her novels has hit the New York Times bestseller list. Her latest, After I’m Gone (Faber, £12.99), is a classic mystery about the disappearance of a man and how his absence haunts the lives of the five women he leaves behind – his wife, three young daughters and mistress. Lippman sparked the recent “no make-up selfie” phenomenon when, in response to images from this year’s Oscars ceremony, she tweeted a photograph of herself without makeup, suggesting that if women never saw online pictures of women without makeup, they too would feel pressurised to have plastic surgery. A recent recipient of the first ever mayor’s prize, she lives in Baltimore, New Orleans and New York with her family. She is married to the writer David Simon, creator of The Wire .

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

The first one in which I could recognise a word, which was Three Little Pigs . And the word was “pig”.

What was your favourite book as a child?

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler . That or Valley of the Dolls .

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Lolita is my all-time favorite.

What is your favourite quotation?

From Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats : “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Betsy Ray, a spirited girl who yearns to be a writer, who ages from six to her early 20s in a series of 10 books.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Declan Hughes, for the way he grafted the classic American crime novel onto modern-day Ireland.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?


What is the most beautiful book you own?

A so-called coffee table book devoted to the work of outsider artist Henry Darger.

Where and how do you write?

Mornings, usually in a coffee shop close to my house.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , in which a young would-be writer contemplates what it really means to write what you know.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I spent a day with a furrier, which probably ended up informing only a paragraph or two. As a former reporter, I think research gets a bit fetish-ised among novelists. It’s not that hard.

What book influenced you the most?

I have to go back to the Betsy-Tacy books. To read these stories about a young girl in the early 20th century who wanted to be a writer – and whose family believed in her writing talent – was very profound.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Into the Wild , by Jon Krakauer. It’s a beautiful book, but also a cautionary tale about where our youthful zeal can take us.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

I Capture the Castle .

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

There are reasons to self-publish. Instant gratification is not among them.

What weight do you give reviews?

I try not to care too much, good or bad. I don’t want to hand my self-worth to a third party. My glass-half-full perspective is that good reviews really help sales, but bad reviews don’t cost you that many.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I don’t have a clue. I believe in books and stories. The future of the business model is impossible for me to predict.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The dystopia trend in young adult fiction is interesting to me, but I’m not sure what to make of it. I think young people have always been a little morbid.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

How much we hunger for meaning and insight. I’m a novelist and yet I can’t shake the idea that novelists are sages.

What has being a writer taught you?

Discipline and patience.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I’d invite the writers who are already my friends, a very large group and very good company. And maybe add one or two new people to the mix. In fact, I’ve done just this for a dinner party in two weeks.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

There’s a scene in Richard Russo’s Straight Man that involves a professor crawling through an air conditioning duct, as I recall it, and possibly leaking from a prostate problem.

What is your favourite word?

Based on how much I say it, “actually.” I must be a terrible liar. Who else would say “actually” so often? A liar or a pedant.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Block-busting in 1960s Baltimore, in which panicky white homeowners sold their homes at artificially low prices, persuaded by realtors that prices would fall with the arrival of integration. The houses were then sold at a profit to African-American buyers. A shameful and seminal chapter in my hometown’s history.

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