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'Cities Are Resilient,' Says Baltimore Crime Novelist Laura Lippman

Novelist Laura Lippman isn't interested in writing that sensationalizes crime. She says she aims to center her work in "a respect for victims."
Lesley Unruh
Harper Collins
Novelist Laura Lippman isn't interested in writing that sensationalizes crime. She says she aims to center her work in "a respect for victims."

Count Laura Lippmanamong those who take issue with President Trump's recent tweetscharacterizing Baltimore as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess." The crime novelist, who lives in Baltimore, says the president's comments represent a "basic disrespect" for city residents.

"Cities are resilient," Lippman says. "The fact that we survive or thrive at all in the light of terrible problems isn't to be criticized; it's to be celebrated."

Lippman is the author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan detective series. Her new stand-alone crime novel, Lady in the Lake, was inspired by two real-life Baltimore disappearances in the 1960s. Lippman's story centers on Maddie Schwartz, who leaves her marriage, gets a job at a Baltimore newspaper, and begins investigating the mysterious death of a young black woman. For Lippman, setting her novel in the past was a deliberate choice, made in the wake of the 2016 election.

"It was a time that was at once extremely frenetic and extremely static," she says. "It felt as if everyone in my life — myself included — spent their time on almost this hamster wheel of social media, the news network of their choice, social media, the news network of their choice."

Situating her novel in the '60s allowed Lippman, a former journalist, to escape the news cycle, though many of the subjects she touches on in Lady in the Lake — sexism, racism, homophobia — are still front and center today.

Interview Highlights

On working in male-dominated newsrooms in her early years as a journalist

I started working at newspapers in 1981. I spent eight years in Texas, and then I came to The Evening Sun [in Baltimore] in 1989. ... There were definitely changes made because of Anita Hill [testifying about sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas' 1991 Senate confirmation hearing], and newspapers began taking the work culture more seriously.

I was involved in a sexual harassment incident [in the mid 1990s] involving two of my colleagues. It was very strange, and I'm not sure I would have ever complained, but my boss looked over my shoulder and saw what one of them had written to the other about me and said, "This has to be reported." ...

The oddest thing is, when it was all over ... both of them were lectured on not doing this. ... But I remember the top editor sort of wanting me to basically say, "No hard feelings."

On working alongside an older generation of women in the newsroom

I came into newsrooms when women maybe five to 10 years older than I am had done a lot of the heavy lifting. There were ones who had really, like, knocked in the door and they had to be so tough. And I always said I was of the generation where we had now reached the point where one could go cry in the bathroom. You still couldn't cry in public, but you could cry in the bathroom, and I did a lot of crying in the bathroom when I was a reporter. ...

Women reporters — they've always been tough-as-nails, in my opinion, in the best possible way. And I know that as a young reporter I often seemed silly and flighty to some of the women I worked with — perhaps fairly so. I aspired to have them take me seriously, because they took themselves seriously, and they took the business seriously. So I was really aware of all of that history.

On Trump's criticism of the journalists

I hold the President of the United States responsible for a coarsening of rhetoric that has empowered and emboldened people, including the person who came to the Annapolis Capital Gazette last summer and shot and killed five people, including my friend [Gazette editor] Rob Hiaasen. And people point to that and they say, "That's not fair. This was a grudge that predated the 2016 election. You're just being slippery with your facts." ...

I tell people: "Of course I think rhetoric matters! Of course I think words matter. Look at what I do for a living!"

On centering her crime novels around respect for the victims

For quite some time now, my work has been centered in a respect for victims, in a hope that people who read my books feel that respect and understand that I'm not really interested in cheap sensation or victims as MacGuffins. And [Lady in the Lake], the book that I turned in the day before Rob [Hiaasen] was killed, was a book that ultimately gives its story to the victim. ... [The victim] is the first person we hear from, and she is the last person we hear from, and she has what I consider to be the most important line in the entire book, when, from across a void as she presents herself as a ghost, she says to the woman who is so determined to know her story: You were interested in my death, not my life. It's not the same thing.

On how she met her husband, David Simon, creator of The Wire

We met at the newspaper. ... When I arrived at The Evening Sun, David was on leave writing the book that would become Homicide. We met — it's a cute story — because I came to work one day (this would have been in 1991) and I had a blotter, one of those big, old fashioned paper things with the calendar, and my blotter was covered in a coffee stain, and I looked around I said, "Who was working at my desk last night?" "Simon was there," and I was furious and I accosted him and said, "You just spilled coffee all over my desk and you blotted it up with the blotter?" and he admitted that he had, and he apologized and I asked him to give me a copy of his book Homicide, and we still have it obviously, and it's inscribed, "Do you want cream with that, hon?"

On her wedding to Simon, which was officiated by Baltimore cult filmmaker John Waters

John took it so seriously, it was so touching. It was very straightforward. We decided to marry in secret, which would later get us both in a lot of trouble with our respective families who did not like this. We married on our deck on a beautiful October day and the only person present beside John was Ethan, my stepson, David's son. Ethan would have been 13 at the time, and I had rewritten the vows so it said that ... we would like to ask Ethan for permission to join these two families, as he will be the person most affected by this. Ethan, being 13 years old at the time, said, "Yeah, I guess so." That was it. And then we went downstairs and we ate cupcakes and John gave us great gossip from the set of Hairspray.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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