I’m a lifelong fan of bestselling mystery writer Laura Lippman, whose character Tess Monaghan stars in stories that are often critical of pop culture. Bitch last talked to Lippman—who’s on our National Advisory Board—to mark the release of her book I’d Know You Anywhere in 2010. Since then, she has called attention to the lack of media coverage of female writers and I figured it was high time to check in with Lippman, given the release of our Pulp issue. I talked to Lippman the day after she had turned in the manuscript for her new book, about a cop who loves TV.
I’m curious to know: you are obviously a writer and a reader of crime fiction but have you been a lifelong reader of crime fiction? And what are some of the first books you remember reading?
LAURA LIPPMAN: If you say “lifelong reader,” that goes back to Encyclopedia Brown and The Happy Hollisters. I was not a big Nancy Drew fan because I have a really low tolerance for perfect people and Nancy is pretty perfect. She’s not only perfect, but there are these two other girls, Beth and George, who do nothing but talk about how perfect she is.
I don’t identify with someone like that and so I liked Encyclopedia Brown because he was smart but he had to have a girl be his muscle. Do you remember that part?
And for some reason, I liked The Happy Hollisters and Trixie Belden. So, I was always a crime reader. It was something that gave me a lot of pleasure, and it was something about which I was never the ironic —I don’t think of it as a guilty pleasure. I don’t even really recognize the term “guilty pleasure.”
I think I first began to identify as a crime writer in college. I took a course at Northwestern called “Film and Literature” team-taught by two professors. One of the professors assigned the other professor’s novel, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. I’d call it a riff on the more classic Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. It certainly had more of a sense of humor. The stories were informed by [author Stuart] Kaminsky’s knowledge of film, there were real-life people woven into it. One of the most interesting things that happened to me was that 18 years later, in 1998, Kaminsky and I were both nominated in the same category in the Edgar for Best Paperback Original. So I went to my first Edgar ceremony competing against my former professor who in some ways had done a lot to lead me down that path.
What about pulp in particular? Any favorites?
Well, you know, as someone who’s kind of a goody-goody, a life-long goody-goody, there’s a real vicarious thrill in reading pulp fiction.
But what appeals to me about noir is that, first of all, it’s personal. Things happen to people generally because—I think I coined this—noir is about dreamers who become schemers. Dreams are pretty universal; everybody wants the pretty girl, more money, etc. Noir novels are about what happens when two people decide they’re going to try to get those things no matter what it takes. And they’re almost always doomed. But that’s sort of the beauty of reading the book. The other thing about them, something that I think is big in crime fiction, in general, and doesn’t get as much treatment as it should in literature as a whole, is that pulp tales and noir tales are driven frequently by economics—by money.
Now it is fascinating to me that we live in a culture when money means so much, but it’s absent in so much fiction. There are theories about this. One theory is that a lot of fiction was written by people who were literally tenured within an academic system and they didn’t think a lot about their paychecks or their survival because they had a security that didn’t make that one of their main concerns day in and day out. I think money and love are the two biggest subjects in human nature. Everything’s about money and love, right?
I feel like I see so much of a critique of pop culture and media in many of your books, and I’m wondering is that just my perspective or is this deliberate?
It’s deliberate but it also just sort of comes out. I don’t even set out and say “I’m going to write about this, this, or this in pop culture,” but I do say “I’m going to write about real people and real situations” and pop culture is a part of everything. I’m really interested in it. I have trouble keeping up with it. I think that’s just a function of a certain point in your life when you get too tired. In particular, I’m not keeping up with music. I don’t think I’ve really developed any musical taste, hardly, in the past 20 years. That sounds awful but it’s truthful. But I’m fascinated by television. The book that I’m currently writing, I turned it in yesterday, has a cop character who’s really engaged with cop TV shows in a way that I hope feels new.
Is this a stand-alone book or a Tess Monaghan book?
It’s a standalone, although she shows up in a very pivotal way toward the end. The idea is that he likes the shows. He thinks they’re a perfectly good way to pass time. He likes them because they don’t purport to really show how his job is done. What he can’t stand is living in a culture where everybody thinks they know so much about being a cop and in particular he hates to hear his jargon repeated back to him. It’s sort of this secret language of his profession.
Now, it’s kind of a fine line for me to walk because when I do that people think that I’m writing about The Wire, and I guess on some level I am, but I’m not making fun of The Wire, I’m making fun of certain Wire fans. I’m sorry, I just think its kind of ridiculous for someone who’s never worked as a police officer or has been in part of that world to go around talking about dunkers. Or to say “po-po,” or “aight.”
I’m fascinated by reality television—fascinated by it. I don’t watch all of it by any means and there are certain shows where I’m like “I can’t imagine why someone watches it,” but they can’t imagine why I watch what I watch. So it’s sort of like, let’s all be friends and just continue on. But what I’m really fascinated about in reality television is that it is self-conscious. You watch people trying to become some version of themselves for mass consumption and I can’t get enough of that, because what’s really amazing is that they understand the archetype so well and they fail so miserably at doing it. [laughs]. People go onto this national stage and are like, “Okay, I’m going to be the sassy one,” and then they’re really surprised because they go on the Internet and they’re the bitchy one. And they’re like, “Oh no! I’m supposed to be the sassy one that everybody loves, how did I become the bitchy one?” That kind of identity invention never ceases to amaze me.
So do you think there are mysteries out there that are great reads but maybe not as much of a social critique as your books?
Absolutely. I think there’s some pretty great books out there that are social critiques where a lot of people aren’t even aware of it. And I do think that Lee Child and the Reacher series was really something that thematically is incredibly sophisticated.
I’ve never read him but he’s on my list.
He’s politically very astute and the most fascinating thing about what he’s done is he’s created a hero that everybody is convinced is on their side. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum you think Reacher is your guy. That’s just mythic stuff. There are books that are sheer entertainment but most of the books I read, people are interested in beyond the crime, beyond who did it. If you’re telling a story where the only suspense is who did it, if someone figures out who did it, why would they keep on reading? And if you don’t have a really, really great answer to who did it, then the reader feels let down. But what if there’s another story you’re telling? What if it’s not just about that? I think that most of the writers I know and respect really do try to do that.
I’m a huge fan, huge fan of Kate Atkinson, she uses coincidence in a way that’s very life-like and yet also meets sort of the credulity standard of fiction. Fiction has to be believable and she has found a way to harness the bizarre coincidences of life in a way that makes sensitive fiction and that’s really hard to do. It’s something that most modern novelists can’t do and we forgive the nineteenth century novelists for it for reasons I’m not clear on. I’m not clear on why we let Dickens have such a pass on these utterly bizarre coincidences. I’m not clear why it’s okay in Jane Eyre that a woman runs off into the moor of the middle of the night and the family that takes her in happens to be long-lost cousins. What? [chuckles.]
What other contemporary female writers should the Bitch audience be paying attention to?
Megan Abbott, absolutely. Megan Abbott is a wonder. I consider her a friend. I will do that in interest as well as in full disclosure. I was a huge Gillian Flynn fan before everybody in the world was a huge Gillian Flynn fan [laughs] but I stand by my admiration of her books. I particularly love her second book, Dark Places. I think that’s my favorite. Let’s see… I have a bad memory so I’m being very careful. I like the work of Allison Gaylin. She’s doing something really interesting with a new character who has a perfect memory. Kate Atkinson. Alafair Burke. Alafair is someone who I think we have an interesting commonality that I don’t have with everyone I know. You know, Alafair is very much known as the daughter of James Lee Burke and I’m often known as the wife of David Simon, and the fact of the matter is that Alafair is a terrific writer. She’s not a writer because of her dad, she’d be a writer in spite of her dad and her dad’s one of her biggest fans.
What do you enjoy reading to your daughter?
Oh, well, first of all, I don’t get much say in it. She has very strong opinions about everything and she picks out almost all of her books. If I get to pick, the book that I love to read to her is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But, my husband likes to read Where the Wild Things Are to her and I also really love the book, Goodnight Gorilla. That’s one that we’ve been reading lately. Really, it’s so much about her and what she wants and she has such funny preferences. Oh, and of course, Olivia.
Well, I have really enjoyed talking to you and we here at Bitch really appreciate your work.
I really appreciate that. It’s one of my long-held beliefs—it’s not an uncontroversial one—that we live in a culture that elevates things that make men cry and denigrates things that make women cry. That comes out of the belief that men never cry and women cry too easily but I actually find women to be much less sentimental than men. And much more pragmatic and more in touch with that part of their nature that cries at something that isn’t really worth crying over, in my case the movie Love Actually. Like the fact that Lifetime has become a pejorative for something that’s lesser because what are Lifetime movies if you look at the broad category? Lifetime movies are movies about women, for women, increasingly movies that are based on pretty prestigious books that have no place in the market because, you know, Hollywood now a place that believes it can’t build a movie around strong female characters. Anyway, that’s my little soapbox.