You bookworms out there probably don't need us to tell you about Laura Lippman. You already know that she's an award-winning novelist, best known for her crime stories (which feature awesome female protagonists) and her time as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. But did you know that she's also a member of the Bitch Media National Advisory Board? And that her latest book, I'd Know You Anywhere comes out today? We sent a few questions to Laura to get the scoop on her new novel and the inspiration behind the awesome women she writes.
Tell us a bit about I'd Know You Anywhere. It focuses on woman who escaped a serial killer as a teenager and ends up revisiting the experience 20 years later. What inspired you to tell this story? Is it a departure into new territory for you in any way?
The story was inspired, indirectly, by an insipid talk on creativity. To be fair, I was in a bad mood. Maybe it was a good talk. But I don't think some writers realize the walls they're throwing up when they talk about following one's muse, waiting for inspiration, etc.. Most people don't have that kind of time. I remember being introduced to Tillie Olsen's work by my college creative writing professor Meredith Steinbach, reading about how Olsen composed her stories in her head on the way home on the subway. I think people need more practical, accessible advice about how to carve out time for writing.
So I played this game where I decided I would use old-fashioned brainstorming techniques to conceptualize my next novel. I began covering a piece of paper with big circles defined only as "Things that interest me" and then drawing lines between those that connected. One circle said "LOLITA," my favorite novel of all time. Another said "Regional crimes that most people have forgotten." I can't remember the others. I began to think about a crime in which a serial killer allowed one of his victims to live, even killed a subsequent victim in front of that person. I thought: "Yikes: What's it like to be that person?" And I had my idea.
Your books are filled with strong female protagonists, which (as I understand it) is atypical for the crime genre. Have you received any comments or push back on that?
Actually, if we define the crime genre broadly, to include the traditional (often called "cozy") mysteries, the genre is full of strong women. Even with some of the bloodier thrillers, female protagonists are common. If we're looking at PI fiction, it's definitely narrower. There was the first wave—Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton. This led to a huge second wave. The genre was oversold. In fact, when my first book was submitted to publishes, the conventional wisdom was, "That's over." In fact, at the convention for the Private-Eye Writers of America in 1999, the panel on the future of PI writing was all white men and the conference organizers seemed baffled that anyone was bothered by this. Someone actually said: "The women have had their turn."
The fact is, women dominate fiction reading in this country. Men complain that they run into obstacles because they're not writing female protagonists. I am having a hard time feeling bad about this. Women are wonderfully egalitarian readers. It's women who make bestsellers out of Lee Child—a writer I admire extravagantly—AND Charlaine Harris. So I get very few complaints. And, in fact, I have found that male readers who would never read, say, The Secret Life of Bees will read something like my book, The Power of Three, which happens to be a novel about a painful break among three teenagers who have been fast friends for years. Male crime readers are pretty open-minded, too.
The only push back I get is about foul language. There's a segment of the population that just hates it. I am sympathetic to them, but I can't write the kind of books I write without profanity. It's how people speak. Sometimes, I get hate mail about my work in general, but it's almost always anonymous and my feeling is that people who don't sign their letters don't deserve a response.
Your books are full of well-developed women of all ages. Who or what inspires you to write such complex women and girl characters?
It's what I know, it's what I have a shot at doing well. I'm good friends with George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane and I think they broke out of the pack because they wrote what they know, which happens to be the very complicated story of what it means to be a man in this world, how we define masculinity. I can't compete on that turf. So I decided to find a way to write crime novels about girls. The life of a teenage girl is hardboiled in ways that men have never imagined. Any 14-year-old girl who has ever been accosted while walking home from the bus stop knows things that the average 35-year-old man can't begin to imagine.
You incorporate a lot of pop culture references in your writing (which we wholeheartedly support, obviously). Does this reflect the pop culture you consume in your own life? Are the references there just to set a scene, or is there more to it than that?
To me, what some people call pop culture is social history. I'm fascinated by people who write without it. That said, I think it requires a careful hand, like seasonings in a stew. The trick is not to be lazy with it, to let the details do the work for you. I would never write: "She looked like Halle Berry." I might write: "She looked like the hot African-American actress of the moment, who happened to be biracial." I have a reference in my current book to the General Hospital storyline, back in 1981, about Luke and Laura, the rapist/victim who became bride and groom. I don't use their names, or the name of the soap opera, but I do use the idea because I think it's fantastically SICK and a great example of how adolescent girls, in particular, get very mixed messages from television, movies and popular songs.
For our readers who are just discovering your work for the first time, what book of yours would you recommend they read first?
There are several ways to answer that. My best book is generally believed to be What the Dead Know; I honestly believe the new book, I'd Know You Anywhere, is better still and I think the folks at my publishing house feel it's as good, maybe better. It features the most relatable —you'll forgive the term—character I've ever created. But if you want something in paperback, buy What the Dead Know.
And if you like series fiction, try the Tess Monaghan books. If you're anal-retentive, start at the beginning, Baltimore Blues. If you're not, start with The Sugar House. Tess and I both got better with experience. There's no shame in admitting that.
We're so happy to have you on our National Advisory Board. Before we let you go, would you mind talking a bit about why you support Bitch Media?
Because Bitch Media is having a conversation that matters. My sister gave me my first subscription to Bitch. Then, in the fall of 2008, I happened to be in London where I found a book I had never seen in the U.S., an anthology of the best writing of Bitch. I didn't even know such a book existed. And I bought it, although some of the essays were known to me. That very week, Bitch put out the call for people to contribute to its cause and it happened that I was a little tipsy from some dinner—I was sort of trotting around after my husband as he cut a wide swath through London, which I enjoyed, because I have a healthy enough ego to trot around after someone else from time to time—and I came back to the hotel and some website mentioned that Bitch was trying to raise money. I pulled out my credit card and did what I could, and I never looked back. Although, if I recall, I need to update my credit card information with y'all. Don't let me forget!
I'd Know You Anywhere comes out in hardback in the U.S. today, August 17, from Harper Collins. For you Portlanders, we've got a bright and shiny copy of the book in our lending library. If you've been looking for an engrossing summer read that features great women characters (and some good old-fashioned crime), look no further!