The PEN Ten with Laura Lippman
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Alex Segura talks with Laura Lippman, an award-winning novelist who lives in Baltimore.
One of the nicest things you can say about a writer is that they make it look easy.
Anyone who has ever tried to write something—whether it’s a magazine article, blog post, short story, poem, or novel—knows it’s anything but easy. Still, in her 20 novels and various other works, Laura Lippman has done just that.
Her books—including the acclaimed Tess Monaghan detective series and a number of best-selling and beloved standalone tales—hypnotize you with their smooth prose, only to shake you suddenly with their mastery of plot and the earned twists writers are always looking for.
Lippman’s novels paint a picture of an evolving Baltimore—a city that’s seen better days and worse days, and is home to a compelling cast of flawed, honest, and real characters, like the aforementioned Tess.
The best part about being one of the 2015 PEN Ten guest editors is the ability to shine a light on authors that are not only supporters of PEN American Center’s mission—defending free expression and writers—but who possess unique and compelling voices that transcend genre. They’re also not scared to share their opinion—even against the swelling tide of pop culture. That’s not easy.
Thanks to Laura for taking the time to chat with me. Her latest Tess Monaghan novel—the excellent Hush Hush—arrived on February 24.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
That’s something I can see only in hindsight. But the fact is, I have supported myself as a writer, a reporter, a reporter-novelist, then just a novelist since 1981 when I took a $175-a-week job at the Waco Tribune-Herald. So I became a writer then.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I feel like such a prig, but although a part of me wants to offer up my cheerful and fervent admiration of writers with diverse bodies of work (Megan Abbott, Stewart O’Nan, Jess Walter), I don’t understand the point of stealing anyone’s work. I am baffled by plagiarism. Stealing someone else’s work and taking credit for it is such an odd thing to do. It’s like stealing little bits of cotton candy because the “fame” or “commercial remuneration” that can sometimes accompany writing is the least interesting, least nourishing thing about the writing life. My husband and I share a saying: “No one lives inside his or her success.”
Where is your favorite place to write?
A coffee shop.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I haven’t and now I feel very dull. Once I was at a wedding outside San Antonio that got a little crazy and we all went skinny-dipping in the Medina River and someone called the sheriff. But we got off with a warning.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I love folk art; I feel like a bit of an outsider artist in the literary world. Lately, I’ve been drawn to robots. I don’t know why.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?
In print? I once wrote a piece called “My Life as a Villainess.” It has never been published. In it, I dared to take someone else’s POV about the end of my first marriage. I took my first husband’s POV.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
There are so many, but it begins with being a good host, if you will. The novel is like your home. You invite people to cross the threshold. You don’t have to make them comfortable, although that’s my approach. But you have to keep them interested. And this can involve writing a novel that’s deceptively easy to move through or one that’s prickly and challenging. Because there are audiences for both.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Yes. I’m terminally optimistic.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
They’re beyond books. They fear books, ideas. Isn’t that the problem? There’s a part of me that thinks, “Oh, I want to Clockwork Orange them, force them to read something that will change them.” But here’s one area where I’m not terminally optimistic.
Do you see your genre—or genre in general—as a tool for social commentary? Is it something you use consciously, or do you prefer to let it happen on its own?
I am very conscious that the crime novel has taken on a lot of the trappings of the social novel. But it most interests me for its ability to lure people into feeling genuine empathy. With true crime stories, we read for disengagement, looking for the moment that assures us that the horrible thing before us cannot happen to us. We cannot afford true empathy. (Sympathy, yes, but not true empathy.) Crime fiction, good crime fiction, sneaks up on people. Safe in our armchairs or beds, we consider the unthinkable—the violent death of someone we love—and admit to ourselves how unsafe and random the universe is.