Message From The Author
In 1986, I went to visit my parents in the beach town where they live to this day. The first day of my vacation was a trifecta of summer pleasures – body-surfing, meals made from the abundant local seafood and produce, soft ice cream after supper. On Day Two, while swimming with my sister, I felt a strange sensation, as if I had kicked a crab that gave me a polite little “Hey, I’m right here” tug, a reminder that the ocean, large as it is, must be shared.
“I think I stepped on something,” I called to my sister and headed out of the surf to see.
The second toe on my right foot had been almost severed. I will flash forward, as is my wont, past the bloody hour that ensued. Ultimately, a smart plastic surgeon who knew that the water posed the greatest risk to healing, patted me back together with nary a stitch and prescribed antibiotics. I spent the rest of the vacation on crutches. This incident would inspire my sister to suggest that I write a story about a young woman in a desolate place, recovering from a similar injury. The only hitch was that I was still more than a decade away from becoming a published novelist. My sister claims no memory of this, yet The Girl in the Green Raincoat was inspired by this long-ago suggestion.
Of course, as the book makes clear, it also owes much to Rear Window and Daughter of Time, not to mention an article I wrote in 1998, about three very different families who had bonded in the Johns Hopkins neonatal intensive care unit a decade earlier. I also had several friends who had been put on bed rest during their pregnancies, most notably Leslie Linthicum, from whom I borrowed one small detail in this piece.
Novels are often compared to childbirth, in that novelists tend to forget any difficulty inherent in the creation once the darling child enters the world. Even while conceding that the novelist may require this selective amnesia, I still believe that writing The Girl in the Green Raincoat was one of the most joyful experiences of my writing life. It was produced during what will probably forever be my most prolific year as a fiction writer: 175,000 words, give or take, which included this novella, a novel and another novella. The other novella, Scratch a Woman, was nominated for an Edgar Award; the novel, Life Sentences, received some of the best reviews I have ever gotten and was nominated for the Strand Award. I mention these things not to brag, but to marvel at what a year of intense work can bring. Granted, I was very, very tired in the ensuing year, but that’s a common post-partum condition, no?
T.S. Eliot said that immature poets imitate, mature poets steal. By that standards, The Girl in the Green Raincoat is felony larceny by an unrepentant recidivist. I stole my sister’s idea, I stole from the aforementioned Rear Window and Daughter of Time, I stole my Aunt Judy’s dog, Gabriel, to create the high-strung but loyal Dempsey. I stole from the casework of Detective Gary Childs, who did, in fact, come face to face with a modern-day Bluebeard. I even stole from Chekhov. Take his famous edict about a rifle on the wall, substitute “greyhound/bedpan” for rifle, and you have the framework of The Girl in the Green Raincoat.
I also stole from The Knitting Circle, a novel written by my friend Ann Hood. The thing is, it quickly became clear to me that a serial novella could not run by plot alone, especially when its main character was confined to a chaise longue. And although I knew it was impossible for each chapter to stand alone, I fantasized about trying to hold the attention of some weary traveler, stuck on a plane with only the New York Times Magazine to read. Could I layer smaller stories within the larger one, rewarding the reader who sampled, say, only Chapter 3? Ann’s beautiful novel showed me how I might weave individual stories into a larger tapestry.
I don’t know if I succeeded, but The Girl in the Green Raincoat gave me multiple chances to write about love, marriage and family. In almost every chapter, someone tells Tess such a story. We find out how Mrs. Blossom met Mr. Blossom, why Tess’s father fell in love with her mother, and when young Lloyd Jupiter became enamored with his tutor. And, for the first time, I got to explore the inner psyche of Whitney Talbot. I particularly like Whitney’s meta moment at the end, when she advises Tess to write down the story of Carla Scout’s gestation, announcing: “I’m the comic relief.” When Tess cracks the spine of that black-and-white composition book, she has come full circle from the first book, Baltimore Blues, in which she recorded her resolutions in a similar notebook.
How will Tess Monaghan combine motherhood and work? That’s a question that Tess and I – hell, women everywhere – are still working out. Sometimes I think she will become more of a deskbound Nero Wolfe, with Whitney, Mrs. Blossom and Lloyd taking their turns as Archie Goodwin. Or maybe I’ll have to skip ahead several years, to a time when Carla Scout is a little older and able to help her mother in the family business. (Encyclopedia Brown helped his police chief dad.) As I said, we’re still working it out. Anyone know a good babysitter willing to work flexible hours in a chaotic but joyful Baltimore household? I can promise you’ll never be bored.
- Laura Lippman
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