Message From The Author
Laura Lippmans Love Affair with a Not So Pretty Place
by Susan McBride, Mystery Author
With four critically acclaimed books under her belt and the fifth, The Sugar House, an eagerly anticipated September release, Laura Lippman seems to have it all. A journalist with the Baltimore Sun, shes turned her flair for words and strength of characterher own as well as that of her sleuth, Tess Monaghaninto a string of award nominations and a prestigious Edgar Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America for her second book, Charm City.
Like Tess, Lippman is no wallflower and exudes enough energy to power all of Baltimore, the hometown that has her undying devotion. And though once lured away by a reporting job in San Antonio for six years, she ended up right back where she started. Like a boomerang, she cant seem to be apart from her roots for long. Its her city, despite its faults.
She readily admits that Baltimore is not a pretty-pretty place. Its beset with problems, including one of the highest homicide rates in the country. There is wrenching poverty, a huge population of drug addictsyou get the picture. But I love it, she confesses. It fascinates me. I began writing about Baltimore to try to figure out why I found it so endearing. Then the books became a series of valentines to the city, albeit realistic valentines, where I list all my beloveds flaws. Not unlike the Rodgers and Hart song: Your looks are laughable/Unphotographable/Yet youre my favorite work of art. So its somewhat ironic that Lippman took Tess out of her familiar surroundings and plunked her down in Texas for In Big Trouble. But turning Tess into a fish out of water gave her the perfect opportunity to pay homage to San Antonio, the place shed left home for in the 1980s in search of work as a reporter. Still, it was a challenge.
Lippman found that the most difficult part was trying to get Tess perspective right. I knew the city; she didnt. I tried to take her, in a compressed period of time, on the same journey I took years ago, from being Texas-averse to being an unabashed San Antonio lover. I thought my Baltimore readers would complain, but they apparently needed a vacation, too.
Taking a vacation was a risk that paid off in ways far better than bonus frequent flier miles. In Big Trouble has been nominated for the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, and Anthony Awards this year. While Lippman enjoys the pats on the back from her peers and from mystery readers, she describes awards as tricky, dangerous things. My motto is, Awards are meaninglessunless you win one. Which is to say, its lovely to win awards, and authors who do should enjoy the moment when it happens; but theyre a little bit like great reviews. If you believe the great reviews, you have to believe the bad ones. And if you hook your self-esteem to winning awards, then you set yourself up for believing that the absence of an award is meaningful in other ways.
Still, she recognizes the benefit a nomination can give to an author these days, when competition for shelf space is as fierce as its ever been. Id be naove if I didnt admit the Edgar for Charm City gave my career an enormous boost, she acknowledges. And Im grateful that so many contests recognize paperback originals, because so many reviewers dont! It helps those working in the PBO format to get noticed.
However, it looks like Lippmans paperback original days are behind her. The latest installment in the Tess Monaghan series, The Sugar House, debuts in hardcover, and the buzz is that its her best yet. Lippman seems to have hit on a recipe that works, and one of the key ingredients is the character of Tess herself, and the fact that shes a human being with inner demons to fight. In The Sugar House, one demon she confronts is bulimia.
Lippman jokes, Ive been saying that I think Ive written the first bulimic private detective, but I bet its only a matter of time before one of the experts in the field points out that so-and-so was writing about a detective with an eating disorder back in the 1970s.
She initially planted the idea that Tess might have battled with bulimia in Baltimore Blues. Its a subject that fascinates meeating disorders, the larger issues of how women see themselves, and the complicated relationships they have with their bodies. I knew I wanted to write about it eventually.
As a working journalist, finding subjects that fascinate her isnt much trouble at all. Beyond exploring Tesss bulimic past in THE SUGAR HOUSE, she also addresses the issue of identity. Lippman explains, Id read an article about something called a John Doe murder. A man had been killed in front of witnesses, beaten by a couple of young punks. There was an arrest, a trial and a conviction. But the man was never identified. Once the case had gone through the legal system, there was no longer any active investigation into his identity. I was haunted by this story and decided I wanted to write about a Jane Doe murder.
As if thats not enough to whet any mystery lovers appetite, THE SUGAR HOUSE features a political backdrop inspired by her experience covering the governors race in Maryland. But Laura sometimes wonders if the novels are influenced by her reporting or if her journalism takes its cues from the novels. Shes written four articles about Edgar Allen Poe in the past year and persuaded the Poe Museums curator to let her watch for the Visitor, or so-called Poe Toaster, who comes to Poes grave every year. And it
was because I wanted to write about the Visitor and Poe in my sixth book.
Focused on creating the latest Tess adventure, Lippman says
she has no plans at the moment to write outside the series. But she does have other ideas that she files away. Several writers in the field have branched out by doing stand-alones, but my mind doesnt seem to work that way, at least not yet, she insists. I feel like Boswell: Tess is my Johnson, and theres so much more to write.
Her growing legion of fans and beguiled critics certainly hope soLippman keeps scoring one knockout punch after another. For the author of THE SUGAR HOUSE, who cut her teeth on Raymond Chandler and James Cain, and whose own literary star is clearly on the rise, things have never been sweeter.
Readers can write to Laura c/o William Morrow, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022, or e-mail her at: TEMonaghan@aol.com.
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