Author Q&A: Laura Lippman On When She Was Good
Laura Lippman's latest release And When She Was Good features suburban madam Heloise (aka Helen) as she quietly runs an escort service. When another suburban madam dies, Heloise suspects her former pimp Val, whom she helped put behind bars. Worried that she may be next, Heloise must discover who is behind the killing in order to protect her — and her son's — life. Today RT's Managing Editor Liz French interviews the author about her intriguing new suspense novel.
What prompted you to write about “suburban madams,” was there some local story or news item that led you down that path?
No news story, not at the time of conception if you will. (Later, there were several with some eerie parallels.) I was just musing about what it would take for a single mother to live in a posh suburb — what would it take in terms of salary and childcare and flexibility.
How much research — and what sort of research — did you do to get the background right for Helen/Heloise and her life?
I read a lot, but Heloise's business model is unique, among escort services. I spent more time working backward from the character as I understood her. What would this woman do, how would she operate?
Helen/Heloise, the main character in And When She Was Good, is absolutely fascinating. She’s a survivor, a fiercely protective mother who’ll go to any lengths to keep her son safe, an autodidact. How did you go about building her, was she based on any particular person? Did you ever feel like “there but for the grace of God and good parents go I”? Was it important to you to make her a white middle-class girl “gone wrong?”
It was important to me that she be relate-able to readers. To that end, I decided that she wouldn't be a victim of child sexual abuse, although that's not uncommon among sex workers. I wanted readers to get on board with what Heloise says in the very first chapter about the suburban madam who appears to have committed suicide. Every woman is someone's daughter, someone's neighbor, possibly someone's mother or sister. We have to fight down the inclination to stamp people with labels that allows us not to care about them.
Do you like your main character?
I think I would enjoy her company and I definitely admire her. I'm not sure Heloise would ever be a good friend, though. She's not highly skilled at empathy.
Has becoming a mother changed your writing of parent/child relationships?
It changed the parent side of the equation. To paraphrase the song Red Riding Hood sings in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, I know some things now that I didn't know before.
Do you think prostitution should be legalized? Is this a soapbox issue for you?
I think it should be decriminalized, but as long as people can force others into the life — and it happens all the time to runaways — procurement and promotion have to carry stiff criminal penalties. I'm also not crazy about the idea that legalized prostitution could close deficits in state budgets, via licensing fees. I'm pretty liberal about gambling, prostitution and drug use, but I'm not cool with states profiting from those things.
If I were to get on a soapbox, it would be to draw people's attention to the lack of aid available to people now. What would you have Heloise do, when she's pregnant and without a degree? How does such a woman pull herself up by bootstraps she doesn't have?
Could you discuss the importance of WFEN to you as a youngster, and why you named Heloise’s fake lobbying group after the radio station call letters?
WFEN is a fiction (I came up with the call numbers, then found out the real station was a Christian radio station in Illinois). But the memory of music in the night — from radios, record players — is very powerful to me. I think a lot of people had the experience of hearing far-away stations at night, when the signals traveled farther, and wondering about the world beyond their lives as they currently lived them.
Any plans for a movie of And When She Was Good? Has it been optioned?
Not yet, but my Hollywood agent is hopeful. He just has to convince people that it is not like The Client List.
What’s next for you, what are you working on now?
A novel about family, as it looks from the outside and inside, if that makes sense. A retired homicide cop who pads his pension by working on cold cases decides to investigate the murder of a woman who happened to be the mistress to one of Baltimore's most famous fugitives. The investigation takes him into the heart of the family that the man left behind — his wife, his three daughters.