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Interview: September 5, 2003

September 5, 2003

In this interview with's reviewer Ava Dianne Day, Lippman discusses her latest effort and first stand-alone novel, EVERY SECRET THING. She also talks about her early years as a reporter and aspiring author, her writing routine, and what readers can expect from her next.

BRC: You were born and grew up in Baltimore where you also live now, is that correct? Where did you go to school and what was your major field of study?

LL: Actually I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but almost no one outside my family knows or remembers that fact. My family came north when I was 2 --- to D.C., where my father was a correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, and then to Baltimore four years later when he took a job as an editorial writer at The Sun. So I spent my childhood here attending public schools and then heading to Northwestern University for a BS in journalism.

BRC: Please tell us about your early years as a reporter and how you came to the decision to write fiction full-time.

LL: I was a reporter for two decades, first in Waco, Texas and then in San Antonio. In 1989 I came to the Evening Sun, which was folded into the larger morning Sun at the end of 1991. I've done just about every beat possible at a newspaper, although I never worked in business or sports.

I began writing fiction in my 20s and had the good fortune to attend a writing workshop organized by Sandra Cisneros, who gave me a lot of encouragement, urging me to send my stories to literary magazines. I started --- and aborted --- several novels before I began writing the book that became BALTIMORE BLUES. I finished it in late 1994 and, upon the advice of a friend, began the sequel while looking for an agent. The agent search took a year but it was worth it; Vicky Bijur is a jewel. She sold those first two books to Carrie Feron in October 1995, and I've been with Carrie ever since, first at Morrow/Avon and then at the Morrow imprint at HarperCollins. All in all, I wrote seven books while working full-time. I used vacations to write and tour; I had virtually no life and no inkling of how hard I was working until I stopped.

BRC: EVERY SECRET THING is your first stand-alone novel after seven mysteries in your series with Tess Monaghan. Why did you decide to write a stand-alone following a series that has won so many awards? In fact, it has won all of the awards the mystery community has --- Edgar, Anthony, Shamus, Agatha, Nero Wolfe. Am I leaving any out?

LL: Well, there's the Mayor's Award for Literary Excellence, but the mayor didn't show up at the ceremony. Still not sure why. But I got a nice check, which I gave to Health Care for the Homeless.

I thought the stand-alone would be good for me and Tess. But the bottom line is I had this image in my head of two little girls walking up a long, gradual hill, leaving a swim club that I knew as a little girl. I just felt very strongly that I had to write this story, that it represented a chance to figure out some things that had been bothering me --- about kids and juvenile justice, about redemption and even about some values we hold dear, such as mother love and the alleged innocence of children.

BRC: In EVERY SECRET THING a crime is committed by two young girls when they're both eleven years old. Was there any particular reason why you chose to write such a dark book?

LL: Strange as it may sound, I didn't think of the material as being particularly dark. Isn't that weird? It was as if this story really happened, and I approached the material almost as if I were a journalist. Albeit a journalist blessed with omniscience, which would pretty much be the best of all possible worlds. At the risk of sounding very, very odd, I spend most of my waking hours wishing I knew what other people were thinking. If I could have a magic power, or be one of the X-Men, I would be Empathy Girl, capable of entering other people's minds. Maybe just one a day for no more than 20 minutes. I was riding the train back from New York recently and I saw so many people outside the train windows whose lives intrigued me.

BRC: Your author note at the front of the book says you haven't based the central crime in EVERY SECRET THING on any real crime ever committed in the State of Maryland, so far as you're aware. Have you ever heard of such a crime being committed by two young females anywhere in the world?

LL: Mary Bell in England killed two boys with a female classmate, whose last name was also Bell, back in the early 1960s. A journalist who covered the original trial interviewed Mary as an adult (all the while protecting her anonymity and not releasing her new name, per the privacy laws in England) and that book happened to cross my desk when I was at The Sun. I was struck by Mary's own inability to provide a neat explanation for what she had done. Her remorse was vivid, but she struggled with explaining why she had done what she did. Then it occurred to me that someone who could speak dispassionately of such a crime would probably be a sociopath. I thought fiction might be the best place to address such a story.

BRC: EVERY SECRET THING is a tough and gutsy book that assumes a lot from the reader. It's difficult to put down yet it's not an easy read --- I for one intend to go back and read it a second time in order to observe the way the narrative unfolds. You use a technique that requires the author to not only be inside the head of each of the characters, but also to disclose the whole story slowly, to sort of let it grow, from those different points of view. Did this process feel risky to you while you were writing it?

LL: The book began as a series of scenes of women drinking beverages. I'm not kidding. I was about five chapters in and all anyone did was sit at a breakfast table or on a park bench, sipping and thinking. And then I got to the chapter about Ronnie and her circuitous trip home. Something seemed to burst inside me and I knew how to go forward after that, how to recast the book so something was actually going on in all these women's lives.

I didn't really know how I was going to write this book and, in hindsight, I'm still not sure how it came together. I knew that there would be a crime in the present-day and that it would force everyone to confront what they hadn't been able to face seven years ago. I knew that the only POVs presented would be female; men in this book tend to be largely beside the point, which felt kind of revolutionary in a novel about women. The story unfolds slowly because people are so loathe to revisit it, for different reasons. I wasn't trying to be coy but I needed almost 400 pages to prepare the characters, the readers --- and myself --- to face Olivia's death.

Looking back, I see I had two, rather odd models in mind. First, there was the film The Accused, in which the rape scene is not shown until the end when the viewer cannot mistake it for anything but what it is, a horrible, dehumanizing act of violence by a mob of men. By withholding this scene, the director Jonathan Kaplan kept it from being gratuitous.

But I also have a special fondness for Jon Krakauer's INTO THE WILD. It begins with a story we know --- a young man died in Alaska, undone by his own naivete about what it takes to live in the wilderness. Krakauer then tells his story and takes you back, at the end, to the scene you've already read. But now it's a tragedy, now you know what has been lost. I have never cried so hard over a book as I did at the end of INTO THE WILD because then I knew the young man and how he had come to be where he was, making the mistakes he made.

BRC: In EVERY SECRET THING there is a sort of flowering of descriptive powers that you've been building from book to book, particularly since IN A STRANGE CITY (the sixth Tess Monaghan mystery). Do these vivid descriptions of people and sensory details of place come to you in your first draft or do you consciously craft them in later? Either way, they're wonderful.

LL: Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. I hope it's because I've been trying to train myself to see the world. Young, it's hard to see anything besides one's own reflection in the mirror. "See something new" is a private challenge I make to myself as I walk the same streets each day, heading to the coffee house where I write. It might be the detail of the door pulls on the Catholic church --- their small hands and clasping rods that probably has some religious significance that's beyond me -- or the whimsical crab-shaped cutouts in the fencing around a neighbor's deck. I look into people's faces (perhaps a little too intensely) and when I have time, I sometimes commit these observations to a journal, one that is limited to concrete detail. No emotions, no "I'm so blue today" --- just cold hard facts that age much better.

I rewrite a lot. My rough drafts are beyond rough; I wouldn't want anyone to see my work until it was in its third draft at the very least. But out of curiosity, I just called up the Feb. 5th, 2002 version of something I had called Chapter 2A. It's the scene --- now Chapter 3 --- where Sharon Kerpelman is in the courthouse. I was shocked by how much was there in the early version --- the fish-white people and the "lacy pattern" on Sharon's cheek. But it definitely evolved over several rewrites.

BRC: Bouncing off the previous question, what is your writing routine like? Do you work from an outline, revise as you go, or do a first draft plus one or more revisions?

LL: The routine has been evolving. EVERY SECRET THING was written largely in my pajamas and I will confess there was one particularly good day of writing when I emerged from my office --- hair on end, still in PJs at 1 p.m. --- and announced: "If the Baltimore Sun had let me come to work like this, I would have won a Pulitzer!"

But this year's bad winter drove me out of the house and I began taking my work to a neighborhood coffee house. So I write all morning and come home by noon, when I check e-mail and catch up with anything urgent --- the ancillary stuff of writing, as I think of it. I work out and then head back to my desk again, but I write only if truly inspired. I'm much more likely to do research or write these odd little documents that help set me straight. Or make an elaborate chart.

BRC: Has writing full-time changed any part of your daily routine?

LL: I love to joke about how cushy my life is and make no mistake --- I'm living my dream life, doing what I hoped to do. That said, I actually work so much harder than I ever did before, with an intensity that I just couldn't muster when I had two jobs. Or even when I solely worked as a newspaper reporter. Reporting is too filled with lulls to get a great rhythm going --- you wait for phone calls, you drive all over the place, you pore over documents, you sit through numbingly dull meetings. And you just can't control it, which made me crazy.

BRC: HarperCollins is sending you on a fairly lengthy tour for EVERY SECRET THING. Please tell our readers what major cities you plan to visit, and when. I expect the details will be on your website, correct?

LL: Yes, and the tour is still evolving as I write this. Here's what I know for sure --- Baltimore (of course), with several appearances planned, including the Baltimore Book Festival; Pittsburgh (really Oakmont) on Sept. 5th at Mystery Lovers Bookshop; Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on Sept. 7th; the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on Sept. 10th, followed by trips to the mystery book stores in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. There are many more appearances and stock-signings in Southern California, several book festivals (New York is Book Country; St. Petersburg, Florida; Austin, Texas; Seattle, Washington) and, of course, Bouchercon in Las Vegas. I'm thrilled to be doing so much.

BRC: Is there another stand-alone on the horizon, or perhaps an eighth Tess Monaghan mystery?

LL: I'm just finishing the eighth Tess Monaghan, which is untitled at this point. I rather like it --- it's about averting a murder as opposed to solving one, and I've played with the way the story is told. I do like to shake things up, for myself and readers. I think readers are pretty open-minded and while series offer the pleasures of the known, there needs to be some innovation along the way.

After that, I have an idea for another stand-alone, but I probably shouldn't talk about it until I get the go-ahead. I've said it before in many forums but it's worth repeating --- the people at Morrow have been enormously supportive of my decision to write a book that was outside my series, with a setup that makes most people cringe. So I'll give them a chance to give me feedback about my next idea, and if they're up for it --- well, let's just say I'll be hanging around 4-H clubs and high schools.