Laura Lippman

June 25, 2009 at 11:03 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

One of the great things about living in the Columbia/Ellicott City area is the large proportion of  residents who count themselves book lovers. My years of work at the library has taught me a deep appreciation of these folks. Even so, I was impressed by the size of the crowd that turned out this past Tuesday night to hear crime novelist Laura Lippman. (Lippman’s appearance  was part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts; the evening’s presentation was also the fruit of the Festival’s partnership with HoCo PoLitSo.)

Lippman began by saying that unlike some writers, she doesn’t mind explaining where she gets her ideas. For instance: she described driving with her husband David Simon past Wheaton Plaza – now called Westfield Shoppingtown Mall in Wheaton – in 1985 and recalling the disappearance of the Lyon sisters ten years earlier. For those of us living in the Baltimore/Washington area in the mid-1970’s, this was an unforgettable and deeply disturbing story. On March 25, 1975, Katherine Mary Lyon, age 10, and Sheila Mary Lyon, age 12, walked from their home to Wheaton Mall, a half a mile away. They were seen at the mall; later, they were seen leaving the mall in the direction of home. But they never got home. And they were never seen again. Their disappearance is now a stone cold case.

As Lippman thought back on this story,  a question arose in her mind: What if, years after the fact, a woman arrived on the scene claiming to be one of  the sisters? Thus was the seed sown for What the Dead Know (2007), winner of numerous awards and one of the most gripping crime novels I have ever read. whatdeadknow

Lippman calls this kind of inspiration a lightning bolt. But a story idea can also come from what she calls an external prompt. This scenario almost always involves a request to contribute to a themed anthology, such as:

dangerous noir


She enjoys this challenge; in fact, when it comes down to it, she’s a fan of the short fiction form in general, both as a writer and a reader. Her other favorite literary genre is memoir, and she recently provided the Guardian with a list of ten of her favorites. It seems natural that Lippman would gravitate to the memoir, as one of her chief preoccupations is the nature of memory. She relates with relish an anecdote concerning David Simon’s story about himself as a youngster, a story that he always enjoyed telling. Enjoyed, that is, until a childhood friend informed him that his recollection of an event crucial to the tale was erroneous. The story involved pro baseball, so it could be fact checked. It was fact checked: the friend was right; Simon was wrong.

In this particular instance, no great harm was caused by this corrective action. Nevertheless, it set Lippman to wondering: what would happen if a memory you cherished, one that was integral to your sense of self, was proved wrong? Thus came more grist for the novelist’s mill! (In addition, Lippman was moved to initiate “The Memory Project” on her website.)

sentences Lippman has been on tour in recent months promoting her latest novel. As with What the Dead Know, Life Sentences had its genesis in a real life incident:  in 1988, Jackie Bouknight (pronounced “book night”), an impoverished Baltimore woman, went to jail for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of her infant son Maurice. She was ultimately released in 1995, still declining to provide any information concerning Maurice. Researching this story, Lippman found herself wondering what a seven year silence would feel like. Laughing, she added that she was especially intrigued by this question becasue she herself was such a compulsive talker.

Here’s a write-up by Lesa Holstine of the author’s appearance in April at a library in Glendale, Arizona. In her talk there, Lippman covered much the same ground as she did with Tuesday evening. In fact, I had a feeling at the time that she knew her material more or less by heart. If she consulted notes, I didn’t see her do it. Her presentation had a spontaneous, artless quality that I for one greatly admired. It’s hard to imagine a more engaging speaker, and with a great sense of humor as well.

Here’s a video of a similar talk presented in March at Northeastern University:

Tuesday night, Lippman spoke for about a half an hour; then she took questions from the audience. That, off course, is the part of an event like this that is by definition unscripted. Interesting tidbits often emerge in such a setting, as they did in this particular case:

When asked what her favorite novel was, she replied without hesitation, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. In addition, she praised the spoken word version performed by Jeremy Irons. Lippman also mentioned All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry, whose first line she loves because it is so “authoritative:”

“I think I fell in love with Sally while she was eating breakfast, the first morning we were together.”

An audience member asked whether she enjoys teaching writing, and she responded with enthusiasm, adding that she likes the way in which instructing others in the craft of fiction causes her to ask deeper questions about her own techniques and methods. (This exchange put me in mind of “Show or Tell,” an article in a recent issue of the New Yorker Magazine on the subject of creative writing curricula in colleges and universities.)

I’d like to return for a moment to What the Dead Know. In an interview she gave to the Urbanite, Lippman mentions that she is often asked if she requested permission from the Lyon family to create a fictional treatment of their tragedy. She says she has two answers to that question:

“One is them is about me as a nice person, and one of them is about me as not a nice person. And the first one is that I knew where the family was; I knew how to call them. I didn’t do that because I didn’t see it providing them with any comfort or solace, and I thought I would be intruding on them and I didn’t see that as being a benefit to them.

Secondly, I didn’t ask for their blessing or permission because I didn’t need it. Because I’m a writer, I get to write about what I want to write about and I’m not going to cede any territory as a novelist. I’m not going to ever say, “I’m not allowed to tell this kind of story,” and that’s true across gender lines, across class lines, across racial lines. The only limit is I can’t write about places unless I know them very well.

I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but I confess to a slight uneasiness about this. I attempted a thought experiment in which I was the bereaved party, and I have to admit, I would be angry if someone made use of my personal Hell for the purpose of entertainment. On the other hand, Lippman’s argument against censoring herself is compelling. Finally, in What the Dead Know, the anguish of the parents is bodied forth so convincingly and with such compassion, it almost seems like a tribute.

1 Comment

  1. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Tinderbox – Jo Bannister Raven Black and White Nights – Ann Cleeves What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill The Pure in Heart – […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: