To Laura Lippman, crime fiction can do anything.
“I’m not saying I can,” she says, laughing, “but the genre has no limits.”
Author of 19 novels, and a hit at last month’s Key West Literary Festival — where she and fellow writers Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn discussed their affection for Lifetime movies Lippman arrives for two days in South Florida to discuss her latest crime novel, After I’m Gone (Morrow, $26.99).
In the book, loosely inspired by a real Baltimore murder case, father and husband Felix Brewer, facing a lengthy prison sentence for running an illegal gambling enterprise, disappears. He leaves behind his wife, Bambi; daughters Linda, Rachel and Michelle; and his stripper mistress, Julie, who disappears 10 years after Felix flees. Her remains are eventually found in a remote corner of Leakin Park, and years later former cop-turned-investigator Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez picks up the cold case.
After I’m Gone is about more than the mystery, though. It’s an insightful look at three generations of women and how these events shape and define their lives. A critic might write that the novel transcends its genre, but Lippman, 55, is uncomfortable with that sort of talk.
“What I see is this vast map of contemporary fiction with not very well-defined territories,” she says. “It’s hard to tell what borders what. It’s like the former Soviet Union in some ways. In the territories near the border you see people pushing out and in. Someone like Dennis Lehane is pushing out, testing it. Someone like Daniel Woodrell is coming in from the other side; he’s very literary, he went to Iowa and has an MFA but clearly really likes certain aspects of crime fiction. I see it as being this sturdy device sitting there saying: ‘See what you can do with me. See how you can mold me and form me.’ Anything can be done as long as you’re willing to have a crime in the story.”
We talked to Lippman about After I’m Gone, her Tess Monaghan series — which returns in her next book — and what her husband, David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, likes to watch on TV.
Q: Why does the crime genre work so well for you as a writer?
A: This goes back more than a decade ago, when I was watching friends get serious about their work. Dennis Lehane was publishing Mystic River. George Pelecanos was working on the series that started with Right as Rain. Even Michael Connelly was digging a little deeper, pushing a little further into ‘What can I do with my series character?’ I noticed that they were writing not just about crime but about what it means to be a man in contemporary culture. What role does violence play, and does masculinity always have something to do with that? I thought, ‘Well, I can’t write that book.’ But I do have a lot of ideas about what it means to be a woman in our culture, especially a teenage girl or how inevitable it is that women’s lives are so linked to the men they’re with. They’re still defined by their husbands, even famous women. I’ve got something to say about that. And the world of teenage girls seemed very noirish to me, shot through with danger and risk. That’s where I started.
Q: There are five distinct women’s voices in the book. Was one more difficult for you to pin down than the others?
A: You forget the parts that give you fits. ... Bambi was there for me when I started, and I think that’s because I reread Marjorie Morningstar every year! A lot of Marjorie informed that character. Bambi’s a smarter, more grounded Marjorie. The characters that come easiest are the least like me because I think I’m working harder. Michelle, who was just so awful in the beginning, I kind of delighted in her company. I was very conscious of the one male voice, Sandy. I knew I would have to work hard on that because he was laconic. Writing a character who doesn’t lean that hard on words was a bit different for me.
Q: After I’m Gone is loosely based on a true story. What responsibility do you feel you have to the true story that inspired you?
A: The primary responsibility is to be clear I took inspiration from this real story. The moment I wrote the first word, it was no longer real life. I choose stories that are unknown beyond the Baltimore and Washington area, before the CNN area. These are not crimes given the Nancy Grace treatment. ... I know enough about this case to know the woman I created to be his wife is nothing like his real-life wife. I read an article in which the real wife described what it was like to watch her husband walk down the front walk knowing she’d never see him again, and I didn’t even use that scene.
Q: In the book Sandy runs into Crow from your Tess Monaghan novels and later meets with Tess about a job. Was that planned?
A: That was something that happened organically. While I was writing, I was thinking, ‘What’s he going to do next? Where’s he going to go?’ Then I thought, well, he did see Crow on the street and heard him talk about his wife who is a private investigator. Wouldn’t it kind of make sense? They’ve got this kid now. Tess probably needs more help around the office. I used to have rigid divisions between the standalone books and the series, but now, if anything, I’m going the other way. I’m writing these books with the mindset that Baltimore is this incredibly small town. You’re always running into people you know. “Smalltimore” is not my coinage, but it’s true.
Q: Do you prefer writing the standalones or the series?
A: It’s like choosing between a chocolate dessert and a creme brulee. They’re delightful choices; they’re just different. With a series you have to come up with a story that doesn’t use up the character. You’re writing these long chapters in one woman’s life. I’ve written over a million words about Tess. She’s gone from someone vocationally insecure and alone to a woman with a job and a committed relationship who now has a child and owns a house. You can’t take her to the moment where her story ends. The Brewer family’s story ends. The questions are answered. You have a sense of where everyone is going. The next generation is about to be born. But Tess’ is open-ended. But I’m thinking, do I need to be planning the end of the series.
Q: There’s something to ending a series on your own terms.
A: Sue Grafton has an endpoint in mind. She had a plan. But what if you don’t write a satisfying end to your series? It’s going to end one way or another! It’s a morbid thought. ... You have to acknowledge, too, sometimes that the marketplace is in charge of that. That’s really painful. I’ve watched friends go through that. I think people would be surprised to know how painful it is for a storyteller to have to end the story before he or she is ready. I saw that with my husband and Treme. That he got to write an ending for it was a real triumph of his doggedness. But he had a lot more story he didn’t get to use on those characters. I just went through this with a show I watched, Enlightened [which was abruptly canceled by Showtime]. I said to David, ‘Can’t you get Mike White on the phone and talk to him?’ No one remembers it now, but The Wire was canceled twice and then got popped back onto the air. So he knows what it’s like.
Q: What else do you watch on television?
A: I’m just finishing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I love it. Such a great, strong female character. …But I’m a failed binge watcher. I don’t understand. I should be great at it. I have an amazing talent for ruts. I can watch maybe three episodes, and that’s only if it’s in concert with a task, like ironing or cleaning a room. My husband doesn’t really like to watch television. It’s so bizarre. He wants to watch sports or the news or the History Channel. But we do watch Archer as a family. ... The one show I watch close to on time is Girls. I have a prickly relationship with it. But it’s doing what it wants to do, and that’s interesting. I recognize parts, and other parts are so strange to me. But it manages to surprise me, which very little in the narrative world ever does.