Q&A with former Baltimore Sun colleague Laura Lippman

Posted by on Mar 24, 2010 in Authors, Books, Journalism, Newspapers, Writing | 6 Comments

"Laura Lippman"

I met Laura years ago when we were both working at The Baltimore Sun. At the time (late 1990s), the Sun was an impressive newspaper, dedicated to the best kind of storytelling. It attracted a diverse squad of talented journalists and, despite a narrow-minded editor who discouraged writing as a hobby, many were so devoted to their craft they spent countless off-hours writing books. Laura was the most prolific of that subset, having just published her first two Tess Monaghan novels before my 1997 arrival. Longtime Sun reporter David Simon (now Lippman’s spouse) had left the Sun just before I arrived, but had already written “Homicide” and “The Corner.” (Other colleagues who were published, or eventually would be, included Raphael Alvarez, Dan Fesperman, Jim Haner, and Scott Higham).

A few months ago, I was driving west toward Seattle after a mountain biking trip to North Dakota. I had listened to two books during the lengthy drive: Walter Mosley’s “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” and Laura’s “Life Sentences.” I stopped for coffee in Missoula, Montana, and in the local arts paper read about Laura’s upcoming appearance on an all-star panel at the Montana Festival of the Book, along with two favorite writers, Denis Lehane and George Pelecanos (whom I’d interviewed last summer, and whose too-short video is coming soon). She and Pelecanos gave special readings, and Pelecanos joined David Simon for a discussion of the HBO series, “The Wire” – an impressive showing by the DC-Baltimore crew out west. I decided to reach out to Laura and ask a few questions about her daily writing habits, which have resulted in fifteen books over thirteen years, the latest of which will be published later this year. [Simon, featured in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, will soon launch his new HBO series, “Treme,” about post-Katrina New Orleans. More on Simon in The New Yorker (2007) and The Atlantic (2008).]

Where do you work?
-I can work anywhere. A plane, a train, my dining room table, a hotel room. I prefer to work at Spoons, a coffee house in South Baltimore.

Do you have a set time of day you start? finish? Do you set a goal (either hours or words)?
-I have a word quota (1,000 minimum and I don’t really feel about about myself unless I top 1,500.) I prefer to start no later than 8, although DST really is hell for a morning person. My brain shuts down at noon and doesn’t reboot until 4 p.m. I don’t know how I held down a job.

Computer or longhand? Mac or PC?
-I am mad for Macs. I wrote my first three novels on a Mac Classic II, the fourth one on a used Mac laptop, then I got the clamshell, and then I sort of lost track.

Any specific word-processing program (or writing implement) you prefer?
-I work in Word. I so want to love Scrivener — so many cool people do — but I can’t make it work for me.

Do you listen to music while writing? who? how? – via iPod?
-If at home, I might turn on the Broadway Channel on the satellite radio, but within five seconds, it’s all white noise. That’s why I like Spoons: It has the white noise of a newsroom, conversation and machines and doors and clattering things.

Do you (like Cassandra in “Life Sentences”) sometimes need to escape to write? If not, any tricks you rely on to jumpstart a slow day?
-Unlike Cassandra, I have never gone away to write. I like the idea, but I know myself: I would go stark-raving bonkers. I have a very fast metabolism as a writer; I work in short, intense bursts, so a get-away is wasted on me. Unless the television set has Bravo … As for jump starting: If I’m really stuck, I have a character write me a letter that begins: “Here’s what you don’t know about me.” I have a feeling I’m going to be doing this tomorrow.

What’s your biggest distraction or counter-productive vice?
-The Internet is bad, said the woman who is on Facebook at 8:45 in the evening. I try to avoid it. I often fail. Although, I want to say: I think Facebook is glorious.

Finally, is there a “who” for whom you write? any ideal reader you have in mind while pounding away?
-I once dedicated a book to two specific readers: Sally Fellows, a retired teacher and a formidable online critic, and Doris Ann Norris, an allegedly retired librarian who was one of my first true fans. They’re both super-smart, they read four-to-six books a week, they’re not easy to fool. To me, they represent the mainstream of crime fiction readers, so I always have them in mind when I write.

-Laura’s website
-An interview with The Oregonian
-Excellent radio interview (con Segundo)

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  1. Lise

    Nice work, Neal. A quick note: that’s the Montana Festival of the Book. You knew that. 🙂

  2. Neal

    Oops! I always get those M states confused. Thanks, Lise. I’ll change MO to MT.

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