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Interview With Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman has been a newspaper reporter at the Baltimore Sun for the past 12 years. Her previous novels -- The Sugar House, Baltimore Blues, Charm City, Butcher's Hill, and In Big Trouble -- have won the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, and Anthony Awards. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland. The main plot-line of her latest novel, In a Strange City, is spurred about by circumstances dealing with Edgar Allan Poe.

In a Strange City by Laura Lippman
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After writing five Tess Monaghan novels, In a Strange City, being your sixth, you've already accumulated four prestigious mystery literary awards (the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Shamus Awards). What do you feel it is about your protagonist and your novels that stirs such a positive reaction from both readers and critics alike?

It's my hope that readers have come to like Tess as much as I do. She is a young woman with quite a few flaws, and she's made catastrophic errors in her detecting work. She can be thin-skinned and capable of enormous hubris. But she means well, and she's fiercely loyal. I like her, and I like spending time with her. She's changing rapidly, as people do in their late 20s and early 30s, which makes her enormous fun to write about.

Not only are you an extremely prolific author, having written six books since 1997, a relatively short time span, but you have also been a newspaper reporter for nearly fifteen years. How do you manage to balance both of these time-consuming trades?

By not thinking about it. Seriously. If I sat down at the beginning of the year and said, "Okay, I have to write 100,000 words by Oct. 1, and work full-time," I think I would go mad. Instead, I try to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day, before I go into work. To a newspaper reporter who routinely writes 500-1,000 words on deadline, this is a very manageable chunk. Better still, 1,000 words a day equals 100,000 words in about three months. Which means I can rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite some more.

It could be argued that your protagonist Tess shares top billing in your novels with another "character": the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Could you tell us just how important your hometown is to your novels?

In Big Trouble by Laura Lippman
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Baltimore is central to the novels, even when it's not the location. (In the fourth book, In Big Trouble, Tess's trip to Texas gives her the chance to see her hometown from a different perspective, not unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.) My hometown fascinates me. But I will never pretend to know everything about it, no matter how long I live, or how much I study and read.

There is too much history, too much lore, and too many variations of the native experience. I once heard a co-worker remark that Thurgood Marshall's Baltimore was strikingly different than the archetypal version of "Bawlmer," with its marble steps and white working class folks. That comment really stuck with me. It's a city of extreme contrasts. The homicide rate is one of the highest in the country, and local residents also pay high property taxes and car insurance rates for the privilege of living here. But I wouldn't live anywhere else.

As I have said before, you have been a newspaper reporter for fifteen years. How has that experience aided you in your crossover to fiction?

It's a little more than fifteen years, but the more years I have in the business, the less inclined I am to put an exact figure on it. The primary advantage to being a newspaper reporter is that it really demystifies research. If I don't know something, I know how to find it out. And I know that truth is stranger than fiction, that the real test for my novels is making them credible.

The main plot-line of In a Strange City is spurred about by circumstances dealing with Edgar Allan Poe, the great author who is also credited as a pioneer of the mystery/detective genre. Yet, most of Poe's detectives, not to mention most detectives in the history of literature, have been male. Do you feel that it is significant that Poe figures greatly into the story of a relatively new breed of detective, that is, the female PI?

All PI writers owe a debt to Poe. And, given that I have a little statuette of him in my bathroom, as a consequence of winning the Edgar, I think I felt that debt even more keenly. In a Strange City is intended as an homage -- to Poe, but also to Hammett (who was a Pinkerton in Baltimore) and, well, the entire genre of crime fiction. I know some writers chafe at genre labels, but I'm proud to be following in the footsteps of so many writers -- particularly those women PI writers who broke down the barriers, such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller and Linda Barnes.

Where were you last January 19th? In other words, have you been fortunate enough to see for yourself the strange and unique Baltimore tradition of the Visitor's toast to Poe each year on that night?

On Jan. 19, 2001, I was safe in my own bed. But on Jan. 19, 2000, I was inside the old church and I saw the visit. I promised not to reveal too many particulars, but I will say it was one of those rare events that live up to one's expectations. It was eerie and quiet, and I was one of the first to glimpse the Visitor's approach.

Who would you say are your foremost literary influences, and could you tell us what you are personally reading right now?

The Sugar House by Laura Lippman
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I read widely and I think some of the books on my nightstand (Philip Roth and JoAnna Trollope) would surprise people. I juggle books, too. Right now, I'm reading one book as research, Tom Horton's An Island Out of Time; and two books for pleasure, Sujata Massey's The Bride's Kimono and Zadie Smith's White Teeth. I own a lot of books, and I decided to try and read what I already own instead of buying new books, as I'm running out of shelf space, and running out of walls for new bookshelves. But there's one exception -- I'm allowed to buy books written by friends and since my friends are among some of the best mystery writers in the country today, I don't feel too deprived.

Obviously, your series of Tess Monaghan novels has been successful. Can we look forward to reading about her further adventures anytime soon?

I'm hard at work on number seven, untitled for now, and I have no shortage of ideas. I just hope I continue to have the energy I need to keep up with her.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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