Reporter-turned-novelist lives her secret dream

Creator of Tess Monaghan series began work on 'Baltimore Blues' in 1993

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008

BALTIMORE - Laura Lippman had her share of good fortune as she made the transition from frustrated newspaper reporter to part-time crime novelist to critically acclaimed best-selling author. But her bold career move didn't happen by chance.

Rob Carr / The Associated Press
Rob Carr / The Associated Press

Truth is, the creator of the Tess Monaghan series always had an eye on her second act. Lippman didn't become a journalist out of a deep-seated desire to work confidential sources, root out corruption and speak truth to power. She was curious and outgoing, enjoyed talking to people and wanted a job that would pay her to write.

In her spare time, she dabbled in fiction, but a novel seemed a faraway goal. Then came motivation, from an editor she describes as "a cold-blooded professional assassin." He told her she needed to work on her writing.

"No one had ever said to me, 'You're not a good writer.' Normally, I think I would have burst into tears," Lippman said. Instead, she told herself that if she wrote a book and got it published, her career wouldn't depend on one man's opinion of her talent.

"And the secret, secret, almost never-stated endgame was ... 'I'm going to quit my day job and be a novelist,"' Lippman said.

She can recall only one time she said these words out loud.

"I said it to my first husband one night when I was drunk," she said. "I told him I thought I could write full time. And I also told him that I thought I would be a New York Times best seller. I was really drunk, sitting at my kitchen table."

Lippman's first novel, "Baltimore Blues," was published in 1997. She left The (Baltimore) Sun, her professional home for more than 20 years, in 2001. And last year she cracked The New York Times list of best sellers for the first time with "What the Dead Know," a riveting, time-hopping mystery about the aftereffects of a decades-old abduction.

"She slowly became an overnight best seller," said Carrie Feron, Lippman's editor at William Morrow. "There are a lot of authors who, book by book, they're building their sales, they're polishing their craft. When it all works right, this is how it's supposed to be."

Lippman spoke about her life and career over lunch at The Wine Market, a bistro near her South Baltimore home and one of many culinary hot spots that have worked their way into her novels.

Looking relaxed but elegant in a charcoal, loose-fitting turtleneck dress and knee-high black boots, Lippman was engaging and energetic, with a girlish voice and dramatic hand gestures that suggest someone younger than her 49 years.

She began work on "Baltimore Blues" in 1993. She credits Sara Peretsky, creator of V.I. Warshawski, with the idea of writing about a female private eye. And she stuck to familiar terrain, making Tess Monaghan a former newspaper reporter and a Baltimore native. (Lippman's family moved to Baltimore when she was 6.)

Although she doubted her ability to construct a compelling plot, she forged ahead, taking comfort in the established rules of crime fiction and hoping her feel for the city and her talents for character and dialogue would carry her through.

"It helps to be kind of ignorant and arrogant when you start, because when you really think about what you're doing, it is ignorant and arrogant," she said with a laugh.



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