This week for the BookBrunch interview, I spent a gorgeous couple of hours talking to top US crime writer Laura Lippman. We discussed her new book, WILD LAKE, the resurgence of crime in the US, and sad happy unicorns…
Without argument, Laura Lippman has to be one of the greatest American crime writers alive today. She speaks in a measured, well-formed manner, with one of those crisp, literary American accents, but there’s something malleable and lithe about her. I get the impression that to Lippman, one should think deeply or not bother to think at all. On a rare visit to the UK to speak at the Harrogate Crime Writers’ Festival, we discussed her new book, WILD LAKE, the resurgence of crime in the US, and sad happy unicorns.
“Wild Lake is from the first line a very conscious – it’s not a homage, a rethinking, or an updating of To Kill A Mockingbird – it’s a what-if scenario applied to the book’s most basic outlines,” begins Lippman. To Kill A Mockingbird is many stories, but at its heart, she says, it is the story of a man who is accused of rape. The woman making the accusation is of the lowest possible class a white woman could be in 1930s United States, and even though a black man would have been deemed of a lower class still, the narrative makes it clear he is a man of integrity, to be admired.
“So, a girl who is admired by no one, accuses a man who does have others’ admiration and faith of rape. I hadn’t thought about To Kill a Mockingbird in that way before. Now, there’s no way to read the book and not believe it is a false accusation, and that is what makes it a great and powerful book of its time. It’s a book about a time and a place where a black man accused of a crime cannot be found innocent despite overwhelming evidence that he’s innocent.
“But that whole issue of false accusation is one that bothers me because it is larger in our imaginations than it is in real life. We know in the United States that in the criminal context, when charges are filed officially, the best estimate is that two to eight per cent of all rape cases will be false accusations. That’s not an equivalency, but we tend to hold the idea that rape and the false accusation of rape are equal problems where the two parties have equal power.”
Lippman decided to tackle the problem by writing the same story of an accusation of rape, but moving it to another time and place. “I wanted to write a story about where there’s been an accusation of rape in a community of people who consider themselves very progressive and liberal, who would swear up-and-down that they have no racial biases or sexism. It’s the 1970s, everybody’s equal, everybody’s the same!”
Influenced too by the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow-Dylan Farrow abuse story after it surfaced again, she wanted to explore how people’s behaviour in the past can often disappoint us. “What do you do when one of your heroes is revealed to have not met the standards of our day? Does that person cease to become a hero?”
In order to examine this imagined 1970s rape accusation in the past, Lippman needed to create a character that had perspective on it in the present. Enter protagonist Louisa Brant, following in her father’s footsteps to become county prosecutor and taking on her first murder case. “That murder case sends her back to a tragedy from thirty years ago, in which her brother was, not the main actor, but certainly a key participant. Someone who saw his friend accused of rape and sought to protect his friend when vigilantes came for him.”
Sad happy unicorns
The book deals with intense themes, but Lippman kept perspective on the process. “It was a hard book to write, but writing a book isn’t as hard as digging a ditch. I try to not lose sight of the fact that being a full-time novelist is a pretty great gig. But there are days when you’re lost. It’s funny, there’s a sort of selective amnesia that comes over a writer when the book is done. I think it’s the same selective amnesia that comes over women after they’ve actually delivered babies, like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad, I’m ready to have another one now.’”
Her husband, David Simon, creator of highly-acclaimed TV series The Wire, has just finished reading the book. “He kept saying, ‘It’s just so sad!’ I think it is a sad book, and I think I was kind of sad while I was writing it – as I should have been. The book is about good people who did the wrong thing, though they never meant to do the wrong thing and they sometimes thought they were doing the right thing. I think that’s a greater tragedy than villains who set out to do evil.”
People who try to do the right thing but nevertheless make tragic mistakes, even in the name of goodness: it is an issue that, like many authors, Lippman is currently grappling with. It seems to be a trend in the literature of the moment: how can we be good? “I’m probably the last person who you want to predict the future, but I think we’re all at a particularly depressing moment in current events, in the US and the UK, and we’re all trying to sort it out.”
According to Lippman, there’s a feeling in the States that what’s happening has been building for a decade, and is the result of the white middle-class becoming a plurality rather than a majority. “What’s interesting is that they’re absolutely blaming their own people. The idea that someone like Donald Trump has done anything good for them, or has supported policies that have promoted them – it’s crazy! If you asked me a year ago, I would have said it was impossible that Donald Trump was going to become the candidate of the Republican Party of the United States, but now he has been, so where do we go from there?”
Yet it’s personal as well as global sadness that influenced Lippman. “I think people are sadder as they get older. Bad news arrives – I won’t say daily – but almost weekly at a certain age, because people die. You lose them.” This includes the death of her father while Wild Lake was being written.
“I’m a particularly odd duck because I’m a 57-year-old woman with a 6-year-old daughter, so I’m not only experiencing all the things you experience at my age, but I’m also living that incredibly fraught, intense, emotional time of my daughter, who’s so sensitive – because all kids are! The stories come home from school, ‘So-and-so wouldn’t talk to me,’ or ‘So-and-so wouldn’t play with me today.’ Just the little humiliations that they have.”
Though candid on this subject, Lippman is guarded about her life and her marriage in particular. “It’s not this great literary thing: we talk about our work because people talk about their work. But we do appreciate the fact we understand what we each do.”
What becomes clear very quickly is how hard both Lippman and Simon work. Lippman recently made the decision to take their daughter to New York to visit Simon’s set there, so she could better understand why Simon was away from Monday to Friday. His current show is about porn and prostitution in the 1970s, so they had to be careful to find a non-naked day. Apparently Lippman’s daughter was unimpressed by meeting James Franco. “The work-life balance is hard,” Lippman says, “and that’s not even about having a kid. I think work has become dangerously gargantuan in everyone’s life.”
Despite this, she is acutely aware of how lucky she is. She doesn’t have to work sixteen-hour days, and can look after her daughter in the evenings. “I’m a full-time novelist and that’s the winning lottery ticket.” Lippman’s success is an excellent example of why fidelity and the midlist are so important to successful publishing: she has been with the same US editor at William Morrow since her first book in 1995, and didn’t reach the New York Times bestseller lists until her twelfth novel, both things she is quick to point out are becoming increasingly rare. When Lippman describes her career as a “happy little unicorn”, I believe her… [READ MORE]