Crime Stories With People We Know and Recognize
Laura Lippman Talks about Baltimore, Tess Monaghan, and POints of View
ush Hush, by mystery writer Laura Lippman, begins with an unedited transcript between a documentary filmmaker and a witness to a crime long ago. The reader is initially disoriented: What is the documentary about? Why not start in scene with Tess Monaghan, the titular focus of this series? What clues should be tucked away? What details can be discarded? Yet we quickly become grounded. A wealthy woman named Melisandre Harris Dawes is bankrolling a documentary about a crime in which she was the monster: the child killer. About a decade earlier, her infant daughter had suffocated in the car while Melisandre was at a park overlooking a river. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but lost custody of her two older daughters.
In this twelfth outing of the Tess Monaghan series, Lippman explores themes of parental guilt and class politics. After years overseas, Melisandre is back in Baltimore to tangle with her ex and try to reconcile with her two surviving daughters. The documentary, she hopes, will celebrate the reunion. When she begins receiving threatening notes, though, she hires Tess—herself the mother of a rambunctious toddler. And soon Tess is receiving unsettling notes from a stranger that make pointed comments about her parenting skills.
In spring of 2015, Lippman and I talked at length, from which the following is edited. —Alex Behr
Alex Behr: Since you’re not a reporter at the Baltimore Sun anymore, do you miss access to a variety of people when you’re constructing characters and plots?
Laura Lippman: I do miss the newsroom in terms of missing a culture that really cares and is in touch with the heartbeat of a city. I don’t live in the heart of it as you do when you’re a reporter. You know everything, and you’re following all these nuances, so now I have to work a little harder and try to pay more attention. I’m sad to say—and I don’t mean it as a criticism, just a reality—that the newspaper itself isn’t what it used to be. So I have to talk to neighbors and get out of my house and out of my comfort zone. A big part of the Tess books, certainly, is writing about Baltimore as it changes, and being aware of those changes.
Behr: That leads me to ask you about Baltimore’s gentrification, too.
Lippman: I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a thirty-something African American writer who is trying to carve out this role for himself as a Baltimore explicator. I don’t think he realized he was participating in a real Baltimore problem of nostalgia. He was bemoaning the fact that places where he’d grown, up—really rough places—were being redeveloped. I said people have been doing this in Baltimore forever.
I’ve lived part time in New Orleans, and the gentrification and “hipsterfication” of Baltimore is nowhere on the scale of a place like New Orleans, and there isn’t evidence that rent is being affected by gentrification. Rent is being affected by other market problems: there’s not enough rental property to meet demands. But it’s still a relatively affordable city. People say that if you place this big block letter T over Baltimore, everything in the T is basically okay, but the stuff that gets out of the T, the literal armpits, are really suffering. There are some pretty hardcore neighborhoods here, and it’s a city that needs a tax base. So on the one hand I’m always concerned about gentrification, but on the other hand the city needs a tax base. When a Starbucks goes in it creates jobs and revenue, so it’s a balance. I live in a gentrified neighborhood, but nothing in Baltimore gentrifies all the way. I don’t know if it ever well.
Behr: I lived in the Bay Area, and you see the nostalgia there, too, perhaps in a more extreme way. San Francisco is in a strange position of being close to Silicon Valley with all that wealth coming in.
Lippman: That’s definitely a story I’ve followed through fiction, the Tales of the City series. I consider Armistead Maupin a role model and inspiration in terms of writing about a city. The characters have changed, the city has changed, and those changes are the subjects of the books. They started as a serial in a newspaper, kind of funny and glib initially. But one of the things is AIDS happened, and Maupin tackled it head on, and has stayed with it at the time when some people are like, “Oh, really, do we have to talk about HIV anymore? Isn’t that kind of over, please?” and of course it’s not. That’s a great example of one of the most vibrant series of books that really has chronicled a city in modern times, yet they are funny and fun. I think people forget that that’s possible. Someone like Maupin gives me hope, because it shows that a series can tackle enormous changes even if people return to the series again and again for certain static pleasures. There are certain things you want from going back to a Tales of the City book, but in time the characters can change, do change, and important relationships have broken up. Much to the reader’s dismay, but that’s how life works.
Behr: You have a lot of points of view in Hush Hush. Were some more fun to explore than others?
Lippman: Tess is always the person whose head I’m happiest to be in. I have this private rule that is if Tess is in the scene, the point of view is Tess’s. My first allegiance is to her. I like writing for all my characters’ points of view. In this book in particular, the least fun was Melisandre. She’s not a nice person, she’s difficult, and she doesn’t even begin to have a clear view of herself. The two sisters, Alanna and Ruby: I particularly liked writing about those teen-age girls. I liked writing about their stepmother, Felicia, and I loved writing from the point of view of Kitty, Tess’s aunt, a long-term fixture in this series, but we’ve never been inside her head before.
Behr: With Melisandre, how you did you deal with that tension of not revealing too much about her thoughts that might relate to crimes she may or may not have committed, because you want the reader to trust that it’s not the author imposing this rule? It’s a fine line, because you don’t want the reader to feel tricked.
Lippman: It’s a fine line, and it’s especially tricky when you’re inside the head of someone who clearly knows what she has and hasn’t done. But Melisandre is not very self-aware and is not someone inclined to dwell on things that she can’t control or things she can’t fix, or things that have happened and already are. I think it is reasonable, when we are inside Melisandre’s head, that she’s not thinking about what happened when her child died inside the car a decade ago.
It’s clearly evident in the book early on that she had a distressing meeting with her ex-husband, who is subsequently found dead. And the reader shouldn’t know immediately when I’m in Melisandre’s point of view whether she killed him or not. Certainly when you find out what happened in Hush Hush no one should feel as if they were set up in any way. In some ways the novel is much less about “who done it,” although that information is supplied, than how character is revealed in the aftermath of something horrible. How did everyone behave? What were their reactions? What were their impulses? Because Hush Hush tells about character or lack thereof.
Behr: Opening Hush Hush with a transcription was interesting. It made sense in the arc of the story: what was real truth and what was manipulated truth. I was slightly disoriented, but I liked that feeling. Did you want to do that because you’re a fan of documentaries, even though you know they’re manipulated?
Lippman: I wanted the reader to feel a little disoriented, which is kind of perverse, kind of risky, to ask someone to plunge in and you don’t know either character and you don’t have anything to ground you. You have two people having a conversation about an incident and not even the whole of the incident, not even the most interesting part of it. But sometimes you have to go with instinct, and my instinct was to try very hard to not write the same book twice. I wrote this book and turned it in over a year ago, and since then I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries. I’m always aware of the choices that are made and the framing devices that are used. I’m also interested in the idea of Harmony [the director of the documentary]. She is really trying very hard to tell the truth about something, to tell the truth of what happened. She’s so ethical.
Behr: And yet she’s hired by someone who has a vested interest in a bias. Harmony can’t trust Melisandre’s motives at all.
Lippman: Every documentary has some bias going into it. There’s a moment in the production where Harmony has to debate. Where does she position herself in this meeting she hopes will take place? Everything involves a choice. The moment you have a choice shapes the reality. You might not hear something. Harmony really agonizes over this because she so wants to get it right, yet at the same time she’s aware of the fact that she’s going to appear to be compromising, because the subject of the documentary financed the documentary. These are the things that are interesting to me. I’m a former journalist. I care a lot about getting things right. I cared a lot in this case.
Behr: I’ve started to teach a mystery writing class through Writers in the Schools, because the kids were listening and responding to the Serial podcast. I visited a class in which the English teacher had them read a Reddit post by someone who said he was the brother of the girl who was killed.
Lippman: I’m familiar with the post.
Behr: So the teenagers, sophomores, they were very protective of the family. They took the brother’s side and what he was trying to say, even though they were still fascinated by the case. There was that tension that is explored in your book very well: How do you take control of a story when something happens? How do you respond to a tragedy when your private tragedy becomes someone’s entertainment?
Lippman: Yeah, this is one of my standing rules for myself as a writer. ... If my books are going to be the least bit credible, then sometimes smart people are going to say and do stupid things, and unlikable people may at times be truth tellers. When Melisandre gets in that woman’s face in the coffee shop, she’s telling a kind of truth. She confronts someone who exists on the fumes of gossip. I don’t remember my own words that well, but she says something like, “The daughter of the man who died doesn’t live that far from here. You could be taking a casserole to the house. You’re sitting here gossiping in the coffee shop. That’s what you’d rather do.” And I think that is the nature of the world we live in. Yet I like social media. I like it a lot. I see lots of positives.
Behr: Related to social media, it was interesting that people in the book are stalked through paper and pencil notes because an email could be traced. Yet the common form of cyberbullying often targets women or teen girls. So how do you feel about that aspect about social media? Is there a way to combat it?
Lippman: I feel the only way to combat it is to keep talking about it. I’m involved in this nutritional program that is very much about behavioral modification. It’s very different from any exercise or diet program I’ve been in, and it’s had enormous results for me. And one of the things they ask you to do is name and notice. I think whenever you see someone online behaving in a way you feel is inappropriate, you name and notice. You call someone out. I feel strongly that when someone online, not always a man, but usually a man, says something condescending or patronizing to me, I respond. And I respond sometimes pretty curtly.
Behr: I liked the theme of mothering throughout the book, because if it had focused on the more horrific side of a baby dying out of neglect, the book would have been difficult to read. Yet you balanced it out with Tess judging herself as a bad mother, and she’s clearly not. You dealt with female competitiveness, female shame about body image, or whether a woman has a career or not.
Lippman: That’s always there in all my work. I think that’s ongoing. In an earlier book, Tess has a friend who called her out as a borderline bulimic. I’ve always wanted to balance books between the high drama of the investigation and the quotidian, because the quotidian interests me.
Behr: I’m an adoptive mom. We adopted a boy from China about ten years ago, and I enjoyed and empathized with the sections about Tess’s daughter having tantrums in public. I often felt conspicuous because I’m white and my son’s Asian, compounded by the normal feeling of helplessness. Did you feel that you wanted to explore that feeling of women judging other women or use it as a funny but also poignant theme?
Lippman: I wanted to write about how much parents, in particular mothers, get judged. Men still get kind of a pass. With small children, men get so much credit just for showing up. And nothing I’ve ever done in my life—bear in mind I had fifteen books out when my daughter was born—I’m in a field in which you’re critiqued in public, yet nothing I had done prepared for me for the avalanche of unsolicited advice that came at me from the moment my husband and I started talking about wanting children.
Everyone has an opinion about everything. I have very strong feelings about unsolicited advice. When I want advice, I ask for it. When I don’t ask for advice, I really don’t want it. It begins with the books themselves. I got What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I just felt it was the biggest example of fear mongering mixed with polemics about breastfeeding. So I stopped reading books. I had people tell me not to become a mother. And I never asked their opinion. I had people assume some things about me that were pretty insulting. I also found that there were mothers on my street who were incredible support systems. I found my footing, but man, those early years were like nothing I’ve ever known.
Behr: I was hoping to learn more about Kitty’s story of being a birth mom, but of course you can’t have a thousand-page book.
Lippman: It might go further in a future book. The question in my mind is of Tess needing to do a good thing but ending up meddling and finding Kitty’s child for her. Someone I knew a long time ago had no contact with her birth father for most of her life. He had abandoned the family. But someone else decided to find him for her. And she didn’t want a relationship with him. She had pretty complicated ideas of someone deciding to do that for her. I like the idea that not everything is resolved in a book. Part of the fun of a series is that things are open-ended and can come back.
Behr: Do you go by Stephen King’s rule to go by the situation first when you’re developing a novel?
Lippman: There’s no right away to do it. It depends on the individual writer. I think of the situation as a secret. I see where it begins, and I know where it’s going to end up, but the journey that the characters take I don’t really understand. Sometimes I don’t really know the ending; I just know that as I work on it what I call an “organic resolution” will present itself. In What the Dead Know, I know it begins with a woman on the highway who is in a not very serious hit and run. When the police stop her, she blurts out that she’s one of the Bethany sisters. These were two sisters who had disappeared thirty years earlier. She doesn’t want to tell them where she’s been for thirty years. She doesn’t want to share anything about herself. ... Obviously in that situation there are two possibilities: she’s telling the truth or she’s lying. And if she is telling the truth, why wait for thirty years, and if she’s lying, why would she lie about it? I always knew the answer to whether or not she was telling the truth, but when I began the book I didn’t know the organic solution to it all. I wrote with the belief that the right answer would reveal itself to me.
Behr: It’s interesting how the subconscious might help you a lot, even if it wakes you up too early.
Lippman: Part of it is that you keep working it through. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to find a solution. I don’t worry about painting myself into a corner. I don’t fear that I’ve set up situations that can’t be resolved. That might be hubris and one day I may pay dearly for that confidence, but so far, so good. I’m working on my twenty-first novel, so I feel like, well, it’s reasonable to think I can continue. I don’t do big twists. I don’t even try. I’m not really trying to surprise people that much, which always surprises them. I’m trying to write credible stories that involve crime in which people behave like human beings I know and I recognize. There are no mad genius serial killers in my novels. There are no superheroes.
Behr: But the culture at large indulges in the serial killer idea; it supports a culture of fear. When the sniper shootings in the DC area were going on, how did it evolve for you in keeping your own sense of balance? My sister had younger kids who were told to run into school. My mom was scared all the time; she wouldn’t want to get gas. The perception that it could happen to anyone is sociologically interesting, but it might not have been that great to live through.
Lippman: The reality is that anything could happen to anyone on any given day. That’s the reality that I try to write about. The people who get unlucky. Who have the bad day. The sniper story was in reverse for me. I did what most people do with bad stories in the news. I really rationalized about why I probably wasn’t at risk. I had to go to DC at the height of it, and there was a bookstore that had two branches really close to each other. I parked by the wrong one and had to walk seven big, lonely blocks. I remember being a little prickly with fear, but thinking, no, he would never come into the heart of DC because getting out of here quickly would be really difficult. So that was rationalization number one, and one thing I remember is that the people in Baltimore were very nonchalant about it. It was happening in DC, not even getting close, and then we came to find out that the sniper had been here, and got gas here. It was very comical. There are almost two ways to think: be really paranoid and strategize your life, or realize that this is not your problem. I think it was so terrifyingly random and there was no way to outthink it. One of the shootings happened incredibly close to where my mother-in-law lives.
Behr: One happened where my dad goes to Home Depot.
Lippman: This was in Montgomery County, I think on a bus stop bench. My in-laws don’t take the bus, but still, it was a fascinating time. What was interesting to me was that—a year after 9/11—part of the country was paralyzed by this. I felt like, We have just handed a blueprint to terrorists about a very effective way to terrorize people in the United States. We should do a shooting outside a shopping mall. That will get everyone’s attention. So over a decade has gone by and terrorists have not chosen to use this tactic in the United States. We have shown our cultural weakness and it doesn’t translate culturally for some reason. We don’t understand what other people fear.
Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at The (Baltimore) Sun. She began writing novels while working full time and published seven books about “accidental PI” Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001. Her work has been awarded the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry awards.
Alex Behr recently interviewed Wendy MacNaughton for the magazine. Behr’s essay about performing in the “Mortified” series ran in our Winter 2010 issue.