Reporter-turned-novelist lives her secret dream

BALTIMORE (AP) - October 9, 2008

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.

She set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. For a daily journalist, "that's laughable. That's nothing," Lippman said. At that pace, she had a first draft in 3 months.

During the year it took her to find an agent, she wrote her second book, "Charm City." When her first contract didn't net "quit-your-day-job money," she established a routine, rising early to write for two hours before work every day.

The routine changed little even after she left The Sun, and now she can be found most mornings at Spoons, a coffee shop within walking distance of her home. Although fans sometimes say hello, they typically don't bother her.

"If someone is actually a fan, they want me to write more," she said.

This year in particular, that wish has been granted. She has knocked out a novel and two novellas, one of which was serialized in The New York Times Magazine. The other is contained in a collection of short stories, "Hardly Knew Her," which hit shelves this week.

This weekend, Lippman will be a guest of honor at Bouchercon, a convention for mystery writers and fans that meets in a different city each year. Lippman has attended every Bouchercon since 1996 and credits it with introducing her to loyal fans, some of whom have become close friends.

"Laura Lippman is the most genuine person I know," said Ruth Jordan, one of the organizers of this year's Bouchercon in Baltimore.

"The quality of her work just keeps improving, every facet of it - pacing, plotting, characterization. She started as good, and now she's truly exceptional."

While she now alternates between Tess Monaghan books and standalone titles such as "What the Dead Know," Lippman's work maintains a fierce affection for her hometown. Right now, she's one of two high-profile chroniclers of Baltimore - its crime and politics, its odd subcultures and contradictions.

The other is David Simon, a former Sun reporter, the creator of HBO's "The Wire" - and Lippman's husband.

At least professionally, Lippman and Simon offer a study in contrast. Simon can be brash and cantankerous, and his television work presents a bleak vision of urban corruption and decay. Lippman is warm and vivacious, and her books - although built around murders - offer some hope of redemption.

"The Tess Monaghan books, I've always said, have a rueful belief in human possibility - rueful optimism that sometimes people won't disappoint you," Lippman said. "That probably lines up pretty well with how I am."

And Simon still has the burning passion for journalism that Lippman never had.

"This is the sort of classic story of my household," Lippman said. "A year or two ago, we'd gone out to breakfast. We were coming back, and there was a plume of dark smoke rising somewhere in the east, and my husband followed it."

"Who are we going to call it in to?" Lippman recalls asking Simon. "We don't even know anybody at The Sun anymore!"

Their shared gift is for character, for the details that allow them to write people "smaller than life." "What the Dead Know" gains its resonance not from the kidnapping plot but from its portraits of those affected by the tragedy.

"I mainly write about people," Lippman said. "If I had a superpower, it would be to really see what's going on in people's minds. ... I just want to see the world from other people's points of view."

She demurs at the suggestion that she already has that ability.

"When I make people up, it's a lot easier, because I've got all the information."

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