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Interview: May 5, 2016

Since her debut, Laura Lippman has won multiple awards and critical acclaim for her excellent crime novels, set in her hometown of Baltimore. Her latest book, WILDE LAKE, is as provocative and timely as ever; the New York Times bestselling author challenges our notions of memory, loyalty, responsibility and justice in this psychologically complex story about a long-ago death that still haunts a family. In this interview, Lippman talks to The Book Report Network's Sarah Rachel Egelman about why she prefers to write about strong women (“write what you know”), what she learned about rape culture while thinking about and researching this novel, and how WILDE LAKE parallels the Harper Lee classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD --- while diverging in one key way.

The Book Report Network: WILDE LAKE moves between the present and the past, between first-person and third-person narration, but the perspective always belongs to your main character, Lu. Can you discuss your choice to tell the story with such a subtle perspective shift?

Laura Lippman: The answer is in the text to a certain extent. There's a passage --- I really should look it up --- about how the present is swollen with self-regard for itself. We all, I think, keep making the mistake of thinking we finally know the sum and total of things. But every day that passes is another opportunity to be wrong about the past. We keep thinking we know the end of the story --- but how can we? I'm not someone who likes to draw attention to the effort and thought I put into my work. It seems…braggart-y, uncool. I want to be like Lee Child, who is so charmingly self-deprecating about work that I think must take an immense amount of effort to pull off. But I can't help myself: Figuring out the way to structure this novel, Lu's two voices, was really hard. It's for readers to decide if I executed, but I'm confident in my justification of it.

TBRN: You explore several compelling themes in the novel: secrets, justice for past violence, family dynamics, women in the professional world. Did you start with one in particular or perhaps with a plot or specific character in mind?

LL: I had been thinking a lot about "rape culture," and I made a personal decision that I would start with a place of belief with all victims. Most people don't lie about rape. I felt that my humanity, like the Grinch's heart, grew the moment I made that conscious decision. And it's not like I was blaming victims, but I had a few what I'll call ingrained ideas that I needed to acknowledge and own. Anyway, once I made that decision, I started thinking about classic stories in our culture --- and I asked myself, "Well, then what do you do with the events of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?'" Obviously, in the original, Tom Robinson is innocent, and that's purposeful and intentional. But it was interesting to think about how the story might unfold in different decades, places.

TBRN: From Tess Monaghan to Luisa Brant, your novels tend to feature strong professional women. Why are these types of characters interesting and important to you? What kinds of response do you get to these powerful and intelligent characters?

LL: First --- write what you know, right? Or maybe what I hope I know? I come from a family of really strong women. My father used to joke that the Mabry women --- that's my mother's maiden name --- tended to bury their men. My Great-Aunt Effie, whom I adored, had two husbands, outlived them both, was a very savvy businesswoman and loved to laugh. But every now and then, I hear from a reader --- usually a man --- who tells me that my characters are unlikable. The last time it happened, I asked: Could you tell me a female-centric novel you did enjoy? The man --- my student --- was nonplussed, although he later said he could have named several. Months later.

TBRN: What would you consider a big weakness in a woman? Is it difficult for you to write a weak female character?

LL: Ah, even strong people have weaknesses, right? You should have seen my husband falling apart at “Fiddler on the Roof” this past weekend. He was SOBBING. ("It's the first time I've seen it since I had a daughter.") To me, the biggest weakness in a woman is to claim she doesn't have female friends. I find that suspect, always.

TBRN: Lu is a smart, ambitious and sometimes vain woman. Is she a character you enjoyed writing? Was she challenging to “capture” or portray in any particular ways? How would you describe her?

LL: Smart, ambitious, vain? Yeah, I might know something about that. I think the hardest parts to write centered on her very compartmentalized love life.

TBRN: You don’t give your readers any neat resolutions here. Some aspects of past crimes remain mysterious and some answers hidden. Was that your intention from the beginning, or were those authorial decisions you made towards the end of the writing process?

LL: I don't like neatness in anything except my house. Life is messy, and overly explained stories don't give readers full credit.

TBRN: While Baltimore is important in WILDE LAKE, the suburbs and intentional communities your characters grow up in are more essential to the story. Did you have particular communities in mind as you plotted and set the novel, or were you going for a general type of atmosphere? What aspects of the story and characters did you have to write differently from a novel set in Baltimore (or any other large city)?

LL: Columbia, Maryland, is a very specific place, and I waited for a long time to write about it. I have a great deal of affection for it. I think most utopias are doomed to fail on some level, and I'm a little surprised, sometimes, at how rosy my peers' memories are of Columbia. As Captain Hammer says in “Dr. Horrible”: I remember it differently.

TBRN: Can you discuss the apparent relationship between WILDE LAKE and the classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Did you draw on any themes or characters from Harper Lee's novel in writing yours? What is it about MOCKINGBIRD that is so compelling to readers and so inspiring to writers?

LL: The primary relationship is that skeleton of a plot line. Make no mistake --- Tom Robinson is innocent in MOCKINGBIRD. That's the whole point. But once I decided to play with the outlines of that idea, I couldn't resist a few set pieces --- the fire, meeting Dill/Noel, a disastrous first day of school, a family meal made awkward by a visitor's poor manners. It might not be apparent, but the party at Davey's home? That was meant to echo the scene outside the courthouse, where Scout diffuses things with an innocent statement.

TBRN: WILDE LAKE takes a look at issues of consent and responsibility with characters avoiding punishment for rape and murder. Was it difficult to tackle these ideas in the novel while still striving to entertain readers? Were you hoping to achieve neutrality or push readers toward a moral judgment?

LL: Readers are smart. I would never hope to push them toward any conclusion. I do hope I might get people to consider things from a different point of view, even if they reject it.

TBRN: Memory and perspective, family secrets, the dynamics of various relationships: There are so many interesting themes at play in WILDE LAKE. Which did you enjoy exploring the most as you wrote the book, and why?

LL: I loved the relationship between Lu and AJ. I don't have a brother, and, although I'm younger, I'm kind of an alpha. But my little girl has a brother who is 16 years older than she is, and I think their relationship might have some overlaps with Lu and AJ.

TBRN: Which character in the novel would you want to spend time with in real life, and which would you avoid at all costs?

LL: Well, I love Lu. I think we could be friends. I love most of the characters in this novel. Except for Lynn. By the way, here's a fun question for people who read the book: It's mentioned that one of the people in AJ's group is Asian-American. But is it Lynn or Ariel?

TBRN: Discuss your writing process. Where do you start when you begin a new book? Are you very disciplined or mostly moved by inspiration as it strikes? Do you do a lot of research in general? Do you take a break after finishing one book, or is it right on to the next?

LL: Once I have the idea, I get up, I go to work, Monday through Friday, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. I don't think that's discipline so much as habit, but that's a pretty semantic conversation to most. Books have natural breaks -- I have time off when I wait for my editor's notes, when I wait for the copy edit to return, when I wait for the galleys. I begin the next book after I've proofed the galleys. Research is essential, but, for me, it needs to be timed correctly. It can become a huge rabbit hole, a way not to write, if you do it too early. I research when I know what I need to know.