Laura Lippman was a reporter for two decades, 12 of those years at the Baltimore Sun. But it wasn't long into her career before she realized she really wanted to write fiction.
She left the Sun in 2001 to write mystery novels full time, and while her best-selling books are infused with hyper-real, journalistic detail, Lippman insists that she prefers writing fiction.
"I do a little freelancing (as a journalist), and I find it much more challenging than sitting in a room alone, making stuff up," said Lippman, 56. She is on the phone from Baltimore, where she and husband David Simon, creator of the HBO series "The Wire" and "Treme," live when they aren't at their home in New Orleans' Garden District.
Lippman comes to town May 18 to appear at the spring Metro Detroit Book & Author luncheon, along with authors C.J. Box, Gerald Posner, Lily King and Lev Raphael. The luncheon takes place at Burton Manor in Livonia (see box).
It was Simon who suggested that Lippman turn a real-life Baltimore mystery into fiction: the 1970 disappearance of Baltimore gambling den operator/bookie Julius Salsbury.
Salsbury was a well-known underworld figure on Baltimore's "Block" of strip and gambling joints who was facing a 15-year prison term when he walked out of his comfortable home and was never seen again. In subsequent years, police monitored his friends and family, but he was gone without a trace.
"David believed that there was a novel in the story of Julius Salsbury, although he also believed that if I chose to research the story, I might actually solve the real life mystery of where the real life guy went," Lippman said.
That isn't what drove her to write "After I'm Gone" (2014), in which the disappearing gambler inspired by Salsbury is Felix Brewer.
"I had zero interest in the real life story, I don't care where he is," Lippman said. "He's probably not alive anymore, his wife isn't alive anymore, his daughters are unknown to me."
What did interest the author was how such a disappearance impacts a family. Lippman deftly traces the complicated relationships between Felix's three daughters, his wife, and his mistress, a former stripper in his club. The question of where the money Felix left to provide for his family went is answered, but not in the way most readers would expect.
"When I'm writing a novel I'm not interested in finding real answers to real stories," Lippman explained. "I want to be alone with my imagination."
Another relic of her journalist past is that Lippman writes at a breathtaking clip, "freaky fast." This has yielded a novel a year, and she now has 21 under her belt, both stand-alone novels and books in her Tess Monaghan series (her latest is a Monaghan novel, "Hush, Hush.")
The first seven novels were written while Lippman was still working full-time as a reporter. "When I stopped doing it, I realized how hard I had been pushing myself," she said. After becoming a full-time novelist, she took it as law that she had to write a book a year.
Lippman has the luxury, thanks to her sales, not to do that anymore, but it's become her work ethic.
"I'm one of those tiresome people who believes that work is an important force in our lives," Lippman said. "I like my kid (daughter Georgia, 5) knowing that I get up every day and I work every day. I think that's cool, and I'm glad she knows it and I'm l lucky enough to have a job where I can show up for school events and I'm pretty much here for her when she gets home from school."
What Lippman has produced in those 21 books are utterly believable worlds, in part because of her eye for the details of life, especially Baltimore (or "Smalltimore," as a character calls the city jokingly in one of her novels), where readers start to feel they know every narrow brick building, every colorful byway.
In "After I'm Gone" she describes the intricate sociology of Jewish families in Baltimore from the '50s to the present, and there is always a lot of psychological backstory in her novels, adding nuance to her characters.
Lippman understands what her appeal is. "I don't necessarily write whodunits. I decide I'm going to write my books for the people who figure out the big secret on page 50. Why would they keep reading? My answer, my hope, is that I create characters so compelling that the readers who figure out the story stick with it anyway."
Today's mystery novelists don't ply their trade and then relax by a palm-lined pool. It's a genre that has a lot of fan interaction, and Lippman is game. "There are a lot of conferences in mystery writing, they want to meet with you, interact with you. I became aware that people who read my mysteries read them pretty obsessively — five to seven books a week. I can't trick them, they've read every possible permutation of plot."
She appreciates the feedback on social media from readers, and is an active Tweeter (@LauraMLippman). "I write people back when they write me, always being polite and accepting that I'm going to get some very unkind communications. But that's fair game.
"When someone writes me a nice note, I always say 'thank you,' because it's an enormous kindness, to tell someone they like a book, it really does help. It does."
To show how far mystery novelists have come, Lippman was asked to be a judge for the National Book Award — for fiction. She evinces mixed feelings about being admitted to the literary writers' club.
"I'm very much a crime writer," Lippman insisted. "You never catch me saying that anything 'transcends the genre. I don't think it needs to be transcended, it's huge and elastic and flexible."
Metro Detroit Book & Author Society Spring Luncheon
Burton Manor, 27777 Schoolcraft Road, Livonia.
11 a.m. Book sales
12 noon. Lunch
1 p.m. Authors speak
Tickets: $40, includes talks by authors and luncheon. Books are available for purchase, and to be signed after lunch by the authors. To buy tickets, go to bookandauthor.info or call (586) 685-5750.
In addition to Laura Lippman, here are the other authors appearing at the luncheon:
C.J. Box: He is the best-selling author of four novels, a book of short stories and 16 novels in a mystery series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Box has earned mystery's esteemed Edgar Award, and "Endangered" is the latest in his Pickett series.
Gerald Posner: Posner is the author of investigative nonfiction books including "Case Closed," about the JFK assassination, and "Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power." His latest book, "God's Bankers," is a financial history of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican Bank.
Lily King: Her 2014 novel "Euphoria" is a fictional account of a love triangle among anthropologists in New Guinea in 1933, inspired by the real-life story of anthropologist Margaret Mead who worked alongside her husband and future husband. The book is being adapted into a film, to be directed by Michael Apted. Her previous novels are "The Pleasing Hour," "Father of the Rain" and "The English Teacher."
Lev Raphael: Raphael, who teaches English at Michigan State, has authored books in many genres; general fiction, mystery, suspense, "vampyre," etc. One, his Nick Hoffman suspense series, is set at the fictional State University of Michigan, at Michiganapolis, with Hoffman a composition teacher in the English department. His latest book is the eighth installment in that series, "Assault with a Deadly Lie."
"Every Secret Thing" film
A film adaptation of Laura Lippman's bestselling novel "Every Secret Thing," starring Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, and Elizabeth Banks, will be released May 15. Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QT0zKjvRfE