There’s just something about Laura Lippman. Some unquantifiable X-factor. A raw power, buzzing beneath the surface of the bestselling author’s laid-back demeanor.
When we sat down for our talk, it was getting late, a little past nine. Laura stared back at me through my computer screen almost sleepy-eyed. Glass of red wine in hand, she admitted it was nearing her bedtime.
I got straight to it, not wanting to waste the time of an author of over twenty books (including the award-winning Tess Monaghan series). It didn’t take long before I realized exactly what it was I’d seen in Laura from the start, that X-factor I mentioned.
The following story sums it up much better than I can. I’ll let Laura take it from here:
Laura Lippman: I was at this writers’ conference. There was another writer talking and I didn’t like this person very much. The person had been rude to me, kind of snobby, and then they start giving a talk about writing that I found very “precious.” I just don’t like that term when talking about what we do. Writing is creative. It’s fun. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to get to do creative stuff, and there are these weird otherworldly elements. But making writing too “precious” can become a barrier to keep other people out.
Eli Cranor: Oh, wow. Please unpack that.
LL: If you turn writing into magic then other people who don’t feel magical feel like they can’t do it. Almost anyone who really wants to can write a story. They might not write a great story, but it’s a very accessible world. So, sitting in a crowded ballroom on a Saturday where people have taken time out of their lives, their jobs . . . I’m listening to this author talk in this very flowery way about writing. It just felt so impractical and inaccessible. I was like, I already don’t like this person, I disagree with everything this person is saying. I’m not going to get up and fight with this person, but I am going to have a private fight right now. While this person is up there making it sound like writing is so magical, I’m going to sit here with my legal pad and I’m going to brainstorm my way to my next book.
EC: Hell yes.
LL: I just start going at it, brainstorming, making all those big circles on the paper, asking myself, what do I write about? I write about what I find interesting. What do I find interesting? I find crimes that were in the news when I was kid interesting. What crimes? I’m very interested in Lolita, but I don’t want to write pedophilia. And I’m just like filling these circles out. As I’m writing, I recalled a case from my childhood. A story about a serial killer. And that was it. That became the idea for a book I published in 2010.
EC: That’s a damn good story. Hits home for me on all sorts of levels. I’ve always leaned more toward the “writing as work” camp.
LL: Right? I just published a book of short stories. Almost every story in that book started with someone coming to me, saying, “I’m working on an anthology and I need a story that’s about this . . .” That sounds so workman-like, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I actually like it. I like the fact that it’s so down to earth.
EC: I just read Baltimore Blues over the summer. The thing that stuck out to me most about your protagonist, Tess Monaghan, was her daily drive. How she had to get up each morning and complete her rowing workout. How does the routine of writing fit into your day, especially with this workman-like mentality?
LL: When I first started writing, I was working full time at a newspaper. I remembered people talking about how, if you want to save your money, take money straight out of your paycheck each month and put it in the bank. Skim it off the top. That way you never touch it. And I thought, what if I do that with my time? If I get up in the morning and I write for two hours, I’ve paid myself first. I’ve given my time to my fiction. That worked out really well. I’m very much a morning person.
EC: I enjoy your morning walk pictures on social media. How does that work into your process? I’m guessing the walk comes first?
LL: The walk comes first. I’ve got a kid. So, if it’s my day to take her to school, I wake up at six, have a cup of coffee, and then literally drag my daughter out of bed. She likes it. I take her by the ankles and pull her out. She knows she has to go get in the shower, and I’m going to walk while she’s showering. I got two miles in today while she was showering. I’m definitely a morning writer. I’m pretty brain dead from noon to three. I don’t know how I kept a job. I don’t know how anyone does anything creatively between noon and three. I know—because I have read your pieces—that you’re very in tune with this thing not enough people talk about, which is the connection between being a writer and having some kind of physical routine. There really is. The walking is part of it for me. I also have a trainer I work out with via Zoom. I think writing has a complementary relationship with some kind of physical activity. The walking, the working out . . . I also have a Peloton because I’m a cliché. But I often solve problems when I’m working out.
EC: How, exactly, do you try to use the physical side to benefit your writing? Are you aware of it?
LL: When I go off into a physical activity, I’m not trying to think about my work at all. I head off into a walk or a workout, and my brain is just elsewhere. We all know how it is. You’ve got a problem you can’t solve. You get all tensed up. Then you go on a walk and your brain relaxes, the answers come flowing in.
EC: So true.
LL: Here’s a thing we never talk about—writing is super physical. People think of it as sedentary, but that’s not the case. When I’m writing, I have the worst posture. I’m twisted up like a pretzel. I have one leg underneath me. It’s weird. I’ve been writing at my dining room table for the last two years, and that hasn’t helped at all. I have friends who write by hand, which is amazing to me. I know of writers who work on typewriters. I have a typewriter. I’ve tried to use it, but it’s just a completely different form of composition because it’s so difficult to hit the keys hard enough.
EC: It’s so manual, like you’re really wringing it out of there.
LL: As old as I am, I did have the benefit of working on a personal computer throughout my journalism career. But, yeah, there’s this really strong mind/body thing going on with writing. I’m very aware of the physicality of writing. Where I am. How I’m sitting. I’m sixty-two years old. I’ve been writing a long time. I always have one leg under me. That’s just how I write.
EC: Ace Atkins mentioned the same sort of thing in his talk. I asked him if he’d ever considered getting a stand-up desk, and he said he couldn’t write unless he was sitting down.
LL: As crazy as it is, having this one foot under me—that’s what makes me go.
EC: That’s great. That’s what this whole column is for, finding that one thing. Do you have anything else that is precious to your writing routine?
LL: Social media is a struggle. It wasn’t a struggle when I first started because there wasn’t social media. If one is on social media—and I am—it creates a buzzy brain. You have to get away from that. Interestingly, there’s a simple cure for buzzy brain, and that’s reading. It has to be reading for pleasure, though. Going into 2022, I’m taking a break, pretty much, from blurbing. I’m really conflicted about this. I want to help. People helped me. I want to boost other authors. But the pandemic really destroyed my focus for reading. I had just enough focus for writing, but when I was done for the day, I couldn’t read. It made me miserable. You become a writer because you’re a reader. I don’t trust any writer who didn’t begin as a passionate reader. But listen, the more I read, the more I create the brain that I need to write. So that means my reading has to be for me. It has to be what I want to read right now. The first book I’ve read this year was Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout. Then I read Alafair Burke’s Find Me. I loved it. Now I’ve got two books going. I’m reading Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart. It’s one of the first pandemic books, which is interesting to me. And the other book I’m reading right now is the biography of Gypsy Rose Lee called Gypsy. So, yeah, what I’ve found is I need to spend an hour or two each day reading. Which is a lot. Like, that’s as big a commitment as walking five miles every day.
EC: What are you doing to carve that reading time out?
LL: It helps that my kid is old enough to be a reader. We get into bed and read at night. That doesn’t always work because sometimes I fall asleep. So I try to read during those afternoon hours that are not my peak creative hours. When I get into the reading groove, it imposes a calmness on my mind. It reminds me why I became a writer. I have this very, very vivid memory. I’m in my early twenties. My car’s been screwed up in a crash. I’m living in Waco, Texas. I have a boyfriend in San Antonio, so I have to take a Greyhound bus to go see him. I get on the bus and I’m reading Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers. It has a very simple beginning. “I think I fell in love with Sally when I woke up next to her on the floor.” Something like that. But I have this clear memory of sitting on the bus and thinking to myself, I love this book. I’m so happy and excited to be reading this book. One day I’d be so happy if I could write a book that would make someone feel like I’m feeling right now.
EC: What a great memory.
LL: Yeah, reading and writing are very hand in glove for me. But it’s getting harder. That’s where social media comes back in. You can go online, write one hundred and forty characters, and people will write right back to you. It feels very immediate, very important, but it’s dangerous. It really is a little dangerous.
EC: Yeah, I held out on social media early on. My wife had a Facebook account. But I spent two years writing seriously before joining Twitter. I often wonder if that was the best choice for my writing. I have met some cool people there. It’s just such a distraction.
LL: What I’ve noticed is that my best use of social media is to slide in sometime during the morning, post my photo, and generally try to stay away. Almost nothing I have to say is vital on social media. No one actually needs to know my opinion about anything.
EC: Do you do anything specific to guard against social media stealing your time?
LL: I did use Freedom for a while, but I didn’t find that to be necessary. When I commit, I just commit. The biggest question for me is whether I should leave my writing to Google something, or if I should just leave it blank for the moment. This morning I was working on a chapter, a chapter that was suggested by my own journal. I wanted to write about March 2021. The weirdest thing about writing right now is that three months back was its own historic era. Time is moving in a way that we can’t comprehend. Do you remember July? Do you remember last winter? Anyway, I wanted to write a specific scene in March 2021, which was when people were beginning to get vaccinated. People had all these expectations at that point. But the thing I was interested in was the weather on that date. I will Google weather for specific dates. I want to know how that impacts what I’m writing about. So, yeah, I’m always trying to stay in the scene and not Google too much. I write pretty fast. I’m so committed to the chaos and the mess that sometimes I can’t even remember minor characters’ names. I’ll just call her “X” or “Y” or “B.” I’ll get it all right later. But when I’m really happy with my writing, I don’t want to get on Twitter. I don’t want to leave the document. The truth is, when I leave my document there are only a few things waiting for me.
EC: Which are?
LL: Twitter. I love it. I just do. My mail is also waiting for me, which I hate. I hate my email so much. I’m so old, I remember when email was just kind of fun and superficial. Now email is nothing but hell.
EC: What? Why? I love my email. My inbox is like a Christmas tree. I always come rushing to it in the morning, hoping to see something sparkly and new.
LL: Okay, yeah. There’s still that side of email for me. But now it’s mostly just requests, more new assignments. I’m sort of AWOL from Facebook. I don’t like the politics, but I can’t leave because that’s the only place a lot of my fans can find me. So, yeah, back to what is waiting for me when I leave the document: Twitter, email, Facebook, Google News. I like to see what’s going on. And then the final thing is Spelling Bee at the New York Times. All my friends are migrating to this new game, Wordle. I can’t do it. I refuse to learn how to play it.
EC: You said you write fast. Do you aim for a specific word count when you’re working on a first draft?
LL: I try to hit at least a thousand words. It’s different when I get deep into the manuscript and it’s time to revise. But when I’m creating fresh words, I like to get to a thousand. Today I wrote twelve hundred words. They’re rough. It’s not good writing, but the scene is what it needs to be. It was a good scene. And, yeah, I write really fast. I used to go all the way through a draft, telling myself to write the whole thing like I was being chased by villagers with torches. Just run! Don’t stop. Don’t correct anything. At a certain point, though, that stopped working. For me, writing a novel is like running that “ladders” drill. I know you know what I’m talking about.
EC: Yeah. We called them line drills.
LL: You run, then you run back, then you run a little farther, and then you run back again. What I do now is I write until something doesn’t feel right, then I go back to the beginning. Then I go forward again and get a little farther. About halfway through a book, I’ll take a break and do these crazy word-blind outlines. I try to come up with a physical manifestation of the novel that has no words on it. Just colors and shapes and lines.
EC: No words?
LL: No. I just need to look at it. Make sure it has a proper balance. Sometimes I make discoveries when I do that. Sometimes I don’t. For the most part, I go as far as I can. I hit a wall. I head back to the start. I rewrite everything . . . When I finish a book, it’s a blend of drafts. The first third could be more than ten drafts.
EC: Do you write every day when you’re in this process?
LL: I try to write Monday through Friday. Some days it doesn’t happen, and I’m really forgiving of it. I’m going to be teaching virtually next week for three hours a day. I’ve been doing this for years. Back when it was in person teaching, I’d still get up at six every morning and write for an hour. I didn’t usually get my thousand words in, but I just wanted to keep the discipline alive. I do believe in time off. That’s why I don’t write seven days a week. It’s rare for me to write on the weekends. That’s in part—to be candid—because of my first marriage. Back then, I was writing all the time, and that marriage didn’t last.
EC: That one goes straight to the heart. I’ve really been working on how to balance it all, how to schedule breaks. Do you take a break when you finish a manuscript? Like, do you give yourself some downtime before starting something new?
LL: This is a big change for me. And by the way, I just want to tell you: You have a day job and kids. When I started, I had a day job and no kids. That’s so much. So, yeah, in the early part of my career, I’d turn a book in, maybe take a couple days off, and get started on the next one while my editor was working on the last one. About five years ago, I decided I was ready for my Diva Moment. I decided I’d turn my book in and wouldn’t start a new one until I got through copy edits and proofs. In other words, I decided it would be to the work’s benefit—and my benefit—to keep only one book in my head at a time. I think I was right about that. I’ve come to accept the idea that there’s a benefit from stillness. A field needs time to lie fallow. The same is true for an author.
EC: Ah, that’s great. Relates to sports too. Do you have an athletic background?
LL: Not at all. The words that I was called in grade school and middle school are now all politically incorrect. I was not athletically gifted in any way. What I am is something like an ox. Just a big strong person. I just needed to find a way to enjoy that part of myself. I am super competitive. I work on tamping that down because I don’t think it’s always positive. I’m definitely someone who understands showing up.
EC: Like showing up and doing the work?
LL: Exactly. When I worked at the Baltimore Sun, somebody once said, “If you look at the Baltimore Sun in 1995, no one picks you as the future novelist.” I know that sounds mean, but it’s not mean. It’s factual. Nobody would’ve picked me. I wouldn’t have picked me. My name wasn’t even on the shortlist. The reason I’m the person who came out of that newsroom with a career in fiction is because I showed up. I did the work every day. I taught myself how to write novels.
EC: Why did you do it? Why do you do it? Why do you show up every day and take so much time away from the other parts of your life? Why do you write?
LL: I just picked up a book by Alice McDermott. At the end it tells this story about a brilliant writer, and he’s like, “If you can do anything else, do it.” I would say the same thing. If you can be happy without writing, go ahead, if you can be happy. I’m happier being a writer. I’m aware that that means allowing a bit of a wedge to exist between me and full-out existence. I had therapy today. I told my therapist that I just realized that—at least in terms of financial well-being—I don’t have to write forever. I’m old enough to collect Social Security. I could retire. But I want to write. This is how I make sense of the world. I’ve been telling myself stories and trying to order the universe since I was very young. So that’s why I do it. It’s such a hubristic and prideful thing we do. There are enough books. Start reading now and you won’t run out. But there’s that tantalizing belief that there’s a book—I’m not saying it’s a good book—but there’s a book that only you can write. And I’d like to write that book and put it on the shelf. Then I want to go write another one.