A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Five childhood friends and one secret. In the summer of 1978, five kids stumble upon a cabin in the woods. What happens there forever changes their lives. Thirty-two years later, when one of the friends dies, the past comes hurtling back. Author Laura Lippman’s new novel “The Most Dangerous Thing” is set in the same Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up. Lippman went on to spend twenty years as a newspaper reporter, before writing her first novel. The Washington Post calls her “one of the best novelists around, period.” Novelist Laura Lippman on writing, and the lasting power of childhood secrets.
- Laura Lippman author of sixteen novels; former reporter at The Baltimore Sun; winner of numerous writing awards including the Edgar award for best mystery.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Most Dangerous Thing” by Laura Lippman. Copyright 2011 by Laura Lippman. Excerpted here by kind permission of William Morrow/HarperCollinsPublishers:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Author Laura Lippman has written 11 books about private investigator, Tess Monaghan. The character is a former newspaper reporter in Baltimore. And of course, that sounds a lot like Lippman herself. But it's her newest standalone novel, "The Most Dangerous Thing," that she says is the most autobiographical.
MS. DIANE REHMThe story is set in suburban Baltimore in the late 1970s. The lives of five childhood friends are forever changed when they discover a small cabin in the woods. Laura Lippman joins me in the studio and I know many of you are her fans. You can join us as well, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Laura, it's good to see you again.
MS. LAURA LIPPMANGood morning and it's so great to be here. Thank you for having me.
REHMLaura, I had not heard of Dickeyville in Baltimore. Tell us about Dickeyville.
LIPPMANThey're people in Baltimore who have never heard of it and never been there. In 1965, my father was working in the Atlanta Constitution Washington Bureau as their correspondent and he got a job as an editorial writer at the Baltimore Sun and we began looking for a house in Baltimore. And, you know, I was six years old at the time, so my memory is that it took the entire summer. It was probably three days, but we would go up and look and go up and look.
LIPPMANAnd then one day my father went up on his own and he came back and said, I've bought a house and it's in the most amazing place and there's a stream with ducks and geese and the houses look so old fashioned and there're these huge woods all around it. And in fact, the house that my father bought for $19,000...
LIPPMAN...in 1965 backed up to what were the very edges of this place, Lincoln Park, and we had -- I didn't even try to use this in the book because it was too strange. I grew up in a house where the backyard was filled with enormous boulders. I've never seen anything like it. We're a very steep hill right up into the forest and there were these enormous rocks. I mean, just huge. We named them.
LIPPMANMy sister and I claimed them all and we grew up playing in those woods at the edges of Lincoln Park, which at the same time is known legendarily in Baltimore as a place in the 1970s where dead bodies were thrown all the time. And there's even an old joke, when they take cadets out to practice searches as their training as part of the police academy and they go to Lincoln Park, they'll say, you know, don't go grabbing just any dead body, just the one we're looking for.
LIPPMANIt's not quite that bad, but that was the reputation. It's a very wild place.
REHMBut, you know, it's fascinating 'cause I grew up here in Washington in the Petworth section of Washington, D.C. Our house backed up to woods before construction took place. And one night, we woke up and those woods were on fire.
LIPPMANOh, my gosh.
REHMAnd it was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life because I can still see those flames right outside the window, but then across the street, it was also a wooded area where we liked to play and that's where your novel begins.
LIPPMANIt begins in this woods at the very foot of Dickeyville, which, as I said, is part of Lincoln Park and park isn't the right word because it makes it sound so civilized.
LIPPMANIt's pretty tangled. There's some old paths through there, but generally, you were cutting your own paths, but it was a neighborhood with not a lot of kids, not at our end of the street, almost no one my age. I actually played with two younger children who lived two doors away, two younger sisters, Mary Pat and Jackie, so I was a little bit different from the five kids I write about here because by dent of being the oldest of three kids playing together, I got to be the leader.
LIPPMANBut yes, we wandered those woods and...
LIPPMANNever afraid and our parents weren't afraid for us...
LIPPMAN...I mean, you know, we had our set of rules and I always remember one time I went out and I was ice skating on the Gwynns Falls and I fell through. I mean, I probably came closer to drowning than I want to admit to this day.
LIPPMANI mean, I fell through twice and I came home and I was in the basement, which was very dim, and my father said, you know, what's going on? I said, oh, I fell through the ice. And he couldn't see me, he couldn't see that I was drenched...
LIPPMAN...from head to toe. He thought I just sort of, like, you know, maybe went in up to my ankles.
LIPPMANMy mother came home and saw my sodden clothes. It was just -- you know, but again, no one said, oh, well, you can't go ice skating without adult supervision because I'd been up on this pond with my two younger friends, Mary Pat and Jackie, and that was it. You know, there was no adult there, there was no one who could've helped me. I had to, you know, heave myself out of the ice and sort of crawl on my belly and that was just sort of a -- you know, a typical weekend in my childhood.
REHMLaura, I want to take you back to your times as a journalist and how being a journalist really informed or did not inform your desire to write novels.
LIPPMANI actually became a journalist because I didn't know anyone who was a working novelist. I wanted to be a novelist, but, you know, who can be that? You know, it felt not that unlike saying I was going to be a ballet dancer or a firefighter. But my father was a very accomplished journalist. You know, as I said, he was an editorial writer at the Baltimore Sun, really terrific writer and so I knew...
REHMThe Atlanta Constitution he was, right.
LIPPMANAnd Atlanta Constitution before that and then the Baltimore Sun, which is where he worked up until the day he -- he took a buyout in 1995 and continued to freelance for many years after that and still writes a little bit. So I knew that. I was like, okay, you can go out and get a job as a newspaper writer and you'll write every day and so that's what I'll do with the hope that maybe one day I could become a novelist as well.
LIPPMANThe great thing about -- I was a newspaper reporter for 20 years, began writing books while working full-time by then at the Baltimore Sun, although it took me awhile to get there. And first of all, it's great training in terms of good work practices.
REHMTelling a story, too.
LIPPMANTelling a story. I was lucky to be working at the Baltimore Sun in the 1990s when newspaper journalism became very interested and narrative and telling stories sort of with a beginning, middle and end and I was a feature writer, so I got to do a lot of that, which was very helpful.
LIPPMANBut also part of -- the great thing about having been a newspaper reported is it demystifies the writing process for you. You can't come to work and say, oh, well, I'm just not feeling it today. No, it's your job.
LIPPMANSit down there and write. And the other thing is it teaches you how quickly you can learn something if you put your mind to it. you know, I might come to work at the Baltimore Sun and be told, well, the county water system failed overnight and there's no water, there's a contamination problem. And by five o'clock that afternoon, I had to file a story explaining how did the water system fail, why did it fail, when will it be fixed, how will it be fixed?
LIPPMANYou know, so I had basically eight hours to go from knowing zero about how people in Baltimore County got their water to having to know as much as possible and that's very good training for a novelist because it doesn't -- again, some fiction writers I know kind of romanticize the research and I think it's because they use it for procrastination. They want to go disappear inside the research for a couple of months.
LIPPMANI have a very clear-eyed view of it. If I need to know something, I know I can find it out. I've done it for 20 years as a journalist, it can't -- it's easier as a novelist.
REHMAnd what was your training as a journalist?
LIPPMANI got a degree from (word?) School of Journalism, an undergraduate degree, but my real training as a journalist was the jobs -- my first job at the Waco, Texas Tribune Herald. And I have to say, I don't know if I would recommend a newspaper career to any young people I know right now, although I know some who are doing it and doing it well.
REHM'Cause it's tough.
LIPPMANIt's tough. But if I had one piece of advice for a young reporter, it would be, go someplace that's as foreign you as possible. I wanted to go home to Baltimore. I wanted to walk out of Northwestern and get back to Baltimore as fast as possible and the Baltimore Sun was having none of it. It was like, you need experience, you need to -- more training, so I ended up at the Waco, Texas Tribune Herald and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was immersed in a world where I knew nothing.
REHMYou knew absolutely nothing and had to learn, forced to learn.
LIPPMANHad to learn.
REHMWhat kind of writing did they have you doing initially?
LIPPMANInitially -- I always remember my first day at work, I went to the Lions Club and I listened to the State Delegate report on water rights issues from the recent -- (laugh) I'll say recent session of the Texas Legislature. I did a lot of feature writing. I was technically -- eventually, I became what was known as one of the regional writers. We covered 12 counties and I covered four of them, so there was a real mix from everything from spot news to feature writing to, you know, long, complicated trials.
LIPPMANI covered a couple of capital murder trials. I mean, it's one of those things where I sometimes look back at the stories that I was covering when I was 22 and 23 and thinking, I had no idea what I was doing. I wish (laugh) I could do it over again because I was -- I covered some amazing things and I think at the time, when you're very young, all I was -- I was like, I'm 22 and I'm in Waco. I want to move on, I want to go to someplace bigger.
LIPPMANAnd, you know, I'd write the Baltimore Sun and they'd say, get -- you know, it's this hilarious thing, when you're 22, they say, well, we don't usually hire people unless they have five years' experience. It's like, I'll never have five years' experience. That's impossible. I'd have to live to be 27 (laugh).
REHMLaura Lippman, her newest novel is titled "The Most Dangerous Thing." It's a mystery, it's a novel, it has wonderful characters, all of whom interact or not. Do join us, we'll take a short break here, but call us, e-mail us or send us a tweet.
REHMAnd welcome back. Novelist Laura Lippman is with me, she is a New York Times bestselling author. Her newest, which is the 11th that she has which contain the private investigator, Tess Monaghan, who does play a small role in this book. This one is titled "The Most Dangerous Thing." And it focuses on a group of five children. Laura, and I want you to tell me who they are and why they become so intertwined in the world of Dickeyville.
LIPPMANFirst there's Gwen, whose family has just moved to Dickeyville to a house that I feel honor bound because I'm writing about such a real place to say this house is a complete invention. There is no such house at the foot of Weather Woodsville Road, never was, never has been. If you went to where this house supposedly is you would just see a lot of trees. Gwen's father has built his modern dream house in the very old fashioned and quaint neighborhood of Dickeyville in the '70s and moved his family there.
LIPPMANAnd the first person Gwen meets is Mickey, a tomboy, for want of a better word. Very direct and interesting girl the same age, they're about 11 at the time, who, you know, knows how to catch salamanders and crawfish as we called them and knows every inch of the woods, yearns to be outside. She doesn't live in the neighborhood proper. She lives in a slightly more dilapidated townhouse residence across the busy street, Bars Park Avenue.
REHMAnd Gwen's family is the one with money.
LIPPMANYes. I mean, her father is a doctor. They're not rich...
LIPPMAN...but he teaches at the University of Maryland. You know, he's -- you know, he's worked as a geriatric specialist. Her mother comes from a very nice old family in Boston, very accomplished family. And Mickey's family is considerably more chaotic. She's never known her biological father, doesn't even know -- her entire life, actually, never knows the full story of her biological father. Her mother never tells her. I mean, he was killed in prison while their mother was pregnant -- killed in jail, to be precise.
LIPPMANAnd they play together as two girls will. And then one day they decide they want to play with the three Halloran brothers, Tim Jr., Sean and Go-Go. And for a brief time, for a couple of summers, they form a very tight group of five. And as they press into the woods, they uncover a cabin where an old man lives and they become fascinated by him and yet not fascinated enough, if that makes sense.
LIPPMANThey don't really think about him. They just think about what's fun for them to do when they're visiting him. He plays an old guitar, he seems strange and interesting. And it's something to do on those long summer days that kids used to have when they weren't signed up for camps and different activities, the kinda childhood that I knew.
REHMAnd it's in this area -- this wooded area where they're free to play, free to roam, free to do whatever they wish to do.
LIPPMANAs long as they show up for supper that night, they're pretty much -- you know, there're no cell phones. There's a thing in the book about how their parents, they will technically, you should stay within voice range and they've thought their way around this, which is they pretend to not understand how that works and they send the littlest one, Go-Go, ahead and say, can we still hear you, can we still hear you? And they're, like, oh, we must still be within voice range 'cause we can still hear Go-Go.
REHMBut the woods are not considered at all dangerous. The woods are where they're free to roam, free to play, free to do whatever they choose.
LIPPMANThe dangers are seen as very mild nuisances in nature. You don't want to go in the stream because it's polluted and you could get -- you know, you could end up getting tetanus or needing, you know, a tetanus shot, lockjaw. There are burrs, there are scratchy plants, there are plants you shouldn't eat, there're these red berries and (word?) berries. But, you know, sort of that's the list that their parents sent them out with. They don't think there're any people out there at all. They're not the least bit afraid of, you know, their children meeting grownups or predators. It doesn't even occur to them.
REHMAnd this older man in the woods, they name Chicken George. Why?
LIPPMANWell, it is the 1970s and "Roots" has just been on television and he has a chicken -- he has chickens. And yet at the same time, it's also because they don't even think to ask him his real name and he doesn't volunteer it. And they don't give him their real names when they first meet him because they still have that bit of skepticism that, you know, any adult could end their fun, so they give him fake names. And so he never knows their real names, doesn't seem to care and they never know his real name.
REHMAnd why are they so fascinated by the way he lives?
LIPPMANWell, he lives in a shack without indoor plumbing. It seems like a throwback. I mean, especially if you remember -- I remember little girls all went through that Laura Ingalls Wilder phase, so a cabin in the woods, it seemed so rustic, it seemed so much like the pioneer days. And they're fascinated by him because he doesn't talk to them the way other adults do. He doesn't tell them what to do, he doesn't boss them around, he doesn't ask them about school or their grades, he just sort of lets them be and they let him be.
LIPPMANAnd he also likes them because he persuades them to bring him food and various things and asks for it directly and they just do. They scavenge their parents' pantries and they sneak out what food they can to bring to him.
REHMWithout the parents knowing a thing.
LIPPMANRight, without the parents knowing anything. The parents know nothing of this man.
REHMNow, while you were writing this novel, you became a mother.
LIPPMANI did. Right in the darn middle of it. And that was interesting (laugh).
REHM(laugh) How was that so interesting?
LIPPMANI have a lot of good friends in the crime-writing community and in particular, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane said that when they became parents, their writing changed. And I was told by a lot of people, this is going to change you, you will write differently. And I was defiant about this and, we will see, very hubristic. But what I said was, look, I was a kid and I'm not sentimental about childhood and I know I write a lot about children and I know I've written books in which children come to harm, but I don't think that part of my writing will change because I'm writing about children as fully developed characters, they're not just victims.
LIPPMANAll -- and I also don't write particularly grizzly books. I'm pretty -- I have a pretty light hand with violence because I don't have a strong stomach for it. So I thought, no, I'm not going to write about children differently. And at the time my daughter was born, I had gotten through the first part of the book, through the night of the hurricane, which is, you know, sort of the first big climax in the book and it didn't change how I wrote about kids. The next 10 chapters are about the parents and boy, had that changed everything.
LIPPMANBecause I hadn't been a parent. I'd been a stepmom for a long time, which is sort of -- if you've got a great stepson like I do, it's like the greatest gig in the world. You get all the fun. I mean, you're totally skimming the cream off of what two hardworking parents have done. And, you know, my stepson Ethan has a terrific dad and a terrific mom and so I just get to enjoy him.
LIPPMANBut all of a sudden, I'm a parent and the thing that occurred to me is that being a parent was like trying to be a pitcher pitching a perfect game every day for the rest of your life. You just know you can't sustain it. You can't get up and make every day perfect. It's a little easier in the beginning. The needs are smaller. It's like, okay, I just have to feed her on schedule.
LIPPMANEverything's okay. And I just -- I was overwhelmed with this knowledge and it really did change the book in some ways, in particular, I'll site the father of the Halloran boys, Tim, Sr. And it gave me insight into the fact that while from the outside, we see this angry man, in his heart of hearts, he wants to be the best dad in the world. He doesn't want to be angry all the time, he doesn't want to yell at his kids for making mistakes, even though he wants them to be tough and manly.
LIPPMANHe has some, you know -- well, they're really not old fashioned ideas at the time for a man of his generation and when he grew up. And being a former Marine, they make sense. I mean, he worships John Wayne, as it comes out in the book. I saw them all differently, though, every single parent in that book and there are five kids and we see their world from their point of view.
LIPPMANAnd of the parents, five of the parents are represented. Again, you know, Mickey's biological father is dead and we never really see what her stepfather thinks about anything or her defactive stepfather. But the five parents were given their point of view and I felt like it took forever to write those 10 chapters. I feel like I'm still writing them (laugh).
REHMLaura Lippman and the new novel is titled "The Most Dangerous Thing." You open this novel with the death of one of the five friends. It's a curious way to begin a novel. Why?
LIPPMANI think, in part, I was attracted to the risk. I mean, one of the challenges for people who write crime novels is that if people don't care about the people who die in your books, it's a pretty low stakes games. It's more of a game. It's almost -- it doesn't resonate. And so if you kill someone in the first chapter, you have to spend the rest of the book making it clear how this person mattered.
LIPPMANWho was he? And you can only do it through the other characters. Luckily, the other characters have a lot to say about Go-Go, who he was and who he became. When I turned the book in, my editor-- I've had the great fortune to work with the same editor my entire career. So I'm really lucky to work with Carrie Feron at Morrow Books. She said, you know, everybody knows a Go-Go, which is the child nickname of -- and I hadn't thought about that.
LIPPMANAnd it's true and something very sobering is about a month ago, someone I knew from summer camp, someone I hadn't been in touch with for a long time, but had seen here and there because my summer camp has reunions, he committed suicide.
LIPPMANAnd I thought, yes, Carrie was right. Everybody knows a Go-Go.
REHMAnd we're not clear whether Go-Go has, in fact, committed suicide.
LIPPMANIt's not clear. I'm not sure it's ever clear in the book. There's a lot -- I write for really -- you know, mystery readers read three to five books a week.
LIPPMANYeah, the really hardcore and I know a lot of them and they're smart. They've read more than I have. They know more variations on the famous plots of mystery than I ever will. So once I kind of came to that realization, it's, like, okay, I'm writing for people who, in some ways, are smarter than I am, who can see things coming a long way.
LIPPMANIt made me think of a couple of things and one thing is, I do like to leave things that are up to individual readers to decide. I mean, you know, I'm only half the book. I mean, I have my version of the book, but the book doesn't really exist until someone picks it up and reads it. And people sometimes read books very differently.
LIPPMANThey have different favorite characters, they have different favorite scenes. They have different opinions about what happened and I find that exciting. I like to leave some things. I'd like -- you know, I'd love to have a group of my diehard readers argue about whether or not Go-Go committed suicide.
REHMAnd of course, you do go to book clubs, don't you?
LIPPMANYes, (laugh) I do.
REHMLaura Lippman and the novel we're talking about is titled "The Most Dangerous Thing." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." When you think about those readers, I mean, you can see them because you do go to book clubs.
LIPPMANI go to book clubs and I also -- I spend a lot of time going to conferences. Mystery fans -- mystery writers are so lucky because we have these fans that like us so much, they want to spend time with us. And there's a huge fan run by volunteers, run by readers (unintelligible) convention every fall called Bouchercon. It was named for Anthony Boucher, who was -- it was a pseudonym of a critic who championed mysteries and it moves around. This year's it'll be in St. Louis.
LIPPMANI've spent time with a lot of my readers. I'm friends with them. I've dedicated a book to two of my, like, you know, early readers who were really big supporters. And one of the things that's interesting is, as I said, they're really smart. So at some point in my writing life, I decided, I'm going to make them do some of the heavy lifting. And I think I've gotten fairly adept at I know what details will distract them.
LIPPMANAnd I know what to put in front of them to make -- it's almost like a magician trick. Like, oh, look at this, look at this character. Oh, yeah, and -- but they're smart, so you can't put it right in front of them, so you put it off sort of to the left and they're, like, ah. And then you can put things right in front of them and they'll say, well, that's too obvious, that can't possibly be it and it's really -- it's...
LIPPMAN...it's truly interactive.
LIPPMANI mean, I really -- I know that I'm writing for a reader and that the reader's going to be picking through the text and looking for clues and I also think, you know, in terms of fair play, that means that when I write a crime novel, it should be solvable by the really intent reader. Like, if someone wants to sit there and take notes and look at all the clues and use a legal pad, everything they need to know is on the page.
REHMBut there are those who would say that the line between a mystery and a novel is quite wide. How do you see it?
LIPPMANWell, you know, I've been fortunate enough to receive very nice reviews in my career and sometimes people will use this phrase, it's a very controversial phrase in the crime world of transcending the genre. It's a compliment -- or meant to be a compliment. So what I choose to say to that is, well, I have kind of a different image in mind because if we transcend the genre, that means that the genre is necessarily lower in a hierarchy than the literary novel.
LIPPMANAnd I think it's much more interesting to think about current fiction as a map of not very well-defined territories. And a lot of the most interesting stuff is happening at the borders of these territories where people are pressing forward from all different sides. There's the work of Richard Price and Daniel Woodrell, are two literary writers who have pushed toward crime fiction. I do not consider them crime novelists, but they're certainly interested in crime fiction. Daniel Woodrell is actually going to come to Bouchercon this fall because he knows he has a fan base among crime writers.
LIPPMANThere's the writer Kate Atkinson, who I don't even know how to classify other than to say she's one of my favorite writers of all time. And, you know, a credentialed literary writer with big awards who decided I'm going to write PI novels. She writes PI novels like no one else. So I know people -- I never claim this for myself, by the way. I'm not someone who sits there and says, you must take me seriously as a literary writer.
LIPPMANI am a crime novelist, I'll probably always be a crime novelist, but it's a big territory and I like to roam around in it. But certainly, I feel like my friends, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, they've headed out for the borders. They're doing very interesting work and I can't say how it's different from a literary novel.
REHMHow about somebody like Scott Turow?
LIPPMANScott Turow is fascinating because, again, he's almost like Kate Atkinson in that he's one of a kind. And it's interesting because when "Presumed Innocent" came out, and it was such a sensation, and it was a page-turner, but here's a guy, he's got an MFA. I mean, I think he got it from Stanford and then went to Harvard...
LIPPMAN...to get his law degree.
LIPPMANYou know, he clearly has a very literary influences -- you know, it's just -- he's unclassifiable. He's one of a kind.
REHMLaura Lippman, she, too, is one of a kind. Her newest novel titled "The Most Dangerous Thing."
REHMAnd I know many of you would like to speak with Laura Lippman. Here's an e-mail from Patty who says, "I've been doing a lot of day trips in Maryland and Virginia this summer in lieu of an actual vacation and there is nothing like a Laura Lippman book in the car CD player to make the miles zip along. It was especially fun to listen to "The Last Place," in which Tess and Carl drive around Maryland and Virginia, as I did the same." Isn't that great?
LIPPMANThat is great. It's a pretty dark book to take a long on what's your substitute vacation, but it is quite the travel log of Maryland.
REHMHere's what I want to ask you about and that's The Power of Secrets, which these kids, these five kids, who wander off into the woods and, sort of, adopted as their play place. There is a secret and it changes all their lives.
LIPPMANYes. I -- my poor memory now is nagging me to try to remember. Some writer has a beautiful line about -- well, actually, I'm misremembering something, I'm thinking of a line from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love," about how a letter made someone feel -- did all the things a letter should do, made him feel good and strong. I think secrets are important to kids.
LIPPMANYou know, I think, they're -- it's, like, you feel so naked in front of your parents, that they know everything about you, that, you know -- and I think, secrets give you power and one of the things that fascinates me about kids and the reason I write about them so much, is that they have very limited access to power and kids don't get to make a lot of decisions and...
LIPPMAN...so they're -- they begin experimenting with it and they're often not good at it, you know, they're not good at having power or how they use it or how they treat other people, so I wanted to write about that. This book has a very unlikely inspiration, which was, I was sitting, trying to come up with the idea for my next novel, it's my job, it's what I do, I don't romanticize it. And what I do is I think, okay, what am I interested in right now? What do I love?
LIPPMANI started thinking about "Great Expectations" and Magwitch and the idea of this person that you meet that scares you so might become your benefactor in some way or might be different from what you expect. I then began thinking about this pretty well-used template about young people with a secret that comes back to haunt them many years later.
LIPPMANIt's been used by everyone from Lois Duncan in "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to Val McDermid to a writer named Kevin Wignall. And then I began thinking about the film "A Nightmare on Elm Street," it's a horror film. And Wes Craven, I think, actually went to the writing program at Johns Hopkins University and came out of a fiction sensibility. And I thought, you know, that's an interesting movie, because Freddy Krueger prays on the children of the people who killed him.
LIPPMANHe doesn't come back and try to get revenge on the lynch mob that killed him for being a sexual predator, he knows that he can hurt them much more through their children. And I was, like, so I'm thinking about, so you have a group of kids with a secret. And then I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if the parents had a secret, too? And that -- so the idea of these two parallel secrets tragically never intersecting until it's way too late to help anyone.
REHMAnd what you do is write several chapters from the perspective of the children themselves and then you switch voices and go and tell the story from the parents' perspective.
LIPPMANRight. Then those are those 10 chapters I talked about that were so hard to write and did change because I became a parent and, you know, it sounds strange to say this as a novelist, I was often surprised writing those chapters. Now, I think -- and I include myself in this, I feel that I've been dreadfully incurious about my own parents' lives sometimes, that instead of asking them directly, why did this happen or why did that happen, my tendency has been to make up a narrative and I don't know why that is. I was -- just spent a week over in Delaware where my parents live, near the beach, and I asked my mother for the first time how she and my father met...
LIPPMAN...because I didn't remember and I didn't know that story. I knew other stories. I mean, I knew the story and loved the story that they met at Emory University in Atlanta and my father had returned to school from the Navy and my mother was working as a secretary for a Dean, but she was also taking classes. They actually met in a class, but the story I always remember is that when my mother said she was engaged to my father, that one of the Deans pulled his personal record and used it to try to dissuade her (laugh). He's, like, you can't marry him, look at this, look at that. But luckily, she ignored that advice.
REHMAll right. We've got some callers waiting, so we'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850 and the only thing I want to add to what you've just said is to tell people not to wait too long before asking their parents those questions. My mother and father both died when I was 19 and I never asked those questions. Let's go to Kearneysville, W.Va. Good morning, Pete, you're on the air.
PETEGood morning, Diane, and thank you for taking my call.
PETEI'm a long time reader of Ms. Lippman's work and enjoy it intensely. And this is a really light-weight question, but you use, in your work, the term a police all the time. Is that a specifically Baltimore usage? 'Cause it always sort of catches me up short when I see it.
LIPPMANIt's funny and it's something I've been asked about a lot. Yes, a police is what a Baltimore City detective would call himself. He's a police -- if he's a homicide detective, he's a murder police. This might be dying out. If I were to write a police character in a book in the near future, I might check to see if this particular piece of the vernacular still exists and I have to -- you know, I have to trust the source of this, because the source of this is my husband, David Simon, who wrote the book "Homicide."
LIPPMANAnd it's throughout the book "Homicide." Interestingly, it's used in the Martin Amos book "Night Train," which was his go at the police procedural that just, I think, John Updike's -- the top of his head almost went off. He was, like, what is this a police? It is what they say, I don't know why it's what they say. I would probably -- you know, my affection for this has driven this question a lot, I hear it all the time, but it is what they call themselves.
PETEGreat. Thank you very much and I am a fan.
REHMAnd the interesting point in your book is that these kids don't even share the secrets with each other.
LIPPMANNo, especially among the three brothers, they're a lot of secrets. And again, it's very sad and there are tragic consequences as a result that even among the three brothers, there's a rivalry. And there's a sense of the -- there's Tim Jr., Sean and Go-go and Sean is always held forward as the perfect one.
LIPPMANAnd I think one character -- I don’t know if it's -- I think it's his older brother, it occurs to him that late in the book, he's the one who takes care of their mother, he's the one who stayed in Baltimore and yet the myth goes on that Sean is the good son, is the perfect one. And he's so much a better person than Sean is, actually, by the time they're adults.
REHMWhat about the private investigator, Tess Monaghan? She makes a brief appearance in this book. Talk about her and whether you feel as though you want to continue to write with her?
LIPPMANYeah, I knew pretty early on in this book that a private investigator would play a small but pivotal role and that the investigator would do something that I understood that while it is something that private investigators do, and I checked this with a friend who is a P.I. and a novelist, it's unsavory. It's not unethical, but it's something that will disturb people to think about private eyes doing this.
LIPPMANAnd my friend said, oh, no, absolutely people -- people do this. And I -- so I'm thinking, well, the P.I. should be unsavory. And then I thought, well, that's a bit hypocritical, isn't it? I've been writing all these novels about a private investigator, I've always acknowledged how uncomfortable she is to do divorce work, for example. She hates it and when she's flushed, she doesn't take it on.
LIPPMANAnd I always think -- I like to tweak ideas a lot. And I thought, isn't it more interesting when a likable person has to do something that's somewhat disturbing? And doesn't it ground it in a way? And when Gwen, who is the one who feels most compelled to investigate the circumstances of Go-go's death and whether it is connected to what happened to them as children, when Gwen goes to meet Tess Monaghan, it's a bit of a doppelganger thing going on.
LIPPMANShe's meeting a woman, you know, not that much younger than she is who has a small child and Gwen has a young child. And so it grounds her in a way that I think was much more interesting than if we had the -- you know, the guy who needed a shave who, you know, clearly didn't care who he hurt.
REHM...and drinks at his desk. Will you continue to write about her?
LIPPMANYes, I think I will continue to write about Tess. I have really been struggling, trying to figure out how to write about a female private eye with a small child.
REHMWith a child.
LIPPMANIt changes everything and I knew when I did that, I knew it would change everything. I didn't know just how challenging it would be to figure out what -- I'm still working on that. I'm still trying to figure out how that works because I think it will drive readers crazy if Tess takes the same kind of risk that she used to take. Crime novels do require that the main characters take a certain amount of risk.
REHMAll right. To Maryanne, Houston, Texas. Good morning to you.
MARYANNEGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
MARYANNEI have a question. I have a family member -- I can't say too much, my family member is in her 40s and doesn't know who her real father is to this day. Her entire life has been shrouded in mystery and denial and all kinds of, I mean, truth stranger than fiction stories. And my question is, her whole past is a mystery to her. She doesn't feel comfortable when we talk -- when my sisters and I talk about our past, we know every detail of everything that ever happened to us.
MARYANNEShe doesn't have the same freedom with her own mother and her own family and is visibly uncomfortable whenever things come up about her past because she just doesn't know and she's terrified of asking because I guess it's just -- her whole life has been locked into denial and lies. So my question is, I guess, how, you know, at this stage of the game, in your 40s, can you really have a sense of self when you don't really know what your past is?
LIPPMANIt's an interesting question and one I'm not equipped to answer for your relative. I'm -- what I tend to think about is -- and I actually wrote an entire novel a couple years ago, is what if the one thing you know about yourself turns out to be a lie? And I'm fascinated by memory. I've been fascinated by memory for a long time. I've been, you know, running a blog called "The Memory Project," which you can find through my website.
LIPPMANBecause I have just come to understand that I walk around every day with these really hard set memories, some of which are false. I mean, I've had that experience of finding out things that I absolutely know are true, aren't and so...
REHMGive me an example.
LIPPMANWell, shoot, the best example belongs to my husband and he asked me not to tell the story anymore, not because it embarrasses him, but because it belongs to him, which is, you know, one of the things that happens when two writers cohabitate, they become very territorial about their material. I think, you know, the story that I would tell about my own memory betraying me is that recently when, you know, talking to my sister and my mother realizing we all would have little different pieces of the story.
LIPPMANAnd I'll tell you one way my memory really tripped me up. I have ancestors who were slaveholders, which is a very painful knowledge. I don't know how else to put it. And back when I was a reporter, I was assigned to interview Edward Ball who wrote "Slaves In The Family." And he wrote that every family descendant from slaveholders has to tell themselves one essential lie and it varies from family to family.
LIPPMANAnd the essential lie in my family is we were nice to our slaves. And he, you know, wrote this marvelous book that indicated, well, they weren't that nice. So I went to my mother and I -- in our family, the -- or in my mind, I can't blame my family, but in my mind, the lie was, well, but they didn't have many slaves. My mother's a bit of an amateur historian, genealogist and she'd done the census.
LIPPMANMy family owned 40 slaves, that's a lot. That's not just two people working in a household. And, by the way, it's bad enough -- it's bad enough that there were two people working in the household, but to look at those -- and I actually -- my mother wrote this out for me, the census numbers, I guess, they're from 1850 and they're in my mother's handwriting. And I put them in my daybook because I wanted to be reminded on a regular basis of this piece of my families past.
LIPPMANIt's immensely painful. I don't know how to talk about it in any other way and it's something that informed me as a crime novelist, there come these points in your life where everyone wants to think of himself as a good guy, you know, we're all want to be the heroes. And then sometimes you butt into this version of yourself or butt into this version of your ancestors, in my case, where it's, like, yikes, what do I do with that? And a lot of what I've been writing has been about these moments for people, butt into that version of themselves and they're, like, I might not be the good guy here.
REHMHow did your mother feel about that discovery?
LIPPMANYou know, I haven't asked her directly how she felt about it. I think, you know, she's very clear-eyed. She's, you know, a librarian by training. She deals with facts and she'd rather know than not know.
REHMLaura Lippman, her newest novel is titled "The Most Dangerous Thing." Congratulations.
LIPPMANThank you. And thank you so much for this lovely conversation.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all, I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”