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Laura Lippman on facing the villain in the mirror

Novelist Laura Lippman has published a new essay collection, "My Life as a Villainess."
(Lesley Unruh)

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Laura Lippman is the author of some two dozen crime novels, 12 in the Tess Monaghan series and an equal number of stand-alone thrillers. Along the way, the former Baltimore Sun reporter has won every major U.S. mystery award. Why interrupt the flow of that career to publish a book of essays? During a candid phone conversation shortly before the release of “My Life as a Villainess,” collecting recently published essays along with several new pieces, Lippman’s answers revealed as much about book publishing as they did about the author’s penchant for compelling and clever self-interrogation.

“Increasingly, the marketing strategy for fiction writers is [for publishers to ask], ‘Do you think you can write some nonfiction and place them on some blogs and magazines?’” she says. Instead of resisting on the grounds that her fiction speaks well enough for itself, Lippman leaned into the same impulse. Admiring younger novelists who approach book publicity “almost like a military strategy,” she reached out to several of them, including Jami Attenberg and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, to help refine her pitches. Notwithstanding some writers (themselves essayists) loudly proclaiming the end of the online essay boom, Lippman found herself becoming a champion of a grand tradition.

At 61, Lippman’s clear-eyed assessment of aging puts “My Life as a Villainess” on the same shelf as Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” Lippman references Ephron, the celebrated essayist and filmmaker whom she calls “the gold standard” of essay writing, in a couple of her own pieces. But where Ephron, who died in 2012, advised women that the expiration date on their bikini wearing is about 34 years, Lippman is both more affirming and more profane: “What would happen to the global economy,” she writes in “The Whole 60,” “if all the women on the planet suddenly decided: I don’t care if you think I’m —able?” Another truth comes by way of Susie Orbach’s “Fat is a Feminist Issue”: “Eat what you want when you want.”

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In the laugh-out-loud “Game of Crones,” Lippman writes of becoming a mother at the not-so-tender age of 51. With 15 novels under her belt by then, you’d think she wouldn’t be concerned about motherhood cutting into her work. You would be wrong. She worried it might be a “career-ender ... [T]he small coterie of crime writers with young children did end up slowing down their output if they were women.” But Lippman, who had just published her first New York Times bestseller, was undeterred.

A book jacket for "My Life as a Villainess," by Laura Lippman.
(William Morrow)

In the new essay “Natural Selection,” Lippman addresses menopause. “I don’t know why people think there’s a conspiracy theory about coronavirus,” she jokes in our conversation. “I’m telling you, the information that’s being suppressed is the information about menopause.” Did you know, for example, that this phase of life only occurs in humans and a handful of whale species? Now you do. Lippman also writes of midlife icons Madonna and Jennifer Lopez as well as her own journey of self-care — breaking taboos, she believes, simply by saying the “M” word. “I feel like men don’t want to hear about this, they find it icky,” she says. “But it feels great to say the word ‘menopause’ 30 billion times!”

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In addition to writing about healthy aging and raising her daughter with husband David Simon, the prolific showrunner she met when both worked at the Baltimore Sun, Lippman examines her past and present — deconstructing a friendship gone awry, the breakup of her first marriage, and her blind spots as a cub reporter in Texas. There’s an undercurrent of accepting culpability, of being (per the title) the self-identified villainess in her life.

In light of today’s reassessments of institutional racism, an essay that resonated for me was “The Waco Kid,” wherein Lippman takes herself to task for not knowing that the city was the site of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history.

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The Waco Horror, so dubbed in a seminal 1916 essay by W.E.B. DuBois, was not spoken of when Lippman lived in “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” “How crazy was it that, as a young reporter, I came to Waco in the 1980s and heard all about a 1953 tornado there,” she says, “but I never heard about the fact that in the 20th century McLennan County had the second highest number of lynchings in the state.” Lippman, a lifelong Southerner born in Atlanta and raised in and around Baltimore, never wrote about the Waco Horror while at the city’s Tribune-Herald, but on a trip to Waco in 2019, she made the connection between her youthful naiveté and more personal demons — including petty theft and troubling relationships with food.

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“When you live in places where there is explicit racism and otherism,” she writes, “it’s super-easy to feel great about yourself, to postpone some essential introspection. In my twenties, I believed that I could say and do certain things as long as I did it all with a kind of ironic self-awareness. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.”

Lippman’s memories and regrets over Waco led us to talk of Baltimore, which she came to know intimately when she returned in 1989 to cover crime and other beats for the Sun. (She left the paper to write full time in 2001.) I asked what she makes of recent politicized lamentations over cities like Baltimore, where murders have been trending higher than in 2019, itself a record year. “I can’t imagine living any place but the city,” she declares. “I’m certainly not someone who wants to run away to the suburbs or the countryside.” Yet she acknowledges that the relationship between Baltimore’s Black citizens and police is fraught.

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“It’s been five years since Freddie Gray’s death” at the hands of Baltimore police, she says. “So I think the memory of that is still fresh. But we still haven’t solved the issue of policing in our communities. When people start talking about defunding the police, that to me is a really complicated conversation when you live in a place like Baltimore. Part of the reason crime is up in Baltimore is because, in the wake of Freddie Gray, police officers don’t want to get out of their cars anymore … I believe there’s a way to police cities that makes them safer and that’s not happening in Baltimore right now.”

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Lippman’s honest assessment of the situation is a keen reminder that the former reporter, whose novels are often based on real events, is hardly a newcomer to nonfiction and its uncomfortable truths. But as she prepares for a digital tour of “Villainess,” she is back to working on fiction, finishing a stand-alone novel. That is, when she isn’t busy home-schooling her daughter, now 10, working out with a virtual trainer and finding creative ways of coping with the pandemic.

For a time, she posted photos of herself on social media in pre-pandemic dress-up clothes — an antidote to the sartorial lassitude of quarantine. She also enjoys regular family movie nights, and is excited about her next pick, John Boorman’s classic, “Hope and Glory,” which offers a child’s-eye perspective on the Blitz in WWII London. “I want my daughter to understand that people have been through really intense stuff in the world and that we are going to be OK,” she explains. “I think kids don’t understand that they’ll get through this. And so I want her to see that, yeah, it’s a bitch and it’s a shame, but it will end.”


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