Mystery writer Laura Lippman

Best-selling mystery writer discusses how the notion of keeping secrets plays out in her latest book and in real life.

Laura Lippman has been called one of the best mystery/thriller writers in America today. Known for her Baltimore-based series featuring reporter-turned-PI Tess Monaghan, she's not only familiar with the setting—having been raised in the Maryland city—but also knows something about changing careers. Lippman was a reporter for 20 years, 12 of them at The Baltimore Sun, during which time she began writing novels. She's since won virtually every major award given to U.S. crime writers. Her latest is the non-series novel I'd Know You Anywhere.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Laura Lippmann is an acclaimed best-selling novelist whose many notable books include “What the Dead Know” and her popular Tess Monaghan series. Her latest has been receiving terrific reviews. It’s called “I’d Know You Anywhere.” Laura, I’d know you anywhere, and it’s nice to have you on the program.
Laura Lippmann: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Tavis: Tell me why the title, “I’d Know You Anywhere,” then we’ll get into the story.
Lippmann: Well, if you think about it, that’s usually a very nice phrase – I’d know you anywhere. But in the context of this story it’s used in a very chilling way because it’s used by a woman’s former captor. He’s seen her photograph almost 25 years after the crime of kidnapping and raping her, and he’s written, “I’d know you anywhere.”
This is a book about in some ways the obligations, of any, of intimacy, because whatever transpired between the kidnapper and his captive all those years ago, he knows her and she knows him. She in some ways understands him better than anyone ever has or ever will, and the question for her is whether that’s an obligation, whether she has to do anything about it or whether she can just ignore him and avoid him and hope he’ll go away.
Tavis: There are two questions I want to ask just based now on what you said. One requires unpacking the story line just a little bit more, not so much to give it away.
Lippmann: Okay.
Tavis: But the character’s name is Eliza.
Lippmann: Yes.
Tavis: She was raped and held captive for about six weeks at a much earlier point in her life.
Lippmann: Yes, when she was 15.
Tavis: When she was 15. She’s married now, happily married, has a wonderful life, has kids.
Lippmann: Exactly.
Tavis: And the guy who raped her is about to be put to death.
Lippmann: On death row in Virginia.
Tavis: Absolutely. So when you say – I just had to put that out there to ask this question. When you talk, then, about this phrase which got my attention, “obligations of intimacy,” it raises this for me – whether or not there are, in fact, any obligations when you are caught in a situation like that, and why use the word “intimacy” to describe that kind of situation?
Lippmann: I don’t think there are any obligations, but that’s part of the journey the character has to take. I think within the context of a crime novel we often see people in extraordinary circumstances that we ourselves would not be in. Most of us will never be, thank goodness, somebody’s captive.
But most of us have, in fact, been in a relationship with a family member, a spouse, a friend, where they make us feel as if we have to stand by them because we know them, because we understand them, and that in understanding them we have somehow taken on their burdens.
So I wanted to examine that idea of what does it mean to know someone. I think most of us have had this experience that you’re in the office and they move your desk next to somebody, and while your desk is next to that person you know everything about them. Then one day they move your desk again and you just sort of stop talking to that person and there’s no falling out, there’s no hard feelings, nothing happened.
It’s amazing how much we share with people when we’re in the same space with them for a period of time. It’s just what people do.
Tavis: As we established a moment ago, he’s on death row and before he’s put to death he wants to see her face-to-face to apologize to her.
Lippmann: Or so he says.
Tavis: Or so he says, exactly. I’m trying not to give this away. (Laughter) These crime novels make me walk very gingerly. So he wants to see her face-to-face, so he says, to apologize to her. Again, without giving away where the story goes, help me understand what the character, what one has to go through, then, what Eliza has to go through trying to figure out whether or not she even wants to do this.
Lippmann: Well, the big part of Eliza that’s conflicted about this is the part of her that has kept it a secret. She made a decision back when she was a teenager, and her parents agreed, to not make this part of her life known. She altered her name slightly – she went from being Elizabeth to being Eliza. Since then he’s gotten married, so her name is different still.
As it happens, there are very few people who know about her past and she wants it that way. Among the people who don’t know about her past are her children. This is someone who because of what happened to her there’s no greater gift she can give her children than the feeling that they’re safe and secure in this world, and she doesn’t know how she maintains that if they find out what happened to her.
Yet one of the few people who does know what happened to her is her kidnapper, Walter, and he could find a way to get this information to her children. So this is part of what she’s caught up in.
The other thing that she’s caught up in is this is a man who is known to have killed at least two girls and may have killed others. Eliza is his only living victim and she can’t help wanting to know why, and she feels guilty about wanting to know why.
When you’re lucky, you’re supposed to say, “I’m lucky. Don’t ask why. Don’t question it. Don’t try to think it’s anything special about you.” But boy, is she curious to know why he left her alive when he killed everyone else.
Tavis: What does the journey that Eliza is on say to us? What does it cause us to wrestle with, with regard to the notion of keeping secrets?
Lippmann: I think the journey she’s on is the one to discover the price she has paid for this secret. What has it cost her to wall off her life before the age of 15? Think about any situation you enter socially, professionally – if there are parts of yourself that you have to keep protected, how close can you become to anyone?
She has a wonderful marriage, but her husband knows about what happened to her. She has a great relationship with her parents and an interesting but good relationship with her older sister. What is it costing her to have this part of her life she doesn’t talk about? Is she still on some level Walter’s victim?
Tavis: Is she?
Lippmann: I think so. I think there is something she has to deal with, and one of the greatest challenges, I think, for a novelist is to try to write about a happy person. For all of this, the person we meet in the opening chapters of this book is a pretty happy person.
She’s well-adjusted, she’s made a terrific choice in her marriage, she’s got good kids with normal problems. They’re not perfect, but the things that are going on in her household – she’s really managed to find a great life for herself. That’s no small thing.
I really wanted to write a book in which one could say – we often write books for book clubs. This time I wanted to write a book about a woman who could be in the book club, this woman that you might see at your son’s school or at the grocery store and you’d think, oh, what a lovely person, she’s just like me. Lots of people have secrets.
Tavis: It seems to me, though, that there are some secrets that may be worth keeping, only because when it’s out there, there is the risk that it will change how other people will view you. So this happy life that you’ve created, these wonderful kids that you have, this wonderful husband that you have, all that potentially can change when people know everything about you.
Lippmann: And no one wants to be defined that way. I happened to run into an old friend recently, and I’m going to be a little bit generic because I don’t want the old friend to know I’m talking about her, and there’s something very, very tragic that happened to her family in the time since we’ve seen each other, but it’s been a while and I found myself thinking, don’t talk about that, don’t talk about that, don’t blurt that out.
As large as it was and as sad as it was, that’s certainly not how she defines herself. That’s not how she goes through day-to-day life and it’s been many years. She doesn’t need to have that conversation again. But it is hard. I think Eliza made good choices when she was young, but maybe now it’s time for a different set of choices, and that’s what she has to confront, at least, and ask herself.
Tavis: So this story, which makes it so riveting, is not just about this personal journey that she’s on, whether to open up and tell her family about this, but obviously, since he’s on death row, it raises some pretty serious social questions – the death penalty. That’s more fodder to work with.
Lippmann: Absolutely. I have no problem talking about my feelings about the death penalty. I’m against it. But this novel is not a polemic, and I thought a lot about this.
Most adults do not, through argument, change their minds about anything. There are certain core issues that by the time you’re grown up you’ve earned your view of them and it’s probably going to take some kind of personal experience to change the way you feel.
I had a colleague way back in the day when I was a reporter in San Antonio. He was for the death penalty. Then he witnessed an execution and he wasn’t anymore. But nothing I could have said to him, no words I could have summoned up, would have made him reach that conclusion.
So in a book I’m not going to change anyone’s mind, so the challenge was to be fair to every single point of view. To be fair to the advocate who thinks it’s an awful thing and that you should do anything to keep the state from putting people to death, to the mother of one of the dead girls, who believe fervently that her life can’t be made right until this man is executed.
Between the two of them you have Eliza, who in principle is against the death penalty, but that’s a hard principle to adhere to. I said, I’m adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I think it’s wrong. If it’s wrong to kill, it’s wrong for the state to kill, and I don’t want the state to kill in my name.
Boy, I hope I never have to confront my feelings about the death penalty in any sort of real firsthand experience because I’m scared to find out that maybe I would be crazed for vengeance. I don’t know, and I decided to face up to that when I wrote this book.
Tavis: Only one word to say about this – ooh. (Laughter) I know you can’t wait to get into this one now. It’s the new one from perennial best-selling author Laura Lippmann. It’s called “I’d Know You Anywhere.” A fascinating novel about Eliza, her life and her choices. Laura, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the book.
Lippmann: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Tavis: My pleasure, my pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm