Real Disappearances Are The Premise For Laura Lippman's 'Lady In The Lake'

Jul 25, 2019

Novelist Laura Lippman doesn't say her stories are "ripped from the headlines" — she says they're "inspired by crimes." Inspiration for Lippman's latest crime novel, Lady in the Lake, came from two real-life disappearances in 1960s Baltimore — one a girl, one a young woman, one white, one black. "When I decided to write a novel set in the '60s, I very much wanted to look at these two different deaths, and how differently they had been portrayed in media," she says.

In real life, the deaths were unrelated, but in the book, Lippman ties them together through her protagonist Maddie Schwartz — a beautiful, bored, 37-year-old housewife who decides one day to leave her husband and become a crime reporter.

"I set out simply to write a novel about a woman who wanted to matter — who had these sort of restless, shapeless ambitions and needed to find a place to put them. ..." Lippman explains. "The world in the mid-1960s was filled with women who were thinking, 'I'm not done. This can't be it. I think I would like to do something more with my life.' "


Interview Highlights

On the two Baltimore cases that inspired the story

In 1969, an 11-year-old girl named Esther Lebowitz disappeared, and her body was found a few days later. ... This was in the newspaper at the time and it fascinated me because I was only 10. I don't think I even knew that children could be murder victims before that case.

The other case involved the disappearance of a woman named Shirley Parker, whose body was found in the fountain in the lake at the zoo, and was found only because someone wrote the helpline column asking why the lights were off in the fountain at the zoo. She had been missing for months. The cause of her death could not be determined because of the condition of her body at the time it was found.

Until I went to work at The Baltimore Sun, I never heard about it. Her disappearance was not covered in the daily paper. And when her body was found, it was a story that appeared once or twice and then quickly disappeared.

On mixing fact and fiction

Once I've decided that a real-life crime is going to be my inspiration, I do no more research about it. Because I don't really want to know about that crime. I've been drawn to it because of some sort of thematic possibility. ... It's like, this is the story I want to tell, so I can't be weighed down by what's true.

But I really do find that the tiny details, when you're writing about a historical era, help it to come to life. I spent a lot of time looking at things that aren't central to the book at all. I watched a lot of Dean Martin variety shows on YouTube. I like to look at magazines and study the ads because I feel like ads show us what people aspire to in the moment. ... I read the recipes in The New York Times, and thought about: What would Maddie be looking at? What would she be seeing? What would be of interest to her?

On why she chose to write about Baltimore in the past rather than Baltimore in the present — and why she chose the year 1966 in particular

In 2017, I didn't know how to write about the present. I don't think I was alone in that. It felt to me as if everyone I knew in 2017 was constantly rushing between laptop, or tablet, or phone, and the television, and reporting the latest headline. ... I thought, "I just don't know how to write about this era." Since then, I've read some very fine novels that have sort of shown me the way. But at the time, I felt like it was impossible. So I knew I needed to go into the past. ...

I wanted to write about '66. I decided after looking into it that it was kind of one of the forgotten years of the '60s. People think a lot about '63 — obviously because of the Kennedy assassination, and then there's '68 with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and then people talk a lot about '69. And '66 I think, is seen as sort of this not important year, but I think I found it pretty seminal. To me, it seemed like the hinge between the start of the decade and the end of the decade.

On Maddie being "incurious"

She's moving like a heat seeking missile through a city that's teeming with great human interest stories, and she's only interested in one of them. ... At the end of the book, we see Maddie a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and we see her reflect that she's come to realize that no matter who she was writing about, she was always writing about herself.

There is a lot of ethical turmoil about being someone who writes books inspired by real-life crimes, real-life tragedies. ... I'm trying to be as ethical as I can ... I'm trying to do the right thing. But that doesn't necessarily make it so, does it? - Laura Lippman

That's my great fear. There is a real meta quality to Maddie. There is a lot of ethical turmoil about being someone who writes books inspired by real-life crimes, real-life tragedies. And I like to think that I'm a little more introspective about it than Maddie, that I'm trying to be as ethical as I can, that I'm trying to do the right thing. But that doesn't necessarily make it so, does it?

On working larger issues — about race, income inequality, religion — into her crime novels

If you're writing about a place, you have to be true to the place. I couldn't write about Baltimore and not write about race, that would be insane. That would be not about Baltimore. ...

If you write a great story that compels people to turn the pages ... dayenu: it would have been enough. But why not have more to it if you can? ...

To me, that's the goal every time I sit down to write a crime novel: to see if I can work across those levels. To say, "This is a great story, and I hope if you're paying attention, that I've provided something more than just a great story."

On dedicating the book to the Annapolis Capital Gazette staffers who were killed in the newsroom shooting in June 2018

Rob Hiaasen [assistant editor at The Capital] was one of my best friends at The Baltimore Sun. We sat about three feet from each other. The day I sold my first book, he was the first person who knew about it. And we shared, along with our colleague Lisa Pollak, a very definite sensibility about what kind of journalists we wanted to be. We really liked to write about very quotidian things, ordinary things. We liked to go out and find the story that no one else in the newsroom wanted to write. ...

I happen to believe that Rob and his four colleagues were very much victims of a coarsened rhetoric aimed at the media in this country. I know that people want to point to the timeline and say that the man who is accused in the shooting had a beef against the newspaper that went far back beyond the term "fake news" and other taunts that have been made — but I believe words matter. I can't do what I do and not think that. I believe that rhetoric matters, and I do believe, in a sense, that Rob and his four colleagues were victims of a terrorist. They were victims in this increasing war against media.

I left newspapers almost 20 years ago. And I love being a novelist, but I am so proud to have been a newspaper reporter. I am so proud of my friends who are still at it, and still working in a really tough climate, and doing amazing, amazing work.

Aubri Juhasz and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the heart of Laura Lippman's new novel are two murders - one a girl, one a young woman; one white, one black - both in 1960s Baltimore. In an author's note - very end of the book, Page 339 - Lippman writes, quote, "The book's small details are largely factual, except when they are not." Laura Lippman's book is "Lady In The Lake," and she joins me now from our member station WYPR in Baltimore.

Laura Lippman, welcome.

LAURA LIPPMAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So let's start with the factual. This pair of murders in your novel were inspired by two real-life cases from 1969?

LIPPMAN: That's correct. I had known about the death of the girl who, in real life, was known as Esther Lebowitz since I was 10 years old. It happened when I was 10 years old. And when you're 10 years old and an 11-year-old girl has gone missing and then found murdered a couple of days later, it makes a big impression on you. And...

KELLY: And this was your town. You grew up in Baltimore.

LIPPMAN: Right. And I was the daughter of a newspaperman. So we got The Baltimore Sun in the morning - The Sun, as it was known then - and in the evening, we got The Evening Sun. And it was solved quickly. It didn't have that much suspense to it. The other case involved the disappearance of a woman named Shirley Parker, whose body was found in the fountain in the lake at the zoo. The cause of her death could not be determined because of the condition of her body at the time it was found. And until I went to work at The Baltimore Sun, I never heard about it.

And when I decided to write a novel set in the '60s, I very much wanted to look at these two different deaths and how different they had been portrayed in media. And I was like, well, what could possibly tie them together? I didn't want to create some huge coincidence. So I thought, well, a woman, an investigator, someone who cared about both deaths could be the thing that connected them.

KELLY: And I will fill in the blanks here just a little bit for people who have not read the book yet. Your protagonist, the woman who investigates, is a woman named Maddie Schwartz, who is this beautiful, bored 37-year-old housewife who decides one day to leave her husband and go be a crime reporter, which left you with the task of writing realistically about a woman in what must have been then very much a man's world - a big-city newsroom in the 1960s. How did you go about doing that?

LIPPMAN: I started by getting in touch with colleagues of my father who were still alive. My own father, who came to work at The Sun in 1965 as an editorial writer, had been gone since December of 2014. I was really interested in the feel of the newsroom. What did it sound like? What did it look like? What did Baltimore look like in 1966? I was here, but I was 7. So I didn't assume I knew anything. I first came into a newsroom when - well, it would have been the late '70s, early '80s in my college internships.

KELLY: Did the newsroom then fill recognizable to you now? I mean, as you nodded to, you worked at The Sun for a dozen years or so. That was your kind of pathway to then writing crime fiction.

LIPPMAN: I think so. I understood the deadlines, and I certainly knew the attitude. The thing that I've been asked about - and it's kind of depressing - and people would say, well, how did you find a way of getting into the mindset of how women were treated in 1966? And I would say, you know, I think that's one of the things that had changed the least (laughter) when I started at newspapers in 1980 (ph).

KELLY: Really? Yeah. You have talked, I've seen, about how a lot of crime novelists are very clever about sneaking issues into their work, and their gender is very much - gender issues on these pages, but also race and religion. Your protagonist is Jewish, and that's a factor - income inequality. You've got all these big issues pulsing through these pages. Was that intentional? Are you trying to get us to confront stuff that it's hard to talk about in our society today?

LIPPMAN: I think it's been intentional for a while. I think the best crime novelist for a while figured out that the social novel didn't seem to have much traction in literature, so why don't we just go ahead and pick up the pieces of that? And it makes crime fiction better when it has those things going on. And then if you're writing about a place, you have to be true to the place. I can't write about Baltimore and not write about race. That would be insane. That would be not about Baltimore.

KELLY: And that must be what keeps it interesting to you, I imagine. This is your 20-something-th (ph) novel, and you're still going, and something still - you've still got a bee in your bonnet about something you want to get out there on the pages.

LIPPMAN: Oh, yes. I mean, basically, I sit down every year and I think, what am I really, really interested in right now? And I sat down in 2017 and I was interested in 1966. I wasn't particularly thinking about newspapers. But this is where Maddie belonged. I never set out to do this. I set out simply to write a novel about a woman who wanted to matter. And I think that was very much a story of that time.

And my own mother, she went back to school about this time, and she decided to become a librarian. I think the world in the mid-1960s was filled with women who were thinking, this can't be it; I think I would like to do something more with my life.

KELLY: Speaking of newspapers, you dedicate the book to the five staffers of the Capital Gazette who were killed in the newsroom shooting last summer in Annapolis. And you write about the timing of that, that you had just turned in the first draft of "Lady In The Lake," and the very next day, that shooting happened. I wondered why it was important to you to honor them that way, to dedicate the book to those five?

LIPPMAN: Rob Hiaasen was one of my best friends at The Baltimore Sun. We sat about three feet from each other. The day I sold my first book, he was the first person who knew about it. I was in my car, headed to the beach town where my mother lives, and I had just crossed the Bay Bridge, stopped for lunch with my daughter. And I called my mom to say that we were about 90 minutes away.

KELLY: Yeah.

LIPPMAN: And she said, oh, I thought you might get slowed down in Annapolis; there was a shooting. And I said, oh, where? And in that split second before she told me, I was so careless, so numb, so accepting of this reality that there are shootings. And then she said it was at the newspaper, not knowing that Rob worked there.

I happen to believe that Rob and his four colleagues were very much victims of a coarsened rhetoric aimed at the media in this country. I believe words matter. I can't do what I do and not think that. I left newspapers almost 20 years ago. And I love being a novelist, but I am so proud to have been a newspaper reporter, and I am so proud of my friends who are still at it and still working in a really tough climate and doing amazing, amazing work. And I don't want to see anything thwart that or get in its way.

KELLY: I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend, of your friend Rob. Laura Lippman, thank you

LIPPMAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Laura Lippman. Her new book is titled "Lady In The Lake."

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