Laura Lippman, SEASONAL WORK

Laura Lippman, SEASONAL WORK

Zibby is joined by journalist and New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman to talk about her story collection, Seasonal Work. The two discuss the combination of people and things that inspired the book’s novella, which centers around dating apps, as well as their respective relationships with social media. Laura also shares whether or not she gets scared in her daily life given the darkness that comes with writing crime novels, her stances on sharing writing for free and why she is not precious about physical books, and how a podcast inspired the next book she is working on.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laura. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest collection of short stories and novella, Seasonal Work.

Laura Lippman: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure.

Zibby: I was kind of obsessed with seeing the interior of a ballroom with all book pages plastered on. Did you actually see this image in real life? Is this a fantasy? How can we recreate this?

Laura: It’s a fantasy. The closest I’ve ever come to that, and it was done long after I wrote the short story, is last year — was it last year? At some point during the pandemic — who knows what time is anymore. I must have taken proof pages — actually, maybe I took an actual book. I took My Life as a Villainess and I cut it up. I decoupaged a lampshade. That’s in the guest room at my office around the corner. That’s the closest I’ve come to doing anything like that. It was a fantasy. I think book people, it’s possible to love books as books and to love them also as objects. I know that I do. I’m looking at your beautiful room behind you where the books are arrayed by color. That’s so gorgeous. Books are beautiful. That short story, The Book Thing, is literally a contemplation on, is it the book, or is it about what’s in the book? Can you love both? I think I come down on the side of, you can love both. I don’t get upset when I see someone on social media has made an art object out of a book. I don’t feel like that is a travesty. Heck, there are books all over the place that are being badly treated right now. Turning one into an art object seems to me to be a — it’s not like the book is then taken forever out of circulation.

There’s so many ways to read right now. As a published writer, if someone says, I’m getting your book out of the library, do you mind? I’m like, no, the library paid for it. I don’t mind if you get it out of the library. I don’t mind if you borrow it from a friend. I don’t mind if you found it in a little free library. The only thing I mind as a writer is out-and-out piracy. I don’t approve of that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t care how my books get into people’s hands. I don’t care how people treat my books. I’m literally reading a book where, last night, the front cover fell off. It’s a very old book. I’m actually reading the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee for the first time. I thought I had read it, but I clearly never had. It’s a really old, true pocketbook paperback. The cover just fell off. That happens. Books are old. I read in the bathtub. I’m not precious about books. I collected first editions for a while. I stopped because that seemed odd to me to have a book that I would ever worry about taking off the shelf. I’m glad for the ones that I have. Some of them are very dear to me. Then it was like I kind of grew out of that idea. An idea of a book that can’t be held and opened, that’s crazy to me.

Zibby: Yeah, or you have to put gloves on or something to turn the pages, some of these art books. I have two books that a friend of mine gave me. I think it was my twenty-first birthday. It was some birthday of import, but we were really young. I treat those two books — they’re right over there in the brown section. Where’s the brown? I have never lost them no matter how many moves, no matter where I’ve gone in my life. I’m like, these two books that this guy gave me — I wonder if he knows. I see him, still, all the time. I should tell him I still have those books. There is something special —

Laura: — Can you share the titles?

Zibby: Yeah. They’re psychology-related because I was very into psychology. I wanted to be a psychologist back then. Hold on, I’m going to go grab them. This one. Where’s the other one? Of course, now I told you, I can’t find the other one. Well, I have one. Hold on, maybe it’s in the other brown section. Here.

Laura: Oh, that’s so cool.

Zibby: This one is How to Read Character: A Handbook of Physiology, Phrenology, and Physiognomy; Illustrated with a Descriptive Chart. Look how old this is.

Laura: I had a feeling. When you hear phrenology, you realize you’re talking about an older book.

Zibby: Look at this. Yeah, twenty-one. “Zib, hope this book never –” Sorry, this is so off topic. “Hope this book serves as a good lesson in bad psychology. Congratulations on twenty-one.” This is from 8/22/1997. This has come with me everywhere. Then this other one from the Northwestern Library, The Harp Weaver and Other Poems. This is interesting. It’s used.

Laura: Is it one poet, or is it a collection of poetry?

Zibby: It looks like — hold on. This is The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. What is this? And Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Laura: Oh, I should’ve known it was — I don’t know my poetry.

Zibby: This one, I seem to have really responded to in some way because I’ve written all over it, or someone wrote all over it, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. I wonder why. I’m going to read this after this. Oh, my gosh, it was taken out of the Northwestern University Library on July 22nd, 1938. Copyright 1920. Pretty cool.

Laura: Very cool.

Zibby: Of course, the reason I asked you about this is this is a scene in one of the stories that I found so interesting. The whole story was like a love letter to books in and of itself. If you steal a book, what does that mean about you? Who would want to steal a book? Why? What does it mean to free the insides of the book? I found that really interesting too. Can the characters be freed? Should they be out? It’s just all such an interesting concept. Of course, you made it in your traditional mystery, uncovering the facts, here I am on my bicycle figuring it out. You’re going along trying to solve the mystery at the same time. I just loved that story.

Laura: Thank you.

Zibby: Was there some walker in your neighborhood that inspired the main character?

Laura: There are a couple of famous walkers in Baltimore. There were people I saw walking all the time. I didn’t know anything about them. Now I’m one of them. That’s kind of the weird thing to contemplate. I don’t think about myself that way. I’ve been getting up now for a year and a half and walking every day at sunrise. Since last December, I’ve been trying to walk at least five miles a day. I’m out there.

Zibby: Wow.

Laura: I don’t get the whole five miles done in the morning. That’s not going to be possible. Every morning, I walk at least two to three miles right around sunrise. I see runners. I see dog walkers. I can’t tell if anyone recognizes me as a regular on the route because it’s hard for me. There are a couple of runners I recognize because their gait is so distinctive. I can recognize the dog walkers by the dogs. We’re all so bundled up right now that that’s about the best I can do. I’m sure someone’s like, who’s that odd woman who’s always stalking around the harbor taking photographs of the Domino Sugars sign? What’s that about?

Zibby: Don’t you get scared? Your whole work is, what if? Do you get scared on your own? I get scared sometimes.

Laura: I got scared this morning because it was relatively early and relatively dark. There was a man whose movements seemed to be changing as mine changed. I think it was all innocuous. Nothing happened. I’m pretty careful. I know where I go to feel safe. There are almost always people out. I actually make a running joke on social media about seeing white vans on the route, which just seems like the ultimate kidnapping van. I won’t go anywhere near a white van. One day, there was a white van parked with the motor running. It was between me and a beautiful vantage point for which I wanted to take a photograph. I’m like, no. If I have to walk around a white van to get somewhere, I’m not going.

Zibby: I dated someone who drove a white van at one point. He came to visit my family outside of the city once. Everyone was like, what’s going on here? What?

Laura: White panel van, you got to be careful.

Zibby: So funny, oh, my gosh. I dogeared so much of this story, for the first story, but let’s talk about — I also loved your last story, Just One More. Why don’t you talk about the inspiration for that? Which of course, is what goes wrong when you and your husband get bored and decide to play on dating apps, basically.

Laura: With the exception of that story, all the other stories in the collection had been written and published previously, some in very obscure places. They had been written from, I think it was 2007 through 2019. That was the lifespan of the other stories. Then when my publisher agreed to do a collection, they said, “Please write a new almost-novella-length story because everything else has been published before.” I was happy to do that. We were about six months into the pandemic when I started working on that story. It was a hard time to think about anything but our current life, how things were. One of the things that interested me about the pandemic is it already seems to have been mini pandemics. By my estimation, we’re in at least our third era. There was March of 2020 until early 2021. Then as people began to get vaccinated, we entered a different phase. Then with omicron and breakthrough infections, we entered yet another phase. I’m sure there will be phases to come. By the time I started writing Just One More, we were kind of coming to the end of that first phase. Certainly, it had become familiar. There were things that I wanted to touch on, like menu planning and walking. All of the quotidian things in that story are things that I did. I went walking with a friend. In the early days, we would actually talk on our cell phones because no one knew anything. We were on the opposite sides of the street. She’s a doctor who specializes in infectious disease. Everybody was watching a lot of television. I think that’s pretty fair to say.

I’m a huge Columbo fan. When I realized that it was historically accurate, that the Peacock streaming service made all of the Columbo episodes available in April of 2020, I was like, oh, I have to do something with that. As I said, I’m a huge Columbo fan. I own all of the original NBC Columbos on DVD. I’m fascinated by the ones that appeared years later on ABC because I think they’re actually quite bad, but I can’t tell you why. Part of it is because they fiddled with the formula too much. Part of it is that I think they really cut the budget a lot. The thing I love about the NBC Columbos is that the world that you move through really does look like super rich people, in the restaurants, in the homes. All of the details, you’re like, wow, these people are rich. It doesn’t feel that way when you get into the ones that they made for ABC in the late eighties into the nineties. I forget. I was surprised at how relatively recent the last Columbo was. I love Columbo. I love the idea of trying to write about the pandemic. If you watched certain channels on TV — I watch a lot of Bravo. I watch a lot of Lifetime. Not embarrassed.

You see these ads for dating apps all the time. I have a lot of young friends. They’re on the apps. This was just a completely foreign world to me that I didn’t know anything about. I was fascinated by that too. I’m always interested in hubris, the hubris of the happily married couple. On some level, when this couple talks about, “Let’s try out an app and see if it matches us,” and comes up with the rules of the game so it won’t be too easy, how hubristic is that? It’s kind of smug, exactly as in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the smug marrieds. They’re doubly smug because in the pandemic, it’s a really hard time to be alone. I know that because I have a lot of really young friends. I feel like I’m getting bulletins, reports from people in their twenties, people in their thirties, etc. I know about their lives. I find it interesting. I don’t feel the least big smug or hubristic about it. I was actually very touched watching people who were living alone trying to find a way to get through the pandemic that wasn’t too lonely, too scary, that had human companionship that some of us took for granted.

Zibby: Yeah, I know, there’s always this thing with dating apps. There’s no end to possibility. How could that even be? You just keep going. You could just keep going forever. What does that mean?

Laura: There’s no science to it. Later, long after I finished the short story, I read Nancy Jo Sales’ book. I’m very bad about book titles, but I loved her book. Really canny combination of memoir and reporting. When she goes into that section about how there is literally no data that shows that dating apps are effective, that’s so interesting to me. People are just like, well, this is how it’s done now. I’m sort of like, what if you just don’t? I don’t know. It’s not relevant to my life. My daughter and I have just started watching How I Met Your Father. It’s so interesting that since How I Met Your Mother, which was a show that existed in a world, although in ended in 2014, where there was essentially no dating apps — although, they existed at the time, but they’re not really shown in the show. Now you start from the premise that, of course, everybody is on dating apps. That’s not the world I want for my daughter, I have to admit. I hope things change. It probably will change, but not for the better.

Zibby: I have someone I’m very close to who’s on a dating app. With COVID, I feel like she feels safer that way. She can’t go to a big crowd.

Laura: That makes sense.

Zibby: I don’t know where it will end up. I feel like at least for this time, there’s hope. It’s the hope of connection. It does sound like a total game to me, the way you have to play it.

Laura: It’s a variation of Candy Crush. All these things on our phones, what they have in common is what they do to our brain. I say that as someone who is a little bit too into Twitter. I went through a phase where I killed every nonessential app off my phone, and even my Gmail. I remember I was on business. I got to a hotel. They couldn’t find my confirmation number. I was like, I’m going to have to put my — I put my mail back on there. I put Twitter back on there. That’s pretty much it for me. I’m largely disengaged from Facebook. I haven’t shut it down because I reach too many readers there. I keep the account open. I kind of do bare service, minimal service to it. For whatever reason, Instagram is like a language I can’t speak. Even though my Twitter account is extremely media-heavy and people are always like, this should be an Instagram account, I don’t speak it. I don’t scroll it. I’m fascinated by it. I recently listened to Jo Piazza’s wonderful podcast, “Under the Influence,” which is all about mom influencers. It was so interesting to me.

My main takeaway is that the hilarious thing about Twitter is that it can’t be monetized. Maybe a few people. Maybe people with millions of followers might be able to get paid for tweeting about things. Twitter is really the place where you give it away for free. Don Waters, the film director, whom I know, he’s like, no, why would you do that? Why would you give away your writing for free? It’s actually really out of character for me. My father hated writing for free. He instilled in me that same value, which is, you should be paid to write. I just finished a week of teaching a writers’ workshop that I’ve been teaching every year since 2006, the difference being that this year, I taught it virtually. I taught the personal essay for the first time. I talk to my students a lot about trying not to write for free, trying to get people to pay you for your words, however minimally, because they have value. Content is something that people want, so they should be paying for it. You shouldn’t be throwing it out for free. Yet there I am on Twitter every day giving away at least 280 characters a day.

Zibby: I was just listening — I wasn’t really, but I was in the car with my husband who was listening to Colin Cowherd. He’s a big sports talk show guy.

Laura: Yeah, I know who he is.

Zibby: Literally, he was saying yesterday, he’s like, “Whenever I run into people on the street who know who I am, they are the nicest people. They come up to me. They say nice things. They just couldn’t be better. It makes me feel good.” He’s like, “On Twitter, no one’s ever said a nice thing.”

Laura: It’s really interesting because I have managed to live in a relatively benign pocket on Twitter. I can’t quite figure it out. Part of it is that I don’t see tweets by people who don’t follow me, so if you set up your filter that way. That’s not enough because I know so many women who get dogpiled on and who get mansplained all the time. I think it’s because they’re writing about far more serious things than I’m writing about. For example, I’m thinking of one of my friends who is an expert on Ukraine. She just is. She’s young. She’s very young. She’s very beautiful. I think that is part of the reason that men love to dunk on her. How could you know about — dude, she’s an expert. She’s the former disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center. I know it’s not something that the accountholder can really control for. For whatever reason, probably because I never talk about the news and I’m relatively silly, I’ve managed, for the most part, to stay out of people’s firing range. When people are mean to me, I just ignore them. Someone would have to say something so inaccurate or libelous for me to respond. What I always do is, when someone’s being a little jerky, I check their follower account. I usually decide, all I’m doing is amplifying someone who has almost no attention to begin with, and I mute. I don’t even block. I just mute people. I’m not interested. People never know when you mute them. That’s my control.

Zibby: Interesting. I didn’t even know what mute was. I don’t understand Twitter. I do go on there. I don’t read it. I post updates, and then I get right off. I’m scared. I open the door. I feel the cold air. Then I slam it shut, and I run the other way.

Laura: I always tell all writers that when it comes to social media, the one thing you should do is whatever feels natural to you. At one point, my publisher was like, “You know, Instagram is where it is. You should be on Instagram.” I was like, nah. At that point, I said, I’ve gone from Facebook to Twitter. Twitter just works for me. It’s a happy place for me. When it’s not, I’ll leave it. For now, it’s a place that — I’ve made friends. I’ve made tons of friends on Twitter and met them in real life. It’s amazing.

Zibby: I’ve met Instagram friends. I had someone stay over last summer. My kids were like, “I thought we weren’t supposed to meet people on the internet.”

Laura: Except when you are.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so funny. Now I’m going to investigate muting. Thank you for that. I think it’s like working out. People say you should do whatever it is regularly that you actually want to do and will do. Look at you and walking. Someone could tell me to walk five miles a day, and I would just laugh. It’s much easier for me to do a workout on an app or something where I am in one place. I’m glad that all of this inspired this final novella of yours in Seasonal Work. I loved your memoir, My Life as a Villainess, which I read last summer. I remember where I was. Part of the time, it was so hot. I was in a pool. I was holding it like this. I was just walking back and forth, and back and forth holding your book, which was fantastic. This, of course, is coming at a much colder time of year, so I wouldn’t dare. I love your writing. I love how you engage our brains and our senses at the same time. It’s such a treat. Congratulations on this book. I’m just curious, so what after this? What else should I expect?

Laura: I only write short stories when someone asks me to, which is an embarrassing thing to admit. Every story in that collection except for the last one was solicited. It was like, will you write this collection? That’s how it worked. I’m working on a novel. I know it’s going to be finished by the spring, which will mean that I will have been working on it for almost eighteen months, which is a long time for me, but it was a tricky one. It was inspired while I was walking while listening to a podcast. I’m a huge fan of podcasts. When you walk as much as I do, you need a lot to listen to. One of my favorites is called “You’re Wrong About,” which used to have two cohosts, but it’s now, the host is Sarah Marshall. The idea is to take a sensational topic, which is to say, one that was very much in the news at some point, and to examine how much we didn’t really know about it. Sarah Marshall, who’s the host, came into prominence as a person who liked to revisit the stories of difficult women, Tonya Harding being one of the first. One day, I was walking along and I was listening to a podcast that had the title “Prom Mom.” It covered a couple of cases that involved young women who had delivered babies either during or before or approximate to a big dance. The line that jumped out at me — I’m pretty sure Sarah said it. Sarah has since become a friend. Sarah and I have never met face to face. We hope to someday. She lives in Portland, Oregon. I live in Baltimore. We met on Twitter. We began having long phone calls during my walks. Sarah was like, “I’ll come on your walk with you.” I’ve gotten to know her. At the time, I was just one of her many fans.

She said something that I thought was so interesting, which was that when you’re a teenage girl, you don’t know your body at all. It is absolutely completely understandable that a girl could be pregnant, in denial about it, not really know what’s going on. We tend to see these stories through this almost nefarious lens of, cold-hearted, almost sociopathic girl ignores the reality. When Sarah said that, something really clicked in my head. I was really in this idea of a young woman who would just have no real idea of what was happening to her or would be in denial about it. Then I just started reading. I got online and I began reading about some of the more notorious cases. I discovered that in one case, the now-grown woman, now-grown man had met again via Facebook and were friends. That fascinated me, just the idea of, okay, so who are you twenty years after this? Who do you become? Does anyone remember this about you? Can you ever stop being prom mom? That was the book I decided to write. It’s set, maybe inevitably — this is an interesting choice that writers are making right now. Are you going to acknowledge the pandemic or not acknowledge the pandemic? Are you just going to set your work before the pandemic and thereby bypass it? My friend Megan Abbott, who’s one of my favorite writers, we were having this conversation recently. She said, “You know, my work takes place in kind of a timeless universe.” She’s right about that. Megan’s novels take place in a less-specific now where things are like our world, but it’s interesting what’s not there. She can kind of do that. I don’t think I can. I was coming off of having written a novel that took place right before the pandemic. The two novels before that, one was set in 1995. One was set in 1966. I decided just to go ahead and set that against the backdrop of the pandemic. The idea is to remind people that as much as the pandemic and politics and January 6th and these things are in the forefront of the news, they’re not in the forefront of our lives, necessarily. They’re things that we adjust to. It’s very much the backdrop.

The book is pretty solid. The last third needs a ton of work, but I’ve more or less written the book. I was working on the early sections this morning. One of the things I’m trying to do is avoid anything that sounds like foreshadowing when it comes to the pandemic. I want people hurtling through life with the same — especially when they’re in the sections of fall of 2019 or January and February of 2019, I don’t want people to see what’s coming because I didn’t see what was coming. Most of the people I know didn’t. To the extent that I know people who anticipated what this was going to be like, it’s just because they were temperamentally inclined to be wildly pessimistic. I don’t think they were wiser than other people. I just think they were more apt to be downers. As I was going through this morning, as I work on this, I’m being very careful to excise any sentence that suggests a hint of what’s to come. I had a character saying 2020 was going to be a great year. I’m like, no, that’s too on the nose. At the same time, I have a character — this is based on something real. She’s like, “I wonder what numerologists say about 2020.” I found some article in Cosmo that’s like, it’s going to be a great year. I’m interested in the idea that we will see this as backdrop and that people still went ahead and led their lives and still had concerns and preoccupations that the pandemic may have affected, but it’s not the tail that’s wagging the dog. I want this person who I can’t have. I’m trying to make this business venture that looks like it’s not going to go through. People are just moving around motivated by their usual desires and dreams and ambitions, and there happens to be a pandemic. The working title is Prom Mom.

Zibby: I love that. I’m glad you did that because I was thinking that’s a great title for a book. Laura, thank you so much. Thank you for chatting. Now I’m going to just read your stuff on Twitter because I don’t know what to do when I’m on there. I’m going to quietly tiptoe into your realm, your nice, quiet corner of supportive people.

Laura: It’s basically two things. It’s basically a photograph taken every morning on my walk. Then once, maybe twice a week, there’s a selfie. Early during the pandemic, inspired by Rachel Syme of The New Yorker, I dressed up for a day. She actually sponsored something called “Fashion, but from a Distance.” I found it so cheering that I started doing it every day. I started putting on nice clothes every day. I still do. I actually get dressed every day. It’s become kind of a running joke. Yesterday, I posted a photograph of me headed to therapy because I always really get dressed up for therapy. There’s always usually a joke about that. That’s how I use Twitter. Really, really helping the world there.

Zibby: I got dressed today. Once a week, I try to put on a necklace or something. Every so often.

Laura: I was having trouble writing the other day. I was like, you are having trouble because you have not put on your nice clothes yet. I went upstairs, and I got dressed. It did improve everything.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. Who knew? Laura, thank you so much. Thanks for Seasonal Work. Always a pleasure. I hope to see you back for Prom Mom.

Laura: Thanks, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Bye, Laura.

Laura: Bye.

Laura Lippman, SEASONAL WORK

SEASONAL WORK by Laura Lippman

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