Zibby Owens: Laura Lippman, the best-selling crime novelist, has now come out with a book of essays called My Life as a Villainess. It’s just a fantastic book. Laura was a reporter for twenty years including twelve years at The Baltimore Sun. She began writing novels while working fulltime and published seven books about accidental PI Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001. Her work has been awarded the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Barry awards. She’s also been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Ms. Lippman returned to Baltimore in 1989 and has lived there ever since.

Welcome, Laura. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Laura Lippman: Thanks for having me. I’m really honored.

Zibby: I was just starting to tell you I really loved your book. I love essay collections. I couldn’t wait to read it. I was almost disappointed because originally it was supposed to come out in May. Then it was pushed back. I was like, I’ll wait to read it until it’s closer. It was just sitting there. Anyway, I’m thrilled it came out. It’s so good. My Life as a Villainess, can you tell listeners what this collection of essays is essentially about? What encouraged you to write it after being such a successful crime novelist for so long?

Laura: I really backed into this. There wasn’t a plan. I wasn’t looking at writing an essay book. What I wanted to do, it sounds so mercenary. I’m kind of embarrassed. Writing personal essays has become sort of the marketing plan for novelists. You have a novel coming out. They say, “Can you write about this? Can you write about that?” About two years ago, I said, I want to think about this differently. I don’t want to write essays about crime fiction because I’m already reaching those readers, I hope. I’m hoping I’m reaching crime readers. If I’m not, things are screwed up. I thought, how do I get myself out in front of people who think they don’t read crime fiction? I think there are a lot of readers who would love certain crimes novels if they just understood how wide and broader the genre was and how there really is something for everyone. For even the most literary reader, there are crime novels that would appeal to them. I thought if I could get my voice in front of people, people who liked my voice might think, well, I’ll try one of her novels. I was just looking at trying to the game the system in a sense. I began by placing not so much personal essays, but I remember one of the first things I wrote was a piece about how much I loved the work of Ruth McKenney who write My Sister Eileen stories and I felt was a little bit forgotten and unappreciated. I wrote that for a column in The New York Times. I then asked my good friend Taffy Brodesser-Akner to help me plan a travel story in The New York Times about my excessive devotion to Southwest Airlines. asked me to write about how I felt trying to explain boys to my then eight-year-old daughter, things like that.

At one point, this would’ve been late in 2018, I was up late at night. My husband was away on business. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. I saw that there was a section on the Longreads site, which both curates and commissions long pieces, about aging. I thought, I have a story about aging that I’ve never read. It’s about being the oldest mom always. I was fifty-one when my daughter was born. I have no contenders. I remember there was a mom in my neighborhood who said, “I used to be the oldest mom before you showed up.” She’s ten years younger than I am. I pitched this to Sari Botton at Longreads. It took me four months to write it. Then when I did, it kind of changed everything. It got a huge response. Sari asked me to write more pieces. The next piece I wrote was about body positivity. At that point, my longtime editor, I worked with the same editor for my novels for my entire career, we went to lunch with my agent. She said, “Do you think you have a book of essays in you?” I said that thing that you should never say. How hard could it be? I’ll never say that again, but I did. I think there were seven essays that had been published before in the book, one of which had been written and never been published. That was the title essay, “My Life as a Villainess.” Then I generated seven new essays over last summer and last fall. That became this book.

Zibby: Wow. How did it feel from shifting from creating worlds to revealing the inner workings of your own?

Laura: It was really different. I never worried about exposure. If I’m writing about something, I’m ready to talk about it. I still have plenty of secrets I’ve kept and stories I haven’t told. I don’t feel obliged to tell all. I don’t think any writer is obliged to do that. I have taken to talking about this collection as — I used an approach that I had learned about when I was a reporter where there are two ways to go about investigative reporting. One is you get a great tip. Someone says, did you know? You follow that. The other way you can develop stories as an investigative reporter, which I never was one by the way but found it interesting, is you can pick a topic so big you’re going to find something. In this book, I just picked topics that were so big I knew I would have something to say about them. I seldom knew what that was when I sat down. For the process of writing these essays, it would often take weeks to find out the starting point. That was certainly true in the case of “Game of Crones,” the essay about being an old mom. Where does it start? It starts with the fact that my daughter was a week old when people started asking if I was her grandmother and how I dealt with that. Where did I go from there?

Who would imagine that a piece about body positivity would begin with a story about me being fifteen years old and hiding in a corner of Waldenbooks reading? I was too embarrassed to buy because I thought they were . What does that have to do with anything? What’s really interesting is then you find these things. I’m a big collector of folk art. I have always loved folk art and outsider art. I just this morning celebrated my publication day by buying a piece of folk art by Purvis Young. Folk art is about found opportunities. It’s about found materials. It’s about allowing yourself as a writer to discover these potent thematic motifs that run through your life. I remember reading the book Greengage Summer. I’m writing this about body positivity. Then I go back and reread Greengage Summer. It’s literally a novel that begins with a story about people overeating, gorging themselves on these greengage plums. As I wrote each essay, I was mining these opportunities, looking for these things that were always there. They’re things as a novelist, you’d be like, that’s too on the nose. I can’t use that. That’s so obvious. Then in real life, you’re like, that’s amazing.

Zibby: I love that. I loved your thoughts on body positivity and basically how you’ve decided that it’s okay to call yourself a knockout at any age. You’re just going to own it. I was hoping I could read this quick quote if I could find it. Let’s see, page fourteen. Hold on. You said, “What is new is that I have decided at the age of sixty that I am a goddamn knockout. Like Dorothy at the end of the film version of The Wizard of Oz, I had the power I sought all along. I rub my thighs together — sorry, couldn’t resist — and tell myself over and over that I am beautiful. And what do you know? Suddenly, I am.” It’s so great.

Laura: I really believe that. It changed my life when I was able to put those words on paper. One of the things I learned writing this essay collection is that if I’m writing about something, I have come to terms with it on some level. I’m cool with it. I’m cool with being an old mom. I’m actually delighted with the body I have. I’ve made some, I wouldn’t call it peace, but I’ve certainly learned to talk about menopause. What I think is interesting is, I said to someone recently, the weird thing about menopause is there is too much that has been written about it; there’s not enough that’s been written about it. Woman after woman comes into this transition. There’s this one great book that everybody reads. It’s the omnibus Christiane Northrup book. Then there’s some really good comic books like Sandra Tsing Loh’s Madwoman in a Volvo, which is hilarious. There’s a lot of relevant information.

By the time I wrote about menopause, I’m cool with it and just talking about it. Of all the topics in the book, I hated talking about menopause when it happened to me. At first, it felt almost shameful. It’s like, my god, how many shame-induced episodes do women have to go through in their lives about their bodies? I kind of was owning it, as people say. It certainly, I say in the book, was something I was working out for the first time. Friendships between writers, they can be friendships or they can be rivalries. It was fascinating to me that I had this other writer who was my imaginary rival. Then I met her. She became one of my dearest, dearest friends. In fact, Ann Hood is someone who taught me an awful lot about how to write personal essays just by the example of the brilliant personal essays she puts out in the world.

Zibby: I loved how you reflect on friendships. You’re so self-deprecating in this book, which is really endearing, actually, about how you’re just such a bad friend. You don’t blame anyone for ditching you or ghosting you or whatever because you deserve it.

Laura: It’s funny because some friends, of course, have said, “Laura, you’re not that bad a friend.” There’s some people who I would say that have been conspicuous in not disavowing my virtue as a bad friend. I’m like, yeah, I wasn’t the best friend to you. I’m still mixed up about that. I sort of work these things out with friendship. I’ve worked out the fact that this is a place where I often fail. I’m still working on it. I think the great lie about friendship is that it comes naturally. We know how to do it. Once you have a friend, you should be friends for life and it would only end if something catastrophic happened, if there was a huge betrayal or some really big falling out over values and major issues. That’s not my experience. Friends that I’ve lost, there’s been no major falling out. What has happened is that — again, I sort of defend myself a little bit. I think people take my inertia as a lack of interest. No, I’m just kind of inert. Anytime a friend turns to me, I’m there for them. Am I the person who always remembers to pick up the phone and check in? No, I’m not that person. But heck, as long as I’m alive, I could maybe do it better. There’s that.

Zibby: Your trainer gave you the best advice of all. Pick the friends who would bury a body for you or would help you bury a body. That’s just so great. Writing this question I was thinking, which of my friends would bury a body for me? I don’t know. I feel like not that many.

Laura: A lot of my friends would want to stop short of a criminal conspiracy. I mention Nancy in particular in the essay, that Nancy would not want to actually commit a crime with me, but she would do everything in her power to make sure that I had the best criminal representation. I feel like another really, really good friend that I have is a crime writer, terrific novelist named Alafair Burke who’s a former prosecutor. I know that if I commit a crim, Alafair’s not going to go all in on the criminal conspiracy, but she will get me the best criminal attorney to represent me. She will be advising me every step of the way about what to do in my criminal case. She’s not going to actually cross the line into committing a crime. She’s much too outstanding a citizen for that.

Zibby: That’s okay. You need that too, another totally important part of the process. You also wrote really interestingly about your relationship and the power dynamic in your marriage. You said, “The man who would become my second husband desired a child, so I made a child happen. That’s our dynamic. He writes checks. I make things happen. As noted, I have money of my own, but he outearns me by a factor of ten to one, so this arrangement seems fair to me.” I just wanted to talk about that. In this whole feminist boom, I just wanted to address something, not that it’s un-feminist, I just wanted to see what you thought about it.

Laura: Again, if I’m writing about it, on some level I’ve worked it out. There was a time in which I would look at the proportion of childcare that I did and the proportion that my spouse did — which, by the way, is very different now in the pandemic. It has been truly fifty/fifty because he hasn’t been working on a production. It has been gratifying and amazing to know that he will do that when his job allows him to do it. He really has a job that is a kind of time suck that if you haven’t seen it up close, you can’t imagine it. I’ve tried to describe it. People will be like, could he do this? Could he do that? I’m like, he really could not. There was a time when I was kind of obsessed with that. I was very obsessed with the imbalance in the time. He gets to spend twelve to sixteen hours a day on what he’s creating, and I don’t have that same luxury. Then it really turned around in my head. I don’t think that’s a luxury. I think that’s a burden.

I think it’s a particular burden of the patriarchy to create this idea that creation is best when we are almost monk-like in our existence. If we have families, we’re ignoring them. Maybe we don’t have families at all. This whole Picasso is the great artist, crummy man template. What I had to come to realize was that, first of all, the patriarchy is enormously unfair to men who are cast into this idea that they’re not benefitting from it. They’re really actually, I think, suffering for it. Then I began to ask myself, wait a minute, I’m getting my work done. I’m getting it done in these bits and pieces of time. I have the hours that my daughter’s at school, or used to. Now with distance learning, I’ve had to learn a different way to do it. I have enough time to do my work, bake the cookies for the bake sale, work out. Almost nothing gets between me and exercise.

I’m writing the books that I want to write. I actually think they’re as good as I can make them. Whatever limitations I find in myself as a creative person, they’re not connected to time. Then the next leap is, good god, what if my books are better because of the life ? What if the richness and fullness of my life informs my books and that they have a level to them they wouldn’t have if I were living a monk-like existence? It’s true. On some level, it sounds not feminist. On another level, I think that we were living a lie in which we had unwittingly subscribed to these patriarchal values. I still don’t see how we can ever be fifty/fifty in time when he’s active on a production. I don’t see that as being possible. Now that I know that he can step up and do fifty/fifty, it’s really meaningful to me. It’s been one of those bizarre silver linings in the pandemic for my household. My household has had more together time in the past six months than we have in the previous five years.

Zibby: Wow. I love what you just said also about maybe the lack of time makes things better. I feel like there’s this huge myth that if we could lock ourselves in a cabin we would be writing the great American novel every single time. You already have achieved that in the way that you do it. I’ve talked to so many authors who feel the same way, like Wendy Walker who wrote books in the back of her minivan. You fit it in when you can. I feel like it’s almost the difference between being a reporter out and about and being back in an office trying to describe something versus being out there and being a witness to it.

Laura: When I worked at the newspaper, the people with children, in particular moms, were incredibly efficient about their work. They were just more efficient because they had no time to waste. They had to be out the door at a certain time and at school or daycare for pickup. If they were late, there was a financial penalty, so they didn’t waste time. The rest of us, we wasted a lot of time because we didn’t have that Damocles hanging over us. One of the funny, strange, odd, bizarre things about the pandemic is it sort of forced me to come full circle. I began by writing novels. I had a full-time job. I’d get up at six in the morning. I’d do my writing. I’d go to work. I would say to myself, whatever happens now, I got my writing time in. I would try to write a thousand to two thousand words a day. Come the pandemic, by mid-March my daughter has switched to learning from home. I have a book due. It’s actually great that it’s late because I wrote My Life as a Villainess, put it to the side while I did that. I started getting up at five in the morning and working for three to four hours. My daughter was sleeping in until eight since school had changed its schedule. There I was full circle. It still worked. It was actually still immensely satisfying at eight o’clock in the morning to say, I got my work done. Maybe I’ll have a chance to come back and do more work this afternoon depending on how the video learning is lining up and what my daughter . It was not bad to know that that way of doing things was something I could go back to and still feel very effective and productive.

Zibby: That’s great. So no one can use time as an excuse anymore.

Laura: That goes back to Tillie Olsen. Tillie Olsen wrote about this in her famous book which of course is flying out of my head. She had a full-time job. She was commuting on the subway. She had kids. You will find time to write if you really want to. I think that was one of the things that chagrined a lot of people who went into the forced lockdown of the pandemic and said, now I have this luxury of time. That can really be a burden. When you have all the time in the world, where’s the urgency? You just keep procrastinating. I made that mistake as a young writer. I’d say, I’m going to write all weekend. I can’t write all weekend. I can write for about four hours tops. I’m wrung out at four hours. I’ve learned to be my little streak-ly self of two to three hours, two to three hours, two to three hours. Eventually, I get there.

Zibby: Look at how they build up. You have a library of production. You have a factory worth. It’s impressive. How do you stay on track normally? I know we’re in pandemic mode. To keep producing at your rate, what is the motivation? I know you’re late now, but let’s pretend you’re not. How do you stay on time and all that? How do you just keep doing it and making your books different and interesting and all the rest?

Laura: The first part is I have a very simple goal. My goal is to write a thousand words a day. As a former reporter, that is a big weather story. That’s a weather story that you’d write. It’s a thousand words a day. If you’ve been a reporter as I have, it’s not that intimidating. Some people would find that impossible. It’s a minimum. It’s a quota. That’s in the early part where you’re just blamming through, just getting words on the page, do something, do something, keep going forward. Then after that, I’ll set goals for revision, maybe a chapter a day. It could be this many pages a day. I’ll work through it. I do quite a bit of revision before my editor sees it. I would certainly hope that she’s seeing the third if not fourth version of what I write. That takes anywhere from ten to sixteen months. That would be my range. Then the other part of the question was, how does one stay inspired? How does one do it different? It’s very important to me to do it differently. I really never want someone to read one of my novels and feel like it’s an iteration of a novel that I’ve written before. There’s certainly some really successful crime novelists where I’ve felt that about their long-running series, and I was sad for that.

The way I handle that is I just turn my gaze inward. I say, what’s really interesting to me right now? What am I really interested in? When I wrote the novel that’s coming out next year, a novel that by circumstance was forced to be set in 2019 — I was conceiving of it as something that was just vaguely in the now, but that can’t be anymore. I was really interested in how isolated I find a lot of modern people. I was interested, in particular, in the concept of isolation in a place where there are lots of people, where you can actually see people living in a high-rise apartment building in Baltimore. You’re literally surrounded by people. You can see people coming and going and living their lives, but you are isolated. How does social media play into that? For me, social media is a boon against isolation. If you just stay in it, of course it can’t help you at all. I was interested in those ideas of isolation. I also had a little challenge for myself. I wanted to write something that felt almost more horror-tinge even though it is a crime novel. I would say to myself, this is a little bit misery in a high-rise.

That’s how that book started. I’ve already started. It’s really premature. I wouldn’t talk about it yet, but I can feel the tingle of the next idea. It arrived early. I wasn’t even looking for it because I still have to go through copy edits. I’m a big believer that having turned a book in, having done my revisions, let the well refill itself. See what happens. I was in a conversation with my husband the other night simply talking about the challenge of, will the next book be pre-pandemic or post-pandemic? What are the challenges of trying to write a book about the times we’re in right now? If I don’t do that, am I coward? I started talking about another part of our fairly recent history that I thought had some lessons for the time we’re living in now. All of a sudden, by the next morning I had my notebook open and I was jotting down ideas. Why would she do that? What’s the big secret? What would make this plausible? I think I’ve got it.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s amazing. There you go. I just wanted to read one more thing from you before I leave you alone here about what it’s like — well, here, I’m just going to read it. We’ll talk about it. “It has taken me more than forty years, but the singular achievement of my life may be that if I am attacked by a serial killer on a deserted lover’s lane I almost certainly will have had dessert, not cheesecake because I don’t like cheesecake; possibly some dark chocolate, preferably with nuts or caramel; or a scoop of Taharka ice cream, an outstanding Baltimore brand; or one of my own homemade blondies from the Smitten Kitchen recipe; maybe a shot of tequila, an excellent digestif; maybe tequila and a blondie, but only if I want those things.” I feel like this is just so classic. You have come into your own in every way. You’re in full-on self-acceptance. This is what I love. This is who I am. It’s totally inspiring and amazing because I feel like a lot of people no matter what age they are never get that. I guess some people get there very early. Either way, it’s an amazing example.

Laura: How beautiful to get there early. I can’t judge myself. I wouldn’t judge anyone else. When do you cross that line? What makes it possible? As the mother of a daughter, it’s so important to me that she love herself. Also, I accept that that’s a very personal thing. I can say and do a lot of the right things. I hope I am saying and doing them. In the end, it’s going to come down to her decision to love herself. I’m trying to provide an environment in which that’s possible. Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned where I said I’ve just decided, sure, I’m beautiful. One of my longtime readers and someone I consider a friend, someone from Australia — we’ve met at conferences. We’ve had drinks together. On the rare occasion we are face to face, we always try to find fifteen, thirty minutes for each other. She jumped on a Facebook thread about this essay. She mentioned that she had had a photograph taken and she didn’t like it. Her friends at work were saying, “No, that’s a terrible photo. You’re beautiful.” I thought this was pretty great and amazing. She said, “I’m not beautiful. I don’t need to be told that. I don’t consider beauty to be an important metric for women. Telling me I’m beautiful when I know that I’m not is patronizing. I like myself. I like how I look. You can have an unflattering photo and not consider yourself to be beautiful. You can also decide that you don’t consider being beautiful to be important.” I was like, wow, that’s truly wise. She’s gone down a level deeper on this, which is to say, not only am I going to reject conventional ideas about what beauty is, I’m going to reject beauty as being important. I thought that was pretty great. I was really proud to know her and be her friend to know that she would share something like that.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?

Laura: My main advice to aspiring writers, it’s what I tell my classes all the time. I teach at a writer’s workshop that meets in Florida every January. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to meet again this year. At the end of the class I always say to them, look, whatever your ambition is, however grandiose it is, the most grandiose the better, I want you to tell at least one other sentient human. If you have to get drunk to do it, go ahead and get drunk to do it. Tell someone what you want. It can be whatever you want. It can be winning a Nobel Prize. It can be being a New York Times best seller. What the real dream is, though, it has to be your real dream. I say, please say this out loud because if you can’t admit to at least one other person and to yourself what you want to get out of this, I don’t see how you’re going to make it happen. Articulate your dreams. Don’t make them realistic, just, this is what I want. Then you’ve got a goal to reach for.

Zibby: There you go. I recently decided that I want to try to win an Emmy even though I don’t have a TV show. I’m like, you know what, there’s a category out there for interview show. Some people on YouTube are nominated this year. Why not me? I don’t know. Let’s give it a try. As long as you’re not afraid to fail publicly which I apparently am not, then you might as well say it. Laura, thank you so much. You’re such an inspiration on a lot of different levels for me. I am just so glad I got to enjoy your book and that I got to talk to you about your whole career and everything. Thank you for everything.

Laura: Thank you. Loved talking to you. I really am honored to be on your show.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Bye.

Laura: Bye.