What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
Best-selling author Laura Lippman is a reporter-turned-novelist, whose best known character, Tess Monaghan, is a reporter-turned-sleuth. Lippman spent 20 years as a journalist, the last 12 at the Baltimore Sun, writing mysteries in her "spare time" until finally turning exclusively to fiction in 2001 after she'd already finished seven novels in as many years.
She didn't break pace when she married fellow writer David Simon (the creator of such TV series as "The Wire," and "Treme,") nor after she moved with Simon and her step-son to New Orleans, or for the birth of their daughter three years ago, making Lippman a first time mom at age 51. To write a book a year, she says, you simply focus on 1000 words a day.
Why do you do the work you do?
It doesn't feel like work. Yes, I have days that are difficult, but I'm sitting in a chair, making up stories. It's what I did for fun as a kid, whether with Barbies or stuffed animals.
What work would you do if not this?
If I had to find a job right now, a daunting prospect given my age, I think I would be drawn to social work. I covered what was known as the social services beat at the Evening Sun and it was probably my favorite beat. I just think I might actually be good at helping people, although that could be wishful thinking.
Did you wind up in this profession by accident or design?
Design. I set out to become a crime writer. At first, it was because it seemed like a less presumptuous goal. After I started writing crime fiction, I said to myself, "I may be limited, but the genre's not. There's no reason to change genres if I'm happy writing what I write." And I am. My work has changed a little over the years. I'm less interested in straight-forward whodunits, although there is some kind of mystery involved. I kill fewer and fewer people per book and it's often off the page. But I'm a crime novelist, no doubt about it.
Who is your role model?
Hmmm. I'm drawing a big blank. It would have to be a writer who's super-prolific but also has a big range, who has written well into his/her, um, maturity. I'll say Donald Westlake, although it's killing me that I can't think of a woman who fits this description. If I say Anne Tyler people will think I'm yearning for mainstream literary success. There's nothing wrong with yearning for mainstream literary success, but it's a losing proposition. You'll always be looking up the mountain. So I don't caught up playing the game in which I try to claim to be something other than a writer in a popular genre. Some popular writers ended up being among our greatest writers. And you know what? I"m probably not going to be thought of that way. But we're all dead by the time this stuff shakes out, so who cares?
Is there still a glass ceiling? Have you hit it?
That's complicated. If we judge by sales, there is nothing holding back women writers. There are many who are perennial best-sellers. But at the top of the top of the top, where one finds a small number of people who enjoy financial rewards and burnished reputations -- I feel that's harder for women to achieve. Especially if they write about women.
Do women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
Yes. Fiction needs writers and readers, and writers should cultivate both. But I feel a special obligation to help women because of the issues cited above.
What were you doing when you were 25?
On my 25th birthday, which was almost thirty years ago, I got up and covered a fatal fire as a police reporter at the San Antonio Light, in which two small children were killed. The day ended with me watching a woman being cut out of a mangled vehicle by the so-called jaws of life. I went to my boyfriend's house and ate peanut M&M's and cried because I was going to be the police reporter for the San Antonio Light for the rest of my life -- and I wasn't even that good at it.
And what advice would you give to that 25-year-old self?
Dump that guy.
What would you do differently at the start of your career?
That's a tough one for me if we're talking about newspaper work. But if we're talking about fiction -- well, I want to say I would say, "Aim higher." My goals were so modest at first. Write a book, get published. I wasn't trying to set the world on fire. I should have been, I think. But if I had, I might have been too overwhelmed to write a book and finish it.
Define the word “success.”
Work on your own terms.
According to that definition, are you successful?
Next, define the word happiness.
The extraordinary privilege to sit around and work yourself up into a snit over stupid shit because you have enough food, a roof, a healthy family and no real financial worries.
Are you happy?
Do you keep your phone next to your bed? Do you check it before you brush your teeth in the morning? When do you turn it off?
I don't know where my phone is half the time. I'm not sure it's on right now? But I usually check Facebook every morning because I have some good friends there. It's a very social outlet for me.
Do you get enough sleep?
How much is enough?
Six to eight hours.
How do you relax?
Arguably, I don't, but I'd say it's group-watching the Real Housewives with a group of online friends in five different time zones.
Does your mother understand why you work the way you do?
I don't think so. My mother was a school librarian. Went back for her degree when I was 10 or so, so I felt like I had the best of both worlds. She worked really hard. Harder, probably. And she had bosses, a big bureaucracy.
Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
I have a public persona and a private one. I've found that being very social and chatty can create a sense of friendliness without necessarily being friends.
Are you close friends with anyone you work with or worked with in the past?
Most of my friends are writers, novelists or moms. So, yes, all co-workers.
What would you title your autobiography?
Oh, wait, some friends just made a very funny joke about this: "Public Face, Private Rage, the Laura Lippman Story". Although I've always preferred something I saw on a restaurant menu near the morgue in Baltimore city: "Shaved Meats, Piled High."
When did you most recently think of quitting your job?
Never. I'm in the middle of my 20th novel. Some of my heroes wrote more than one hundred. Donald Westlake and Ed McBain (who also wrote under the name of Evan Hunter) were part of that generation. I was surprised that Elmore Leonard's output was relatively "small," fewer than 50 novels. I might be able to do that, knock wood. Just have to go another thirty years, at a book per year. Possible.
Are you paid what you are worth?
Don't tell HarperCollins, but -- yes, I think so.
Is there a woman you know who is Making It Work? We’d love to include her in our series. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited and condensed.