I first met Laura Lippman in Florida in 2014, but it was a very Baltimore occasion. The mystery novelist and former Baltimore Sun reporter was coming to Delray Beach to promote her book “After I’m Gone,” and as a longtime fan and Charm City native, I jumped at the chance to interview her by phone for the Palm Beach Post. When my husband, Scott, and I later came to the reading, the three of us ended up going out for drinks and snacks to talk writing, our shared hometown and my fangirling of “Homicide: Life On The Street,” created by her then-husband (and fellow Sun alum) David Simon.
Food, laughter and Baltimore: my favorite combination.
In the decade that followed, Lippman became a writing mentor and a friend — she reached out to me after Scott died and wrote a blurb for my book “Black Widow.” She has a keen sense of style, seen in selfies of her gorgeous fashion finds (many of them secondhand from sites like thredUP or The RealReal on Twitter), and a delicious laugh.
Last week we hung out again, this time in a Baltimore coffee shop, to chat her latest book, “Prom Mom,” out Tuesday. It follows titular Towson High student Amber from the night of a 1997 dance, when she was accused of killing her newborn baby, to her 2019 return to town, shaking up the life of her prom date, former star athlete turned real estate shark, Joe, and his trusting wife, Meredith.
Like some of Lippman’s work, “Prom Mom” paints a nostalgic picture of a bygone Baltimore and twists it into an uncomfortably familiar examination of damaged lives and the lies we tell ourselves. It’s her second big release of 2023, following this spring’s painfully and beautifully vulnerable memoir, “The Summer of Fall,” about tumbles metaphorical and physical, including her mother’s decline in health and the end of her marriage to Simon, creator of “The Wire.” Over snacks, sparkling water and more laughter, we talked about parenting, writing and this imperfect city we both love. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
One of the first things that struck me about “Prom Mom” is that the main characters all believe they are right, even when they’re doing terrible things, and justify things like having affairs or blackmailing people.
I don’t know how you could live if you didn’t think you were right. Most people do. We think “I’m just a good guy.” Joe rationalizes his pattern of extramarital affairs: “They don’t mean anything! My marriage is better for it!” Characters are so much more interesting that way. You think “they’re a lot like me,” and you follow them across the line.
There’s so much Baltimore in this book, as usual. And it’s funny how each of the characters is, in a way, defined by how they view the city. Like how Joe comes down here and is like, “How could anyone live here?”
That’s true! Joe gets his [COVID-19] vaccination at the same CVS where I got mine. That’s what happens. Baltimore restaurants always struggle with attracting suburbanites. “Oh, it’s so scary!” I was at a literary festival in Barcelona and people said, “‘The Wire’ is incredible, but what is Baltimore like?’” I said, “What you need to know is that it’s hard to live in Baltimore if you’re poor and Black. Me, I’m OK.”
Because the characters are so complex, they’re all kind of the bad guy, even if they don’t know it. Is there a good guy?
I think that’s a fair question. I wanted the reader to sit with their discomfort — that there’s this person I like and identify with, and I keep reading, and now I have shifting loyalties to this character. “Wait … I’m not sure now.” I don’t want to let readers off the hook. I didn’t want to write a book where they never have to question themselves, where you don’t think “maybe I’m not one of the good guys.”
Were you writing this book as your marriage ended?
I didn’t start “Prom Mom” until I was almost a year out of my marriage. The pandemic was more paramount in my imagination. Part of [the novel] covers what I don’t think we understood was an era ending, when the vaccines came in 2021 — when briefly we thought, “Everything is gonna be great!” It was almost crueler that we got outside and see the blue sky, and then we hit the omicron era and had to go back inside. Maybe there’s too much COVID in [the book]. I guess we’ll find out. [Laughs] But I couldn’t see any other way to write this book. It was a time where normal rules did not apply. There’s a dreamy, suspended-in-amber quality to it.
Did writing this book after your divorce affect how you wrote about marriage? The characters seem pretty cynical about it.
Actually, part of the reason to write a book like this, which is so dark, is that I was pretty grounded in my personal life. I would not be able to be free to write it if my own life was not in such stark contrast to it. Nothing that I put in the book is autobiography. [Laughs]
Lord, I hope not! Because this is dark.
I just write the book that’s the right one for me to write at that particular time, that I have no choice but to write. In a way, my life was never more disciplined than during COVID. You couldn’t go anywhere. I used to go to Eddie’s to buy groceries — because it seemed safer because it was so small — every Sunday, and have my menus for every night. It was such a great system. And now I’m back to being messy. [Laughs]
Part of the reason it was such a grounding positive experience for David and I was that we broke up, and then the next month the state was in lockdown. We had to be a unit. We didn’t have anyone else. We explained to our daughter we were not married, but we were still a family.
You didn’t publicly write about your divorce until this year’s “The Summer Of Fall.” With the Smalltimore nature of this town, what was the reaction of people who think of you and David as such a part of the place?
Most people were like “I knew!” And I was like “When did you know?” and they told me a date and I would think, “You figured it out two years in. You go, Nancy Drew!” People were generally supportive. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, I thank all of the people who got me through.
Can you talk a little about what’s happening with the TV version of “Lady in the Lake?” I know there are rules about promoting work during the Writers Guild of America strike.
It’s definitely beyond the purview of the WGA. I have been told that it might be on the air in late 2023.
Good to know. So what’s next?
I’m working on a new book. “Prom Mom” was a book about people who think they’re good. The next book is light and sweet. I needed to spend a year with someone nice.