*With Laura Lippman's latest, The Most Dangerous Thing, now on sale, we'd like to share this great interview between Laura and Kate Atkinson, whose first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was named Whitbread Book of the Year in the U.K. in 1995, and was followed by Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, Case Histories and One Good Turn.
Kate Atkinson: You employ the first person plural in parts of the new novel. It’s quite a startling device (I loved it in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End). Why did you use it in The Most Dangerous Thing?
Laura Lippman: The decision was intuitive at first—that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone. And that voice allowed me to include a subtext of gloom and foreboding—the story is being told by people who know how badly it ends.
KA: Do you think you write better now than you did when you first began to write novels? (I only ask because I think I’m a much better writer than I used to be but no one else seems to have noticed.) Do you feel you can trust your “inner critic” or are you plagued by doubts the whole time you are writing?
LL: At the risk of sounding obsequious, I have to say that you set the bar awfully high for yourself with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I’ve noticed how your work has changed, although I think the word that comes to mind isn’t better, but bolder. You take such big risks and yet you manage them with aplomb. The frustration of being a fan of your work is that there’s nothing quite like it. There are lots of wonderful writers in crime and literary fiction, but there’s only person who can write a Kate Atkinson novel.
I didn’t start out on the same level. That’s not poor-mouthing, as my Southern relatives would have it, but a fact on which everyone agrees. People tell me all the time—really, all the time—how far I’ve come since my first book. But, whether one writes a great first novel or simply a decent one, what are the choices? One can get better, worse, or stay the same. I shoot for better and I accept that there may be some dips, but they’ll come from trying new things at least, not doing the same things over and over. I do trust my inner critic, but I'm happy to have a circle of external critics that I trust as well.
KA: You “honor” the dead in your novels rather than exploit them for sadistic effect. Do you think that’s due to your background as a reporter butting up against real lives rather than fictional ones? Or because you’re a woman? Or just a decent human being?
LL: All of the above? At least, I hope I’m a decent person. I do think crime writers need to take a moment for introspection about the stories we’re telling and the bodies that are piling up around us. It’s somber stuff. There should be an agenda beyond sensation.
KA: How many novels do you have on the back burner at any one time? Have you ever sat down to write and not had any idea what you were going to do?
LL: Once—just once—I managed to have two projects going on simultaneously, a novel and a novella. I do best with one thing in front of me. And, increasingly, I have no idea what I’m going to write next. But that’s part of the job and, for me, part of the fun. I know a book is finished when I’m ready to sit down and ask myself, “What next, what interests me right now?” With The Most Dangerous Thing, I was interested in the way life becomes a kind of horror film at middle age. About two months after I started this book, my father-in-law died after a long decline. About the same time, one of my husband’s oldest friends, dating back to his days on the college newspaper, had a stroke at the age of 48, and died within hours. Yesterday, I picked up The New York Times and happened on a first-person piece by a former colleague, who wrote about having ALS and his intention to commit suicide while he was still able-bodied. He's only 66.
But I also became a parent for the first time last year, which isn’t one of the typical milestones of middle-age, yet there it was. And it had a huge impact on the book.
KA: Do you feel guilty when you’re not writing, even when the other thing you’re doing is totally fulfilling or completely altruistic or utterly well deserved?
LL: If I’ve been disciplined—gone to my desk every weekday morning, written at least 1,000 words—I seldom feel guilty. I feel much more guilt-ridden about not reading enough.
But I will steal a line from Anne Lamott, who once said if people knew how good she felt writing they would set her on fire. Just this morning I was working and it wasn’t an on-fire moment, but it wasn’t a bad day either. Just an average one, the kind of days one has in the dead middle of books. I took a sip of my latte, looked at the clock on my computer and thought: It is 10:10 a.m. and my job is to sit here and make things up. I am a very lucky person.
KA: “I've never wanted people to feel good at the end of my novels,” you said in a Publishers Weekly interview. But do you feel good when you finish?
LL: I feel fabulous. It's the best day of the year. But even on a book-a-year schedule, that means I feel fabulous only one day a year. As someone who takes great pride in completing things, I’ve chosen an interesting little hell for myself.