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A career turns in the write direction

Helped by a tough, blunt editor, Laura Lippman made the leap from reporter to mystery novelist.

October 24, 2008|Ben Nuckols | Nuckols writes for the Associated Press.

BALTIMORE — Laura Lippman had her share of good fortune as she made the transition from frustrated newspaper reporter to part-time crime novelist to critically acclaimed bestselling author. But her bold career move didn't happen by chance.

Truth is, the creator of the Tess Monaghan series always had an eye on her second act. Lippman didn't become a journalist out of a deep-seated desire to work confidential sources, root out corruption and speak truth to power. She was curious and outgoing, enjoyed talking to people and wanted a job that would pay her to write.

In her spare time, she dabbled in fiction, but a novel seemed a faraway goal. Then came motivation, from an editor she describes as "a cold-blooded professional assassin." He told her she needed to work on her writing.

"No one had ever said to me, 'You're not a good writer.' Normally, I think I would have burst into tears," Lippman said. Instead, she told herself that if she wrote a book and got it published, her career wouldn't depend on one man's opinion of her talent.

"And the secret, secret, almost never-stated endgame was . . . 'I'm going to quit my day job and be a novelist,' " Lippman said.

She can recall only one time she said those words out loud.

"I said it to my first husband one night when I was drunk," she said. "I told him I thought I could write full time. And I also told him that I thought I would be a New York Times bestseller. I was really drunk, sitting at my kitchen table."

Lippman's first novel, "Baltimore Blues," was published in 1997. She left the Baltimore Sun, her professional home for more than 20 years, in 2001. Last year she cracked the New York Times' list of bestsellers with "What the Dead Know," a riveting, time-hopping mystery about the aftereffects of a decades-old abduction.

"She slowly became an overnight bestseller," said Carrie Feron, Lippman's editor at William Morrow. "There are a lot of authors who, book by book, they're building their sales, they're polishing their craft. When it all works right, this is how it's supposed to be."

She began work on "Baltimore Blues" in 1993. She credits Sara Peretsky, creator of V.I. Warshawski, with inspiring her to write about a female private eye. And she stuck to familiar terrain, making Tess Monaghan a former newspaper reporter and a Baltimore native.

Although she doubted her ability to construct a compelling plot, she forged ahead, taking comfort in the established rules of crime fiction and hoping her feel for the city and her talents for character and dialogue would carry her through.

"It helps to be kind of ignorant and arrogant when you start, because when you really think about what you're doing, it is ignorant and arrogant," she said with a laugh.

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