Laura Lippman was multitasking, as usual. Fielding interview questions by phone from her home in Baltimore, and taking brief pauses to answer her husband's more immediate concerns.
"What do you need, sweetie?" she asked him. "I think that's upstairs " Their young daughter could be heard making baby-type noises in the background. It sounded like Dad and daughter were preparing for an outing.
Lippman, a best-selling novelist and the quintessential Baltimorean, is married to another true-blue fan of that city. David Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, created and produced the HBO Series "The Wire." His nonfiction book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," was made into the popular NBC TV police-procedural series "Homicide: Life on the Street."
Does their domestic collaboration extend to the artistic?
"We're both creative people who understand the demands each of us have, and we keep our work separate," Lippman replied.
Like Simon, Lippman, 53, is a former journalist for the Sun ("I wrote about everything but business and sports"). She is also a multi-award-winning mystery writer who will appear for The Bee Book Club for her new title, "And When She Was Good." In it, a suburban soccer mom leads a double life as the owner of an escort service. Her past catches up with her, and murderous evil comes knocking. The book received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.
This is Lippman's seventh stand-alone novel, though the reading public identifies her more readily with the 11-title Tess Monaghan series.
Lippman conceived the Monaghan character in the early 1990s. When the dog-loving 29-year-old reporter loses her job at the fictional Baltimore Star, she becomes a "reluctant" private investigator. Monaghan made her debut in 1996's "Baltimore Blues."
"Tess is not me she wouldn't be interesting if she was but she is like a younger sister," Lippman was quick to say. "I'm more methodical and thoughtful, take fewer chances and don't make as many mistakes. The big difference is I'm not allergic to shellfish. It just seemed perversely funny to me to make this quintessential Baltimore girl allergic to shellfish" in a city famous for its seafood.
Lippman went on to write 10 more Monaghan mysteries and seven stand-alones. Last year, her novella "The Girl in the Green Raincoat" was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Monaghan is housebound and looks out the windows a lot. Slowly, she finds herself in a dangerous spot, like the Jimmy Stewart character in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window."
"I am generally referred to as 'the author best known for her Tess Monaghan series,' " Lippman said. "Maybe I am, but the stand-alones actually sell far better, and it was the stand-alones that first got me on the New York Times best-seller list."
Moving back and forth between a series and stand-alone novels is "enormously beneficial in artistic terms," she said. "In a series, you don't want to use up the character. She must go on, so the changes she goes through are very incremental. In stand-alones, I use up my characters. That produces a very different experience."
The extraordinary part of all this is that Lippman published the first seven Monaghan books while working full-time at the Sun.
"I kept quiet about it when I first started," she recalled. "Some of my colleagues knew about it and a few of them made fun of me. I started publishing slowly enough so that it wasn't discombobulating (to the newspaper). I sold my first book, then my second. It was moving steadily."
Then, as she wrote more Monaghan adventures, things went south at the Sun.
"(The novel-writing) began to bug one of my bosses," she said. "My dad (retired Sun editorial writer Theo Lippman Jr.) said the math was irrefutable.
" 'If you're writing a book in your spare time, then you are not giving them 100 percent of your time,' he said.
"I said, 'But, Daddy, they don't pay me for 100 percent of my time. They pay me for 40 hardworking hours a week.'
" 'Yeah, but they don't see it that way,' he said."
"It was true. I worked for people who thought that because I wanted to do something other than work at the newspaper, I didn't have the calling, I wasn't in the seminary.
"And I wasn't. If I could get to the point where I could write novels full time, that's what I was going to do. And that's what I did," she said. "They forced me out the door, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Had I stayed, I might not have written some of the books I did. In our lives, we control so much less than what we think we control."
Phone calls to the Baltimore Sun were not returned.
The stand-alone "Every Secret Thing" (2003) was the first book Lippman published after leaving the Sun. At the heart of the critically acclaimed novel is the story of two 11-year-old girls who are responsible for a baby's death. Actress-producer Frances McDormand optioned the book "after my agent gave it to her on the elevator in the apartment building where they both happened to live," Lippman said. The movie project is moving ahead, with Diane Lane set to star.
Lippman's career has taken her on book tours to Australia, Africa, Europe and throughout North America, though she doesn't travel as much now "because we have a young daughter."
In addition to family, she's devoted to exercising ("It could be hiking or taking bizarre classes at the gym") and reading.
"I'm usually in the middle of five books," she said. "It's like a horse race all the books are neck and neck and then one of them surges ahead. Right now, John Lanchester's 'Capital' is at the head of the pack."
Cooking is "one of my big hobbies, especially fish," Lippman said. "Though I've never been brave enough to steam crabs at home. It's better to buy them already cooked, put them on newspaper on your table and get out your crab mallets."
Every accomplished home cook has a specialty. What's hers?
"I make a very good lamb ragu and I've been getting better at homemade pizza," she said. "But if I told my friends I was going to cook, they would request my most in-demand, embarrassingly easy dish Coca-Cola fudge cake. My family is originally from Atlanta I was born there and it's a recipe my mother gave me."
If Lippman were to define herself, what would she say? "I'm risk-averse and feel cautiously Pollyanna-ish about everything, which probably should be on my headstone," she said with a laugh.
Getting back to writing, how has a journalism career helped her with fiction?
"In journalism, the process of gathering information is demystified," she said. "As a novelist, it's much more pleasant to call people for information than when I did that (as a reporter). They're much nicer to you and much more helpful.
"Also, (journalism) makes you clear-eyed about the work of writing. If you've been a journalist, you already know you don't get to show up at work and say, 'Gee, I'm just not feeling inspired today.' No, you work it's what you do."
Lippman's editor since 1995 has been Carrie Feron, vice president and editorial director for Avon publishing in New York City.
"Laura is one of the most disciplined and organized writers I work with," Feron said. "She is very eloquent and incredibly smart, and has evolved so much (over the years) as a writer and storyteller."
Baltimore is a city that "has my heart," said Lippman, who sets all her tales in or near Charm City. Baltimore is also the setting for books by Nora Roberts and Anne Tyler, and movies by director John Waters. What's the fascination for Lippman?
"It's a city of extremes, but what's inescapable is Baltimore is home," she said. "True Baltimoreans, like Tess Monaghan, have never contemplated living anywhere else. Maryland is south of the Mason-Dixon Line, yet it fought for the Union in the Civil War. I have said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that Baltimore has Northern manners and a Southern pace. It's a city not particularly worried about what others think of it."
As for the work of writing, Lippman said, "The things you might complain about to a friend would be so trivial. Whenever someone talks about how hard writing is, my good friend George Pelacanos always says, 'It's not digging a ditch; get over yourself.' "
Still, it takes hard discipline to knock out, say, 1,000 words a day and then rewrite them, and then do it again.
"A lot of writers say they don't like writing. I actually love it, but that doesn't mean it goes well every day," she said. "But even on the worst days, when I'm frustrated and filled with doubt, I'm so happy that this is what I get to do. My job is: Open up my laptop and make some stuff up. I never lose sight of that."
Mystery and psychological-suspense writer Laura Lippman will give a presentation, answer questions and autograph books at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Barnes & Noble will be there to sell "And When She Was Good" (William Morrow, $26.99, 314 pages) for 30 percent off the retail price. Other books by Lippman also will be available. Visit the author at www.lauralippman.net.
Through Thursday, these stores will offer a 30 percent discount on the title: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Carol's Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley. For information on the Bee Book Club: (916) 321-1128.
LAURA LIPPMAN'S BIBLIOGRAPHY
Tess Monaghan series
In Big Trouble
The Sugar House
In a Strange City
The Last Place
By a Spider's Thread
No Good Deeds
Another Thing to Fall
The Girl in the Green Raincoat
Every Secret Thing
To the Power of Three
What the Dead Know
Hardly Knew Her (short story anthology)
I'd Know You Anywhere
The Most Dangerous Thing
And When She Was Good