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'Cities Are Resilient,' Says Baltimore Crime Novelist Laura Lippman

Jul 30, 2019
Originally published on July 31, 2019 12:22 pm

Count Laura Lippman among those who take issue with President Trump's recent tweets characterizing Baltimore as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess." The crime novelist, who lives in Baltimore, says the president's comments represent a "basic disrespect" for city residents.

"Cities are resilient," Lippman says. "The fact that we survive or thrive at all in the light of terrible problems isn't to be criticized; it's to be celebrated."

Lippman is the author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan detective series. Her new stand-alone crime novel, Lady in the Lake, was inspired by two real-life Baltimore disappearances in the 1960s. Lippman's story centers on Maddie Schwartz, who leaves her marriage, gets a job at a Baltimore newspaper, and begins investigating the mysterious death of a young black woman. For Lippman, setting her novel in the past was a deliberate choice, made in the wake of the 2016 election.

"It was a time that was at once extremely frenetic and extremely static," she says. "It felt as if everyone in my life — myself included — spent their time on almost this hamster wheel of social media, the news network of their choice, social media, the news network of their choice."

Situating her novel in the '60s allowed Lippman, a former journalist, to escape the news cycle, though many of the subjects she touches on in Lady in the Lake — sexism, racism, homophobia — are still front and center today.


Interview Highlights

On working in male-dominated newsrooms in her early years as a journalist

I started working at newspapers in 1981. I spent eight years in Texas, and then I came to The Evening Sun [in Baltimore] in 1989. ... There were definitely changes made because of Anita Hill [testifying about sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas' 1991 Senate confirmation hearing], and newspapers began taking the work culture more seriously.

I was involved in a sexual harassment incident [in the mid 1990s] involving two of my colleagues. It was very strange, and I'm not sure I would have ever complained, but my boss looked over my shoulder and saw what one of them had written to the other about me and said, "This has to be reported." ...

The oddest thing is, when it was all over ... both of them were lectured on not doing this. ... But I remember the top editor sort of wanting me to basically say, "No hard feelings."

On working alongside an older generation of women in the newsroom

I came into newsrooms when women maybe five to 10 years older than I am had done a lot of the heavy lifting. There were ones who had really, like, knocked in the door and they had to be so tough. And I always said I was of the generation where we had now reached the point where one could go cry in the bathroom. You still couldn't cry in public, but you could cry in the bathroom, and I did a lot of crying in the bathroom when I was a reporter. ...

Women reporters — they've always been tough-as-nails, in my opinion, in the best possible way. And I know that as a young reporter I often seemed silly and flighty to some of the women I worked with — perhaps fairly so. I aspired to have them take me seriously, because they took themselves seriously, and they took the business seriously. So I was really aware of all of that history.

On Trump's criticism of the journalists

I hold the President of the United States responsible for a coarsening of rhetoric that has empowered and emboldened people, including the person who came to the Annapolis Capital Gazette last summer and shot and killed five people, including my friend [Gazette editor] Rob Hiaasen. And people point to that and they say, "That's not fair. This was a grudge that predated the 2016 election. You're just being slippery with your facts." ...

I tell people: "Of course I think rhetoric matters! Of course I think words matter. Look at what I do for a living!"

On centering her crime novels around respect for the victims

For quite some time now, my work has been centered in a respect for victims, in a hope that people who read my books feel that respect and understand that I'm not really interested in cheap sensation or victims as MacGuffins. And [Lady in the Lake], the book that I turned in the day before Rob [Hiaasen] was killed, was a book that ultimately gives its story to the victim. ... [The victim] is the first person we hear from, and she is the last person we hear from, and she has what I consider to be the most important line in the entire book, when, from across a void as she presents herself as a ghost, she says to the woman who is so determined to know her story: You were interested in my death, not my life. It's not the same thing.

On how she met her husband, David Simon, creator of The Wire

We met at the newspaper. ... When I arrived at The Evening Sun, David was on leave writing the book that would become Homicide. We met — it's a cute story — because I came to work one day (this would have been in 1991) and I had a blotter, one of those big, old fashioned paper things with the calendar, and my blotter was covered in a coffee stain, and I looked around I said, "Who was working at my desk last night?" "Simon was there," and I was furious and I accosted him and said, "You just spilled coffee all over my desk and you blotted it up with the blotter?" and he admitted that he had, and he apologized and I asked him to give me a copy of his book Homicide, and we still have it obviously, and it's inscribed, "Do you want cream with that, hon?"

On her wedding to Simon, which was officiated by Baltimore cult filmmaker John Waters

John took it so seriously, it was so touching. It was very straightforward. We decided to marry in secret, which would later get us both in a lot of trouble with our respective families who did not like this. We married on our deck on a beautiful October day and the only person present beside John was Ethan, my stepson, David's son. Ethan would have been 13 at the time, and I had rewritten the vows so it said that ... we would like to ask Ethan for permission to join these two families, as he will be the person most affected by this. Ethan, being 13 years old at the time, said, "Yeah, I guess so." That was it. And then we went downstairs and we ate cupcakes and John gave us great gossip from the set of Hairspray.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Laura Lippman, is well-known for her popular series of novels set in Baltimore featuring detective Tess Monaghan. Her new stand-alone novel, "Lady In The Lake," was described as extraordinary by Stephen King, who reviewed it in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The novel is set in Baltimore in the mid-1960s. The main character, Maddie Schwartz, is in her late thirties trying to start a new life as an independent woman after leaving her husband and moving from the suburbs to the city. She manages to find the body of an 11-year-old white girl who'd gone missing. Rather than just give her story to a reporter at the paper, Maddie insists on sharing the byline. That helps her land a job as an assistant to the help line columnist at the paper. She uses her newspaper credential to investigate the story behind another body, a young woman discovered in a fountain. Unlike the story of the dead white girl, no one at the paper is interested in this victim's story because she's black and worked at a cheap copy of the Playboy Club.

The novel investigates issues of race, class and sexism, as well as what life was like at city newspapers in the mid-'60s. Lippman's father was an editorial writer and columnist at The Baltimore Sun at the time the novel's set. Laura Lippman later worked as a reporter there. She was a newspaper reporter for 20 years before writing novels full time. Later, we'll talk about her personal essay about becoming a mother at the age of 51.

Laura Lippman, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this novel.

LAURA LIPPMAN: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

GROSS: So I want to start by asking you about Trump's Baltimore tweet from the weekend. You've lived in Baltimore since you were 6. You worked for The Baltimore Sun newspaper there, and your Tess Monaghan detective series is set in Baltimore. Your first novel is called "Baltimore Blues." And then, you know, when you think of Baltimore artists, you think of you, your husband, David Simon, who did "The Wire," set in Baltimore, and John Waters. So, (laughter), all right. At least, that's who I think of. So let me just recap the tweet. This was about Congressman Elijah Cummings, who chairs the Oversight Committee, which is investigating Trump. So Trump tweeted that Cummings' district is the worst in the U.S.A., it is a dangerous and filthy place, it is a disgusting rat and rodent-infested mess, no human being would want to live there.

You live there?

LIPPMAN: I live not in U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings' district but in an adjoining district. I have lived in the city pretty consistently since 1989 when I finally got back there after eight years of trying to get back there as a journalist. And I choose to live in the city in a truly urban neighborhood. One of the ironies about Trump's tweet storm on Saturday is that I didn't see it until rather late in the day because my neighborhood was at its ninth annual block party, which was something - we just came together as neighbors and started doing. And it's a huge event. And we have bands and a bouncy castle for the kids, and the children were running in the street with water guns and there was food. And I felt I had to comment on it a little bit, and then I backed away. It's so shoddy in terms of logic, but there's also just this basic disrespect for people who choose to live in cities. It didn't begin to understand that cities are resilient and the fact that we survive or thrive at all in the light of terrible problems isn't to be criticized. It's to be celebrated.

GROSS: The president has insulted your city and your former profession, journalism - the media is the enemy of the people. So what's your reaction to that?

LIPPMAN: When it comes to the criticism of the media, I hold the president of the United States responsible for a coarsening of rhetoric that has empowered and emboldened people, including the person who came to the Annapolis Capital Gazette last summer and shot and killed five people, including my friend, Rob Hiaasen. And people point to that and they say, that's not fair, this was a grudge that predated the 2016 election, you're just being slippery with your facts. And I think it is fair. And I tell people, of course, I think rhetoric matters. Of course, I think words matter. Look at what I do for a living.

And at a time when I know newspapers to be really embattled, and the people who work at my former newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, they haven't had a raise for six years. They're down to a skeleton staff, and they're doing a great job of covering the city. They're the ones who uncovered the malfeasance that the president then mocked, the scandal that engulfed our now-former mayor who had to step down. How do you think these stories come to light? And to hear what such hardworking people do mocked as fake news or lies and to see people encouraged not to take them seriously and to consider them enemies? They're the opposite of that.

GROSS: I should mention that you turned in your manuscript, or maybe it's that you completed your first draft the day before the shooting at the newspaper that you just mentioned, where your friend was one of five people who were killed. And the book is dedicated to those five people and their families.

LIPPMAN: That's correct. I turned the book in on June 27. My editors in the U.S. and the U.K. had said it sure would be nice if you could finish by July 1. So I pushed myself, got it done. And as a reward to myself and my daughter, we headed toward the beach, where my mother lives. And we had just crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, have lunch, and I checked in with my mother. And I said, we should be there soon. Did you run into traffic in Annapolis, she asked me? And I said, no, why would I have run into traffic there, midday? And she said, there's been a shooting.

And what I can't get over is that microsecond of being blase and numb about it, of receiving that news and being almost accepting of it, and asking my mother, oh, where was it? And then, of course, her answer turned my world upside down because my friend worked there, and I knew it was very likely that he would be one of the victims.

GROSS: Why did you think he would be one of the victims?

LIPPMAN: He was an editor so chances are he would be in the newsroom at that time. And this is going to sound really silly. I spent the next hour and a half on Bluetooth talking to friends from all over the place. We were all engaged in this really magical thinking about why Rob would be alive. And part of it was, as a reporter, Rob loved to be out of the office. Rob was so well-known at The Baltimore Sun as the person who couldn't stand to be at his desk. He wanted to be out there in the city, finding stories. But he was an editor. And then it was, well, maybe there's a reason he's not checking in on social media. And we made up reasons for that.

And I had literally pulled into my mother's driveway - I can hear the crunch of the shells under my wheels - when my friend, Jon Morgan, who was on vacation in Michigan and was also very close to Rob - Jon now works at Bloomberg - called me and said, it's official, he's among the dead. And I burst into tears. And I won't repeat the expletive I said, but I was like, Jon, he's just so tall - you know, the idea of this 6-foot-5 man who couldn't be missed by a shooter. And we were both kind of crying-laughing at the same time. And I am still crying thinking about it. I don't know how his wife and his kids get by day to day. Maria has - his wife has become an amazing champion of groups that aim to stop gun violence in our country, and I admire her so much.

GROSS: So you're a crime writer. I mean, your books are all about crimes and solving crimes. And a very dear friend of yours was actually murdered. Has that affected how you want to write about murder and crime?

LIPPMAN: I'm happy to say that at least I can in good conscience feel that, for quite some time now, my work has been centered in a respect for victims and a hope that people who read my books feel that respect and understand that I'm not really interested in cheap sensation or victims as MacGuffins. And the book that I turned in the day before Rob was killed was a book that ultimately gives its story to the victim.

GROSS: It literally gives her voice.

LIPPMAN: She is the first person we hear from, and she is the last person we hear from. And she has what I consider to be the most important line in the entire book, when - from across a void, as she presents herself as a ghost, she says to the woman who is so determined to know her story, you are interested in my death, not my life; it's not the same thing.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Lippman. She is famous for her Tess Monaghan detective series. Now she has a new stand-alone novel called the "Lady In The Lake." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Lippman, who was a reporter for many years at The Baltimore Sun, still lives in Baltimore most of the year. And now she has a new novel called "Lady In The Lake" that's a mystery crime novel. It's a stand-alone novel, separate from her award-winning Tess Monaghan detective series.

Your novel's set in the mid-'60s, in '65 and '66, at a time when it was hard for women and African Americans to get decent jobs. But it was especially hard, of course, for African American women (laughter), facing both of those, you know, quote, "deficits" to get good jobs. And there's also gay people in it, and it's before the gay rights movement. What made you think about setting it in the mid-'60s, at a time when some people had started demanding their rights and others were soon about to?

LIPPMAN: I started with the year 1966 because, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I couldn't figure out how to write about the present, and that's not even a partisan opinion. It just felt that it was a time that was at once extremely frenetic and extremely static. It felt as if everyone in my life, myself included, spent their time on almost this hamster wheel of social media, the news network of their choice, social media, the news network of their choice.

And they would run around and around and around, and they'd be very excited about the breaking story of the day, the hour. This will change everything. Things are - and then nothing would happen. And I thought, this is insane. I don't know how to write about contemporary times. I've since read some novels that I think do it really well, but they don't go straight at it.

And I had long planted in my Tess novels that her parents met against the backdrop of the governor's race of 1966. And the governor's race of 1966 in Maryland seemed similar in many ways to the 2016 presidential race. There was an insider candidate that no one really found that exciting but recognized had sort of checked all the boxes and had won his place on the ballot through showing up and or ascending through the ranks.

And there was this outsider who bested more experienced politicians, got the nomination and then ran on an overtly racist platform. Difference in Maryland in 1966 is the outsider was a Democrat. And the staid, conventional Republican candidate was Spiro Agnew. And Democrats abandoned their party, especially African American Democrats - and who can blame them? - to vote for Agnew. So I started there.

Almost none of this is in the book at this point (laughter); it's just way in the background. And then I began looking at '66 in Baltimore, and it was a fascinating time. It was the year, at the end of the year in which a police commissioner named Donald Pomerleau would arrive and start talking about more truly integrating the police department because, at the beginning of 1966, African American officers can either be patrolmen or they can be in vice, and that's it. They're not even allowed to drive patrol cars and have radios. That's how segregated the department is.

GROSS: And your main character is in a period of transition, too; it's not just the times. Like, she's left her husband. She's trying desperately to have a career that she really wants, as a newspaper reporter, but there's only, like, one woman (laughter) at the newspaper where she wants to work.

And she's right in - and, you know, not only are the times right in the middle, she is in the middle. And there's, like - she is no longer the Miss she used to be when she was 17, and she's really no longer a Mrs. because she's in the process of divorcing. So Ms. hasn't been invented yet, so she's neither here nor there in terms of her status in the world. There's no word yet to describe her without sounding like she hasn't married yet or she's married now. So it's an interesting time for women in the mid-'60s, when you're writing. It's also an interesting time in your family because that's when your father started writing for newspapers, right?

LIPPMAN: It's when my father came to The Baltimore Sun in 1965. He had been the Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Constitution. And The Sun that he joined in 1965 was a legendary newspaper with a much-admired Washington bureau, where Russell Baker had once worked, and foreign offices all over the world.

GROSS: I want you to read a paragraph from your novel that describes the newsroom when your main character, a woman, walks into it for the first time.

LIPPMAN: (Reading) Maddie's first impression of the newsroom was that it was, well, filthy - filthy and loud. So many newspapers piled everywhere, people shouting, typewriters clacking, a bell ringing somewhere. And so many men. But there were women working here, she reminded herself. She had read their bylines, seen their stories. Women could be reporters, too.

GROSS: Compare that to your memories of The Baltimore Sun newsroom when your father worked there and you were a child and would visit him there.

LIPPMAN: The newsroom that my father joined was one where, as an august (ph) editorial writer, he had a private office with a door. He kept a dartboard in there, where at one point Spiro Agnew's portrait was at the center of that dartboard. It was loud and raucous and fascinating.

GROSS: For people who don't remember Spiro Agnew, he became President Nixon's vice president and was basically pushed out of office because of various corruption scandals he was involved in.

LIPPMAN: Right.

GROSS: Tell me more about the newsroom then and your impressions of it as a girl. Did you think, this is what I want to do when I grow up? Because you did it for years.

LIPPMAN: I found the NEWSROOM very exciting. And there was almost sort of, like, a newsroom annex in our home because my father had regular poker games with his best friends from the paper. So years later, when I went to work there, I was working alongside many of the men who had once sat in our dining room smoking cigars and playing cards.

It was interesting and intriguing to me. As a kid, I wanted to be a novelist. As a college student, I looked around and thought, I don't actually know any novelist, but if I go to work at a newspaper, I can write for a living. And that's what I wanted to do.

GROSS: Did the newspaper seem like a man's world when you started working at it?

LIPPMAN: Yes. I mean, I had started working at newspapers in 1981, spent eight years in Texas, and then I came to The Evening Sun in 1989. And I worked in newsrooms before Anita Hill. There were definitely changes made because of Anita Hill, and newspapers began taking the work culture more seriously.

I was involved in a sexual harassment incident involving two of my colleagues. It was very strange. And I'm not sure I would have ever complained, but my boss looked over my shoulder and saw what one of them had written to the other about me and said, this has to be reported. It's so - it was like a pornographic message, in effect, about me.

And my memory of that is, the oddest thing is, when it was all over and they decided, you know - both of them were lectured on not doing this. And this is the, you know, mid-'90s, that's about - but I remember the top editor sort of wanting me to basically say, no hard feelings. Like, his context was that the man who had so offended me, well, he's just neurotic. He goes to see a therapist. And I'm sitting there thinking (laughter), there are a lot of neurotic people in this newsroom who don't write messages like this about their colleagues.

GROSS: So did you do what was expected of you and say, no hard feelings?

LIPPMAN: I don't remember saying, no hurt feelings; I remember being desperate for the conversation to end. I was in an interesting position in that I was a member of the union, as most of us were. I'm very pro-union. And the head of the union came to me and said, you understand we have to defend them, that this is about process, and there is no written rule that this is a firing offense. And I said, I understand that, and I actually vouch for it. I believe that that's right.

There was no policy at the time that would have been, you know, zero tolerance. And I wanted the union to defend them, and I understood that their jobs could be affected, and so therefore they were entitled to be represented by the guild. I wouldn't have it any other way.

GROSS: My guest is Laura Lippman. Her new novel is called "Lady In The Lake." After a break, we'll talk about her personal essays, including one about becoming a mother at the age of 51. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "WEIRDO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with novelist Laura Lippman. She writes the popular "Tess Monaghan" detective series. Her new book is a standalone mystery novel called "Lady In The Lake." It's set in the 1960s. Lippman has also been writing personal essays.

You know, I'm thinking one of the stories in your new novel, "Lady In The Lake," involves the main character Maddie, who's the newspaper - she wants to become a newspaper reporter. And her ticket in is that she's found a body. And one of the stories she's working on leads to the discovery of another body, and she wants to be the person investigating this.

When she was younger, when she was 17, she had a relationship with an older man who was actually the father of a boy who the main character had been dating in high school. And I don't think it ever quite occurs to her how predatory a relationship like that probably was.

LIPPMAN: No, she's very much a person of her times. And first of all, she's bought into the older man's logic that he's bestowed something special on her, that he's seen something special in her. He's flattered her. He's described her as a libertine and someone who wasn't made to live inside the normal strictures of the society they're in.

GROSS: And that he was going to give her the freedom to express her body fully. And - because she's a queen, and he's a king.

LIPPMAN: Yes, and they're special. They stand - you know, they're not like everybody else. But, you know, Maddie Schwartz in the novel, she's playing what she thinks is a winning hand. She's a beautiful woman in a world where beauty is pretty much the best thing that a woman can bring to the table. And she's been granted that. And she plays that card. And she's very happy with it. Doesn't occur to her to ever second guess it or think, well, is that right? Is that fair? Is that how women should be judged? It's, like, this is how women are judged. I got it. I'm going to use it.

GROSS: And the older reporter who is a woman at the paper where Maddie's trying to work, she looks at Maddie, and she basically thinks, God, these young women. They try to use their bodies.

LIPPMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: They want to, like, date the newspapermen. I never made a mistake like that. And it's just a really interesting dynamic that you've created there. They don't interact very much. But of course, there is a chapter from the point-of-view of the older woman who's been a reporter for a long time covering the labor beat because you get into the heads of everybody in the book almost.

So just talk a little bit about creating that dynamic between two generations of working women.

LIPPMAN: So I came into newsrooms when women maybe five to 10 years older than I am had done a lot of the heavy lifting. They were the ones who had really, like, knocked in the door. And they had to be so tough. And I always said I was of the generation where we had now reached the point where one could go cry in the bathroom. You still couldn't cry in public, but you could cry in the bathroom. And I did a lot of crying in the bathroom when I was a reporter.

And so I kind of kept backing it up and thinking OK, and so the generation before that, how much tougher did they have to be? I mean, there have always been women reporters, you know? But they've - and they've always been tough as nails in my opinion in the best possible way.

And, you know, I know that as a young reporter, I often seemed silly and flighty to some of the women I worked with, perhaps fairly so. And, you know, I aspired to have them take me seriously because they took themselves seriously, and they took the business seriously. So I was really aware of all of that history.

GROSS: When you'd be crying in the bathroom, what are some of the things you'd be crying about?

LIPPMAN: The one that stands out most vividly in my mind is when I'm a very young reporter in Waco, Texas. And we get these little slips of paper in our mail slots - I used this to a certain extent in "Lady In The Lake" - and you would have this assignment written on a piece of paper.

And one day, I reached into my box, and I was asked to go cover the christening ceremony, if you will, for the new public bathrooms in a city park. And the thing that just destroyed me was first of all, the editor who gave me this assignment, with no sense of fun or irony or any idea that he was making a very bad joke, asked me to get all the poop.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIPPMAN: So that was indignity number one. But the worst part was the last three words were no big deal, in case I thought this was my big break. No big deal, you know, dampen those hopes. It's really not - it's not going to be a page one story.

And at that moment, I just thought, is this my life? And I can still see myself standing in the bathroom at the Waco Tribune-Herald crying and looking out at the parking lot.

GROSS: Did you write the story?

LIPPMAN: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Did you try to get an interesting angle?

LIPPMAN: You know, at 23, I was not capable of that. Later in my reporting career, I would have been, like, let's go. And one of the things that I came to over 20 years of journalism is that I realized that the best stories - I always paraphrase Auden in his poem to - "In Memory Of Yeats" - places where executives would never want to tamper.

And over 20 years as a reporter, I really wanted to be where executives would never want to tamper. Didn't want to cover presidential politics. Didn't want to be in a big scrum of reporters. I wanted to be the reporter who went out and talked to the high school English teacher who built his own speed bumps in his alley because he couldn't get the county to do it. That was my idea of heaven by the time I was coming to the end of my reporting career.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Lippman. She's famous for her "Tess Monaghan" detective series. Her new novel is a standalone called "Lady In The Lake." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Lippman. She's famous for her Tess Monaghan detective series set in Baltimore, where Lippman lives. And now she has a stand-alone novel also set in Baltimore, and it's called "Lady In The Lake." And it's also a crime mystery. The main character is a woman who is divorcing and wants to have her own career and her own voice and work for a newspaper. So Maddie, your main character in "Lady In The Lake," is Jewish. Tess Monaghan, a character in your detective series, is not. You're Jewish. You're not Jewish? I assumed you were Jewish.

LIPPMAN: It's complicated. So my grandfather, Theodore Lippman, was the son of Jewish immigrants. He married into a Protestant family, and my father grew up with zero knowledge of Judaism.

GROSS: Wow.

LIPPMAN: I ended up babysitting for the family of an Orthodox rabbi when I was in college, and I have now married into a Jewish family and I am raising my daughter as a Jew at a wonderful synagogue in Baltimore, although I consider myself an atheist. But I think I'm inescapably Jewish. And I've found that people who are patrilinear Jews with lapsed parents often feel this way. And I feel very much at home within the Jewish faith. Even though I don't practice it or believe it, it feels kind of second nature to me. And of course, every year because of my husband, my daughter and my in-laws, you know, I observe all of the Jewish holidays more so (laughter) than I do any Christian ones.

Tess was actually created as the inverse of me in that she has a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. So you know, she is Jewish because she has a Jewish mother, even though she's non-practicing and wasn't raised in the faith. But she goes through life with this Irish Catholic surname and, you know, she's freckled, and she has reddish-brown hair. And people often say incredibly anti-Semitic things in front of her, assuming agreement. I was raised Presbyterian, but my last name is Lippman. And throughout my journalism career, I received a lot of anti-Semitic hate mail. And there was once even this hilarious episode on Twitter where, when I condemned monuments to the Confederacy as a native of the South, I woke up the next morning and found out that there had been a Twitter investigation into whether or not I was a Jewish.

GROSS: Wow.

LIPPMAN: Which I just thought was hilarious.

GROSS: After years of being a newspaper reporter and a novelist, you've started writing personal essays that are really good. And I'm wondering if there was a change in your life that made you think that you were going to open up your own life as subject matter and not write about things in your life through the transformative powers of fiction.

LIPPMAN: So I think as a former journalist and current novelist, I actually had a lot of skepticism about the personal essay. And I worried that some of the young women I knew were exploiting their own lives in a way that made me worried for them, like, don't tell that story. But I've found myself suddenly wanting to tell personal stories. And I think a lot of that was rooted in my father's death, after my dad died in December of 2014. First of all, there were stories I could tell because he wouldn't be around to be embarrassed by them. But even when he was alive, I had sort of found myself veering into personal essays by accident. I was asked to write about my favorite bar in Baltimore, and that became a very bittersweet essay about my father and me. It began with, I stole my father's bar. I never meant to.

And it became this meditation on, you know, how kids are almost rapacious and respect nothing in their parents' lives. They just figure it's all theirs for the taking. I wrote a piece about my mother, who's still alive, and how the Christmas stocking that she made for my daughter seems to have turned out to be the last Christmas stocking she'll ever knit. Not for any reason of frailty or - anyway, so I sort of wandered into it. And I felt like I had this really original story to tell, which is what it's like to be the oldest mom, always.

GROSS: So you decided to become a mother. And by the time you became a mother, you were 51, which is a very unusual age for a lot of reasons, including the physical ones. Most women can't become pregnant at that age.

LIPPMAN: Nor could I. So, you know, I found a different way to add a child to our family, which was something my husband was very keen to do.

GROSS: I want to stop you there because your husband had a child from a previous marriage. This was your second marriage, but you didn't have a child. And you said most people assume, like, so you want one of your own? But it was really your husband who was leading the way in wanting another child. So what was your role in deciding, yes, I guess I want one, too? I want one, too, at the age of 51?

LIPPMAN: My husband persuaded me that there was something wonderful about making a family, and that, yes, I had the wonderful problem of having a stepson, whom I consider perfect. My stepson is one of the most perfect, lovely people I've ever known in my life. He's 25 now, and I just adore him. So I was like, you're not going to get a better one.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIPPMAN: But I understood that there was, like, a bonding that my husband wanted with me that for him involved having a child. And I talked to a good friend, a man who, you know, had said - he told me, he said, look, if the person you love wants a kid, that's a pretty good reason to have a kid. I mean, I wasn't anti-kid. I was just always a person who's been really quick to to throw in the towel and is like, hey, I'm in my 40s. I'm on a second marriage. I don't get to have a kid. And my husband got me to re-examine my willingness to settle for less and to say we could do this.

GROSS: Wait. Did you feel like not having a kid was settling for less? Or did you feel like you hadn't wanted to have a child earlier so that you'd have more freedom to do what you did, to become a newspaper writer and to become a novelist and a bestselling novelist at that? You were doing two things at one time. You were reporting during the first five novels that you wrote. I'm not sure there'd be time to be a parent and do all that, too.

LIPPMAN: There wouldn't have been, but I had assumed I would be a mother at some point. And I didn't find it to be a huge drive, and I don't think it would have been tragic to me not to be a mother. But I also think that I am easily persuaded to settle for less. And I sort of looked at my life and I said, well, so this is kind of weird. I've kind of done the career stuff and it's going well, and we have some resources that aren't available to us because we're so advanced in our careers. We have financial resources. The biggest drawback in being an older parent is your mortality suddenly has much higher stakes.

GROSS: You keep doing the math. How old will I be when she reaches a certain age?

LIPPMAN: And I didn't realize what was inside of me until I sat down to write that essay.

GROSS: What was inside of you that you didn't realize?

LIPPMAN: I didn't realize that I wanted to make the case for me being an older mother. I don't want to tell any other woman or man on the planet what to do when it comes to kids. I find it offensive when people lecture other people and say, you must have a child. I'm not crazy about people who say, oh, my God, having a child is such a big mistake. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that maybe we have to start thinking about having children is part of the climate change issue in front of us and that the world population has become very political. I wanted to write my personal story about how much joy and hilarity and consternation - if that's the right word - I had found in being a parent to a young child. I just wanted to tell my story about it because I thought it was funny and specific, and no one else could tell it.

What I didn't expect was that this very specific story of being the oldest mom would resonate with so many women I know. You know, I hang out with much younger women because they had their children at more traditional ages. And it's kind of a great and interesting perspective. I forget how old I am because I'm so used to being with people who are 20, 25 years younger than I am. I was chatting with one of my favorite mom friends at the street fair on Saturday, and I think I'm the same age as her mom, but it just doesn't come out. So I just wanted to tell this really personal story. It was gratifying to see how people responded to it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll be back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Lippman, who's famous for her Tess Monaghan detective series. Now she has a new novel that's a stand-alone called "Lady In The Lake." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is novelist Laura Lippman. She writes the Tess Monaghan detective series. Lippman has a new stand-alone novel called "Lady In The Lake." She's also been writing personal essays. When we left off, we were talking about her essay about becoming a mother at age 51.

When your daughter was still an infant, people would come up to you and go, oh, your granddaughter (laughter). How did that make you feel?

LIPPMAN: When people comment that way, I'm actually trying to be really sympathetic. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It is. It's fair game. So I tried so hard to come up with something to say that would be accurate but kind, and I would say, no, I'm her mother, but I am old enough to be her grandmother. And as I noted in the essay, what surprises me is how hard people double down on why they were right to ask me that question. And I think sometimes they get embarrassed and flustered, and it makes them almost aggressive to get out of the situation. And I don't know. Maybe I should just say thanks. Except now that my daughter is older, it affects her.

GROSS: Right.

LIPPMAN: And, you know, kids are so sensitive, so we've talked about it a lot. And she's like, why do people even talk about this? I said, I don't know, but they do, so let's just be as gracious as we can.

GROSS: What has surprised you most about being a mother?

LIPPMAN: I'm good at it - never saw that coming.

GROSS: (Laughter) Is that one of the things that held you back from becoming a mother, thinking, like, I'm not going to do a very good job at this?

LIPPMAN: Yes. I did not think that I had an ideal temperament. And of all the things I struggle with as a parent, patience is probably up there. But I'm learning it. I'm learning to be kinder in some ways because kids say incredibly hurtful things. And I think it's human to want to go toe to toe with them. I hate you. You want to say something back. But yeah, I'm pretty good at it.

GROSS: What do you say when your daughter says I hate you?

LIPPMAN: If I'm having my best day - my best day and my best moment is, like, I can see why you would feel that way right now. If I'm having my worst day, I might say - well, why don't you just open the door and go find a better mom?

GROSS: (Laughter)

Your husband, David Simon, is very well-known because he created "The Wire" and "Treme," two of his series for HBO. And he's now adapting Philip Roth's best-selling novel "The Plot Against America." You were both newspaper reporters. Did you meet at the newspaper?

LIPPMAN: We met at the newspaper. I think it was 1990 because when I arrived at the Evening Sun, David was on leave writing the book that would become "Homicide." We met - it's a cute story - because I came to work one day - this would have been in '90 or '91 - and I had a blotter, one of those big old-fashioned paper things with the calendar. And my blotter was covered in a coffee stain.

And I looked around. I said, who was working at my desk last night? And someone said, you know, Simon was there. And I was furious. And I accosted him and said, you just spill coffee all over my desk and you blot it up with the blotter? And he admitted that he had, and he apologized. And I asked him to give me a copy of his book "Homicide," and we still have it, obviously. And it's inscribed - do you want cream with that, hon?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIPPMAN: And he was my colleague for the years he was at The Sun. He took the same buyout as my dad in 1995. In 1997, we got to know each other a little bit better because we were both promoting our second books that fall. And then his marriage ended. Later, my marriage ended. And you know, we call it Smalltimore (ph) for a reason. There are just not that many people, and so it just seemed natural to start dating. And you know, we ended up moving in together, I think within two years of starting to date, and then marrying a couple years after that.

GROSS: So when you and your husband, David Simon, got married, you got married by John Waters. Did he, like, find a way to officiate? Like, did he do kind of send away for whatever credential you need?

LIPPMAN: John had actually been what's called a Universal Life minister for quite some time. I believe he had married 16 or 17 couples before he married us. And he was actually kind of trying to get out of the marrying game. I don't remember how we convinced him to do it for us. I mean, David, in particular, shares a good friend in common with John - Pat Moran, the casting director of Baltimore.

John took it so seriously. It was so touching. I mean, it was very straightforward. We decided to marry in secret, which would later get us both in a lot of trouble with our respective families, who did not like this. We married on our deck on a beautiful October day. And the only person present besides John was Ethan - my stepson, David's son. Ethan would have been 13 at the time. And I had rewritten the vows so it said that this is a point in a traditional wedding ceremony where someone, often the father, is asked if he gives his permission. We would like to ask Ethan for permission to join these two families, as he will be the person most affected by this.

GROSS: Wow.

LIPPMAN: Ethan, being 13 years old at the time, said yeah, I guess so.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIPPMAN: And that was it.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really just been a pleasure.

LIPPMAN: It's been a delight for me.

GROSS: Laura Lippman's new novel is called "Lady In The Lake."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Geoffrey Fowler, who will talk about some of the ways our phones, computers and smart speakers harvest and use information about us. For instance, he says while you're sleeping, your smartphone is sharing personal data with companies you've never heard of. Fowler writes a consumer-oriented technology column for The Washington Post. Hope you can join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE BEDROCK'S "COUNT DUKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.