My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Did I once meet Laura Lippman and try to mansplain one of her own characters to her?
Yeah, I did. Sort of. But I swear it was an accident!
More on that in a moment…
Here we’ve got a novelist doing a series of essays, and the topics include family, marriage, motherhood, friendships, aging, accomplishments, tragedies, regrets, sexism, and social media. While those subjects are universal, Ms. Lippman’s perspective on them is unique. After all, I don’t think there are that many former reporters turned award winning crime writers who married the guy who created The Wire.
The most impressive thing about this is by focusing in on her specific circumstances Ms. Lippman can then provide insights that apply to a lot of us. For example, her and her husband had become acquainted with chef Anthony Bourdain, and his death was a hard blow for them. People all over the world mourned Bourdain, yet it’s her personal connection to him that leads to a touching examination of not just losing a friend, but also grieving celebrities we never met.
In Game of Crones Ms. Lippman talks about becoming a mother. Obviously, motherhood is something that many women experience, but she had her child in her fifties so she’s outside the traditional model. She fully admits that doing this was maybe the ultimate example of white privilege. Yet by explaining why she chose to do it and how she balances her writing with raising her daughter even as her husband is absent for months at a time as part of his work, she once again highlights something that many people can relate to even if her specific circumstances are different than most people.
That brings up another interesting aspect which is that despite being well off and telling stories about meeting famous people and traveling the world, Ms. Lippman still comes across as down to earth and not an entitled jerk. It helps that she goes into her middle class background, and how she struggled to find work as a low paid reporter at the start of her career while eventually writing her first books in the early mornings before work. There’s a sense of having paid her dues as well as self-awareness and gratitude about how things worked out that make you happy for her instead of jealous. (OK, I was a little jealous when she talks about being friends with several crime writers I admire.)
The thing that struck me most is that even though a large part of this discusses her fears and what she thinks are her shortcomings is just how remarkably self-assured Ms. Lippman comes across. While she can mock herself and find no shortage of flaws with her own character, she’s a woman who set out to become the very person she is now, and she is pretty pleased with the results. She doesn’t think she has all the answers, and she has the same self-doubts that any sane person does. Yet, while she’ll acknowledge them, they don't paralyze her, and she doesn't let herself be stopped by other people's opinions. This gives her a distinct perspective as someone who has thought a lot about what really matters to her, and that's an oddly rare trait.
Despite this confidence the one observation I might have made before I met her is that Ms. Lippman seems overly harsh in her self-criticism. The title essay about being a villainess comes from a story she tells about how she divorced her first husband, who had supported her novel writing from the start, just as she was about to hit the big time as an author. She admits to ruthlessly exploiting what she knew about him during the divorce as well as not being fully honest about her feelings that the marriage was over when they separated. She also goes on at length about her failings as a friend as well as tendency to hold grudges.
I might have once argued these are just the same kind of things that a lot of people struggle with in their lives, and that doesn’t make her a villain. However, it’s thinking that Ms. Lippman was being needlessly hard on herself that led me to the incident in which I found myself mansplaining her own character to her….
I went to the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas, and one of the authors I was hoping to meet was Ms. Lippman because I’d just finished her two most recent books and absolutely loved them. I saw her and some other writers on panel about unlikable characters, and the lead from Lady in the Lake came up. The book is set in the ‘60s and involves a woman named Maddie suddenly divorcing her husband and leaving her child with him. She finds work as a reporter and begins to dig into the recent murder of a woman. Over the course of the story Maddie shows a streak of ruthless ambition and willingness to screw anybody over to get what she wants.
As I recall, during the panel Ms. Lippman was the only writer to declare that she thought her character was ‘unlikable’. I found that interesting because I had very mixed feelings about Maddie and went back and forth as to whether she was sympathetic or not. Yes, she does questionable things, but she’s also a woman trying to make it on her own in a time when that was even harder than it is today.
After the panel I went to a signing session, and as Ms. Lippman autographed my books, I told her I was a new fan, and how much I loved her writing. She thanked me, and I had happened to catch her a moment when no one else was in line so we started chatting for a moment. I mentioned that I had heard what she said about Maddie on the panel, and that I was a little surprised that her opinion about the character was so much tougher than my own.
She noted a couple of the specific things that Maddie did in the book that she felt weren’t forgivable, and this is where I went off the rails. I wasn’t trying to be the guy who argues with the woman who created the character. I wasn’t trying to argue at all. I was nervous and excited to have the opportunity to talk to Ms. Lippman, and what I was trying to say was that I thought she had done such a great job in making Maddie a real and complex character that despite her flaws, I still felt real empathy for her.
Almost a year later, I can articulate that pretty well as I write this review. What I did in the moment was to come across as insistent that Maddie wasn’t as bad as her creator was saying, and when I realized I was botching it, I panicked. And dear reader, that’s when it happened.
I interrupted Laura Lippman and started talking over her, and it very much sounded like I was saying that she was wrong.
The only saving grace was that I saw the look in her eyes, realized what I was doing, and I managed to shut my big stupid mouth and say, “I’m sorry, please go on.”
She was incredibly polite, and she finished the thought I’d so rudely tried to talk over. Then another fan came up to get her books signed, and so I thanked Ms. Lippman again. Then I fled in shame. I looked for an opportunity to see her again that weekend so that I could apologize, but unfortunately, I never got a chance. Now I had to read her essay Men Explain The Wire To Me with my fingers crossed hoping that there wasn’t a brief mention of the idiot in Dallas who tried to tell her about her own character. *whew*
So that’s why if Laura Lippman declares that she’s a villainess, I’m just going to nod and agree.
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