Laura Lippman’s 22nd book Wilde Lake (Faber & Faber, £12.99) follows Luisa “Lu’” Brant as the first elected female state attorney of the famous planned community of Columbia in Maryland, US, which was created to be a utopia of racial and economic equality. But a case she’s working on and an old one dredged up from the past proves the suburb is anything but.
You are a prolific writer of novels. Is your efficiency thanks to your background in journalism?
My efficiency is, in part, because of my journalism background, but I also think writers have natural metabolisms. I am a fast writer. Always have been. I once wrote a page-one story for the newspaper in less than 15 minutes.
You worked on the Baltimore Sun alongside David Simon, your husband and creator of HBO series The Wire. How much have your real life experiences fed into both of your depictions of Baltimore crime, and how much do you feed into each other’s work?
We are both very much influenced by stories we covered, institutions we know from our reporting days. But we don’t affect each other’s work that much because I tend to be interested in individuals and their relationships, while he’s taking a much more macro view of the world in which we live.
Women at the top of their game are treated differently from men
Do you grapple with portraying your home in a negative light?
My hometown? No. I think I’m very honest about Baltimore and it’s a city that respects honesty.
You’re well known for you Tess Monaghan series. Is it a nice change in pace to write a standalone novel like Wilde Lake?
I love toggling back and forth between the series and standalones. It’s like cross training.
Why did you name the novel after your own high school?
I think the novel is named for the lake itself, which then gave its name to the high school and the neighbourhood. The book begins and ends with the lake in the background. I didn’t plan this out, but it’s a pretty powerful metaphor – a manmade lake reminds us that when we imitate nature, we still fail to control it. Wilde Lake may be manmade, but a child could still drown in it, it can overrun its banks, flood people’s homes.
The Brock Turner rape case has recently propelled campus rape into the public eye and sparked fresh debate over the frat-jock culture of American education institutions and its hero-worshipping of bright young men. Were you trying to get under the skin of the issue in Wilde Lake?
Yes. I’ve been paying attention rape-culture for a long time and wrote a digital original, Five Fires, that focused on why a young woman would vilify a classmate who was raped (this was based on a true story). This might sound pretty out there, but I have pretty much rejected the he said/she said paradigm. It presumes a false equivalency, where both people have equal power to harm. The best statistics we have suggest that victims file false reports in 2-8 per cent of rape cases. That means 92-98 per cent are valid. And you know what? I won’t use the terms “date rape” or “acquaintance rape” anymore. Stranger rape is the anomaly. Words like “date” and “acquaintance” imply that the crime is somehow lesser. It’s not. Rape is rape.
Wilde Lake does not seem like a good place to be female. Even Lu, as the first female state attorney, is brutalised in her affair with a former high school athlete. Is it your experience that even as a woman at the top of her game professionally, you are on the back foot?
Women have made a lot of progress in my lifetime, but yes, it’s my experience that women at the top of their game are treated differently from men.
Memory and how we view the past is a recurring motif. What were you exploring here?
The primary thing I wanted to explore was that we tend to look at the past with horror and dismay at the backward ideas people held. But one day, the present will be the past, and we’ll be judged, too. And probably found wanting. I have a very vivid memory of telling a joke – one I learned in a novel written by a woman in the 1980s – that can only be described as a rape joke. I did this in 2006, upon making a new friend, and we shared a hearty laugh that I could fill in the punchline of the joke he was trying to tell. Ten years later, I’m appalled I ever did that. So the question is – what am I doing, saying or thinking today that will be unthinkable in another decade?