An Exclusive Q&A with Laura Lippman
If you’re one of the readers who have been hooked by our August Thriller of the Month, we’ve got a treat to round off the week, an exclusive, quick-fire Q&A with the book’s author, Laura Lippman. And for any readers who haven’t yet discovered Lippman’s intoxicating, heat-soaked story, don’t worry. The autumn nights may be closing in, but there’s still plenty of time to catch Sunburn.
Your book plays very inventively with stereotypes, particularly the trope of so-called ‘bad girls’ in fiction. Were those stereotypes something you were keen on interrogating and subverting from the outset?
I definitely wanted to invert much of the classic set-up, in which an attractive stranger comes to town, only to be distracted by someone. That’s how The Postman Always Rings Twice begins. But Postman is also a story about a wanderer versus someone who yearns for domesticity/rootedness, and I didn’t try to flip that script. Polly wants a home, something she’s never really had.
The novel begins with a woman, Polly, making the decision to walk out on her husband and child. Why you think the censure levelled at women who leave their families is one of the most entrenched social taboos? Did you set out to write a story that would encounter the different ways in which men and women are held to account about their family responsibilities?
I was always very interested in the sly way women spoke about Ladder of Years when it came out. Anne Tyler’s novel is warm and comic, her character is pretty much justified in bolting - but all the women I knew at the time, especially those with families, spoke about it with almost mordant humour. Women are definitely judged by their maternal instincts, or lack thereof. I don’t know a single mother who thinks she’s doing a great job and our culture is really eager to affirm that.
It’s a novel that, narratively, works to undercut reader’s expectations at every turn. Did you have a clear direction for the characters and the novel before you wrote the book, or did some of those twists and turns take you by surprise as you were writing?
I had a pretty clear vision, but there were some surprises for me and my friend Lauren Henderson (who writes under the name Rebecca Chance) had to sit me down in her London garden at one point and tell me: “No, it’s a little too nihilistic, you’ve lost faith with who you are. You write Laura Lippman books and if you keep going this way, it’s not going to have what makes your books distinctive.” I am so grateful for that intervention.
The novel is very precisely located in 1995 and your descriptions of place and music really ground the story in that time. Why was it important to you that this story should take place in this near-past?
Trying not to give too much away, but I needed to set this novel at a time when people were still struggling with the concept of Battered Wife Syndrome, when there was still a lot of skepticism about whether a woman could come to believe that homicide was her only way out of an abusive relationship.
There’s a real sense in this novel of the many ways women - not just Polly but other women in the novel like Cathy and Gregg’s mother Savannah - can be trapped, imprisoned by their lives. How important was that idea to the construction of Sunburn?
Yes, the women in this novel are trapped, with the possible exception of Sue Snead, the private eye, and even she has troubles. But most of the men are trapped, too, except for Adam. I’ve just come off a cruise ship where I was the writer-in-residence, and interested travellers met at the end of the week to discuss Sunburn. Several of the readers were concerned by the pain and havoc caused by [redacted!] and I reminded them: “But you know about that pain because I showed it to you. I wrote those chapters, too. I didn’t want it to be easy to root for anyone in this book.”
It also seems important that the story doesn’t just belong to Polly, but to other characters; is it important to you that this novel is an ensemble piece? How important is that structure, do you think, to highlighting the many different versions of the truth in the novel for a reader?
When I was a reporter, I sincerely believed that I should be able to open a phone book, point to a name, call someone up and find a good story. The world teems with stories. By affording point-of-view to “minor” characters - a video store clerk, a grieving woman, a PI - I wanted to remind readers that just about anyone could be the main character in the right novel. And I wanted readers to see how perceptions of Polly shift from person to person.
As an author are you interested in the mitigating factors and prejudices that affect responses to ideas of guilt and innocence?
I’ve always been interested in how the specific can trump the general. For example - people in the US cannot focus on the immigration crisis, but they can focus on individual stories. Crime fiction provides an opportunity to talk about issues that people think would bore them silly.
Part of what makes Sunburn such a compelling read is the atmosphere you create for the reader. There are echoes of classic American noir in the tone and mood of the novel, particularly the novels of James M. Cain. How influenced were you by that feeling evoked in American noir when writing Sunburn?
I always wanted to be a noir-ish writer, Cain is a huge hero of mine. But it wasn’t a voice that came naturally to me. I think, over 20 years of writing and publishing, I am less optimistic than I used to be on a global level, although I try for the sake of my own young daughter, to believe the future might bring good things.
Sunburn is rooted in the minutiae of small-town America. How important was it for you to really immerse your characters in that environment? Is there something distinct about the environment of a small town community that is particularly ripe for a story of intrigue and secrecy?
I’ve never lived in a small town, but Baltimore is known as Smalltimore and I have a somewhat high profile in my hometown. But more than that, I’ve been driving through these small Delaware towns for over 25 years, visiting my parents, and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to live there. Small towns scare me. It’s hard to have privacy in a small town, hard to have secrets. But I also think I’d like to live in one - for a single summer.