Lippman On Women and Ambition

Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I'm Gone After I’m Gone (HarperCollins/ Morrow; HarperAudio; HarperLuxe), gets a strong nod from Janet Maslin in the NYT this week, “The characters … are so well drawn that it’s easy to forget why they happen to be connected. Almost all of them are strong, willful women.”

“Willful” is an odd adjective. It seems to only be used to describe women and children, never men, since it is an expected, even applauded, male characteristic.

Speaking to librarians at the United for Libraries Gala Tea at Midwinter in January, Lippman talked about the “willful women” who have inspired her (including her mother, a librarian) and about another gender-shifting adjective, “ambitious,” encouraging us all to embrace it.

Thanks to Laura for allowing us reprint her talk, below, and to Virginia Stanley, HarperCollins Library Marketing, for helping us get that permission.

Laura Lippman, Photo by Jan Cobb

Laura Lippman, Photo by Jan Cobb

It’s a happy accident that my next book [After I’m Gone] comes out on Feb. 11 because it is very much a Valentine’s Day to the generations of women, including my mother, who gave birth to the women of the so-called Baby Boom. This was not conscious when I began writing the book, but it was clear to me by the time it was finished. Bernadette “Bambi” Brewer – left, with three days, to fend for herself when her husband Felix decides he cannot serve even a portion of his 15-year sentence for mail fraud – emerges as the closest thing that my book has to a heroine. Bright and beautiful, she has never wanted to be anything but a wife and mother, and I think the book ultimately validates her choice.

Now, I’m a crime writer. I never describe myself as anything else. In fact, I was so appalled at what I saw as another writer’s recent attempt to disavow the genre that I wrote a somewhat, um, spirited defense of my genre roots. The piece that had so offended me included lines such as “my big literary novel” and an announcement that the writer, after writing three crime novels, was now girding himself to stride into “the great arena of art.”

But it also made me realize how uncomfortable our culture is with ambition. Particularly when it comes to women.

Has anyone said of a woman: She’s really ambitious – and meant it as a compliment? Perhaps it’s not a compliment when applied to men, either, but I think it’s really a slap at women. Ambitious means ruthless. Ambitious means confident. Ambitious means she’ll backstab you to get what you want.

I struggle with this. On the one hand, I clearly flunked out of Feminine Self-Deprecation 101, although I do like to make fun of myself in some arenas – my love of food, my silliness, the endless paradoxes in my nature. Just this morning, I posted to Facebook that I need to resolve the inherent contradiction in my nature that allows me leaving the house caring not at all how I look, but then cringes when I see photographs taken when I have left the house, not caring how I look. I have always been very careful to stipulate that when I make the case for the crime genre – for any genre, really – being able to produce great work, I am not saying that I will produce that work.

But you know what? I’m going to try.

I come to you fresh – well, pretty much the opposite of fresh, absolutely fried – from a week of teaching at Eckerd Writers Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. The program is 10 years old, I have taught there every year since 2006. I have no MFA, not real credentials to teach writing at all, although I did teach creative writing as adjunct faculty at Goucher College for three semesters. Dennis Lehane, who founded this program at his alma mater, recruited me to teach. I told him I had no credentials. And he assured me that, after a rocky first year which saw only one teacher returning, he had only one requirement for any faculty member: You can’t be an asshole.

Still, it is intimidating to teach alongside such writers as Andre Dubus III, Stewart O’Nan, Ann Hood and, in previous years, Tom Perrotta, all of whom have the credentials I lack. Sometimes, I have to swallow my pride and ask them straight up to explain a term that is new to me. Ann, for example, mentioned the correlative object in a piece. And Peter Meinke, an amazing poet who reads there every year, has provided me with the definitions of villanelles and an ABCDarius. He recited one of the latter this past week, a joyful and hilarious poem about the jogging craze of the ‘70s.

But that got me thinking: the big knock on genre is that it’s lesser because it has rules. But what has more rules – and more precise ones? – than poetry. And yet poetry is never thought to be lesser. If anything, it is an art and a practice held in higher esteem. Now there’s an inherent paradox it seems to me. Nick Hornby, in praising the novel Mystic River – written by my friend Lehane – noted that it does everything a literary novel would be expected to do AND MORE.

This is not to argue that there aren’t clearly works that rise above us all. But it is to argue for ambition among all writers, whatever our genres. And I have come to realize that my ambition – beyond trying to write a better novel every time – is nothing less than to write a cultural history of women in my lifetime. The story of the Brewer family – the Brewer women – neatly spans my entire life. My birthday, Jan. 31, 1959, falls two weeks before 19-year-old Bambi Gottschalk meets Felix Brewer at a dance he crashes.

To say this is to be grandiose, hubristic. Well, why not? Going back ten years ago, when I wrote a novel called Every Secret Thing, I confronted the fact that I couldn’t write better novels about men than my friends – Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos. But I could write better novels about women. At the time, I liked to joke that Every Secret Thing was the darkest, most hardboiled novel to begin with an anecdote about a Barbie doll. I said it might read like a literary novel – if literary novelists ever learned to plot. Joking, yet not. For there was some disdain about plot in certain literary circles, although I think that has fallen by the wayside. In part, because genre writers – all genre writers – have been flanking them.

On my last day of teaching, I took the final minutes of my class to tell them to do one thing: Say your dream out loud. Say it to at least one sentient person. Sing out, Louise, as Gypsy said to her daughter. Tell someone, anyone what you want. Own your ambition. It’s not dirty. It is presumptuous. But to write is presumptuous, so you might as well own that, too. To say: I want to tell the story, I want to tell you what matters – in a world where none of us, ever, will run out of good things to read. That’s big-time ambition. So own it.

I started as a paperback original writer. I didn’t get the kind of contract that allowed me to quit my day job. But once, at 2 a.m., I got drunk and I told my husband: I want to be a New York Times bestseller. I want to be considered one of the best crime novelists of my generation.

It would make a better story if I were still married to him. A better story still if our divorce came because he was not supportive of my work. Neither of those things happens to be true. But I said it. I said it drunk, sure, but I said it and I meant it.

The main thing I wanted, however, was to be a working novelist. On January 1, I was at an airport, flying home, and everyone looked so glum, whereas I was secretly celebrating: Hooray! I get to go back to work tomorrow. I try to be conscious every day that I achieved my dream. And to never lose sight that I did it with the help of the men and women in this room. Thank you.

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