VJ Books Blog

There are clues in Laura Lippman’s new novel, “Life Sentences,” of what it is like to be an artist who has achieved some measure of independence.

The book’s protagonist, Cassandra Fallows, is, like Lippman, a best-selling writer. At one point ,the character comments on how she had “become accustomed to how self-employment dulled the days, blurring all distinctions. Monday, Monday? She not only trusted that day, she rather liked it.”

Lippman, who appears Friday at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, acknowledges the necessity of being engaged beyond one’s own work.

“I need to remain in touch with the world,” she says. “I work by myself. I have a very pleasant life. And if I weren’t careful, I would be in such a remove from day-to-day life I’m not sure what I would have to write about. I’ve done everything I can to stay grounded, to stay in the world.”

For Lippman, that entails basing many of her stories on real incidents. For “Life Sentences,” she took plumbed details from a story that happened years ago in her native Baltimore. A mother, who was being monitored by a social-service agency, spent seven years in jail for contempt of court when she refused to answer questions about the disappearance of her son. The case still is unresolved.

Lippman took the story, changed names and wove it into Fallows’ biography, giving the character another reason to investigate her childhood. The question Lippman had to answer, as she does in almost every novel, are what stories are fair game for fiction.

“I make a distinction between being inspired by something that’s been in the news and ripping something from the headlines,” she says. “I make that distinction, some other people don’t. … On some level, this book was written to explain that. And it would have been a little too easy, a little too pat, to make Cassandra a fabulous person, a likable person, even. It was much trickier and much more of a challenge to have this person who is not always likable and does have some real ethical problems, to say that even she is entitled to write what she wants to write. It’s there in the first chapter: Why do I get to write it? Because I’m a writer. And the implication is anyone can write what she or he wants to write if she or he is strong enough to deal with the ramifications.”

In “Life Sentences,” Fallows has become a literary star because of two memoirs. When an attempt at fiction fails, she is encouraged by her editor to return to memoir, to find more stories that will resonate with readers.

The problem is, Fallows has exhausted the essential material: her parents’ divorce, her failed marriages. When she hears a news account referencing Calliope Jenkins and her refusal to talk about her son’s whereabouts, Fallows realizes there’s a connection. Jenkins was a classmate in grade school. Inspired, she returns to Baltimore and starts to hunt down other classmates, many of whom are unhappy about their portrayal in Fallows’ memoirs.

That her former classmates and friends Tisha, Fatima and Donna are black — Fallows is white — adds to the tension. For Lippman, this was potentially volatile material, given that some of her ancestors owned slaves.

“I can’t make that nice,” she says. “It’s a sad, ugly fact to be hanging over a family, and it is my family.”

But Lippman did not hesitate to write about race in “Life Sentences.” She thinks that as long as a writer has listened closely to the stories and the history of race relations, anything is permissible. Lippman recounts an anecdote from her career as a journalist, when a black man came to her newspaper’s office seeking a job as a reporter.

The receptionist automatically thought the man meant “porter” and told him to go to the train station.

“Imagine that experience for a college-educated man looking for a professional job, and because of the color of his skin, it’s assumed he doesn’t want to be a reporter,” Lippman says. “These stories are out there if people will listen and pay attention. And if you listen and pay attention, again, you get to write it. I had no qualms writing about Tisha, Fatima, Donna and Callie.”

Order your signed copy of Life Sentences by Laura Lippman from www.vjbooks.com

(pittsburghlive.com, Tribune-Review,Mar. 29, Rege Behe)