“Always throw away your first line."
Novelist Laura Lippman says that is one piece of advice she'll give students at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College.
"Just this week I've been reading Anna Karenina," she says, and was intrigued to discover from the book's introduction that the famous first line of Leo Tolstoy's novel — "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" — wasn't the original opening line.
"It was the second sentence, 'All was confusion in the Oblonskys' house.' I happen to think that's a better opening."
Lippman knows something about writing first lines. She has published 14 novels, 10 of them about series character Tess Monaghan. Like Lippman, the quirky, independent Tess is a former newspaper reporter; unlike her creator, Tess became a private eye. Lippman, 50, wrote her first seven novels while still working at the Baltimore Sun but now revels in writing fiction full time.
She'll be returning for the fifth time to teach at Writers in Paradise, which was founded six years ago by Eckerd alum and bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) and the college's creative writing program director, Sterling Watson (Sweet Dream Baby).
Lippman and Lehane have been friends since meeting at a writers conference in 1996. "We're the same generation in terms of our publishing careers. We're part of a like-minded group — we don't take ourselves seriously, but we take the writing and books seriously."
During the day, the weeklong conference, which begins Saturday, brings together a faculty of notable writers and small groups of creative writing students for intensive workshops in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
In the evenings, faculty members offer free public readings, followed by book signings. (See schedule, below.)
Lippman is excited about returning. "I call it fiction camp. The faculty share the same B&B. . . . We stay up late at night and talk about books all the time. I get all wound up. I'm like a hyperactive 7-year-old."
The novelist's life is usually a more solitary one. She does most of her writing in a coffeehouse near her Baltimore home. "I like the buzz," she says, because it reminds her of the newsroom.
Her usual spot is next to the children's play area, and one day a kid was throwing a tantrum right next to her as she tapped way at her keyboard.
"The manager said, 'I don't know how you can work.' I said, 'Hey, I worked at the Baltimore Sun. This is not the first time someone was screaming and crying while I was working.' "
Besides, she says, she gets more work done than she would at home. "Home is the procrastination palace. If you're a stay-at-home writer, it's 'Oh, the laundry.' Pretty soon it seems like the right time to be cleaning the baseboards with a Q-tip."
Lippman is speaking by phone not from Baltimore but from New Orleans, where her husband, television writer-producer David Simon (The Wire), has been overseeing filming of his upcoming HBO series, Tremé.
"Yeah, I'm kind of getting that whole get-out-of-winter thing." She likes New Orleans but says she doesn't think she'll ever write a book set there. "People are lining up to write about it. New Orleans has no shortage of champions. Baltimore needs me."
Her last novel about Tess, like Lippman a Baltimore resident, was Another Thing to Fall, published in 2008. The same year, she wrote a serialized novel for the New York Times, The Girl in the Green Raincoat, in which Tess has a baby. It will be published as a book, although a date hasn't been set.
"I'm really kind of glad for the time to think about it," Lippman says. She expects to write about Tess again, but it will mean "writing about a significantly altered universe. If I hadn't had her have the baby, I think I would have had to end the series."
Lippman's most recent book, Life Sentences (2009), is a standalone novel. "I had never written a book about a writer, and I wanted to do that." The writer is Cassandra Fallows, author of two bestselling memoirs and a not-so-successful novel. She returns to her hometown of Baltimore (of course) to research a nonfiction book about a former schoolmate whose baby mysteriously disappeared. The self-centered Cassandra discovers that her childhood friends and family members have read her memoirs and don't remember things the way she does — with some shocking repercussions.
"I also wanted to write about a deeply unpleasant person," Lippman says. "My agent said about Cassandra, 'You know people will think this is you.' That was liberating to me. I thought, I'll make her even worse."
One theme of Life Sentences is the consequences of a writer's use of other people's lives. "It's an issue for all novelists," Lippman says, noting that one of Tolstoy's inspirations for Anna Karenina was a local woman who threw herself under a train. "He even went to her autopsy."
Her books are always based on a true crime story to some degree. "People ask me, 'Did you get permission to write about that?' I know it sounds kind of cold, but I don't need permission. But I understand why they ask."
Lippman turned in the revised manuscript of her next book three days before Christmas. "After spending a year in the life of Cassandra, I wanted to write a novel about a happy person."
She says she expects readers to think the inspiration for I'd Know You Anywhere is the Elizabeth Smart case, but it's not. "I'm being very veiled this time about what inspired the book. It's a not very well known case of a killer who raped and killed all his victims except one.
"I thought, the one left alive — wow, what happened to that person?"
In Lippman's novel, after being attacked as a teen she grows up to become a "happy, secure, centered" woman who keeps her past a secret from all but a few people — until the killer writes her a letter from Death Row.
"Cassandra wrote books that book clubs read. I wanted to write about the person who's in the book club, sitting there with her glass of white wine talking about the book."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.