Laura Lippman gives the tabloid story some shocking twists in ‘Prom Mom”

The acclaimed crime fiction writer talks about how a podcast sparked her new novel, how she decided to set it during the pandemic and why her next book will be “sweet.”
Laura Lippman's latest novel is "Prom Mom."
Laura Lippman's latest novel is "Prom Mom." [ VICKIE GRAY IMAGES LLC | Vickie Gray ]
Published Aug. 3

It’s a tabloid headline we’ve all seen — or think we have: “Prom Mom!”

The OMG story: A teenage girl who doesn’t realize she’s pregnant goes into labor at her high school prom and delivers a premature baby in the bathroom. The baby dies. The girl goes to prison.

For hew new novel, bestselling author Laura Lippman borrows that clickbait headline and the kernel of the story. She picks up the main characters — the girl and the boyfriend who impregnated her — 20 years later, and what happens then is not what you’d expect. “Prom Mom” is one twisty, mind-blowing thriller — I read it in one day, because I didn’t want to stop. And I can’t tell you much more about it, because it’s so beautifully crafted its secrets shouldn’t be spoiled.

Lippman, a Baltimore native and the author of the Tess Monaghan mystery series and 12 stand-alone novels, is familiar to many Tampa Bay area readers — she’s a longtime faculty member of the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. She’ll be back in January for the 2024 session.

“It was great last year to have everybody back in person,” Lippman, 64, said in a recent Zoom interview. She talked to the Tampa Bay Times about “Prom Mom,” the upcoming movie version of her book “Lady in the Lake” and more. The interview has been edited for length.

What was the genesis of the novel — was it a specific news story?

One thing that’s really funny that I didn’t understand until I started doing research is that it’s not one specific case enshrined in people’s memories. I was listening to the podcast You’re Wrong About (I’m very honest about stealing) and they pointed out it was never about one individual case. There are lots of them.

What caught my imagination during the podcast was something the co-host, Sarah Marshall, said, and I think she was being sarcastic: “Yeah, teenage girls are so in tune with their bodies.”

That just hit me. It was so vivid I can tell you exactly where I was on my daily walk, what the weather was, where I was along the harbor.

I thought, yes, this is plausible, a smart high school girl not knowing she was pregnant. I had always thought when I heard about these things that most girls this happened to were either really stupid or they really knew what was going on and they lied.

But once you see that it’s plausible that a smart girl could not realize she’s pregnant, it changes everything. It immediately shifts because that brings in a lot of the crime elements, like intention.

What’s so surprising to me is that the girl survives. Childbirth is dangerous. To think of a girl who doesn’t know she’s pregnant delivering a baby with no help in a bathroom — that for me was the entry point into the book. It really could happen that way.

I read about a lot of cases. It happens a lot, and it’s going to be happening more, because that’s the world we live in now.

The second thing that sealed the deal was another couple, I think they were in college. A girl and a boy went to a dance together in the ’90s. He didn’t know what was happening (when she went into labor). Then years later they became friends on Facebook.

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I went whoa, there’s your 20th century detail. Now I’m ready to go.

“Prom Mom” is very carefully structured to maximize suspense. How did you build it?

I went back and looked at my files on this book, and I probably wrote and jettisoned more copy than I ever have in my life

My instinct at first was to write in the style of true crime documentaries, with lots of talking heads: Here’s the guidance counselor, here’s the hotel maid.

Then I thought, no. This is a story about three people. If you have lots of talking heads it becomes sensationalistic, like my least favorite kind of true crime podcast. There are lots of them I love, but I don’t like the ones that seem salacious or sensationalistic.

It’s about Amber, who has the sensational, tragic, felonious experience at prom. It’s about Joe, her unwitting date. If we can say anything for sure about Joe, it’s that he didn’t know she was pregnant.

And it’s about Meredith, this woman he met and married in college who is his absolute supporter. The thing she says to him is “It’s never too late to start being good.”

Some of the novel is made up of flashbacks to 20 years ago, but most of it is set just before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. When did you decide to make it a pandemic story?

I could never see it as anything else. I don’t think people necessarily want to read them, but I couldn’t not. I had to write about it.

Once I shooed the other people out of the book, it mirrored what I wanted to capture in our culture in the early months of the pandemic when people’s lives were incredibly interior. We were inside our houses and inside our own minds.

During this weird time we all lived through, I bet a lot of people did things they never thought they would do, for better or worse. The world we knew was gone.

I heard a piece, I think it was on NPR, about people having affairs during the pandemic, and I thought, wow, people are amazing.

You write in the afterword that the book was influenced by James M. Cain and John Updike, two writers not often mentioned together. Can you talk about that?

Cain is why I wanted to become a crime writer. I love his stories. They just start.

Like “Double Indemnity.” The movie version — (Raymond) Chandler wrote that, Billy Wilder directed it — the moment you see the two leads in “Double Indemnity,” they’re just so beautiful that you go, oh yeah, they’re going to have to kill her husband.

I want to see them working up to that. The inflection point of transgression — the moment when someone decides they’re going to do something awful — is what’s interesting to me.

As for Updike, I do not understand someone who does not love the Rabbit books. The first one I read was “Rabbit Is Rich.”

You see the details of quotidian life used so well, the price of gas, the clothes people wear, the silver market.

That character is such an amazing literary achievement. I’ve always been interested in that type, Harry Angstrom, or Robert Redford’s character in “The Way They Were.” That all-American boy who’s just good-looking enough, just smart enough, just nice enough, just gliding through life.

It’s important to me that Joe arrives in “Prom Mom” as a genuinely nice person. It’s not a John Hughes movie; he’s not that evil preppy.

His expectation is that his life will continue to be frictionless, which I think is a mistake for anyone.

What’s the status of the upcoming Apple TV+ series based on your 2019 book “Lady in the Lake”?

We do not have an air date. At one point Natalie Portman (who stars in the series) said something in an interview that sounds like it might be early 2024, or maybe late 2023. It’s been filmed in its entirety, so it’s not affected by the writers strike. I think it will be different from the book in some good ways.

What’s next?

I’m turning it in Sept. 1. It’s a book about a minor character from the Tess Monaghan books, Mrs. Blossom. She did surveillance for Tess because she’s an older woman and no one notices an older woman.

The book is very sweet because she’s sweet. The first line is, “Mrs. Blossom had never been upgraded in her life.”

A sweet book is not really typical for you.

It’s not. I think it’s a reaction to “Prom Mom.” Those people wore me out.