Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Hush Hush"

Since the publication of her first novel in 1997, Laura Lippman has won virtually every major award given to U.S. crime writings, including the Edgar Award, Anthony Award, Agatha Award, Nero Wolfe Award, Shamus Award, and the Quill Award. She is a New York Times bestseller.

Lippman applied the Page 69 Test to Hush Hush, her twelfth Tess Monaghan novel, and reported the following:
Hush, Hush begins with a transcript from a documentary-in-progress, one of several included in the book, and it turns out that a crucial one is on Page 69. I think long and hard about everything I do and it was important to me that these transcripts transcend gimmick. I think they do, but I can’t explain how without a major spoiler, so you’ll have to trust me: These are not quick and dirty attempts at exposition.

But what interests me about the transcript on page 69 is that it features a character inspired by a real-life woman who, in turn, inspired this book. Most people remember Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children and was, eventually, found not guilty by reason of insanity. Fewer people know that she had a roommate in the facility where she ended up, another woman who had killed her child in a similar postpartum psychosis. Only Yates’s roommate was released, while Yates remains. I don’t use the woman’s name because what struck me about her story was how quickly her new life was taken from her. She got a job at a Wal-Mart, a television news station broadcast this fact. Her notoriety — not her crime, but the gawkers who came to see her — made it impossible for her to keep that job.

With writing students and my husband, who is also a writer, I often talk about the idea of “flipping it.” I stumbled on this idea while writing The Most Dangerous Thing, a novel that was published in 2011. A little boy has been sexually abused. It is 1980 and his family decides that the best recourse is not to speak of it, ever. On the 4th of July, he shows up to march in the neighborhood parade. In my first draft, he wore a horribly inappropriate costume, his father slapped him. On the next draft, I flipped the scene: the boy shows up in a silly, but hopeful costume. He is dressed as the goalie from the so-called “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team. He plans to walk the parade route in skates. (Skates with rubber covers on the blades, but skates.) His father and his brothers walk alongside him as he makes his painstaking way, ultimately take turns carrying him. It is a great triumph. But a few weeks later, the father is forced to admit that it has changed nothing. His son is sad, damaged, and they still can’t talk about it. There will never be enough small victories to heal his son.

Flip it. Nice psychiatrists, non-pedophile priests, good girls who turn out to be bad girls, bad girls who turn out to be good girls — I’ve included all those characters in my work after finding the default of my own imagination, then turning the idea on its head. Instead of writing about a woman who wants to disappear, achieve anonymity, I wrote about a woman who wants the world to know what she did and why. So she makes a documentary about her life and seeks out her roommate. In that way, my story traveled full circle.

I had hoped against hope that page 69 would open to a scene in which Tess Monaghan’s daughter has a tantrum in a crowded grocery store. That scene is the touchstone of the book, the one cited by most readers so far, the one that I plan to read at appearances. This scene, by contrast is one of the book’s darkest. The woman being interviewed, Poppy, can be irritating, greedy even, but her breakdown over being asked to describe what she did is very real. “You might think it gets easier to say that.” she tells the interviewer. “But it gets harder. Every time. It gets fucking harder, okay?”
Visit Laura Lippman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue