Edgar-winning crime writers Laura Lippman and Alex Marwood have been friends for five years or so, keeping up regular contact across the Atlantic. When Marwood did a Hollywood deal for her thriller The Killer Next Door, Lippmann, whose novel Every Secret Thing was adapted was adapted for the acclaimed film of the same name in 2014, was the obvious person to turn to for advice on how to handle the business involved. They didn’t stick to advice for long, of course, but turned, instead, to opinion…
Laura Lippman: How important is it to see your work adapted? I mean, from an artistic standpoint? Once upon a time — less and less these days — even a bad film could free up a good writer and help her career. (I confess I’m thinking of the mess that Hollywood made of Sara Paretsky’s early books.) I’ve known a lot of male writers who seem to need film or television as an artistic validation. And maybe some women feel the same way, but I’m not one of them, despite having seen an excellent adaptation of one of my works. Where do you line up on this?
Alex Marwood: it’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? It’s one of those things that does seem to validate one in other people’s eyes, so I suppose from that point of view that it’s great to get a film deal, even better to have that film deal actually turn into a Thing. But from the artistic point of view? Not really. I guess if I didn’t want them to be books, I’d have had a go at writing them for celluloid in the first place. I adore film, but it’s a different thing, isn’t it? I’d love to have go at writing them, but it’s such a very different skill that the thought of having to learn how I find rather daunting. How about you? Do you ever toy with your ideas as films rather than novels, as you’re feeling your way through?
LL: There is exactly one film/television project that I want to try my hand at, and that’s developing a television series for the Tess Monaghan books. But that’s only because I have a singular approach that I don’t think anyone else will try and I understand how the business works. I need to create a blueprint — a pilot and a so-called Bible — then find a showrunner to execute it.
But I never think, as I write, oh this would be simpler/more fun to write as a film. I’m a huge fan of James M. Cain, but Raymond Chandler once pointed out to him that his dialogue, which seems so film-ready, wouldn’t work at all on the screen. (And some very faithful Cain adaptations have proven Chandler right.)
Plus, I like writing novels because I’m the most misanthropic social animal you’ll ever meet. I love people; I often hate working with them. I wonder if you feel the same? We both have that newspaper background and while it was immensely fun and I adored it, I often chafed at how little power I had. Nothing made me angrier than seeing what should have been a Page One story get poor play because it had bad “art.”
What about you? Don’t you love the “aloneness” of writing? And as someone who used to write on very tight deadlines, aren’t you pleased to be able to follow your own writing metabolism now?
AM: Oh, God, it’s heaven. I actually went freelance as a journalist years before I started writing books for that very reason. I mean, I love people. I really enjoy meeting them and winkling detail about themselves out of them, but a little bit of me is always planning my day around when I can get to be alone again. I once remarked to my editor, when I was freshly back and white with exhaustion after the World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, that it was odd, making several hundred introverts go out and party for five days. “Yes,” she replied. “Contrarian introverts, at that.” Which does sort of sum up the average novelist’s personality, I think. You’ve got to enjoy spending time alone with your imaginary friends more than anything, and be bloody-minded enough to ignore the odds stacked against success, to thrive in this game.
That said, I’ve hugely enjoyed the brainstorming sessions I’ve had with the team developing The Wicked Girls for TV. I’m just always happy to get home and think about them in peace and quiet afterwards. And I do occasionally have these ideas for films that I’d love to have a go at, as long as someone took them off my hands and never bothered me again after the first draft. There are still so few really good roles for women compared with those for men. Despite the huge popularity of Sigourney Weaver’s tough vulnerability in Alien and, say, the cold ruthlessness of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction – one of my all-time favourite movies – most modern films seem to be written to a belief that the only alternative to “pretty cipher” for a female part is “kick-ass”.
LL: Such a good observation re: film roles for women. I was just — 5 minutes ago — in an airport bookstore, looking at all the female centric books and wondering why there aren’t MORE female-centric films despite quite a few big successes. When a film with a female lead flops, the repercussions are felt for years. Yet despite WILD and ROOM and BROOKLYN, it’s still a battle. Should we aim our sights on TV?
AM: mmm… hard. Despite the amazing stuff featuring really convincing women – The Bridge and The Killing spring to mind – I still hanker after my no1 recast movie – The Usual Suspects with Gaboure Sidibe (the chick from Precious) in the Keyser Sose. If they didn’t notice the limping little rat-man, imagine how long it would take them to notice the fat black chick! And she’d so rock the downtrodden part, and the amazing transformation at the end.
One of the things I love, though, is those underground TV hits that pretend to be something else that men will like while actually being totally aimed at letting women objectify men deliciously, like Supernatural and The Walking Dead…
LL: And how interesting that those are both horror! What other male franchises should be rebooted– I mean, besides the White House? I vote for an all-female Oceans 11, but without the love story.
AM: That’s funny, the Hillary thing, isn’t it? It’s the one place where Hollywood isn’t behind, equalitywise. They’ve had black presidents, and Madam Presidents, all my grumpy old adult life.
Yeah, it’s a pity the reboot they chose to feminise was Ghostbusters, isn’t it? And that they of all the films they picked it would be one I never found funny in the first place (but maybe that’s just me)? Actually, I’m not sure how much modern comedy could be rebooted for a female cast. I mean, I love me some Farrelly brothers, but they’re almost all predicated on male inadequacy, and how funny it is to find an inadequate male, and, you know… female inadequacy is taken so much for granted in modern Hollywood that it wouldn’t be funny. Oh, when you think back to the comedies of the thirties right through to the late sixties, when suddenly “charming ditzes” like Goldie Hawn became the thing. The women were smart, fast-witted, ingenious..
LL: I haven’t seen Ghostbusters yet — with a small child, my cinematic life tends toward talking animals — but I am in the tank for Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy. That said, what an interesting idea, inadequate males versus adequate females. I still get angry over School of Rock‘s females — not only the waste of Sarah Silverman, but the little suck-up, Summer. Women were seen as innately joyless, in need of a man child to find their authentic selves. And people wonder why the “GIRL” books took hold. Good lord, if we — well, our female protagonists — have to be unlikeable to anchor books, so be it. Give me a multitude of Amys (that’s a Gone Girl crossed with Sondheim allusion) if that’s what it takes.
Here’s the thing: I think women are asked, still, to tell so many lies (Being a mother is so fulfilling, Oh, it’s not small at all, etc) that crime serves us very well. Scratch a woman, find a rage. And a story. Speaking of which — what are you writing now? And reading?
AM: Ooh! I’m doing something on cults! So exciting. The research is the best, and has taught me so much about human nature generally, authoritariansiam, our tendency to never question attitudes once we’ve decided we like them. It’s going to revolve around a family who find themselves suddenly responsible for two teenaged survivors of something like the Jonestown massacre. So I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction revolving around that. I’m also a third of the way into Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said and it’s absolutely brilliant: so so atmospheric. And I’ve just finished Megan Abbot’s You Will Know Me, which blew me out of the water, too, and Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me. My God, there’s a lot of powerful writing going on in psych crime at the moment. And you?
LL: CULTS! WANT NOW!
Sorry, got a little excited.
I read a lot of books at once, four to five, then one breaks from the pack and races toward the finish line. In the past two weeks, I’ve read S.J. Bolton’s Daisy in Chains, Linda Fairstein’s Killer Look and Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and I have several other books in progress. Am dying to discuss Siracusa with people because I think it’s excellent, but I also wonder if its shocks are somewhat subdued for those who read a lot of crime novels. Maybe it’s not meant to be surprising? I don’t know. That’s what I yearn to discuss. Yet, like you, I”m a huge fan of Megan’s book, which didn’t surprise me, but did shock me, if that makes sense? I think women crime writers are very good at this, making the expected shocking.
Meanwhile, I’m writing a novel set in 1995, which is a mash-up of several works by James M. Cain, cross-pollinated with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, a 1995 novel about a woman who abandons her querulous family during a vacation. A very funny novel, warm and big-hearted, but isn’t that the most noir idea? And in my novel, the woman is the stranger who arrives in a new town. Yet — she’s a domestic creature who yearns to put down roots. That’s one of the basic tensions in The Postman Always Rings Twice, wanderlust versus domesticity. As someone with a strong nesting instinct, who expends a lot of energy on making things “nice” around the house, I’m fascinated that men find this sinister. And yet they do.
AM: Yes, it’s so odd, that. And yet so many men like my father, who was suspicious in that way too, also thought that women who weren’t constantly questing for more “nice” were terribly suspect. I think the dichotomies – public/ private faces, ambition/ domesticity, children/ not children, “nice” / self-assertion – with which women deal on a daily basis are at the core of a lot of the good psychological crime. Can’t wait to read this. I LOVED Wilde Lake. Love the way you’re playing with literary tropes and yet staying within the boundaries of the crime novel at the moment. But of course, that’s one of the wonderful things about our genre – the amount of wiggle room within it, the fact that all sorts of writers can pick up the ball and run in unexpected directions. I’ve always wanted to do an anthology in which a dozen writers were all given the same basic plot starter, and see where they go with it. I can guarantee that each story would be wildly different. But maybe that’s a subject for another day…