As astute trackers of the Nightstand can see, I started on Ms. Lippman’s latest over the weekend. Mystery novels go too fast; I’m restricting myself to a chapter or two a day. “Another Thing to Fall” is part of her Tess Monaghan series, and features the broad-shouldered P.I. on the set of a television show shot in Baltimore.
Huh, you’re thinking.
“Mann of Steel,” the fictional show, isn’t “The Wire,” which we all know was exec-produced by Mr. Laura Lippman, but it started me thinking about how writers work, especially creative writers. Her last book, which we are contractually obligated to refer to as “the New York Times bestseller, ‘What the Dead Know,'” had its roots in a remembered event from Lippman’s adolescence, about the disappearance of two sisters from a local shopping mall in the ’70s. During that book tour, I heard an interview with her where the questioner wanted to know about that story and its relationship to the finished novel.
I can’t quote Laura directly, but she made a distinction between “based on” and “inspired by,” and whether the interviewer swallowed it or not, I can’t recall, but anyone who writes knows exactly what she was talking about. The roman a clef is a time-honored literary form, and is excellent as a tool of revenge. (“Heartburn,” besides having good recipes, is responsible for my twin labels on Carl Bernstein. That is, “partly responsible for ridding Washington of Richard Nixon” and “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” And then there’s “The Wire,” season five.) But only a writer utterly lacking in imagination can get away with straight fact-to-fiction, for a lot of reasons. You can never get your endings to fit, for one, as in real life the bad guys tend to prosper and not fall in a hail of bullets in the last five pages. Dammit. My experience with fiction is very limited — one screenplay, some abortive stories here and there — but the wonderful thing about it is, it’s a conjurer’s trick. You create your characters out of clay, breathe over them and make them live, and then they turn around, kick you in the kneecap, and start doing what they want. You can try to stop them, but doing so will retard your story. Your responsibility, as a writer, is to tell their story, and they will tell you what it is. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; it’s the closest your average modern person will ever get to voodoo possession.
I recognize a lot of the details of “Mann of Steel,” Lippman’s fictional TV show, from journalism I’ve read about “The Wire” — the sets in the unglamorous building in the unglamorous neighborhood, the producer who keeps the ship afloat by making sure no one spends like it’s Hollywood, a few other things. But it’s her own creation. It’s inspired by, not based on.
When I was at the University of Michigan on sabbatical, I briefly took a TV-writing class before dropping it out of boredom. Whereas, in screenwriting class the semester before, we’d been encouraged to dream big, to wrestle with big themes and tell big stories, the TV-writing teacher suggested we all get a newspaper subscription and scan the police news for stories we could rip off. Meh. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn the professor was a veteran of the “Law & Order” writers’ room.
I mention this just as a reminder, should any of my abortive stories ever find new life. Except for the dog. Every dog I will ever write will always be the Sprigman. His personality is too strong to change.
(What happened to “Law & Order” besides too much success? Sometimes I catch some of those early-season episodes like “The Troubles” and just shake my head. This was great TV, once. But not for a long time.)
So, bloggage on a dreary, rainy day that will nevertheless rise above 40 degrees, qualifying it as “beautiful” for this time of year:
I don’t always follow the Fug Girls’ thinking on some of their targets, but they are so, so right about Heather Mills no-longer-McCartney’s divorce-court ensemble. If I had that body, and that bank account, and needed to wear pants most days, you’d never catch me in anything but Armani. In fact, I even know which Armani — a duplicate of the pantsuit Darryl Hannah wore in her final scene in “Kill Bill, Vol. 2,” right down to the blouse. I’d have about a dozen in three or four basic neutrals, and I’d wear one every day and I’d always look awesome.
Calling fellow Bobcats: All remains mellow at our alma mater. Thanks to Basset for sending the story of two kids whose heat lamp started a dorm fire:
Though the two students responsible for fire and widespread flooding in Bromley Hall last week had marijuana and drug paraphernalia in their room, they will not be charged said Lt. Steve Noftz of the Ohio University Police Department. “It was a pretty overwhelming day, five floors of people concerned with property loss, and they’re concerned with liability,” Noftz said. “I think someone would say ‘good lord, is all you can think of to throw a criminal charge on top of that?’”
OK. Morning phone conference, followed by the gym, followed by another afternoon off for our fifth-grader-in-residence. Which means short shrift for you guys today.