Author Q&A: Elinor Lipman

Elena Bowes spoke to Elinor Lipman, the award-winning author of 16 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel’s Bed, I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, The View from Penthouse B, On Turpentine Lane, Good Riddance, Rachel to the Rescue, and, most recently, Ms. Demeanor which has been named a semi-finalist in the Thurber Award for American Humor.

Can you please describe what you do for a living in exactly 26 words?

I write fiction that grows into novels. On a daily basis, like the character E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, I turn sentences around.


When you’re writing a story, are you trying to entertain yourself? And then figure the reader is like you…

No, I’m trying to tell a story and make it as well written as I can make it. If I were trying to entertain myself, I would be trying to be funny, and I’m never trying to be funny. If I catch myself maybe leaning towards making a joke, I cut it out because I don’t want to be a joke teller. What I’ve learned over the years is that people laugh and find things funny that I don’t. It’s just the way I look at things, the way I think. Sometimes it’s even things that I find poignant, that other people find funny.

You’ve been described as writing romantic comedy for intelligent adults. What authors do you regard as mentors? 

I can’t really say mentors in terms of I studied under them, but an author and a book that sent me to the typewriter is Lori Colwin and her book Happy All the Time, which I got out of the library, and read and loved. And then I bought it. And I read it again and kept rereading it. I felt like that’s the writing I would like to do. I hadn’t written anything yet. Soon after that I took a writing course at Brandeis.

It’s funny because the book you loved is called Happy All the Time, and that’s your schtick. Your books are cheerful, you’re known for your happy endings. 

And why wouldn’t everybody want to do that? My feeling is that when authors are setting out to be fashionably serious, they’re afraid of happy endings. They’re afraid that that will be seen as light and slight. It’s so hypocritical because in life, what are people looking for? People are looking to be happy; they’re not looking to be staring into the abyss. They’re looking for love and happiness. 

Where did the germ of the idea for Ms. Demeanor come from?

That’s a hard question because I sometimes start with just a sentence. And in this case, I started with a chapter that I didn’t move on with. And then out of nowhere, meaning surprising myself, at the end of that no-good chapter was the lead character Jane saying the line, ‘Well, the timing was very good for that because I was under house arrest.’ I didn’t see that coming. And I thought, ‘Oh, I like that. I could do something with that.’ It’s almost like I type it before I see it coming. And then I thought, ‘Well what did she do to earn house arrest?’, and that’s when I wrote the chapter about Noah up there on the roof. And this almost always happens, as I move forward in a book, I look back and think I don’t like the first chapter, sex on the roof should come first.

With almost all my books, I rewrote the beginning or started somewhere along the line in a later chapter.

You once quoted American playwright David Mamet’s advice on writing: ‘Get into a scene as late as possible and get out of a scene as early as possible.’ Do you do that? 

Yes, and that usually involves a lot of cutting. I’m a pretty fierce editor of my own lines. Trust the reader to remember (what you’ve already told them earlier). When I’m teaching, the lesson is, you don’t have to walk the character into the room, or introduce him at the door, hang up his coat and take a seat. He can be already in conversation, or in my case, he can already be at the table.

Let’s talk about the one book that got turned down by your publisher, at least initially. Can you talk about that?

Yes, it’s called Rachel to the Rescue. I was pretty cocky. I’d never had a book turned down. The story was a fictional account of a woman who had worked in the Trump Whitehouse. I knew there was an office called the Whitehouse Office of Record Management where the sole job was taping back together documents, letters, emails, everything that Donald Trump had ripped up. The American publishers were nervous. They wanted to wait until after the 2020 elections. So, I sent it to my then British editors, Scott Pack at Eye & Lightning and he made an offer about a week later. They brought out the ebook on October 16th and the published book on American election day. And then my American publisher ended up publishing it too. 

How do you show character besides just describing them? I read that you shy away from describing your character’s physical traits too much.

The main way is dialogue, and actions, and if it’s firstt person narrator I can relay their inner thoughts. Describing what a person looks like is the hardest thing for me to do. Dialogue is the easiest. Description is the hardest. I myself don’t need to have someone’s physical appearance described much at all. I think the reader fills in and creates their own person.

What are you reading and recommending at the moment?

I’m listening to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m loving that. And what got me on that is how much I loved Rules of Civility. And I’ve been reading In the Form of a Question, by Amy Schneider, the most successful woman ever to compete on Jeopardy. I’m always bingeing on British police procedurals especially by Peter Grainger. I’ve listened to about twenty of his books. I also loved The Other Side of Mrs. Wood by Lucy Barker. It’s historical fiction set in Victorian England about London’s most famous medium. It’s beautifully written. I often have a few books on the go, all different genres. 

What is it that you love about police procedurals and might you ever write one yourself? 

I think Ms. Demeanor is as close as I’ll ever get to producing a police procedural. The only cop series I watch (and rewatch) are British ones. Do I need to explain why I love Foyle’s War, Vera, Lewis, A Touch of Frost, Scott and Bailey, No Offence, Line of Duty, Happy Valley? I think not!  I’m extra happy when they’re set in the north of England, for the accent.  

Thank you so much for doing this interview, and of course, for writing Ms. Demeanor.

Interview by Elena Bowes     
Photo credit: Michael Benabib

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