As a crime fiction writer and fan, I always get excited when a new Laura Lippman book is announced. When I heard that Prom Mom was on the way, I leapt to snag an opportunity to read it and ask Lippman a few questions. Turns out, I did that last time a new Laura Lippman book was out. The Chicago Review of Books didn’t stop me—or won’t? Wouldn’t dare?—so here we are.
In Prom Mom, Lippman takes us back to high school, 1997. That’s the year Amber Glass wrangles a prom date out of Joe, the popular boy she’s been tutoring and—this should not be a spoiler—sleeping with. Joe slips away with his ex; Amber doesn’t feel well. So far, it’s anyone’s disappointing prom date. But when Amber wakes up the next morning covered in blood, promising lives that should have been just beginning are changed, and lost.
A second timeline counts down the months leading up to the 2019 COVID lockdown—maybe one of the cruelest ticking clocks in literary history—as Amber returns home from exile and naturally encounters the girl she once was, and Joe, grown up and still charmed—the boy who somehow got away from the night in question scot-free.
It is a testament to Laura Lippman’s storytelling that I would willingly go back to prom. Her novel Sunburn will go down as a modern noir classic; Lady in the Lake is being made into what will absolutely be must-watch Apple TV+. Even more importantly, she’s the type of novelist who never approaches story the same way, always taking readers on a ride they didn’t see coming.
She has fans higher on the publishing food chain than me. Stephen King called her “special, even extraordinary,” and Gillian Flynn wrote, “She is simply a brilliant novelist.”
So when I get the chance to talk to Laura Lippman, am I going to take it? Again?
I asked Lippman some questions about the origins of Prom Mom, how her writing fared during the pandemic, and her former journalist’s perspective on sensational stories like Amber’s.
Prom Mom has a ripped-from-the-headlines premise. Where did this book start for you?
It’s funny because as a person who has often been inspired by real-life stories, I don’t see Prom Mom as being particularly rooted in any one real-life event.
It started with a simple observation from Sarah Marshall, on the podcast You’re Wrong About, about how teenage girls don’t actually know what’s going on with their bodies most of the time. I think, in the moment before I heard that, I hadn’t considered that there were girls who really weren’t sure about the situation they were in, that I didn’t understand the Magical Thinking that might accompany an unplanned teen pregnancy. After the fact, we judge these girls. We believe they know their situation and ignore it. But what if they just can’t grasp what’s happening to them? What if they ignore all the signs until it’s too late? Even before Roe v. Wade was struck down, we didn’t make it easy to be a pregnant teenager in this country.
What considerations were you making regarding real incidents like the one that kicks off Amber’s story?
Sadly, there are a lot of stories about girls giving birth to babies that others didn’t even know existed and the babies not surviving. It’s been happening for decades. I do think the ethics of writing novels inspired by real-life events might be changing, but I actually believe that has more to do with the true crime boom in podcasts. People are beginning to see their lives as IP, which is fair, as some people are getting rich off the stories of others. I think it’s a gray area, but I am mindful that there are people, victims and their families, who could be wounded by fictional accounts of their lives. So while I might be inspired by an event, my characters are my inventions. If there was ever a girl like Amber Glass who gave birth to a baby at a prom—well, I don’t know about her.
Amber and her “Cad Dad” not-quite-boyfriend suffer greatly in the court of public opinion—what was it you wanted to say about media coverage of stories like this, given you used to be a journalist yourself?
I despise nostalgia, but—I’m nostalgic for the media landscape I used to know. Because whatever happened to Amber and Joe in 1997, as awful as it would have felt at the time—it was probably better than how things work now. Can you imagine how social media would handle such a story now, how politicized it would be?
It’s a mystery to me why some people get to move on and others don’t. But then, that’s what drew me to the work of Sarah Marshall. She’s constantly telling the stories of women who have been mischaracterized in the press.
The pandemic features a great deal in one of the timelines in this story. What led to that choice? How did your writing process change (or not) during and/or because of the pandemic?
My writing process changed very little during the pandemic, although I stopped working at a local coffee shop and started working from my dining room table. By the time I started the book, in early 2021, the first phase of the pandemic, during which Prom Mom is set, already felt like an historic era. Heck, by fall 2021, summer 2021 felt like an historic era.
There was a surreality about the pandemic that was interesting to me, an out-of-time feeling. And I remember hearing a news report—news report!—about how people were still managing to have affairs, which amazed me but also made sense. People were dying by the thousands, science was being politicized, simple acts suddenly had great moral weight—against that backdrop, it was easy to imagine people doing things they never would have done.
Prom Mom is your 14th standalone novel, in addition to your 12 Tess Monaghan novels, short story collections, a book of essays… How does it fit into your long and successful career?
I see Prom Mom as a big “ask” of readers—it’s hard to know who to root for, and most people probably don’t want to revisit the months of the pandemic, even if it’s just a backdrop.
I’m well aware that I don’t write particularly likeable characters most of the time. As a reader, that’s not a value that matters to me, so it’s not something I think about when I’m writing. It seems to me that a lot of the online discourse about books is really about the readers, that they are interested in capturing their singular relationship with a book/author. And they seem to care about two things: Did I have someone to root for and did I figure out where the story was headed? Which is fine. But there’s a profound difference between sites with reviews that focus on those two elements, and say, this incredibly long piece in the London Review of Books about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King by Patricia Lockwood, which I’m currently reading. Or Martin Amis’s review of Hannibal, which I was reminded of by, yes, Sarah Marshall. (I swear I’m not trying to win a bet about how many times I could cite Sarah.)
Two other stars of the book: Baltimore and New Orleans. Amber has trouble choosing between the two. Is that your experience of the two cities, too?
Absolutely. I never thought I could love another city like I love Baltimore. There are places I’ve imagined living—Barcelona and Dublin come to mind—and, strangely, New Orleans was not one of them when I became a part-time resident in 2009. It had been my experience, up to that point, that cities that were fun to visit weren’t necessarily the best places to live. Well, New Orleans is even better as a hometown. There’s a magic quality to it, a serendipity that suffuses day-to-day life.
Both cities have significant challenges in terms of crime and poverty and political leadership. But they’re both beautiful at heart.
What’s most important to you when you set off on a new project? How do you know when your draft is finished?
A new book starts tugging at my elbow and then I know I’m close to done.
You’re one of the crime novelists I look most forward to hearing have new books coming. Who are those authors for you?
Kate Atkinson isn’t generally regarded as a crime novelist, but she has written many books that fit within our genre. Megan Abbott. Kellye Garrett, Alex Segura. Also, Alison Gaylin is a friend and I promote her books a lot, but I think her work is really special.
Have you read any books by exciting up-and-comers you could tell us about?
I’m really proud to say that some of the best up-and-comers around are former students! Deb Rogers, who wrote Florida Woman. Samantha Jayne Allen, who’s shortlisted for the Hammett for Pay Dirt Road. I could list even more, but those are two of the most recent to succeed.
I think Eli Cranor is the real deal. He came to Baltimore and I had the good fortune to talk to him after his event. Hearing about his process, the books he’s been working on—he’s really smart and, I think, capable of writing very different books. I think he’s going to be one of those writers who can’t be pigeonholed. And everyone who’s read Wendy Corsi Staub’s book Windfall thinks it should be touted as THE summer read. If it were a debut, it would probably have a huge marketing campaign behind it. But I think one thing we don’t talk about much is that publishing doesn’t always know how to promote the people who just show up, year in and year out, with good books.
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow & Company
Published July 25th, 2023