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Author Elinor Lipman's 'unfamiliar faith' in new novel

Tom Jackson • Jul 15, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Author Elinor Lipman claims she rarely laughs or even cracks a smile when she's penning her witty novels about men and women finding each other, works that often have been compared to Jane Austen.


Her readers are unlikely to be as stern. Even as they are caught up in the travails of a lonely doctor, Alice Thrift, or sympathizing as widow Gwen-Laura Considine Schmidt fends off an overly-aggressive date, they relish the wry observations Lipman brings to every page.


Lipman's new novel, "The View From Penthouse B," tells the story of two sisters who find themselves sharing a luxurious apartment in New York. Schmidt is still mourning the sudden death of her husband, Edwin, and refuses to date. Margot is embittered by the very public adulteries of her ex-husband, a physician who became tabloid fodder after he impregnated one of his patients in his office. My description makes the book sound sad, but in fact it kept me smiling. Here's how their cupcake-baking new boarder, Anthony, tries to tell the two sisters about his romantic preferences:


He says solemnly, "I just realized, when Margot asked me who I went out with last night, that I've put you on the wrong track."


"Which is what?" I ask.


"Let me put it this way: Young ladies don't appreciate cupcakes. They're all on diets. They dump them or regift them." He pauses, smiles. "On the other hand, dudes scarf them down."


Margot and I are still smiling expectantly, not realizing his announcement is whole and complete, if not eloquent.


"Hmmm," he says with a theatrically perplexed hand to his chin. "I see I haven't made my point."


"You're not going to be baking cupcakes anymore?" I ask.


Lipman, 62, has written 13 books, mostly novels. One novel, "Then She Found Me," was adapted into a movie by Helen Hunt  that also featured Bette Midler, Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick and even novelist Salman Rushdie.


"The View From Penthouse B" came out in April. "I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays" came out the same month. 


As with Lipman's other books, "The View From Penthouse B" has drawn many good reviews. Wendy Smith of the Washington Post wrote, "Lipman sketches her characters' foibles with amused affection and moves the plot forward with practiced ease."


Either Lipman is a better writer than ever or I've become a better reader, because I thought "The View from Penthouse B" might be her best novel yet. After Lipman agreed to take some questions from me, I began by asking if she agreed.


Sandusky Register: Writers always claim their last book is their favorite, but I really thought "The View from Penthouse B" was strong. Were you happy with it, too?


Lipman: Yes, I confess to being really happy with it.  I always hope each book is a little better than the last.  My best friends and early readers will tell you that I always moan and groan as I'm writing--is it good enough? Have I lost it?--and tease me about that chronic pattern.  But this time, when I finished, I had an unfamiliar feeling of faith in it. 


Sandusky Register: Your protagonist,Gwen-Laura Considine Schmidt, learns that technology such as text messaging and email can be used in very personal ways -- one of your best scenes in "Penthouse" leads up to a one-word text message. Is that how you've come to feel about modern technology?


Lipman: I'm pretty good at it — but who isn't? And I have a son, which is synonymous for "tech consultant."  He recently switched my plan for me so I can text with impunity. Just yesterday I turned a text message into "add to existing contact," and opened a text video from a nephew. I have one writer friend, Elizabeth Flock, with whom we try to outdo ourselves with creative if not comical emoji use — though I do realize that this is just Texting 101.  One reviewer wrote that I seemed a little backward about things online like Craigslist and dating sites.  No, you crank — it's Gwen-Laura who was, technologically speaking, born yesterday.


Sandusky Register: There's a great sense of play in "Penthouse B." You even have fun with the form -- it's written as a nonfiction memoir and has a long  "Acknowledgments" section sincerely thanking the made-up characters. Do you laugh or at least smile when you're writing your books?


Lipman: I don't laugh, and when I hear about a writer sitting at the computer laughing at his own lines,  I think to myself, "Horse's ass; probably not funny at all."   Occasionally I do smile, but almost always it's a case of that which seems just factual to me, just telling the story in my voice, seems funny to the reader.   Sometimes, when I'm reading (in public) a line I think is poignant, the audience laughs.  Of course, I love that.  And if it doesn't get a laugh at the next book store, I'm disappointed.


Sandusky Register: "Then She Found Me" seems too successful as a novel to be your first. Was it really your first attempt at a novel, or was it your first successful book? Do you have any unpublished westerns or erotic vampire novels sitting around?


Lipman: Thank you, but it was my first.  Before that, in my short-story collection ("Into Love and Out Again")  I had seven connected stories about characters named Tim and Hannah, who met in line at the DMV, and it added up to a novella.  That gave me the sense that I could/should try a novel, which turned out to be "Then She Found Me,"  published in 1990.   I haven't looked back; have written only two very short stories since I switched to novel-writing.


Sandusky Register: What's new on the Hollywood front? Are any of your books about to come out as a movie? Do we get to spot you in a cameo?


Lipman: The wonderful John Lithgow optioned "The Family Man," to adapt and to star in. But I wouldn't ever say "about to come out" when dealing with Hollywood.  The last one took 19 years from option to screen.   And no; no cameo aspirations. 


Sandusky Register: You've been very nice about the film version of "Then She Found Me." Aren't you secretly hoping for an adaptation like "The Accidental Tourist," one that is respectful of the text and maybe nabs an Academy Award nomination and rave review or two?


Lipman: Actually, faithfulness of adaptation isn't my fondest hope.  I learned very early to think of the screenplay as "based on characters suggested by " such-and-such novel.  Yes, who wouldn't want Academy Award nominations and rave reviews ("Then She Found Me" did get some of those) but what I'd really want is the best-written and best-acted movie.  As long as the story hasn't been changed for cheesy, commercial reasons,  I'm a very good sport.  I don't get sentimental about my own lines and plot.  Readers get touchy, though. Very!  They want the novel to be the screenplay.

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