Elinor Lipman’s novels are filled with interesting characters, observational wit, sharp dialogue, and storylines that keep the reader curious about where the plot is going. They share certain elements, such as romantic relationships, family issues, and unforgettable female protagonists, yet each book feels wholly unique. Her latest novel, Good Riddance, follows Daphne Maritch, a woman who can’t understand why her mother left her a 1968 high school yearbook with mysterious notes written in it. In a cleaning binge, Maritch tosses it – only to have it quickly recovered by her aspiring filmmaker neighbor, who vows to turn the yearbook into a documentary. Lipman is also a talented writer of essays, two of which have appeared in the “Modern Love” section of the New York Times. Her first novel, Then She Found Me, was turned into a movie in 2008 starring Bette Midler, Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, and Matthew Broderick.
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I tweak as I go and don’t move forward until I polish the current chapter, probably a dozen times. Because I rarely outline, I’m constantly figuring out what’s next, what’s next; what’s my character going to do today? I’ve learned to recognize when it’s working and when it’s not. When it’s not, I back up a page or a scene or chapter. When I’m done with the entire novel, it’s pretty clean, but I’ll go back and look for inconsistencies. I’ve even made changes once a book is done. If I’m doing a reading, I might change a sentence by a phrase or a word. And then I might make that change for the paperback.
If there’s any similarity in my novels, it’s probably just my sensibility coming through and my way of looking at life. I hope there’s not a similarity in the characters’ voices. I don’t set out to do quirky characters, but if that’s how they’re seen, great, because who wants normal and dull? I don’t know where things are going and don’t know much about the characters. I construct it as I go along. If a situation feels familiar, I change it. I don’t want another set of divorced parents, missing father, etc. It has to be something different or new.
Dialogue comes easily to me, but I do work on paring it down, removing attributions and repetition. I follow playwright David Mamet’s advice (who’s quoting the screenwriter William Goldman) – “Get into the scene as late as possible, and out as early as possible.” Therefore, I cut the niceties, the hellos, how-are-yous, and good-byes. You can also dispense with direct address as much as possible. A sample “don’t” would be: “I’m very upset with you, Mary,” and two lines later, “Don’t say that, Mary.” Tedious and unnatural. There’s no need for it.
With my first three novels, I got feedback that the ending was too fast. I needed a new penultimate chapter – so I wrote a new next-to-the-last chapter to slow things down. By the time I got to The Ladies’ Man, I was able to be my own critic and tell myself not to rush the ending. I try to be like an outside set of eyes, to see if it’s too fast, too slow, or if I need to cut or lengthen it.
Essays vs. fiction
With essays, I usually know what I want to say and the desired word count. With my two “Modern Love” essays – one was about my husband’s decline and death, and the other was about meeting Jonathan [Lipman’s significant other] on Match.com – they were told in linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s easier than imagining the story.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.