Laura Lippman: ‘Hitch-22 taught me that I am a very reluctant atheist’

The crime writer on learning to reread with Lolita, giving up on books and growing up with Dick and Jane

The book I am currently reading
I’m just finishing Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, a wonderful first novel that will be published next year; The Amado Women by Désirée Zamorano; Jill Lepore’s These Truths; an old Groucho Marx biography. Oh and I’m reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – for the first time!

The book that changed my life
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It forced me to learn the value of rereading. In looking for the dirty parts, I discovered how layered a work of literature can be.

The book I wish I’d written
Junior Miss by Sally Benson. Exquisite short stories about a girl growing up in New York, full of amazing details. The New Yorker published them in the 1930s. Writing about small, quotidian things in an interesting way is so much harder than writing about war and crime. The first story in this collection centres on buying a new winter coat and it’s riveting.

The book that influenced my writing
Two seminal influences were essays, not books – Mary McCarthy’s The Fact in Fiction and Mary Gordon’s Good Boys and Dead Girls. One of the writers Gordon dissects in her essay is Theodore Dreiser, a huge influence on me. When I read An American Tragedy, Dreiser had so much empathy and insight that I felt as if he had peered into my soul. Finally, when I read the first line of Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, it was so full of bright, shiny promise – on which it delivered – that I remember thinking, “Oh please let me make someone else feel the way I do right now.”

The book that is most underrated
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith has never enjoyed the stature it deserves. Like Huckleberry Finn, it should be considered a classic. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, it concerns a girl’s life, in an impoverished section of Brooklyn in the early 20th century, so it isn’t seen as universal in its themes. It’s a raw, unvarnished book.

The book that changed my mind
It’s a tie between Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God and Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22. For years, I had identified as agnostic or even deist, but those two very different books allowed me to come to terms with the fact that I am a very reluctant atheist. I hope I’m wrong, I yearn to be wrong.

The book I couldn’t finish
Just one? Impossible. And I hate to diss other writers. I will say there was a popular, beloved book and I hated it so much that I stopped reading on the penultimate page. Refusing to find out what happened to its horrible heroine felt like a principled protest at the time. Besides, I’m sure she got the happy ending she didn’t deserve.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
Ulysses by James Joyce. I’m going to keep trying, though.

The book I give as a gift
Emma Who Saved My Life by Wilton Barnhardt, one of the best books ever about being young, but also about New York City in the 1970s and 80s. And so very, very funny.

My earliest reading memory
My sister helping me through one of the primers used to teach reading in US schools, the Dick and Jane books. Sally, the youngest child in that very white, suburban family, sat on her tricycle and said: “Oh! Oh, oh, oh!” And that’s how I began.

My comfort read
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, every year, year in and year out, although I didn’t discover it until my 20s, on the shelves of a friend who no longer speaks to me. Which, I guess, sort of makes her the Marsha to my Marjorie, although I’m sure she’d like to think it’s the other way around.

• Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber. To order a copy for £7.91 (RRP £8.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Laura Lippman

The GuardianTramp

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