A new Elinor Lipman novel is always a must-read for me, and On Turpentine Lane certainly lived up to expectations. Filled with relatable, funny characters, sharp dialogue and fast-moving stories, Lipman writes wonderful romantic comedies that bring the reader into the world she creates.
Faith Frankel moves from Brooklyn back to her hometown of Everton, Massachusetts, and falls in love with a cupcake of a house on Turpentine Lane. She has a job in fundraising at her alma mater and a solid boyfriend in Stuart. Her life is starting to take shape. But when Stuart leaves for a cross-country hitchhiking expedition, her job is threatened and the police start ripping up her basement looking for bones, her world is torn upside down. Through it all, Faith’s family is supportive, as is her colleague and soon-to-be roommate, Nick.
Elinor has been called the Jane Austen of America and I was thrilled to be able to talk to her about her inspiration, her favorite authors and Colin Firth, who we both agreed was the best Mr. Darcy ever!
Between the Covers: I am so thrilled to be talking to one of my favorite authors! You never disappoint, and On Turpentine Lane was wonderful with sparkling characters, sharp dialogue and laugh-out-loud comedy. Who or what was your inspiration for this novel?
Elinor Lipman: Thank you! The inspiration was a dark, creepy house on my childhood street, in a thicket of overgrown trees and shrubs and weeds — the whole thing looming large in my memory. The owner had been a reclusive widow, always dressed in a long black, witchy dress, rarely seen. I used to cross the street rather than walk past her house and certainly never trick-or-treated there.
Fast forward 40-plus years, and I found out that my best childhood friend had bought the house and had moved in. I was astonished. I was going to write an essay about visiting a house as an adult that had spooked me as a child, but then it struck me as not only a setting for a novel, but a character in the story.
BTC: Faith Frankel is delightful! She’s gutsy and loving, yet honest and sometimes immature. How did Faith come to you? Is she based on anyone you know?
EL: Naïve, yes, but I'd argue with immature in case that made her sound bratty. She's not based on anyone I know. I start with an opening sentence or a line of dialogue and then develop the character as I go along. She's her own person…though probably has a lot of me in her.
BTC: Your dialogue in this one, as in all of your novels, is snappy and smart and your supporting characters are quirky, realistic and well-developed. Are the dialogue or characters based on real conversations or people?
EL: That's a hard one to answer because while dialogue isn't based on real conversations or people, I'm always trying to make it sound right, natural, crisp. No speechifying. No planting information in the dialogue. I don't want everyone to sound the same, and since Faith is half my age, I ran a few expressions by younger people. (One I remember was "didn't sleep a wink." Was that from another era? My son said no, it's fine.)
I'm constantly paring sentences down and following something David Mamet said, quoting the screenwriter William Goldman: "Get into a scene as late as possible and leave it as early as possible." To me, that means cut out the "hello, how are you?" and the "okay, good-bye, see you next time." Sometimes I cover the opening dialogue with my hand to see how far and late I can start an exchange.
BTC: Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on next?
EL: Sure. I'm more than half-way through, and it centers around a heavily notated high school yearbook that a woman bequeaths to her daughter. Why was the original owner so obsessed with this class? Complications ensue! No title yet.
BTC: Were you always a reader? What was your favorite book as a child? Who are some of your favorite contemporary novelists?
EL: Yes, always a huge reader, especially as a child, aided by the no-TV-on-school-nights rule. I re-read my favorites literally dozens of times. Most beloved was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. I adored Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and read every Nancy Drew.
Contemporary favorites: Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, Maria Semple, Stacy Schiff, Jill McCorkle, Laura Lippman, Tom Perrotta, Maggie O'Farrell, Philip Roth. I love memoirs; two recent ones I flipped over (as audio books) are Trevor Noah's Born a Crime and All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen.
BTC: I know your first novel Then She Found Me was made into a charming movie starring Helen Hunt and Colin Firth. First, did you get to meet Colin Firth? How was the process of having your book turned into a movie? Are any of your other novels being made into movies? Who would be your dream cast if On Turpentine Lane was made into a movie?
EL: I didn't get to meet Colin Firth — the only star of Then She Found Me I didn't meet!
I loved having the book made into a movie, even though the plot departed greatly from the novel. I'd been prepared for that. "Think of it as a movie based on a character suggested by the novel," a Hollywood-savvy friend told me. (I wrote about the experience in my essay collection, I Can't Complain.) It took 19 years from first bite, the option, to the screen in 2008, so I was very inclined to love it.
My dream cast for On Turpentine Lane would be Emma Stone and Mark Ruffulo…well, Mark Ruffulo at 35. Or how about if Jessica Chastain turns to romantic comedy? She lives in my building, and I'm going to give her a signed copy ASAP.