Books and TV: Laura Lippman and David Simon Address PLA

June 26, 2011

Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan novels, and David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire and Treme, are a married couple, but the PLA President’s Program was still the first time they’d appeared together—apart from a single appearance before a much smaller audience in a synagogue.

They spoke to each other and the audience about their respective work and the differences between working on books and television shows.

“America isn’t reading anymore and it’s infuriating to me,” Simon said, noting that his first television series, Homicide: Life on the Street, was a hit book first, selling 100,000 copies, but as a television show is considered to have a relatively modest audience—of 12 million. (Lippman amusingly noted an inclination towards television even among the audience of librarians, jokingly demanding “Does anyone here read?” after several questions in a row from the audience asked Simon about The Wire.)

On a more scholarly note, Lippman observed how television has affected literature. “Books cannot be written the same way anymore. The audience has been raised on TV; you can’t write like Dickens anymore.”

“Whereas you can write a multi-POV novel now where the POV jumps around,” piped in Simon, citing it as another influence of filmed entertainment.

Television is inherently a more collaborative medium, and it needs approval and a financial investment to get started. With Treme, for example, “If you could explain New Orleans to someone in L.A., you wouldn’t have to do the show,” Simon said. “When you get out in the neighborhoods and experience the cultures on their own terms, there’s no place like it in the country.”

Simon observed that Lippman’s books were starting to be optioned for television or film projects, advising her that she would have to relinquish control over them and jauntily asking “How’s that going for you?”

Lippman’s attitude was sanguine, saying both novels and television are interactive and that when she publishes a book, readers already “change” it through their unique interpretations. “If you want it to be just yours, never let it out of the house,” she said.