Lippman and Simon first met when they were working for competing newspapers. One day, he worked at her desk. “He spilled coffee all over my news blotter,” she says. “I did a little basic reporting and confronted him: What the fuck?”
Unlike Simon, Lippman has no nostalgia for her old job. Reporting was just the family business—her father was a columnist for the Sun. In contrast, Simon grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish household in Silver Spring, Maryland, where his father was the publicist for B’nai Brith and his mother counseled teenaged runaways. (He still identifies as Jewish, although he tells me the family joke is that “the shul we don’t go to must be Conservative.”) At the University of Maryland Diamondback, where he worked with David Mills, he debuted with a humor column that opened “Eat flaming death, you pig dog lackeys.” It was about student parking-ticketers. “They only cut two words,” he says with a rare glowing smile. “It was like getting published in the Post.”
Each went through a wrenching divorce, and Lippman has expressed doubts about two-writer marriages—“I think what I said is that it should be prohibited at least by social custom if not actual law”—but she and Simon have spent the decade together in a productive parallel rise, carefully maintaining separate press profiles. Like Simon’s writing, Lippman’s novels (especially her ambitious psychological thrillers) nest within the outlines of actual Baltimore crimes. Each spouse mentions a mutual slogan, adapted from sports radio host Jim Rome: “Have a take. Don’t suck.”
Read Lippman’s writing and you find traces of Simon, strained through her acridly funny, noir-tinged sensibility. In Lippman’s short story “The Crack Cocaine Diet,” two ditzy white girls vow to lose weight by scoring coke. “Where do we get it?” says one. “On, like, a corner?” suggests the other. “Right, Molly, I watch HBO too,” says her friend. (Simon made his own nod to Lippman in The Wire, incorporating two of her characters.)
If Simon is pushing against anything, it’s his reputation as a scourge: This time he will make the case that urban centers are sources of joy as well as pain.
But perhaps the most telling bit of potential Simoniana appears in Lippman’s first novel, 1997’s Baltimore Blues, the launch of her detective series, with its heroine, Tess Monaghan, who, like Laura, is a rower and an ex-reporter. Tess has a lover, “Jonathan Ross,” the ultimate sketchy ex who, McNulty style, keeps showing up drunk on her doorstep. “She realized every newspaper had a Jonathan Ross, a crime journalist who wanted to be a cop,” Tess thinks. Like Simon, Ross is Jewish and he specializes in homicide detectives; and as Simon did back then, Ross plays harmonica and has a diamond-stud earring. He’s a rather obnoxious figure (and, hilariously for any Wire fan, obsessed with Pulitzers), but he does get a heroic death scene, saving Tess from a speeding cab. When the cops arrive, they try to talk Tess out of labeling Ross’s death a homicide: “juking the stats.”
(Lippman tells me the character was not based on Simon—she says he blurbed the book, in fact—but Corbett, Simon’s old editor, says it was generally assumed there was a character based on him.)
Lippman turned down Simon’s offer to write for season five of The Wire. When season four was in flux, Lippman did pitch “a real-life case of a guy who was a serial killer of his wives. David said, correctly, though it sounds awful, that there’s no larger issue. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry domestic violence isn’t big enough for you!’ But it wasn’t a story about institutional failure.”
Culturally, the two share few tastes: Lippman favors fiction, reality television, and Sondheim. But her greatest influence has been complicating Simon’s notions of truth. “She’s pulled me up on the certitude of memory,” Simon says. “The file drawers are full; stuff’s fallen out, nothing’s where it should be. She’s not inclined to write her own memoirs, but she reads a lot of them. She likes the good ones, but she regards them all as a little bit fraudulent. Sometimes in a good way.”
Simon’s shows are not memoirs, of course—one of his greatest curse words is “solipsism.” And yet his project with Treme risks similar criticisms of fraudulence, in essence ghostwriting a city’s memoir of dysfunction and recovery, fictionalizing real events in the name of a greater truth. Anyone else trying to do something so ethically complex might be called to account. But Simon’s reporter’s ethic, his political bona fides, have lent him a measure of trust.
When the set packs up, it’s getting dark. I climb into a van with the HBO publicist, Aldana, planning to see some jazz. Simon lingers nearby, hands in pockets. I ask what his plans are. “Possibly see some music,” he says. Does he want to come along? He nods. It occurs to me that Simon may actually be slightly shy.