INTERVIEW WITH TOM LIPINSKI

By Denise Baton

Tom Lipinski in Pittsburgh TOM LIPINSKI is a mystery writer and the creator of the Carroll Dorsey series, a hard-hitting, richly textured examination of the religious, social and political underbelly of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The series includes THE FALL-DOWN ARTIST, A PICTURE OF HER TOMBSTONE, and STEEL CITY CONFESSIONS. The third in the series, STEEL CITY CONFESSIONS, is up for a SHAMUS award. The newest Carroll Dorsey mystery, DEATH IN THE STEEL CITY, hit the stands in April, 2000.

I chose Tom Lipinski for MYSTERICAL-E because he is a writer's writer. Not only is he dedicated to continually developing himself as a writer, he is passionate about teaching writing to others. Recently, Tom did a screenplay adaptation of his novel, A PICTURE OF HER TOMBSTONE. I thought other writers would like to hear what he had to say about that process.

Tom, what do you like about your work becoming a movie?

The practical answer is that my work will gain a wider audience. But the true answer is that my work has another measure of validation. A rather big one. Writers are storytellers. The people interested in making this movie are saying that we like your stories, you tell good ones. And you're a pretty good storyteller, too.

This process of writing a novel and then writing a screenplay, what is that like?

The process is a literary striptease. I take a fully dressed story, wrapped in description, all of the characters and their thoughts and reflections, and then I slowly peel away the layers. I even play the appropriate background music on the office stereo. I get all the way to the bare flesh, so the audience can see it move and breathe. I think it's true that the camera sees all. So why not let it?

What's the worst thing about it?

The worst thing for me, as a novelist, is the loss of the character's power of, and time for reflection. The time a character can spend with a coffee or beer in hand, and just stare out of the window, wrestling with a problem or some philosophical dilemma. All that interior dialogue. But art forms have their differences. 2 hours of a guy staring out the window, that would make for spellbinder of a movie, right?

What do you like about it?

I teach a lot of college writing courses, mostly literature and creative writing. In the writing courses, I always push this concept of "the economy of words," saying the most you can with the fewest words. Getting the biggest bang for your buck. Screenwriting forces me to really put it to the test. Dialogue and action, all written in such a way to convey emotions, meanings, lies, the whole nine yards.

Do you think it's better to be a producer on a project or just write the screenplay and hand it over to someone else?

I'm really torn on this one. I'm a writer and that's what I do, what I love to do. So sure, it's great to finish the script and just hand it off to the next guy. There's a sense of relief, even though you know many changes will be made in your work. It's just the nature of things.

As producer, I have to remember that until that final cut happens in the editing room, this thing is not done. A producer does more than write. A producer brings elements to the table that will impact the final film.

It is a work in progress, and that means my work is not done. But that means I get to keep composing the story. Maybe not always through a keyboard, but I'm changing the story, discussing changes, basically working on another draft of the story. Looked at that way, I get to remain quite a bit of a creator.

Have you enjoyed aspects of producing on your project?

Career changes are the way of the world today. I've made more than a few of those, and every time I do I not only have to learn a new job, I have a new industry to come to terms with. I'm doing it again now. How the hell does a movie get made? The answer, which is long and complicated, would surprise most people. I'm learning the intricacies of filmmaking and, although I can get as frustrated as the next guy, I'm thoroughly intrigued.

How long have you been writing? What advice, as a veteran writer, would you give other writers?

I began the serious pursuit of being published twenty-one years ago. That's how long I've been writing, but I think I was a writer since birth. Because I always thought I might be one. I had the ambition even though I wasn't lifting a finger to make it happen. I think a lot of writers are like that. We require a few extra years of gestation before we're ready to get out of the womb. And maybe that's the best advice I can give to a novice writer. Take your time, don't force things. Work your job, live your life, and write. But don't force things before their time comes. I tried that, and it didn't do a thing for me.

When will your new series come out?

I'm shooting for late 2001. The next Dorsey novel is due for release in April of this year. Now that I've hit my stride, I'd like to stay on a yearly schedule. Partly for discipline and partly for career concerns. A book a year helps keep you in the public's and the publisher's thoughts.

Will you ever write more of the Dorsey series?

I'd love to. I don't know if I'll ever find or create a character that I feel more in tune with. His courage and experience far outstrip my own, but I just love what he has to say. I'll get back to him, I'm sure.

At this point, what is your most important ambition?

My hope is to continue to write and for continued and greater success, but not for its own sake alone. I've learned an awful lot about writing and storytelling by being a writer, and I think I've picked up a few pointers on life along the way. And it would mean nothing if I didn't find a way to pass that knowledge along. I'm being very serious, very sincere. Several months ago I attended the funeral of a man who was a great friend and mentor, and he came from a long line of mentors. And those guys were at the funeral and we talked. It didn't take long to realize that the only shot we have for immortality, in this world, is to be generous with what we've learned. That's what I want to do.

What is your ethnic background? Tell me about your family and how you grew up.

I'm pretty much of a mutt. My Mother was Irish and my Father was Polish, with some German and a few other tidbits thrown in as well. Recently, sadly, I lost them both. But very happily, I had them for a long time, much longer than most people. And I kept learning from them up until the end.

I suppose my mother has to get most of the credit for my writing. I can't remember her ever doing anything without a book in her hand, even when she was shouting at one of us. She was a very bright woman who upon her high school graduation in 1941 had a full scholarship to a small liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania. But she was the oldest of five and her father had died. So she went to work and had to miss out on an education that she had proven herself worthy of.

My father was a construction worker and a reader, despite having severe limitations on his vision. My mother insisted that all five children go to college; my father made sure that we realized that we had no choice. Good man.

Anything else you'd like to say?

Writing is a lonely business, but nobody writes alone. We writers need to know that. Working on a film helps to remind you that you are not alone and that there is real magic in this business of story telling.

Tom Lipinski is known as a man's man, moving in the underbelly of a man's world. But as a woman, I must say that he is emotionally available and incredibly wise in his take and understanding of the duplicity of any situation. I'd describe him more as a people's person. A great guy with a big heart, both tough and tender. His work is a pleasure to read and he brings a lot to the table when it comes to business.

Fall-Down Artist cover Picture of her Tombstone cover Steel City Confessions cover


Copyright 2000 Denise Baton