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Sara Paretsky

Hard TimeTotal RecallBlacklistFire Sale

e-interviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke (August, 2005)

Sara Paretsky is renowned for her highly popular sleuth V. I. Warshawski, who debuted in Indemnity Only and appeared in a dozen more bestseller mysteries, the latest of which is Fire Sale. Paretsky's books are published internationally - in Poland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, France, Russia, Greece, and Indonesia. Two short stories - Photo Finish and Publicity Stunts - are available in a slim special edition, V.I.TIMESTWO, offered exclusively by a Chicago-based bookstore. Windy City Blues is a collection of nine V. I. Warshawski shorts, and Paretsky also edited Women on the Case. In 2002, the British Crime Writers Association awarded Paretsky the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Paretsky has been instrumental in drawing attention to publishing rights, and has raised awareness of various social issues. She says of the formation of Sisters in Crime (established in 1986), "We were trying to help women get in print, stay in print, and come to the attention of booksellers and libraries. At that time, books by men mystery writers were reviewed seven times as often as books by women, so libraries and booksellers didn’t know we existed. Thanks to heroic work by women like Linda Grant, Sharyn McCrumb, and Carolyn Hart, we got a Books in Print project off the ground that made a big difference in readers learning what women were writing. Sisters in Crime has more than four thousand members world-wide."

Addressing a audience on Mothers' Day, Paretsky commented, "In the jungles of Africa or South America, to survive you need to know a difficult language ... You don't need to be able to read books to survive in that world, you need to be able to read nature ... in North America, we don't need to read nature to survive. We don't need to know the stars and the plants and animals around us. But we are lost, adrift, helpless if we cannot read books ... today, in Afghanistan, it is against the law for girls to learn how to read ... it is difficult to get an education in India and in Africa. Keeping girls and women from the written word is a way to keep them from taking charge of their own lives. Here in this room, we are all saying, we will take charge of our own lives. Every person in this room can command the words which will make her the heroine of her own story. She can remake her story, with words, and if she reads and writes those words enough times, she will start to believe them."

It is no wonder to me that Sara Paretsky is so popular, it is no wonder to me that she is respected and admired ... but it is a wonder to me that she finds the time in her schedule to appreciate her fans. I am proud and delighted to have had the opportunity to e-interview such a classy, and high-spirited woman and writer.

Q: In researching the background for Fire Sale, were there any particular surprises or difficulties you encountered?

A: The most interesting research was in South Chicago where the book was set, in particular the day I got a tour of the CID landfill. I was surprised to find that well-run landfills are clean: every day they cover the garbage with thick layers of earth so that if you come at the end of the day you don't see any garbage at all

I also enjoyed my time in the store front churches of the South Side. V I's experiences in Chapter 21 are what I experienced myself.

Q: I noted your reference to Women's National Basketball Association players Teresa Weatherspoon and Tamika Williams. Do you follow the WNBA teams/games, and did it influence you to include a high school girls basketball team in Fire Sale?

A: I don't really follow the WNBA, although since Chicago is finally getting a team next year I'll probably start doing so. I gave V I a basketball background in the early books in the series because basketball was an important sport for women a hundred years ago, and I grew up reading books about girl ball players from the early 1900's.

Q: How many revisions did Fire Sale go through? Were you entirely satisfied with the end-result?

A: I'm never completely satisfied with my final drafts. It's a more a question of saying, "this is the best I can do right now; it's as complete as I can make it and time to let it go." I don't know how many revisions of Fire Sale I did, but at least six. Some of the book was rewritten as much as ten or twelve times.

Q: How did the V.I. Warshawski character originally develop?

A: Women's lives have changed in such amazing and exciting ways in the last twenty years, it's sometimes hard to remember where we were two decades ago. When I wrote the first book in the series, I wanted a woman who could solve her own problems, who wasn't the vamp or the villain that they typically were in crime fiction. For a long time I tried writing about a really hard-boiled detective who was a kind of Philip Marlow in drag, but even though I'd written stories ever since I was five, I had a hard time picturing myself as a writer.

At the time, I was working for CNA Insurance in Chicago, during the period that women first started entering management and professions in large numbers. A lot of men, including my first boss, were incredibly supportive and mentoring. Others, including my second boss, were not. He resented having women in the workplace. In October 1978 I was in a meeting listening to this guy and realized the detective I wanted was not Philip Marlow in drag but rather a woman like my friends and me: holding jobs that hadn't existed when we were in high school and taking the crap we were taking. Instead of smiling at what the guy was saying, and inwardly gritting her teeth, my detective would say what was in the balloon above her head. She wouldn't care about getting fired or if anyone thought she was a nice girl. So there I was, thinking personal thoughts on company time – and out of that came V I.

Q: How has V.I. Warshawski changed since her debut in Indemnity Only?

A: In the first book, V I was a pioneer – she was doing work that just did not exist for women in fiction or in life. She had to have a chip on her shoulder so that she could confront the people who didn't think she could handle the job. In the intervening years, women's lives have changed so much – they are detectives now, FBI agents, judges – they play every conceivable role in the criminal justice system. It would be inappropriate for V I to continue to be so confrontational because the need no longer exists. Being freed from those particular restraints has allowed her to turn her deep passion for people whose lives are on the margins to dealing with deep-rooted social ills.

Q: There are delightful characters - Mr. Contreras, Lotty Herschel, and wonder dogs Mitch and Peppy - who are essentials and warm fuzzies in Warshawski's world, as well being comforting to readers. Do you foresee any of them leaving the series?

A: When I started writing the series, I wanted V I to age naturally with time. As she gets older so do the people around her, and this has left me with a real dilemma. I can't bear the thought of Lotty dieing, for instance, nor the dogs, so I don't know how to handle the real and natural change in my characters' lives. At one point, I got fed up with Mr. Contreras and was about to kill him when my husband flung himself in front of the bullet and deflected it to Mr. Contreras's shoulder (this was in Burn Marks, the sixth book in the series).

Q: Have you given thought to and/or do you plan to add any new, permanent characters to the V.I. series?

A: I don't think about that kind of question in advance of writing a book. What happens is that a particular story demands certain characters, and some of these may come back from earlier books, as Conrad Rawlings and MaryAnn McFarlane do in Fire Sale. A lot of times there will be characters whom I would like to see more of, but I can't find a natural way to include them in another book. This was particularly true of the mafia-don in Killing Orders – I had expected him to be a regular feature of the V I series, but there's never been another role for him.

Q: Do you have a favorite V.I. story?

A: I used Killing Orders to tell a version of my grandmother's history, so that book remains very special and personal to me. Similarly in Blacklist, I included a version of my beloved mother-in-law's life and, again, this makes the book feel more personal and special to me. Anytime that Gabriella, V I's mother, plays a big role I feel more connected to the story.

Q: What are your reading preferences beyond mystery? Which authors have most influenced you to begin writing, and which authors touch you today?

A: I read a lot of fiction. I just read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I think is about as perfect a novel as a human being can write. Joseph Skibell's A Blessing on the Moon is another book that moved me deeply. I also get a great deal out of the memoirs of Russian writers such as Abram Tertz and Irina Ratushinkaya, who were imprisoned for their writing.

Q: What are your favorite past-times when not reading or writing?

A: I very much enjoy running, taking long walks with my dog and listening to music. I also enjoy food, both as a cook and an eater.

Q: What places have you traveled to, and have any locations offered particular inspiration for your writings?

A: I've traveled extensively in Western Europe and a little bit in Asia. After visiting a shrine near Nara, Japan, which is sacred to a goddess who protects school girls, I very much wanted to write a story with that as part of the setting, but finally had to stop because I knew too little about the culture to make use of it.

Q: You were born in Iowa and educated in Kansas, and Chicago, and have made the latter city your permanent home. What prompted your decision to settle in Chicago?

A: I came to Chicago the summer I was nineteen to do community service work in the city's south side. This was a time of great intensity in America and in Chicago; it was the summer that Martin Luther King was organizing for open housing and equal pay, and the passions of the summer made the city seem like the realest, most vivid place on earth. When I finished my BA the following year, and was at loose ends for what to do next, I moved back to Chicago to find a job just because I kept hoping to recreate the intensity of that summer's experience.

Q: After any of your books have been published, have you ever had thoughts such as, "Gee, I could/should have included, or done this or that with any characters, action, et al?"

A: Alfred Sloan, the founder of General Motors, was once asked if he could remember any mistakes he had made as a manager. He replied, "Any mistakes? If I was write 30% of the time, I think I ran a successful operation." In a way, that's how I look at my books. I think the infelicities of language and awkwardnesses of plot are many and varied, but I can only hope that I learn from each of these to do a better job with the next book.

Q: In 1991, actress Kathleen Turner starred in a movie V.I. Warshawski. If you were approached for a Warshawski book-to-movie today, which mystery would you choose, and who would you like to see as V.I. in the film?

A: I think Burn Marks or Hard Time both have the drama and story-trajectory that would make a good movie. I liked Kathleen Turner as V I, but I do have a fantasy of Sandra Bullock in the role.

Q: Dziekuje bardzo, Sara, for giving your time for this. Are there any additional comments you would like to share with BookLoons readers?

A: Dziekuje bardzo, Josephine, for your interest in my work. I very much appreciate it.
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