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One of the most popular female sleuths in modern crime fiction was born of her creator's desire for equality for a fictional woman gumshoe. Sara Paretsky says that she saw too many women in fiction being portrayed as "using their bodies to try and make good boys do bad things: it was just a constant in literature of all kinds."
Paretsky had a different plan. She wanted to create a strong female character "who could be a whole person, which meant that she could be a sexual person without being evil. That she could be an effective problem solver, as women are in reality but not very often in fiction or on the screen."
The millions of fans of Paretsky's series of novels featuring Chicago gumshoe V.I. Warshawski would likely say she has succeeded. Though V.I. is comfortable packing heat and tailing nasty suspects, she never loses touch with her basic femininity. Paretsky says that, as she conceived V.I., she wanted a character whose sexuality "had nothing to do with it, except that it made her more fully human." It wasn't, says the author, an easy task. "It just took me quite a long time to come up with a way of being able to do that. And the courage, really, to try and do it at all."
Neither courage nor candor seem lacking in Paretsky. After 20 years on the book tour circuit -- many of them including the limelight that accompanies a bestseller -- the author remains an enthusiastic and approachable subject. Over a quiet lunch, she fielded my questions with grace and frequent laughter: as in her writing, both Paretsky's humor and compassion seem never far from the surface. She worries, she says, that she worries too much but is "grateful that people are willing to go with me where I'm going."
Paretsky's most recent Warshawski tale, Total Recall, is "set in contemporary Chicago, where two stories -- one about a black family whose life insurance has mysteriously disappeared, the other about a man who claims to have recovered memories of being a child at the Terezin concentration camp -- link the present to a very grim past."
Now 54, Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago with her husband, ex-Naval officer and retired physicist, Courtenay Wright. She is currently supposed to be at work on the next installment in the V.I. Warshawski series, likely due in a bookstore near you in the autumn of 2003. But it's also possible that she's cleaning a planter or figuring out a better way to remove bathroom fungus. Read on.
Linda Richards: Is Total Recall your 11th book?
Sara Paretsky: Yes. It's the 10th in the series and my 11th novel.
When was the first book in the series published?
1982. Actually, by an odd coincidence, the laydown date [for Total Recall] was the anniversary of Roe Vs. Wade. I didn't realize that until I was looking at my old publication material. So I've decided I'm going to have a big anniversary party in January. Not anything to do with publicity: just for my friends.
What a great idea: the 20th anniversary of V.I. Warshawski as a P.I.
Right. And because this is the 10th book in the series and the 20th anniversary I entertained myself because -- Ralph Devereux, the insurance guy, he and V.I. were lovers in the very first book. At the end of the first book, Indemnity Only, he was shot in the left shoulder for not taking V.I. seriously. I was going to kill [the character] but Courtenay, my husband, being a good Canadian and opposed to handguns, flung himself between the bullet and Ralph and so [Ralph] was only injured instead of being dead. So I brought him back in Total Recall and it won't ruin the story [for anyone] to know that he gets shot in the right shoulder in this book. And I think, well, for the 20th book in the series, if I live that long and I keep writing about V.I. that long, I'll have to wheel Ralph out again. I'm not sure exactly: I've gotten him in both shoulders. Maybe in the leg, or I'll start in on the hips. [Laughs]
Does V.I. time pass the same as normal time?
No. When I started the series I decided I did want to age her because who she is is very grounded in real historical events. She came of age in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Her mother was a World War II refugee from fascist Europe: all that shaped her personality.
I was also very conscious of the Spenser novels which were in their early days then. Spenser is a Korean war veteran and it begins to become quite absurd as time has passed and Spenser remains forever whatever it is he is. Anyway, I was 30, 31 when I started writing this series and when you're that age you don't somehow imagine getting middle-aged and cranky. And I thought: Oh, you know, she'll just age the way I age and we'll both be just fit forever. So, it's becoming a little problematic now. She's gotten 14 years older in 20 years. I haven't been keeping her young -- she was 30, I think, when the series started, she's 44, 45 now. So she has been moving along there, but I don't know exactly how I'm going to handle this over the long term.
Do you think it's something people even notice? I mean, maybe it's not as problematic as the question made it sound.
Well, you know, I get asked that a lot at readings and in the mail: about V.I. and aging. The interesting concern comes in two diametrically opposed ways. Women my age and older -- I'm in my mid-50s -- want her to get old. They want to see an older woman still being effective and problem solving. And young women want her to stay younger. And, actually, men want her to stay younger. So I'm not getting any help from readers in terms of how to deal with this and I think the real issue for me is that I find as I get older that I really need young people in my life for just a sense of hopefulness and continuity. So I don't want it to just be an older person's milieu just because it lacks that dimension.
So anyway, the long answer to the short question is that I haven't figured out what to do about it yet. There was a time that I thought I'd give V.I. a baby and then after a while I realized that was just me not having been able to have children wanting to vicariously enforce motherhood on her and that it wasn't really appropriate for who she was.
Although she's yours: you can do whatever you want with her.
[Laughs] Well, it's very hard. I know that there are writers who are much more sophisticated thinkers than I am who can separate their characters out and imagine them much more wholly. I think for the non-series book, which I wrote in the third person, that was a lot easier. But when you know you're with this person all the time, over many, many books -- and also when it's a first person narrative -- it's much harder to separate their persona from your own.
Someone you have to live with, in effect?
I guess you couldn't have known when you started writing about V.I. that you'd be spending this much time with her, but did you know you were writing a series?
No. I was really trying to see if I could write a novel. I had been writing always -- my whole life -- in a very private way. I grew up really in a milieu of time, place and family where there was not a great deal expected of women outside the home. And it was just a long time for me to develop a sense of, not just of voice, but that I actually had something to say that anyone besides just myself might want to read. So writing was something I did very privately.
I fantasized about writing a book for a long time -- decades -- until finally when I was in my early 30s it was kind of a do or die. Either do it or stop daydreaming about it. And I chose a crime novel because that was what I read almost exclusively. I had been thinking about it for eight years. I'd read Chandler when I was in my early 20s and I wanted a woman detective.
In all but one of Chandler's novels it's a woman who presents herself in a sexual way, who is responsible for everything that goes wrong. That was the crime fiction. And then as I began reading general fiction I saw it as women using their bodies to try and make good boys do bad things: it was just a constant in literature of all kinds. So I wanted a woman who could be a whole person, which meant that she could be a sexual person without being evil. That she could be an effective problem solver, as women are in reality but not very often in fiction or on the screen. And that who she was sexually had nothing to do with it, except that it made her more fully human. It just took me quite a long time to come up with a way of being able to do that. And the courage, really, to try and do it at all. So I was writing a crime novel not to have a great series but just to see whether I could actually write a whole book. So I didn't have like this marketing plan, as Sue [Grafton] did very much from the get-go: her alphabet and she had this whole thing laid out. I was much more -- and still am -- much more disorganized. [Laughs] Was then and am now. I was dedicated at first to Our Lady of Perpetual Confusion and she has never let me down.
Are you from Chicago originally?
No, I grew up in Kansas and I came to Chicago in 1966. When I was 19 I came to do community service work. It was a very exciting, vital time in the city. It was the summer that Martin Luther King was there trying to organize for open housing and equal pay.
Total Recall ended up being more timely than you could have possibly known and more than you probably wanted. Morrell [V.I.'s boyfriend] going off to Afghanistan as a journalist to do a piece on the Taliban. You must have been quite surprised to see that part of the world so thrust into the forefront of everyone's mind right about the time the book was published.
I had been following what had been happening to women in Afghanistan since the Taliban came into power. I wasn't going to try to write a book set there, which I think would have been quite absurd. But I had been planning, ever since I finished writing this book a year ago, to have Morrell smuggling out an Afghani woman and getting involved [with all of that]. But I can't write about the situation because it's too fluid and by the time I finish the book who knows where it will be? The lay down date of [Total Recall] was September 4th. So I had gotten two e-mails through my Web site from readers who said: I've never heard of the Taliban. Why do you keep putting such weird stuff in your books that nobody has heard of? And then it's like, before I even got around to answering these petulant e-mails, there it was.
That's part of the richness of your writing, I think. You're always telling a story, but you're exploring social ideas, as well, wouldn't you say?
Well... yes. I am. I mean, I am. But it's not -- I don't know how to say this -- I write it from where my head is at the moment and I feel very lucky that there are enough readers who want to be there with me. I understand that there are plenty of people who don't want to be there with me and I hear from quite a few of them. And I hear incredible stories from people. I have a sort of ongoing correspondence with a woman who started writing me five years ago when she was 16. Her mother had died of breast cancer and one of the last things her mother did was give her a set of my books and [she] said: This is the person I want you to be like because I'm not going to be here to look after you. It's overwhelming, in a way. And I feel like it's a great honor. You don't write with readers in mind -- you can't because it's the thing that will slow you down the most. Or it does for me. I'm always anxious about whether I'm writing things that people will want to read. But I often do think of this mother and when I'm writing I think I've got to have my character be the kind of person that she wanted to entrust her daughter to, I guess is what I'm saying. And then I've often heard from people -- and again I feel very honored but very baffled -- I've often heard from people that [say that] my books are what a daughter or a spouse wanted to have read to them as they were dying. It's happened to me many times now. And it sends kind of a chill down my spine, but you also think: What would you want to be hearing if you were dying? And I don't know, because I was thinking, while my mother was dying she wanted some of the books [read to her] that had been especially meaningful to her as a child. And then you always think in the abstract: Well, this is when you'd want something really profound. Things that comfort you. And after September 11th, man I plunged into escape fiction as if I were diving off [a cliff]. I mean, most of the time I was listening to National Public radio and reading the Times and The Guardian online, because I think that, for my politics, The Guardian is the best newspaper in terms of quality of reporting and content and it covers stuff you don't get in The New York Times. And then I'd say: I can't take any more reality [and I'd read].
You're published in many languages now, aren't you?
I'm published in 25 countries. And the country where I'm most popular outside of the U.S. is Japan.
Really? What's that about?
American crime fiction is very popular in Japan. I don't know whether it's part of the mystique of the old West that is also incredibly popular there and noir fiction is kind of part of that. Specifically books with strong women characters have huge followings there. I was on tour in Japan six years ago and women have a very uphill battle there. I met really strong women. And people kept asking me, women kept saying: How come your character can speak in such a direct way? I was fumbling the answer because I didn't understand the context of the question and finally someone explained to me that women have a different language in Japanese than men do and it's very ornate and indirect. There are five different forms of speech in Japan and they all have to do with social status. And apparently upper-middle class girls will use boy's speak and it's very much an in-your-face kind of thing, but when they go to university they shed it because they'll never get hired if they use male speech. Apparently my Japanese translator has done this extraordinarily skillful job of using women's speech and yet making V.I. very direct. It makes me wish that I knew Japanese so that I could [read it].
You've gone on record as having strong opinions on baseball.
I hate the New York Yankees so much! I always have. Last year when it was the Mets-Yankees World Series I wrote one of the best things I ever wrote for Newsweek magazine.
So my feelings of impotence [about what's going on in the world] have been taking the form of nightmares about the Yankees sweeping the ACLS and I wake up.
Which was the book that was made into the Kathleen Turner movie?
I sold the rights when I was working full-time for an insurance company in Chicago. I wrote my first three books while I was working full-time. My job was getting more demanding, I was getting older and more feeble and I was traveling two weeks a month and I just didn't have the energy.
Well, you would have been in your early 30s. You were getting more responsibilities, maybe. Not more feeble.
I look back on this and I think: This was a different person. This was not me. I had my husband's three sons living with us, I was the house manager. I sang in a choir. I tutored kids in a big housing project in Chicago. I worked full-time and I wrote. I wrote my first novels when I was [working].
Makes me tired just listening to all that.
Me too. It makes me want to go back to bed. Now I'm not doing anything but writing and I write much more slowly. Go figure. But I couldn't possibly go back to do all that stuff. In fact, finally, I think my health broke under the strain of it.
Anyway, so time passed and I was traveling two weeks a month for the company and 18 months went by that I just didn't have the energy to write at all. So when Hollywood came to me with the offer I took it. Unfortunately, I wasn't well known, I didn't have good representation, they told me to sign, I signed. In a nutshell, Disney owns the rights to the character [of V.I. Warshawski] in perpetuity and there doesn't seem any way to get them back.
But along with buying the rights to the character, they bought the rights, I think it was, for the first four books. If they would ever want to do anything based on a later book they'd have to come buy those rights separately. But, basically, they're just sitting on the rights. But it is what it is. And it did let me quit my day job and concentrate on my writing, so I can't scream too much about it.
[For the movie] they took bits of the first three books, so it wasn't based on any [one] book. And then they were just, I mean, the mouse was a real rat. And you can put that on the record: the mouse was a real rat!
What was the movie called?
It was called V.I. Warshawski: it was just called by the name of the character. I mean, it was sort of going to be based on my second book [Deadlock] which was set in the Great Lakes shipping industry, which I really wrote for my husband. There were two things in it that I wrote for him. He had always had a love of boats and ships and shipping. He served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. In fact, if you go to my Web site there's a picture of Courtenay in his Royal Navy dress uniform taken in 1944 looking so scrumptious that I can't believe that he wasn't just fair game for every middle-aged harpy walking down the streets of London. Me, I look at it and I think: Mmm, I just want to pick him up and tuck him under my arm and carry him home.
How did you feel about Kathleen Turner playing V.I.?
Well, it was because of Kathleen Turner that Disney even converted the option and made the movie because she really wanted to do it. And there were things about her I just really liked. She's got an incredible energy and intelligence. And I think the shape of the movie was sort of wobbling ... and the whole tone just fumbled around. And then they didn't put together an intelligible story line. I think that when you're going from print to film you don't want a direct translation: they're just such different media. But you want something coherent.
So it was really quite a disappointment. Disney, you know, they bought the rights and then they were afraid to have a feminist project out there. They wouldn't let any women work on the screenplay and I didn't want to work on the screenplay because I don't know how to write screenplays and I knew it would be a big mistake to have my own work be the first venture into it. And then they would say that no women wanted to be associated with it when I had friends who were begging to work on it and who were being told that they didn't want women involved in it. The whole thing was, their way of doing it left a sour taste in my mouth. But, the fact remains that, I have to be honest: It was helpful to my career.
Did you ever think about writing another series? With a different character that Disney didn't own.
You know, I have plans to write other books out of my series, like Ghost Country which was very different from my series. I have plans for another non-series book. But I can't see -- it would be so artificial to me to just create a character to be creating it for that reason. I don't know. There might come a time when I'll think, who knows: I sometimes think I'll die young just because I wear myself out getting too wound up about stuff. Like George Bush is going to drive me to an early grave.
And you've got 20 years with this character. That's longer than most marriages last these days.
[Laughs] Of course, I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary this year. So my relationship with my husband has lasted longer, so far. [Laughs]
You do a V.I. novel every two years, don't you?
Just about. I mean, I wish I did one every year. I think: five pages a day, 100 days that's 500 pages, that's easy. Anyone can do that, but... And then you get kind of stuck on figuring out what happened and then you throw out a whole lot of stuff and start over again and, I don't know, the next thing you know two years have gone by.
And book tours...
And book tours. [Nods] And the editing cycle is very time consuming. So, you know: I'm under contract, I should be writing, I should be...
You shouldn't be talking to me!
That's right. But I'd rather talk than write. It's like, I have the best job in the world. I get paid and not a lot of writers get paid well enough not to have to work a day job. So I know I'm really, really privileged. And yet, you sit there, you look at that screen and you think -- and I'm a bad housekeeper -- and you think: I could use a toothbrush and get that mold around the toilet. So there I am doing stuff that's disgusting, time wasting and absurd just because anything is better than facing that screen.
Is writing laborious for you?
No. The actual writing? No. It's trying to know what to write. And I think, maybe because I operate at a high level of anxiety, I don't know, but I think I plot too much. And I don't know if I'll ever get free of that. I keep hoping that I'll become freer as a writer.
You plot too much on paper, in advance? Or in your head?
No, just in my books in general, I plot too much. And so I worry obsessively about details that are meaningless, in a way. Like, I try not to read my books once they're in print. I do a huge amount of rewriting. A book like [Total Recall] aside from things that I've thrown out and discarded, there are sections of it that I may have written eight or nine times. I do a huge amount of rewriting and polishing. And then when it's in print I see everything I didn't fix and then, it's like: what was I doing with all that rewriting? When I'm doing readings I'm always rewriting it one last time. And there's way too much detail in them. And I think if I could let them sit: if I wasn't under contract, if I didn't have a publication cycle, if I could let them sit for six months, then I'd see where I could cut out long passages. So those are the things that jump out at you when you see them in print when you've been away from it for a while. And, if I do have to go back and refresh my mind about a detail, like Tunnel Vision, the eighth book in the series, there are things in it that I can't make head or tail of. Now it's true I'm not sitting down and reading it from the beginning and maybe it would make more sense if I did, but I think: And I expected a reader to follow me there? Yeah well, right.
It's all these finicky details and I think: let it go, let it go, let it go.
But is that what your readers love? The finicky details?
I don't know. I just feel grateful that people are willing to go with me where I'm going. [Laughs] Even when it doesn't make sense.
Do you have a title for the next book?
No. I don't usually come up with the title until, well, sometimes I know them in advance, but usually not until the story has started to gel more. I do know that it will be in the milieu of some kind of civil liberties: debates and sort of harking back to the McCarthy era. A diverse media company, but based in Chicago, even though most of that stuff is in New York or L.A. An old family firm where the guy who owns it is now in his 80s and is being haunted by some things from the McCarthy era. I don't know if I'll stay with this but I was going to have it start with an arson and I actually went out -- this was just a weird thing. For research. You know, you want to go out and you want to see stuff. So I went to an open house for a 13,000 square foot mansion that was being built on virgin prairie just west of Chicago. It was so bad: it was such a bad house. It looked like a Sheraton Hotel: lots of taste, but all of it bad. It had an indoor swimming pool, a putting range: all of this indoors. I mean, what are you going to do with 13,000 square feet? It's just so much.
The house had been bought by a couple in their early 60s who were empty nesters and I'm thinking: This makes a lot of sense. I lost count of the bathrooms after seven. And the realtor kept saying: This is an environmental house. And I didn't get it. I kept saying: So, does this mean all the water -- because there were so many bathrooms and Jacuzzis and there's the indoor pool -- I said: Is the water all recycled? Or what is it? What's environmental about it? It's the ultimate paranoid house: the air is quadruple filtered and the water is triple filtered. And I said: So as soon as you walk outside you die because your immune system isn't ready. So I'm, thinking: a house like that ought to be burned to the ground.
So that was your field trip. A place to fictionally burn?
Like Deadlock, which I wrote for Courtenay: the ex-Naval officer. Still with his love of ships and shipping, we used to drive up to Sault Ste. Marie a lot and watch the ships go through the locks. One day he was standing there and he said: I wonder what would happen if you blew up one of these things in the locks? So I wrote a whole book for him on why someone would want to do it and I blew up a ship in the locks. Then we went out the next year to kind of fact check and make sure I'd gotten all my details right. And he said: Well, I wonder how you'd clean up the locks once you blew them up. And I said: No, Courtenay. We're not doing this experiment. We're just going to imagine this. | November 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.