Sara Paretsky’s motivation for creating a female detective, and her explanation for the increasing popularity of female crime writers over the last ten years, are closely linked. “In the last couple of decades women have been trying to find a voice,” she says. Considering the author’s success it would appear her protagonist has a voice that appeals to many readers. “What I was trying to do with V.I. when I created her was to show a woman who was doing a job that hadn’t existed when she started school.”
V.I.—or Vic as she also allows people to call her—is Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, a private detective based in Chicago. Making her debut in Indemnity Only, Warshawski, together with Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, was at the start of the surge in the early eighties of women crime writers and their strong female protagonists. V.I. is a few years younger than Sara, and very much reflects her creator’s contemporaries. Paretsky was part of the first wave of women to take on careers that had previously been an essentially male domain—careers such as medicine, law, and banking. “V.I. represented that pioneering generation, and not just in doing a job that hadn’t been part of our imagination growing up. She was also taking some of the heat that we did as pioneers. She was getting flak from family, or in her case family surrogates, for not being at home or not being a mother.”
Sara Paretsky says she came from a “boring” traditional background, going to a small two-room country school when growing up in Kansas. Writing from age four or five, there was never any question that this might be something she could pursue professionally. “I grew up in a household and in a time and a place that had very little value for the words of women. In Kansas in the fifties good girls saved themselves for marriage, that was their ultimate and inescapable destination. If you weren’t married you might work as a teacher, or a nurse, or a secretary. There weren’t any other options that were considered suitable, at least not for middle-class girls.” She pauses briefly to think back to her childhood. “You know, in the whole time that I was growing up, I don’t think anyone ever asked me what I wanted to do as an adult because it was just assumed that my destiny lay in the house. I wasn’t encouraged to think I had a gift for writing, and I wasn’t encouraged to think that it was something that I could aspire to any more than I might aspire to be a business person or a doctor.”
What makes matters even more shocking is that Sara, because of her gender, and contrary to her four brothers, had to pay her own way through college. This despite the fact that both her parents were academics themselves. She attended the State University of Kansas which, in the sixties, was a hot-bed for radical feminism. It is no great surprise that this ideology held great appeal and would influence Paretsky’s way of thinking in years to come.
At nineteen, Sara went to Chicago where she became involved with community service in the city’s South Side. “That was 1966 and it was just an extraordinarily vital and active time to be in Chicago. It was the summer that Martin Luther King was there organising urban housing. Despite the problems which have continued to dog the city—the tremendous poverty and racial divisiveness—we had a lot of hope in that era to think that we might actually solve some of these problems.” The city got into the author’s blood and after graduating she moved back to Chicago. ‘I really never had meant to stay there, but I did and it has been my home ever since. Chicago in the Warshawski books is a very vivid presence for me, and in some ways in my mind the city stands for my coming of age as a distinct person from my family. Perhaps that is why it is so important and so vivid for me.”
Supporting herself since she was seventeen years old, Sara Paretsky describes her early adult life like being a sleepwalker, bumbling from one point to another without a focused vision to carry her forward. She has been a dishwasher in a science lab, a secretary, she managed conferences on affirmative action for a small consulting firm and, before she became a marketing manager for a large insurance company, she sold computers to insurance agents. “Now,” she says modestly, “I am a writer of sorts”.
Sara wrote less as she grew older but never gave up completely because it was a way for her to explore personal issues. Moreover, throughout the years she had a continuing desire to write a novel. A turning point came when she turned thirty-one. “I suddenly came to this understanding of my mortality in a way that you only grasp intellectually when you are younger. I realised that time did not lie infinitely ahead of me and knew that if I really wanted to write a novel I was going to have to try and do it or put that on the trash-heap of other idle day-dreams also.”
Until five or six years ago Sara Paretsky read little outside the crime fiction field, so it seemed logical that this was the genre that she would write in. Less likely was that she would write in the ‘hard-boiled’ tradition because she preferred traditional mysteries. “The hard-boiled novel is, on the whole, very masculine and not inviting to a woman reader. I think at some level you are always trying to project yourself into the book you are reading. This is especially so if you are reading escape fiction which, by and large, crime fiction is. With a more sophisticated writer you are escaping at a more sophisticated level, but you still have an unconscious fantasy of yourself in the action at some point. If the action is very male orientated then there is just no place for a woman reader to put herself.”
With hindsight, the obvious answer was to write about a hard-boiled female protagonist. Enter V.I.—never Vicky—Warshawski. When first introduced V.I. is her early thirties and, after working for Chicago’s Public Defender’s Office for five years, she has become a private investigator specialising in financial inquiries. Warshawski is the single child of a policeman of Polish extraction, and her Jewish-Italian mother had been an opera singer before becoming a music teacher. Both her parents are deceased when the series of novels start, but her surrogate family include Police Lieutenant Bobby Mallory—a friend of her father’s; and Mr. Contreras—a retired machinist living in the same apartment block as V.I. Though fond of these men, her relationship with them is often strained because of their overprotectiveness and their inability to understand her preference for her job over traditional family life. Similar problems occur in many of Warshawski’s romantic involvements, frequently causing the affairs to break down. It doesn’t help that Vic easily gets into foul moods, unleashing a very sharp tongue.
“You know, when I wrote the first book and sent it to the man who became my agent, he said that V.I. was too perfect and that she needed some flaws. I think it is a real danger that you have when writing—especially in a first-person narrative. You always have this idea that everybody loves you and that, if every now and then you get on their nerves, it’s only because of some really adorable eccentricities; not because you are some giant pain in the butt. So I saw that. I saw what he was saying. You have put your creation out there and you want everyone to adore her, just as you want everyone to adore you. Well that isn’t what a real person is like, and it was a far more important goal for me to have a character who was as believable as possible, than one who was as adorable as possible. So, I rewrote the manuscript and gave her a couple of flaws that I know well: a short fuse and sloth.”
More accepting of V.I. is Doctor Lotte Herschel, an Austrian refugee with a practice that provides medical assistance for the less affluent. She also patches up Vic on those occasions when Warshawski has been injured in the line of duty. Lotte’s almost maternal relationship is one of the aspects that Sara finds her female readers like most, especially in Japan. “It’s funny, my biggest market outside of America is Japan and Japanese women are extraordinarily responsive to V.I.. I once got a letter from a group of eighty women who got together to write to me. The letter was all in Japanese, which I can’t read, but they each wrote one sentence in English and they kept writing over and over again ‘I like Vic because it is all right for her to be angry’, and ‘It’s all right for her to be messy.’ So I feel that she is speaking in a genuine voice to people who are responding to her as a genuine person.”
Male readers also like V.I. for her gutsy character, and with fondness the author recalls a letter she received from a man in his seventies living in Britain. He wrote that he liked V.I. because she reminded him of his wife when he was falling in love with her whilst she was driving an ambulance during the Blitz. “It really cheers me up when I think that I have created a character who not only seems real but is also attractive enough for a man to see her as someone he can be involved with romantically.”
It is, however, women and women’s issues that seem most important to Sara Paretsky, and she is occasionally made aware of the dramatic affect her writing has on some readers. “I got a letter from a sixteen-year old girl last month whose mother had died of cancer. The last thing her mother did was to give her daughter a copy of one of my books because she said she wanted her daughter to have the ideal of growing up to be independent and able to look after herself. Now I didn’t set out to have that kind of impact when I started to write, but I do feel that something like that is the highest honour that can be paid to my work, to have a mother entrust her child to me essentially, through my character.”
Naturally the author’s strong beliefs show in her writing, to the extent that her American publisher made cuts in one of the early Warshawski novels. Paretsky believes in the right for women to have abortions and in Bitter Medicine she has the ‘moral majority’ lay siege to Lotte’s clinic for helping women with unwanted pregnancies. This episode, cut from the US version, was reinstated by Paretsky’s British publishers. Has the scene been restored in America yet? “No, because the publishers haven’t done a new edition, just a reprint. Unless the book goes out of print and comes back in a new edition, I don’t think it will. Anyway, I don’t think about it anymore. It was more important to me at the time.”
Paretsky is equally philosophical about V.I. Warshawski [UK / US], the disappointing film starring Kathleen Turner as Vic. The author sold the right before her break through and, due to numerous circumstances she needed the money. “I had my three stepsons at home, I had my job, I tutored in a housing project, I sang in a choir, and then I also wrote three books. My health gave way because of the strain and, after spending a very long time on the disabled list, I realised that this was an insane way for a human being to be living. I knew I had to cut something out and my job at the insurance company seemed like the thing I would miss the least. When the studio came along and offered me money for the rights to the character it was really important for me to accept that offer, even though the money was minute compared to what people get when they are well known. I am not sorry that I did the deal because I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t. I could not have afforded to write full-time.”
When she first saw the movie, she was horrified but, despite still wishing the studio had taken a chance to do a good adaptation, her feelings about the film have changed in time. “As I have been travelling around the world and meeting people over the last couple of years, I see how important it has been for viewers to have a woman on the screen who solves her own problems. Hollywood just continues to subordinate and denigrate women. The only way a woman is shown is to be raped or under threat of rape, unclothed, being a sexual object and having that be her only justification for appearing on the screen. So to have a film where Kathleen doesn’t have to be anorexic, where the woman has control in the film from beginning to end, I think is extremely valuable.”
Since the movie, Kathleen Turner has gone on to read many of the Warshawski audiobooks, and has also starred in two highly acclaimed BBC radio adaptations, Killing Orders and Deadlock.
Between selling the film rights to V.I. and the film being released in 1991 Sara became involved in setting up Sisters in Crime. She was receiving calls from a lot of women writers concerned about being given subordinate status in the crime fiction world. At conventions women were mostly relegated to panels about female writers, and generally found it hard to get their books reviewed. Due to writing “masculine style books” Paretsky says she never experienced that problem herself, but she stresses how important book reviews are. Many American authors survive because of their novels being sold to libraries who buy books based on reviews.
Intending to see if there was enough concern about these problems to start a movement, Sara organised a breakfast for approximately twenty-five female authors she knew at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Baltimore in 1986. With its aim to promote crime fiction by female authors, Sisters in Crime grew out of that meeting.
Oddly enough many women present at the time where terrified of being linked with the movement. Sara does not mention names but explains ‘They were afraid that if anyone knew they were associated with people who were advocates for women, that their contracts would be dropped, that book stores wouldn’t carry their books, that they would be blacklisted. So they would call me to demand that I not say that they had been to this breakfast in Baltimore. I ended up being out there on my own as the whipping boy for any hostility that might accrue.” Of course Sisters in Crime became a huge success leading to desperate attempts from authors to affiliate themselves with the new sisterhood. Paretsky describes her initial role as follows, “Well, I was good at going out and speaking to people. I was good at generating interest for what we were trying to do, and also for calming down people’s fears about the backlash.”
Still, Sara seems somewhat disappointed at the direction Sisters in Crime has taken, as though some of the initial ideals and intentions were forgotten when becoming “an important sales tool”. It has been a long time since she has taken an active role in Sisters in Crime, saying “It is an organisation now, not a movement and I am not good at administrative work—never have been. I was smart enough to see that it was better off without me playing a continuing role in it.”
However, eager to discuss the positive aspects, she goes on to list some of Sisters in Crime’s achievements. She mentions Caroline Hart and Sharyn McCrumb—”Bless their hearts”—and their gigantic undertaking of cataloguing books in print by female crime writers. On completion, and anxious to avoid antagonising publishers, the organisation circumvented the normal reviewing media, and went directly to the libraries and book sellers. “We showed them what was out there and the response was just extraordinary. Publishers are in the business of selling books so they have been delighted because we have tapped in to that part of the market that wasn’t buying crime fiction. So we have been good for the writers as well.” The author also points out that readers too have benefited by being introduced to the wide range of books available to them.
Sara Paretsky finds that she reads very little crime fiction herself these days, and quotes a fellow crime writer for an explanation. “Peter Dickinson recently said that it is really hard to keep a focus on what you are doing when you read what everyone else is doing in the same field. In a funny way I am less knowledgeable about my contemporaries than at the time when I was starting. However, I do always read Peter Dickinson, he is just such an extraordinary writer. Liza Cody is as well, I always read Liza Cody. She always has something amazing to say.”
Currently the author is reading Pat Barker’s Ghost Road because she felt Regeneration was one of the most brilliant novels she has read. Somewhat disappointed by Ghost Road she prefers I Am My Own Women by Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf. ‘He or she—I’m not sure what to say—is a transvestite who grew up in Hitler Germany and actually killed his Nazi father when trying to rescue his mother from being murdered.’ She describes the book as a weird, chatty autobiography and, laughing at what must be an understatement says ‘It’s a pretty interesting take on Germany.’
After Tunnel Vision—the latest Warshawski novel, and the collected stories in Windy City Blues (V.I. for Short in the UK), Sara Paretsky has left behind her sleuth to concentrate on a new protagonist for her first non-crime fiction novel. She feels that her most recent plots have become too convoluted and unyielding in structure. The new book, Ghost Country, will centre on an alcoholic opera singer whose career is on the skids. On one occasion, during her performance as Desdemona in Othello, she passed out in a drunken stupor. ‘That was sort of the last straw, even her protectors in the opera world couldn’t salvage her career after that. Her birthname is Janice Louise Minsky, but she has changed it to Louisa Montcrise. She lives with her brother Saul Minsky, a scrap-iron dealer, who is just totally fed up with her. Finally, when she gets drunk again, he says she can’t come back to his house and she ends up on the streets.’
On completion of this novel Paretsky hopes to return to her PI with a fresh voice, and she already has a story in mind. Since Warshawski ages in real time, it will be interesting to see how she develops. Sara certainly intends to continue to write about Vic. ‘I don’t know how long it will be given to me to live, let alone to write, but I hope that if I am still alive at seventy-five, I will be exploring what V.I. is doing in her late sixties.’
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1996.