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SARA PARETSKY Renown Author of V I Warshawski, Social Activist & Chicagoan

Q: Sara, you’ve been interviewed many times and asked the same questions regarding V I Warshawski, the character and the books. I think our readers would like to know more about Sara Paretsky, writer and Chicagoan. Your resume indicates you received degrees in political science and history. Please explain the evolution to mystery writing.
Sara: My mSaraParetskyother loved crime fiction so I grew up surrounded by the writers that she checked out of our local library. (I still remember the thrill of meeting Dorothy Salisbury Davis for the first time: a major writer whose work my mother often read wanted to talk to me. We became quite good friends but she always carried that aura of Significant Writer in my own mind.)
As I matured as a reader I became increasingly troubled – actually, outraged – by the roles women played in most crime fiction. A woman with a sex life was by definition wicked. A woman with no sex life was good but incapable of tying her shoes without adult supervision. In my 20s I began fantasizing about creating a woman investigator who would reflect women’s’ experience more accurately, both as a problem solver and as a human being. I wrote from an early age, but never imagined that I would write outside the home. It took eight years from when I first started day dreaming about creating a woman investigator until I actually began work on what became my first novel. During that time I completed a PhD in history, an MBA, and worked at many jobs ranging from running conferences on employment issues for Fortune 1000 companies to persuading insurance agents to automate their offices.

Q: What was life like, growing up in rural Kansas? How did it compare/contrast with your early experiences here in Chicago?
Sara: We lived in a big house set along a dirt road so part of my memories are the constant effort to keep the house clean. The house had a basement with a dirt floor and was home to snakes and spiders. Therefore whenever there was a tornado warning, I took my chances with mother nature. I went to a two room school where – long before Title IX – girls played on the same teams as boys because that was the only way we had enough players to make up a team. I have very happy memories of my days as a third base person for Kaw Valley District 95. Coming to Chicago was almost overwhelming at first, between the population density, the racial diversity and racial friction, the cultural opportunities and the lake. At Kaw Valley we had studied the Cook County Democratic Machine as an example of the worst kind of corruption in American politics and it was startling to become a bit-player in the struggle to end that corruption. (Of course Kansas has its own Republican Machine which is just as corrupt but in a different way. There are fewer people in the state of Kansas than in the city of Chicago and so it’s much harder to uncover secret deals. People are more tightly bound to each other and there’s less opportunity for a whistle blower to
emerge.)

Q: You’ve been involved with social issues both as a writer and an advocate since the 1960s including serving on a community organizing committee with then Senator Obama and writing numerous essays on topics such as abortion, free speech, and the Patriot Act. What do you feel is the writer’s role in society when she/he feels passionate about social concerns? What are some issues that concern you today?
Sara: Questions of speech – who gets to talk, how someone’s speech is limited or silenced – are the issues that matter to me at a visceral level. Growing up in a highly conservative family and culture as it affected girls, my struggle for much of my young life and well into middle age was how to find a voice and how to make people attend to me. By extension, overt government efforts to silence speech, as happens with things like the Patriot Act, feel direct and personal to me. There are also more insidious ways of silencing speech. For instance cutting library budgets to the bone as it is happening all over America reduces peoples’ access to a wide variety of points of view. Allowing Amazon to have a monopoly in the book selling world further limits voices to those that Amazon most wants to hear or promote. White women and people of color of both sexes continue to be marginalized and to find it hard to get a hearing. The brouhaha around the 2016 Oscars underscored that. These issues are often front and center in my mind and therefore inevitably end up in some way or other in my work. For some readers it’s a boon and a bonus, for others it’s an annoyance.

Q: As a fellow Chicagoan, writer, dog lover, and long-suffering Cub fan, I’m often asked, ‘Why do you live in that cold wintery city, and how is it inspiring for a writer?’ Sara, what would your answer be?
Sara: I love Chicago, warts and all. Despite the Cubs and the miserable, cold winters I can’t imagine being happy elsewhere. True, New York has much more to offer in the arts. On the other hand, if I lived in New York I could only afford two or three rooms as opposed to my lovely house in the heart of Chicago. San Francisco is gorgeous but I’m a ten minute walk from Lake Michigan. Writers here are very collegial. In some ways we are all competing for oxygen but Chicago writers and artists put aside their insecurities and help each other out. I can live without a World Series victory.

 
Q: If our readers would want to find out more about Sara Paretsky and her work, what might they do?
Sara: My website, Saraparetsky.com, answers a lot of questions and I often post personal, chatty news on my Facebook pages. I wrote a kind of memoir called Writing in an Age of Silence which might also answer questions people have.

 
Q: What’s your philosophy of life, and/or what advice might you give to our readers to help them enjoy life and its stressors?
Sara: A couple of years ago, my GP sent me for a stress test. I thought this was ridiculous – I already know I’m stressed. Since this is a particularly high stress time in my own life I’m constantly trying to find ways to answer your question. They are often very small ways. I’m trying to meditate although I’m not at all good at it. I find it helpful to write five things every day that I’m genuinely grateful for. Those might range from being able to walk – after a major car accident I had two years where I could barely walk – to seeing an unusual sunrise. Lake Michigan is the thing in my life for which I’m most grateful, besides my dog, my cappuccino machine, the existence of chocolate and a few other things. The lake changes every day and its vastness and beauty are a real balm to the spirit.

 
Q: Is there any other information you would like to share with us?
Sara: I’m very compulsive about my work. Like V.I., I’m an abominable housekeeper but I like things to be perfect, which is a sure fire recipe for stress. I want my writing to be perfect and it never is. I want the cappuccinos I make to be perfect and I will throw out five or six cups of coffee until I get one that approximates perfection.

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