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An Interview with Sara Paretsky, Author of Body Work

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Sara Paretsky has an amazing body of work and, yes, that is an intentional play on words on her latest novel titled Body Work, featuring her recurring, fascinating, protagonist V.I. Warshawski. This is the third of my three interviews with great female crime writers, the other two being Laura Lippman and Karin Slaughter.

But Paretsky was writing mysteries long before Lippman and Slaughter got started and an argument could be made that she paved the way for them, having written her first mystery, Indemnity Only, back in 1982. She has a funny frequently asked questions page here in which she answers some trivia about her life.

Parestsky, in 1986, created Sisters in Crime, a worldwide organization to support women crime writers. This earned her Ms. Magazine’s 1987 Woman of the Year award. I am very excited to be able to interview Mrs. Paretsky. Body Work is a great read and well worth checking out. And with that let’s get to the interview:

How did the idea for this book develop? In the promotional material for the book you talk about how you wanted to tackle the topic of bodies, be it as works of art or as veterans damaged from serving in war. Was it difficult tying those topics together into a cohesive story? I think you pulled it off.

I’m glad it seemed to work well — it was hard to try to pull it all together in a storyline.  I was thinking about the way we exist in the body, how hard it is to see beneath the skin, and how much bodies are deified, in ads, in sports, in film — the woman in the Hooters billboard that you see as you leave the airport isn’t a person with feelings or thoughts — she’s just a body.  And then I began thinking, too, about the way we exploit men’s bodies — not as obviously, perhaps, but just as invidiously.  And nowhere is that more troubling than in the bodies of our young men (and women, but they’re mostly men) that we throw into a war machine.  I started imagining a woman who had so little regard for her own body that she turned it into a canvas for other people’s fantasies, and the kind of history such a person might have.  And then the other characters began coming to life around her.

You’ve noted in interviews that you began writing detective fiction because that’s what you enjoyed reading but you didn’t like that writers like Raymond Chandler so often presented women in a negative light, either as causing problems or “solving” problems with their bodies. Why do you think male writers did that? Is it gratifying that there are other female mystery and detective writers now also having women be the heroes, forces for good instead of bad?

I can’t answer the “why” of why so many writers think of women in such a way, but it‘s definitely a view with a long pedigree.  In most fiction, except for romances, we know when we see a beautiful woman that she will spell trouble.  One of the earliest examples of a true thriller is Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. An international best-seller after its 1861 publication, Lady Audley presents the stereotype of the sexually alluring female who uses men to further her social and economic position — and then destroys them.  

Of course I’m delighted that there are so many interesting and believable women characters out there. And not just women as heroes, but women as ordinary people or even villains, who act, as men do, for many complicated reasons, out of loneliness or greed or fear.  I wish the day of the fictional character who acts only in the body, without mind or affect, were behind us, but I fear she will long outlive me.

Where did you get your inspiration for V.I. Warshawski’s family and personal history? 

The ideas for V.I.‘s family and life history developed slowly.  When I first started writing, I was very unsure of myself as a writer, so I slavishly copied many of the conventions of the hard-boiled form without thinking about them. That’s why V.I. is an orphan and has no siblings.  If I were going to create her today, with my current greater level of confidence, I’d keep her parents alive.  As for her history, I grew up weighed down by the history of my family in the Second World War, and so that history weighs on V.I.’s life — her mother an immigrant from Fascist Italy, her father, like mine, growing up during the Great Depression as the child of immigrants.  And then I added some of my own fantasies, that she have some musical gifts, that she be fluent in Italian.  And that she be, like me, burdened by the Cubs.

What is the most compelling aspect of Chicago’s history for you? What about modern day Chicago, what do you think is the future of Chicago and does V.I. have a future there?

Illinois and Chicago seem mired in some pretty grim corruption, which makes our current financial crisis much harder to climb out of.  Even as the recession is hammering everyone I know, members of our state and local governments are getting hefty pay raises, and that doesn’t even begin to tell the corruption story. 

So I’m depressed about the future of Chicago, but as a crime writer, I have to be pleased that there’s no shortage of story ideas.  As for the most compelling piece of Chicago history, I’m always staggered by the city’s growth.  We didn’t exist in the 1830 census, but by the Civil War, we were bigger than many of America’s much older cities. The steel mills brought the city even more growth, along with prosperity, but we’ve been struggling since the death of the mills.  I also love Chicago’s lakefront, and the way in which the arts thrive in this most masculine of industrial cities.

You talk in your book about military contractors. What do you think about the contractors and their role in this war? 

I think it’s been very bad for the U.S. Military that we’ve outsourced and privatized so many traditional Army functions. There are almost 150 private contractors doing business in Iraq, and their payrolls are bigger than the U.S. Military’s. Contractors are doing things like road-building that used to be part of the Army Corps of Engineers, or laundry and cooking, which used to be handled by grunt privates.  It’s much more expensive to outsource these services because contractors pretty much charge what they want and the DOD pays the bill.  And it’s bad for Army morale, when soldiers have to protect contractors who are out-earning them.

If V.I. could come out of your books, do you think you’d get along
with her? 

V.I. would probably think I was pretty much of a wimp.

Where did your inspiration for Mr. Contreras come from? Do you think V.I. could make it without Mr. Contreras? Or the dogs?

I tried to kill off Mr. Contreras in my sixth book — I got fed up with him, but my husband flung himself in front of the bullet and deflected it into Mr. Contreras’s shoulder. Similarly, the dogs get to be a bit of a problem — they can’t just be sent to a kennel for a month, and so V.I. is always having to interrupt detection to walk them. Still, they have rescued her on more than occasion (Blood Shot, Fire Sale), so it would be a serious mistake to get rid of them.

Will V.I. ever think about hiring a partner? Will she ever make it
through a book without getting injured in some way?

Originally, I imagined V.I.’s cousin, Petra, becoming her partner, but as I began building the storyline, I saw that V.I. operates best on her own — she just outsources her special needs, like for computer hackers. She wasn’t injured in Blacklist.

The Washington Post has said one of the remarkable things about your Warshawski books is that “unlike many other long-running series, these mysteries have grown richer and more ambitious with age.”  Was that intentional? Do you agree with that assessment? Why do you think that is?

I’m flattered by the assessment, but I think every writer wants to keep writing good books and I just hope I will continue to write in a way that readers respond to.

In an interview with the Progressive you talked about knowing Obama. What’s your take on what he’s done so far as president?

As the Cat in the Hat put it so well, “This mess is so wide and so deep and so tall, I cannot clean it up, no I cannot at all.”  Barack inherited a disaster in the economy and in Iraq/Afghanistan.  I think we all hoped that he could wave a magic wand.  He’s done some things against steep opposition, such as passing Health Care legislation, a banking bill, additional resources for veterans, and getting unemployment benefits extended, but he’s fighting such an uphill battle, with an opposition party that doesn’t even want to provide support for the sick and dying 9/11 response team workers (We all know people who die,” said one Republican congressman.  Why should 9/11 responders get special care?  At the same time they are banging their tin pans and building hysteria over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero.) The fact that Barack has done so much against so much nastiness is a major tribute to him.  I don’t agree with everything he does, and I’m very grieved that he hasn’t ended torture as an instrument of our foreign policy — but I’m pretty impressed with how he’s operated.

Lastly in the promotional material they sent out you mention an idea of having a book in which girls get involved in a vampire cult. Is that something on the horizon? What else are you working on next?

I have a lot of different ideas and right now it’s too early to say which ones will make the cut. I’ve written an outline of the Vampire book — but will it survive into the novel?  I don’t know yet.

Thank you very much for this interview

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.