Thursday, April 8, 2010

Interview with Sara Paretsky

From Telegraph (UK)--

Sara Paretsky: Interview --

By Jake Kerridge --
12 Mar 2010 --

As her new crime novel hits the streets, Sara Paretsky tells Jake Kerridge about her headstrong heroine, VI Warshawski

Over the course of 13 novels about the ball-breaking private investigator V I Warshawski, there’s barely a square inch of her adopted Chicago that Sara Paretsky hasn’t written about. But she finds her excursions round the city somewhat circumscribed these days.

“I used to take people and show them the house I based V I’s childhood home on,” she tells me, “but the last time I did that I took a French camera crew. We were surrounded suddenly by a gang who wanted to take their video equipment. It used to be that if you showed up with a video camera, even the toughest kids would want to be filmed and get on television, but now… A change for the worse in America!” she adds, adopting the tone of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’s Kansan cousin, before collapsing into giggles.

From the smart hotel lounge we’re sitting in, we can see the garden walls of Buckingham Palace, so it’s a slightly incongruous location in which to hear Paretsky’s jaunty tales about dodging drug dealers every time she takes her dog to the park back home. She is noticeably less jolly when talking about another group she considers to be a public menace: the police.

“I have an African-American woman friend who was waiting at a bus stop recently. Suddenly a squad car pulled up and she was flung to the ground, her hands pinned behind her, because a filling station had been held up six blocks away, supposedly by a black man, and she was the first black person they saw. I don’t have any African-American friends who don’t have similar stories.” You can tell when Paretsky is getting angry as her voice becomes lower and her speech more deliberate; the effect is slightly frightening.

But as she has pointed out, Chicago is a dangerous city and like many a middle-class white woman who disapproves of their methods, she knows that she relies on the police to protect her. It was mulling over her conflicted feelings on the subject that inspired Hardball, the latest Warshawski novel. Hired to trace a black man who has been missing for 40 years, V I uncovers evidence of extensive torture of black suspects by the Chicago police across decades. Could it be in the public interest for law officials and politicians to collude in hushing the matter up – as some have been accused of in recent high-profile, real-life cases?

The mystery turns out to be tied up with the Marquette Park riots of 1966, when Martin Luther King took part in a march to protest against the sardine-like conditions in which segregationist housing legislation forced black people to live, provoking an angry response from white working-class Chicagoans who feared encroachment on their territory. The author researched this period by living through it: King’s appearance in Chicago coincided with the arrival of the 19-year-old Sara Paretsky, finally escaped from her “oppressive” childhood home in Kansas and eager to get involved in community work.

“I don’t know how much of my generation’s hitting the streets was idealism and how much was, ‘ah, we don’t want to go to south-east Asia and get shot at’. But we did feel in the Sixties that we could make things so different, we could end this discrimination.” She worries about what will happen now that the baby boomers are getting too old to keep fighting. “It was kids who pushed for the civil rights movement. The ‘millen gen’ kids will say we do it differently now, we do it on the internet. Well, I’m sorry, blogs don’t change things.”

Paretsky’s novels have become steadily more politically engaged since Warshawski’s debut, Indemnity Only, in 1982, although she says her work has always been concerned with feminism. “What really galvanised me into writing was reading Chandler. In six of his seven novels the main villain is a woman who presents herself sexually.” So she came up with V I, a woman who has plenty of sex, not because she wants to exert power over men but because she actually likes them. “If I hadn’t had that chip on my shoulder I might never had gotten going.”

Having created one of fiction’s first female private eyes, she won more acclaim for her work promoting recognition of the novels of female crime writers and for withstanding the vilification of male authors who caricatured her as a man-hater. One almost feels sorry for them: this petite, elegantly dressed 62-year-old is a formidable opponent. The only time during our conversation when she doesn’t argue convincingly is when she tries to present herself as one of nature’s wishy-washies.

“I’m the sort of person who compromises constantly. I talk a good fight but I don’t fight the fight often. And I think that the voice that’s always in my head condemning me for these shortcomings ends up being V I’s voice. If somebody says: ‘Oh, help,’ she just drops what she’s doing and goes and helps them.”

A headstrong female knight-errant with a weakness for shoes and handbags: V I is a character so appealing that Paretsky has sold more than 10 million copies of her books worldwide. Readers write to commiserate with V I over the violence her creator inflicts on her; although in Hardball an encounter with a Molotov cocktail leaves her badly burned and almost blinded, she’s had worse days. “But women my age really love the fact that she’s out there able to be so physical when we’re all so useless.”

Not all her correspondents are concerned about V I’s welfare. “I got this weird letter from a man in the National Rifle Association who said I make so many mistakes about the use of firearms that I am clearly a Communist who wants to remove firearms from American hands because I was encouraging people to misuse them.” Her most famous fan, Bill Clinton, corresponds with her too, having begun by sending her a six-page handwritten reply to a letter she wrote about Bosnia.

“I wrote to Bush, too, saying very politely, get over yourself on abortion, and then got a letter back saying the President is so glad you share his beliefs and he’s sent you this photo suitable for framing. That was a good way to get me to stop writing.”

Her enthusiasm for Obama is sincere but qualified. “I wanted Obama to be like FDR, to be bold, take many chances, try many things, but he’s not that kind of person. Also, although FDR faced enormous opposition, it wasn’t like this very ideologically driven Republican rump. A lot of what’s driving the opposition is coded racism. He has less manoeuvring room than he would if he was white.”

Like her books, Paretsky is deeply gloomy and very funny. Those who think reading crime novels that tackle political issues is like being forced to eat broccoli with your Big Mac may not be pleased to learn that her next novel deals with Iraq; but in the past she has brought a light touch to books that have addressed 9/11 and the Holocaust.

“I’m not writing to add to people’s pain; I just hope I can make them laugh, too. My husband reads my early drafts and I sit there in the next room. It’s only when he starts laughing that I think, OK, it’s OK.”

‘Hardball’ is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99

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