Do not mistake Sara Paretsky for her creation.
Medium-hard-boiled private investigator V.I. (for Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski, protagonist of six detective novels including the best-selling Blood Shot, is a native Chicagoan, rooted in the harsh soil of the south side's steel mills. Paretsky grew up near the university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where her father taught. Warshawski lives alone in a co-op at Belmont and Racine, but shares custody of a run-loving golden retriever with her downstairs neighbor; Paretsky shares a house in Hyde Park with a husband named Courtenay Wright and a friendly golden retriever called Cardhu, named after a whiskey. Warshawski, who ages a little more slowly than those of us who are not fictional characters, is in proper Chicago fashion a member of a couple of very distinct ethnic groups; Paretsky, who is 43, declines to claim even one.
Paretsky's house is a sturdy brick Victorian, wood trim painted dull red, its western windows heavily shrouded against the late-afternoon sun. The first clue that you've come to the right place is the tall stack of books on a bench in the entry, a harbinger of other, similar stacks heaped around the house. The second is Cardhu, charging protectively to the door.
Sara Paretsky is lean and frail-looking, her blue eyes huge in her thin face; her hands run constantly through her wiry graying hair. She's reserved, private, almost shy in her manner; her frequent near-scowl is in sharp contrast to the occasional brilliant smile that changes the angles of her face and lights it up. Though usually soft-spoken, she explodes in peals of contagious laughter when something strikes her as funny. Her humor is dry and her wit ready. Her low-pitched voice sounds like home to me, with the quiet, almost indistinguishable midwestern accent of eastern Kansas.
Where Warshawski is physically strong--a runner, capable of holding her own with violent miscreants--Paretsky has severe back problems. These prevent her from sitting up for more than an hour or so at a time (she spent part of our interview lying on a sofa) and have put her well behind schedule on her next book.
Her office is an untidy cubby across the hall from the parlor, off in a corner near the staircase. One wall of the book-lined room is dominated by a framed poster of some favorite jocks in evening clothes, a reproduction of a cover of Chicago Times. A small statue of a Japanese goddess sits atop the computer monitor. Paretsky ordered her from a catalog because she was billed as the goddess of writers. When Paretsky's Japanese translator came to visit, the woman was horrified to see what she identified as an exceptionally unpleasant and exceedingly jealous deity ensconced in the writer's work space. "But I left her there," Paretsky says. "I figured I'd be in even more trouble if I got rid of her."
Bryan Miller: You're so identified with Chicago, you've got such a good feel for neighborhoods and the city's rhythms, that most people, reading your books, assume you're a native. How long have you lived here?
Sara Paretsky: Since '68. I came here originally in '66. There was a program in Chicago called "Summer in Service" that I was in, sponsored by the Presbytery of Chicago. The different inner-city churches, if they wanted to hold some kind of community-service program, would put in for volunteers; then the presbytery would try to place them.
BM: Were you a Presbyterian at the time?
SP: [Laughs.] No, I was a Jew at the time. But I felt like I might be able to do something to correct some of the egregious wrongs of the day. I wasn't prepared to drop out of school to go into the Peace Corps, so it seemed like a doable kind of thing.
The church that I was assigned to was at 70th and Damen--it's no longer in existence. The pastor was essentially our manager, and we did some good things for the kids. But it was what he got us involved in, and what we got out of the summer, that made it so valuable. We just took part in so much politically in the city, and did so many other things--riding the el day and night, getting to know different parts of the city, getting very close to the city --and it just got in my blood. When I graduated, I didn't know what to do next, so I came back here and became a secretary.
I didn't have strong career ambitions. I grew up in a time and place and in a family setting where girls were more expected to think about families. When I got through college and wasn't engaged to be married, or likely to be, the future was very opaque to me. In retrospect I can't say, "I should have done x, or I should have done y," because I didn't have any x or y that was really a possibility then. I was working in the admissions office [at the University of Chicago], and started working on an advanced degree in history--not because I had a passion for it, but because I didn't know what else to do.
I worked on that, and on lots of different part-time jobs. I worked at one small company--I was there for three years, and I still can't describe what they did. It was like an information-services company that did publications for Fortune 1,000 companies. That was 1974 and I was working on my PhD, but it was clear that the job market was very grim. There were 29 PhDs in history at Chicago that year.
I decided to retool myself and got an MBA, and I worked for almost ten years for CNA Insurance. Corporations--their favorite employee is a middle-aged man with a severely ill child, because he can't quit. And as soon as they have an employee who seems to have either other sources of income or other interests, they can't deal with it.
In many ways it was an interesting and valuable experience. I mean, it's easy to poke fun at the corporation; there were plenty of just totally grotesque things that went on. But I enjoyed aspects of it, and I miss the camaraderie.
BM: When did you leave CNA?
SP: In January of '86.
BM: With hosannas on your lips?
SP: [Laughs.] On theirs, I think.
BM: So they had trouble dealing with it when you became successful?
SP: Yeah, I think that it was hard for them, because they felt like my loyalties must be divided. I didn't think that they were, but they did. I started getting performance reviews that they thought I was "too flamboyant" and "too creative" to be in corporate life. At the same time, they were paying $10,000 a month to the guys who wrote In Search of Excellence to show them how to make their employees more creative. So some of them weren't creative enough, and some of them were too creative, and they wanted them all to be just right.
I thought that I was extremely conservative--I mean, I have this entire closetful of really dull corporate clothes that I never have worn since I left there. So I thought that I was dressing and doing everything else to fit right in, but I guess I didn't, in some mysterious way.
BM: When did you begin writing?
SP: Well, I've been writing since my very earliest childhood. But it wasn't until 1979 that I started to work on what became my first book. I think it's strange to look back. I mean, your perspective on yourself changes as your life situation changes. I suppose I could look back and say, "I should have known that I was always a writer," but it's something that I did just very privately--I had no concept of writing for publication. Twice in my life [before the Warshawski books] I submitted things that I had written, but the rest of the time I was really writing for myself.
It had been a fantasy of mine for many years that I might actually write a novel, and I tried writing several short stories. In 1979, I was 31--you know, you get this sense of urgency when you turn 30, because you suddenly realize that your time is finite, that the things you imagine you'll get to at some point you'll never get to. It took me a long time to get the courage to write for publication, or to begin to perceive myself as someone who might have something to write that other people might want to read. And even so, when I started to work on my first book, I had written about 60 pages over an eight-month period, and I couldn't imagine really being able to do it. I probably wouldn't have done it except that a friend of mine told me about a course at Northwestern called "Writing Detective Fiction for Publication," and it seemed like too much of a coincidence. So I signed up for it, and the teacher, Stuart Kaminsky, was supportive and encouraging of what I was trying to do. It gave me the impetus to do it. So all these things were just a series of accidents. I have a feeling that without that course I never really would have had the emotional strength to imagine being able to write a book.
I wrote three books while I was at CNA.
BM: So CNA was the basis for the insurance company in Indemnity Only. That was your first book, wasn't it?
SP: Yes, and it took a long time to find a publisher. When it did, I was an unknown and they were taking a big gamble on me, and it was a very small run. Now Delacorte, my hardcover publisher, is going to do a new edition of it. It seems funny that this book that nobody wanted is going to get this new send-off. It makes me very happy, because of course your first book is very special to you.
You know, I've written six novels that have been published in 14 languages, and insecure as I continue to be about my writing voice, I'm sort of an international personality on a very small scale, and it's just queer to think about. It's queer to think about yourself as a public person when all of your own kinds of insecurities and depressions haven't changed.
BM: Do you want to say anything about those insecurities and depressions?
SP: Ohhh . . . what probably slows me down in my work more than anything else is my fear each time that I'm going to write such a bad book that everyone will jump all over me.
I think that's all I have to say about that--you sound really stupid when you start talking about it.
BM: What made you decide to write detective fiction?
SP: It's what I used to read almost exclusively--three or four books a week, I didn't read anything else. I don't so much anymore. I think now that I'm [reading them] in a rather more focused way, I find what other people are doing distracts me. It's not that I think what I'm doing is better; a lot of times it's worse, and that's even more distracting. I'll think, "God, I'll never do it as well." I'm so focused with what I'm doing with my character that I get impatient with what other people are doing with the genre.
BM: You don't read them at all?
SP: I don't when I'm actively working on one. I was starting to read a book called Streets of Fire, by Thomas Cook. It's really a very strongly written, very moving book set in Birmingham in the early days of the civil rights movement, the early days of the demonstrations. And I just started feeling so inade
quate, reading it--thinking, "God, I've never taken on an issue this strong, or written about it this well." When you're going to have that reaction to what you're reading, it undermines your confidence too much to work effectively.
BM: But when you're not actively working on one?
SP: I do try to [read others], because I like to see what's happening in the genre.
BM: Whose books do you like to read?
SP: Well, I reread a lot of the older English writers, I guess primarily because they're doing something so different from me that they have the least impact on my own view of what I'm doing. Margery Allingham, Michael Gilbert--I like them a lot.
BM: Dorothy Sayers?
SP: I guess as I've changed, I find her less appealing. Her writing and her plotting are extraordinary. I don't think anyone matches her standard of English or the care of her plots. But I don't think she had a very good understanding of human nature. And I'm made uncomfortable by some of her class assumptions, which actually pretty much pervade English crime writing. You know--police coming out of the lower middle class are just not going to be up to the intellectual level of someone who's born into the nobility and educated at Oxford.
BM: What other writers do you like?
SP: There's a contemporary English writer named Liza Cody who has a woman PI. I think she's a very beautiful writer, underknown in this country. Finally her back list is coming into print. Her publishers are finally beginning to see that she really does merit more support. And because she's approaching the form differently than American women, I feel like I learn something from reading her--something about style, maybe. She writes very well about the intimate details of life, and I think my books are too big--I don't know that I've really learned from reading her how to make my books smaller, but at least I'm getting exposed to a different way of doing it.
I get tired of writing that doesn't have anything real to say about people's lives. There's a writer on the scene in California whose recent books have suddenly become very, very strong, named Lia Matera. I feel like she's writing about real people when I read her books, and that's what I mostly look for. I can't stand people who behave stereotypically just to forward a plot.
BM: How do you deal with people who feel that they know you from your books, that in a way you're a friend?
SP: Well, you know, it's certainly very flattering, but I also feel that they must be expecting something really extraordinary. When people come up to me and say, "Oh, I've wanted to meet you for years," I always think I should be doing something really amazing--taking off my clothes and jumping off a bridge, something startling.
BM: Do you ever have problems with invasions of your privacy?
SP: Yes. I don't know how to say this without sounding like a snot, but when people come up and say something and then go on, I'm always very touched, both that they recognize me, which surprises me, and also that they had that kind of response. But I have a hard time with people who want me to come over for dinner, or do things like that, because what they want is what's in my books and I don't know how to give them that. It's hard to say no to someone who's really supporting me but who at the same time doesn't understand that what I can give them is limited.
BM: How do your friends feel about your vocation? Do you ever find them guarding their conversations around you?
SP: No, no, I don't write from people's conversations, and they know that.
BM: What does your husband do?
SP: He's on the physics faculty at the University of Chicago. It's very different from what I do, which I think is really good. I'm sure it's nice if you can share your interests, and I'm sorry I don't know physics. I mean, when I'm stuck with my plot, he can make intelligent suggestions, but when he can't figure out how to make a circuit board work so that the protons are fired correctly, about all I can say is, "Sorry, dear."
BM: How did you come up with the character of Vic Warshawski?
SP: I had wanted, for a number of years before I started working on Indemnity Only, to do a book with a woman protagonist. I think I was responding to the American PI school with its very negative views on women, particularly on women's sexuality. You can see women in certain well-defined roles in American crime fiction: if a woman is sexually active, then she's a villain. Her sexuality defines her. You may see women who are professional prostitutes who somehow are innocent and yet are very animallike. For instance, in a book by a contemporary crime writer named Jonathan Baum called Life's Work, the woman is a hooker, and her best friend is found murdered in a really gruesome way, which is graphically described. And the hooker, within moments of having found her, grief-stricken over her dead friend, is laughing and seducing the detective hero, because she's an animal; she's not bad, but she isn't really capable of feeling the grief that a man can feel. And that's how women's sexuality is portrayed.
Then we've lately added the new category of the deranged career woman, who can't handle the pressures of her job and its unnatural--for a woman--emphasis; and we've also heated up the amount of this really violent sadism directed toward women. We're really very much portrayed as objects on which men can vent their rage. So there are all these different, very negative, deep, depersonalizing ways in which women are portrayed over and over again.
While I hadn't thought it out in quite such a detailed way, it had really hit me; and so for years it had been something I'd toyed with. But first of all I couldn't put a reality to the idea of writing a book, and secondly I didn't really have quite the right approach to it.
I think some of it came to me while I was working at CNA. Women were newcomers in management when I started--there always had been a few, but it was a rarity, and it's still not that common. We were pioneers, and we got greater and lesser degrees of harassment, both within the company and among the agents. I think that there's this sense of, "I'm gonna push her and see how hard I can push before she just cracks." I don't think I ever dealt very well with either that kind of pressure or friction. I mean, I tend to be a very confrontational, kind of quick-tempered person, but in an environment where I knew that my job might be at stake, and there didn't seem to be any good way to react, I tended not to be able to come up with the most visceral kinds of reactions. I felt compelled to put a lid on 'em. I never had a good way of reacting and coping.
I think it just came to me, very much in a flash, that what I really wanted was someone who was like me, or like other women that I knew, who was doing a job that she didn't know existed when she was in high school, getting those kinds of pressures--you know, "Let's see, girlie, whether you really belong here or not"--and that she could have the kind of visceral reaction that I really had to deny myself. So she, in a way, became an escape valve for me.
The one thing about V.I. is that, though she may be worrying about the way people are reacting to her when she's in the privacy of her bathtub, it never stops her when she's out in the fray.
People tell me that in the last couple of books she's gotten softer than she used to be, that she's too soft, and I think, "Well, maybe that's a function of my leaving the corporation." I think maybe I should go undercover and get a temporary secretary job, and that will get me tough again.
BM: Some people think that she's become less appealing in the last book.
SP: Oh, really? Too abrasive?
BM: Yes. Not sympathetic.
SP: Well, maybe she's at the right level, if some people think she's too abrasive and others think she's too soft.
BM: How did you--and V.I.--come by your feminist principles?
SP: I think I became sort of a budding feminist in my undergraduate days at the University of Kansas, when I came under the influence of Emily Taylor, the dean of women there, who was a real feminist and supporter of rights for women students. She was the first person who made me aware that women's lives could encompass more than domestic life. Then, at a rally here, when I heard someone reiterate Stokely Carmichael's infamous comment--"The place for women in the movement is prone"--I really became a radicalized feminist.
BM: Were you ever a member of any women's organizations, or was it mostly an intellectual commitment?
SP: It was probably more an intellectual commitment, but I've served on the board of the National Abortion Rights Action League of Illinois. I've been very active in abortion politics over the last 20 years.
BM: It seems to me that there's a lot of hostility toward the Roman Catholic church in the books, especially in Killing Orders. What's the source of that--is it just from being involved in the abortion-rights movement?
SP: That's complicated, and I really don't know how to answer it in a simple way. I should have a sound-bite answer, and I don't.
You know, the church was so active in the civil rights movement in the late 50s and early 60s, and the town where I grew up was probably evenly divided between being anti-Catholic and anti-Jew. There were very few Catholics and almost no Jews, and so I think that we felt a real strong kind of bond, because we did tend to go out on the same issues at that time. And we also were in that context of both being misunderstood, and in some ways actively harassed, minorities. So I often perceive the Catholic church at a very individual level, as having individual priests and laypeople having really strong commitments to human life that somehow the church fosters.
And then at the same time, [the church has] got this very strong authoritarian structure. That will always get my hackles up, when anyone feels that, because of his position, he has the right to lay down the law to other people, and that you're supposed to do it. That's when I'm always going to get up and say no. And because that's the nature of the organization as an organization, I have a lot of anger towards it, particularly because they want to say no to my life. I mean, they--the hierarchy--would like to see me dead, or any woman that's in that fundamental position.
BM: You mean, dead rather than have an abortion?
SP: Right. They think that death is the just punishment that a woman should reap for having sex. [The church] as an organization is hostile to female sexuality. I think you can see this in a lot of ways. After giving birth, you're supposed to go to a purification ceremony before you're allowed back in to taking sacraments. I don't know how much of this is enforced, but it's part of Church doctrine.
There's this fear of women's blood, and one of the arguments raised against the ordination of women into the priesthood is "We can't have a woman menstruating at the altar." So I think all of this demonstrates a real terror of female sexuality. Any individual can be afraid of anything that they want to be, but when they turn it into a doctrine designed to kill women, then it makes me really angry.
BM: Doesn't that originate with the Jewish part of the Judeo-Christian tradition--purifying women after menstruation with ritual baths, and so on?
SP: Oh, yeah, but Judaism has always held the life of the woman as sacred, that if it's a choice between the life of the woman and the life of the fetus, the woman wins every time. But yes, it's certainly true. I think it comes from a primitive understanding of fertility. If you read the injunctions in Leviticus, you see that the time when you're supposed to have intercourse is exactly the point in your cycle when you're most likely to be fertile.
Then you have circumcision, which only a man can participate in, so that the real bond between God and humans can only be established by man. And then you have the sacrifice of the Mass in the Catholic Church, and the creation of blood on the altar out of wine. It's like they're saying, "We can get by without you women, because we can make blood here. Your blood is bad; our blood is good." I think heavy symbolism underlies the way that women are defined sexually and then excluded sacerdotally.
BM: Earlier we started to talk about Vic's background, the extent to which she's an alter ego or escape valve. What are the points of similarity between you and the points of dissimilarity? Did you purposely build traits into V.I. Warshawski that differentiate her from you, or did she just grow in your unconscious?
SP: I think that I wanted her to be--see, I see Chicago very much as an outsider, and I think that I'm not a joiner or a participator. And of course one of the things that as an outsider I think is really weird is the intense kind of ethnic loyalties that Chicago has. Nowadays, a lot of people are so focused on black-white divisions that all the good old ethnic rivalries seem to be swallowed up in people's racial identities. But I still, from time to time, will have people say to me, "Well, where are you from?" And I'll say, "Well, I grew up in Kansas, but I've lived in Chicago for 20 years." And they'll say, "No, where are you from?" They want to know where in Europe--where among the eight or nine different countries my ancestors came from--I feel ethnic attachment. And the answer is, to none of them. I mean, I don't see it. When you're brought up in Kansas, you don't. I don't know if that was your experience?
BM: In my experience, growing up in Kansas, ethnicity is a nonissue. Nobody cares. But up here, everyone wants to know your ethnic group, and if you can't provide just a simple one or two, with no complications, you're considered very strange.
BM: So you created somebody who . . .
SP: So I created someone who had those kinds of both Chicago ties and European ties, because it seemed just very typical.
BM: But Vic doesn't fit in with either of her ethnic groups, really. Her mother's Italian family doesn't like her, and her father's Polish family regard her with suspicion . . .
SP: Well, I think that in that way she's probably typical of the deranged career woman. [Laughs.] Nobody really understands what she's doing.
BM: You have quite a few people convinced that you grew up in South Chicago, because you describe it so well and so knowledgeably. How did you get a sense of the place? Did you rely on local informants?
SP: Well, I worked with two women in South Chicago [who were part of a South Chicago redevelopment corporation]. And so I got much more of an insider look and feel for the neighborhood. And there's something about it that just appealed to me, maybe because I had a chance to get to know it better than I often do with the neighborhoods that I write about. But you go down there--I mean, there are some tacky houses--40 percent of the neighborhood is unemployed, and you wouldn't know it from driving around. It's a very proud community, and it's a very clannish community. Ethnically and racially it's highly diverse, and it's always been where the newcomers have come to work in the mills. And so it's always been a very high friction point, where newcomers get bashed up by the older folks. But in terms of community, as a whole, it operates very tightly. The local S and Ls down there continue to refinance mortgages for people who've been out of work for a decade. I don't know where else you'd find that. You might find it in a small town in Kansas. You certainly wouldn't find First Chicago or Continental Illinois doing that.
BM: Where does the high operatic content in the books come from? There are numerous references to opera, and Vic is always singing arias for her own amusement.
SP: I think it's because of my love of singing, even with my total lack of musicianship. V.I. would be an OK singer if she worked at it, but she's not got a great talent. It's not like it's a terrible shame that she doesn't work at it. Whereas with her mother, it really is a terrible shame that she wasn't able to have a career.
BM: Is Vic's mother, Gabriella, anything like your own mother?
SP: My mother is really quite, quite different.
BM: Is there a basis for the story of Gabriella's fleeing Italy and being mistreated by her family when she got to America?
SP: Well, to some extent. My father's mother came to this country when she was 13, in 1911. She came from Lithuania and was sent by her family, because a really unpleasant pogrom was threatening and they wanted to get her out of harm's way. They sent her to stay with some distant relatives in New York, who thought that--and I don't know where they got this idea--that she was bringing some jewels, some rubies specifically, with her, to pay for her room and board. And when their son began falling in love with her and there was no dowry, they threw her out in the street. So there she was, only 13 years old, alone in New York. And I think I had that in the back of my mind from the start, as Gabriella's story--to be able to tell in a small way my grandmother's story, and that that was one of the things that dictated her character.
Over time, of course, with all these characters, you start thinking about them more. I probably don't have nearly as clear a fix on V.I.'s father as I do on her mother. He's kind of a gentle, good-natured person, but there's not much of a story about him. You start seeing [characters and their relationships] in more breadth, more shades. I sort of see this marriage as that Gabriella liked V.I.'s father, but all the passion that was in her went to her daughter. He rescued her from an unpleasant situation, and she married him partly out of gratitude, partly out of a lack of other choices.
BM: Gabriella had those red wineglasses that she brought when she fled Italy, the only things of value that she was able to save. What's the source of those?
SP: I can't even remember what made me think of them, really. And I've never seen any; I can see them in my mind's eye, and I look whenever I'm in an antiques store, I look to see if I can see any. But I really don't know. I get piteous letters from people over their breaking, so I've sort of promised I'll stop breaking them.
BM: Do you get a lot of mail?
SP: [Laughs, and gestures toward her dining-room table, heaped with papers and envelopes.] There's my unanswered mail. I get a fair amount. You know, people who write children's books get three or four thousand letters a year--I mean, it's just that kids write. I don't get anything near that.
BM: Is most of it friendly mail?
SP: Yes, most of it's fan mail. When I make technical mistakes, I do hear from people. Oddly enough--I don't get that many of them, but when I do, they're pages and pages--I get letters from NRA members about all the mistakes I've made. They've photocopied the pages, and write: "How dare you do this." You'd think they'd be thrilled to death that I have a character who uses a handgun. Instead, it's: "I know that you're a secret liberal who hates handguns!" I mean, these I find amazing.
BM: Gee, I'd think they'd want to be helpful instead of hostile. Most of the gun owners I know are almost painfully eager to give advice.
SP: Well, occasionally the real gun lovers do send lovely helpful advice and diagrams and things. And I do try to respond to stuff like that, I do try to absorb it, but I think I don't have a very good visual mind. It's hard for me to picture it.
BM: Have you gone out to a range and done some shooting?
SP: Yeah, I have. A police officer took me out, a very nice police sergeant. It was very strange to hold this gun, with live ammo. First of all, these suckers weigh a lot.
BM: They weigh a lot, and they kick.
SP: Yeah. It really gave me the shakes to think that I had this thing in my hand with live ammo in it. I thought, I could shoot him, I could shoot myself--it was a very unnerving experience.
BM: Do you get a lot of mail from antiabortionists?
SP: No, I don't. I'm sort of surprised--I guess I have to say I expected mail from antiabortionists, but I have a feeling they must not read the kind of books I write. They're not shy about expressing their opinions!
BM: How do you research things like proper gun use or police procedures?
SP: Well, in some ways it's the hardest part of what I do, because it's hard for me to make phone calls to people, although people are almost always responsive and helpful. They are so much more of the time than they aren't that I ought not to worry about it. I know some people in the Police Department downtown, and they're helpful.
I'm not strong enough to go hoppin' around with the police, although they have some good programs for anyone who's interested--ride-along programs, tours of precinct offices.
BM: How about the public-defender background, and some of the other things?
SP: Well, I have a real good friend who's been a public defender in Chicago for many years. My friends in the insurance company continue to be really willing to help me with some of the other details. My brother's a lawyer, but he's in Kansas, so there's a lot that's different.
BM: How did you decide to make Vic a former public defender? The lawyer I can see--there's a lot there that would be useful to a PI.
SP: Well, I just saw it as coming out of the kind of person that she was, her commitment to social issues--and in some ways, you know, she's very much her mother's daughter. Her mother's family may not think highly of her, but she's very connected to her mother, and has her intensity and concern for the underdog. So it seemed like a kind of natural thing for her to do, especially in the context of the 60s.
In some ways--when you start really meeting public defenders, particularly public defenders in the murder task force--they don't really experience their work in the way that I imagined it. See, I think of getting a very high frustration level with dealing with these criminals, and at the same time you feel like you're fighting to put people back on the street that ought not to be there, or you're dealing with people that you see as being so victimized by a sequence of social events that you just feel helpless. They seem, from what they say, to have a very high identification with their clients, and to feel a lot of dedication to working on their behalf. So I think my imagined scenario, my projection, my character and how she felt, probably isn't that realistic.
I think a lot about questions of violent behavior and how people who do behave violently perceive themselves. My brother the lawyer has been a clerk in the Kansas appellate court for several years, and he's read over a hundred appeals from people who've committed really hideous crimes--I mean, sawn up their girlfriends, or hacked their families to bits, or gone into the corner store and shot everybody--and he says they always, always present themselves as victims. And of course you know that some people have been wrongly accused and wrongly convicted, but you don't think that all of them can be. I mean, you'd have to sort of give up on the criminal-justice system if you thought that. But there's really a very consistent self-presentation as helpless victims. I really think I couldn't cope with it on an ongoing basis.
BM: Do you think that V.I. has grown through the books? Do you keep adding facets to her personality?
SP: I think she's changed, inevitably, because I've changed. She comes out of my unconscious, so there are a lot of things I don't really think about in a conscious way. In the early books, she was a pioneer. My first book was the first book to have a female PI. It was not just that she was alone in the fictional world, but in the real world, too. You didn't see women playing those roles in the justice system. Women were just beginning to go to law school in numbers. Now you have women police officers; the class-action suits are all behind us, and you see women playing all these different roles. When you're a pioneer, you really do have to have a much rougher edge, because you're having to prove your right to do the job.
But it would be ludicrous for me to keep harping on that issue, because she's established that right. I mean, there's a fictional world around her, with people where she has a reputation. So she can move on to other issues. She can move on to more serious problems and doesn't have to dwell on "my right to do this job."
BM: In all of the books, [V.I.'s father] Tony Warshawski's best friend, Captain Bobby Malone, has constantly obstructed Vic and disputed her right to do the job. In the last one, it looks as though he's finally backing down in his opposition. Do you think that has been overdrawn in some of the books?
SP: Well, I thought it was getting to be almost a parody of itself, and that it just felt flat to me to keep going like that. But it means that he'll really stop playing a role as a character, because you need some of that opposition to create the tension that moves the book forward, and since now there's been some resolution with him, he just can't be a very significant player any more. Plus, the police have a mandatory retirement age--I think it's 62--and my characters do age as normal people do. I'm not one of these writers who keeps them forever young.
BM: Do you ever feel hemmed in by V.I.?
SP: No, I don't think that way, because she's very vital to me. I don't think she's stale for me. I hope that I'll know before my readers know if I'm doing her by rote, but so far that hasn't happened.
The problem I have is that I've always worked relatively slowly, and now with my health problems, I'm working even more slowly. There are other things that I would like to try to write, but I'm committed to doing two more books about her. And the crime stories I have to tell, I really see with her as the protagonist anyway.
Other than that, I'd like to write different kinds of things. But the only reason I'd have to write [about another detective] would be for the movie money, since I sold V.I. to the movies. It was the money they paid me that enabled me to leave CNA.
BM: Is anything being done with the character for movie production?
SP: Yeah, Disney productions is making a movie with Kathleen Turner. I think. I mean, she signed a contract, they've signed a contract. But these things move really slowly. And they tell me that even though she's signed a contract and they've signed a contract and all these things, until it's playing in the theaters you can't be sure that it will be either made or shown.
BM: Do your characters ever start dictating to you what they're going to do? Do they ever write themselves in?
SP: I understand this concept; people talk about it all the time. You know, your writing comes out of your unconscious, and your best writing probably comes when you're able to relax the most and let things float the most easily. But I think that you're playing these really strange head games if you think that you're not the person in charge of what you're doing. I don't know; maybe it's just that I'm not creative enough to see this.
BM: What's the source of [V.I.'s doctor friend] Lottie? Was there someone in particular on whom she was modeled?
SP: I didn't really have Lottie much in mind when I started. I mean, I sent V.I. off to the doctor, and I really hadn't thought about it, or imagined her or what that relationship could become.
There used to be an abortion underground here, which I was not a part of but knew about. And I had V.I. as part of the underground, and she and Lottie met there, although in fact there were not doctors participating. I think there were some doctors advising. And that much I knew when I brought Lottie on the scene. The rest of it really just grew.
You know, the private eye is traditionally a loner. And because I was nervous about being able to execute [a book], I hadn't given much thought to how I perceived my character, beyond the real explicit things--you know, I wanted a woman who was a whole person, who was as sexual as people are and that that had nothing to do with her moral character. Beyond that, I hadn't really thought it through. But when you read the male PIs, like Marlowe, you do see them operating very much as loners. They come out of the tradition of the western, with the cowboy who's coming in to clean out the town and restore Justice with a capital "J." And I think that, on an unconscious level, women don't think that way. Certainly I don't think that way. I think women tend to exist more in what Carol Gilligan calls "a network of connection" than they do in isolation. Psychologically, for myself, I needed V.I. to be in connection with someone, and Lottie became that person. I think it was partly because, when you have a series with recurring characters, the recurring characters have to play a role. There has to be a reason for them to be there that's a part of the story. And the other people that I may think of as her friends don't really have a story reason to be present--so they tend not to be.
BM: One of the things I liked in the most recent book is that Lottie warns V.I. that if she keeps getting hit on the head she's looking at senility and other unpleasantness one of these days, so she should watch it. It's the sort of realism you don't get in most detective fiction. Most PIs seem to have this Han Solo ability to be clobbered again and again, indefinitely, and show no effects.
SP: Yeah, or Marlowe. I reread all the Marlowe books--two years ago now, for the centennial. They asked a bunch of PI writers to do an original Marlowe story, one for each of the 25 years that Chandler was writing them. So I reread all the books, and it really just hits you what total isolation he lives in. But also, he gets hit on the head, and he brings himself to with rye--he's concussed, and he drinks a pint or so of rye. Then he goes off, drives his car along the Ventura freeway, and tangles with 18 armed desperadoes. I think that, when you read that, it makes you very conscious of what ought to really happen to you physically. [Laughs.] And also, when you're rather frail physically, you become more aware of pain and danger.
BM: What's the story on V.I.'s busybody downstairs neighbor? Is he based on anybody in particular?
SP: No. Now that is an example of someone who really did kind of write himself into the book. That's the one time I can think of where that kind of thing really did happen. Because he really wasn't supposed to be anything; he was just someone in passing. But then when he starts talking, for some reason, his speech comes very easily for me.
BM: It's an interesting juxtaposition--this very modern woman, friends with a very traditional older man who calls her "doll."
SP: I think that older men can sometimes have a higher tolerance for independent women than younger men. They're no longer in these head-to-head horn battles with young moose.
BM: Do you see Vic ever marrying?
SP: No, I really don't. Of course, I might change my mind, but I don't really see that as part of her life. I wonder why that is.
BM: Have her sexual habits changed over time, what with the advent of AIDS and changes in attitudes?
SP: Well, to some extent. Of course, she's certainly not going to have unprotected sex, and I think that she'd like to know a little bit more about somebody before going to bed with him. On the other hand, maybe she should just carry a pocket blood-test kit.
BM: Are you working on a book now?
SP: I've just started a new one, and it's in much too early a stage--I really don't know enough about it to talk about it.
BM: How long does it take you to plot out a story?
SP: Well, it takes until the book is halfway done, or even more than half-done, before I have a plot completely worked out. I only know if something's working by writing it; somehow even trying to sketch out a story doesn't work. It has to be written. Of course, I start with some kind of sketch of what I think I'm doing. So the first half of a book can take anywhere from six months to a year. And then the second half--it used to be that once I knew what I was doing, I could rattle off 3,000 words a day. So the second half would come pretty fast. The first half takes 90 percent of the time. From the onset of the idea until the manuscript is done takes anywhere from 18 months to two years.
The one I'm working on, I knew a year ago what I wanted to write about. But I'm still fumbling, trying to come up with a story line.
BM: What kind of writing schedule do you have? When I called to set up this interview, you mentioned that you like to work during the day.
SP: I do an intensive exercise program, and that takes about an hour in the mornings. So by the time I've done that and had breakfast and read the paper, it's about ten o'clock. I try to work until three or four, but some days, when things are busy, I can only go until two.
BM: Do you try to give yourself time off between books?
SP: Yes, you can't just go from one to the next, however much both readers and publishers want you to. I think a lot of people think mystery writers are just cows--that they can put out 40 pounds of milk a day. They don't understand that even though it's genre fiction and not great works of art, it still takes some thought and some conscious effort and some work, that they don't just come pouring out like buckets of milk.
BM: What kinds of things do you think you'd like to write about after you've finished your obligation with V.I. Warshawski?
SP: I think I'd like to continue to write about her, because I'm interested in what will happen to her as she ages. And she will age. I mean, she already has aged. She'll be 40 in two years. I may not age her 100 percent in a year, but it's pretty close to that.
I don't know what she'll do as she ages, but it'll make her interesting to keep writing about. She won't be stagnating.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Carter.