Interview: Sara Paretsky

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Fighting racism and injustice shaped Sara Paretsky as a crime writer. She talks to Sarah Ensor about her work, the Iraq war and the US elections.

You are most famous for your detective novels set in Chicago, but your new novel, Bleeding Kansas, is completely different. Why the change?

I grew up in eastern Kansas and came to Chicago when I was 19. It's been my home now for 40 years, and I never had really thought seriously about writing a book set in Kansas. We lived in an old farmhouse in the country, and when my parents got frail and needed to be in town, they sold the house to a couple of women who turned out to be Wiccans. They thought in a kind of naive way that they could be private out in the country and have their full moon rituals outside.

This aroused a lot of hostility from the neighbours who were half a mile away but were paying close attention to what these women were up to. They began harassing the women, especially one guy who was a born-again Christian and a sheriff's deputy. One of my brothers who stayed behind in Kansas as a lawyer did a lot of free legal work for the women because they had been really wonderful to our parents during the moving process. The women were also lovers but the stress of the harassment took a toll on the relationship and they broke up.

One of them was brave enough to stay living in the house - she's still there seven years later. When I heard about this from my brother I felt there was a story in there that I really wanted to tell. But when I sat down to try to write it - naive but clueless Wiccans and right wing assholes - it seemed like it wasn't really a story. But it stayed with me and when the US invaded Iraq I realised that's how I could tell the story.

I was just so angry about the invasion, the war and the public jingoism of five and six years ago. That's where my story is, in the lives of these ordinary farm people who aren't really very attentive to what's happening on the national political stage. They think, "We elect these people and they know what they're doing." Then when one woman becomes an anti-war advocate for a lot of different reasons, it unbalances all of the relationships in the family and the valley. This wasn't a story that made sense in the context I usually write with my detective series in Chicago.

In your memoir you write about arriving in Chicago for the first time in 1966. What was it like to live through that time?

There's a community, Cicero, on the western fringe of Chicago, which was always notorious. Al Capone lived there and the mob operated there for decades. So it has always been a watchword of not just corruption but horrific racism.

There's an airport nearby and lots of Hispanic and African-American people were trying to move in to be close to airport-based jobs. One guy that I know was working out there the week a black family tried to move in. The violence was unspeakable and terrifying and I wouldn't have been brave enough to be that family. One day they saw this white woman coming down the street with a baby buggy and thought, "That's nice, finally, someone who's just out with a baby," but she had bricks in the buggy and started hurling them through the window.

But living through that time I came away feeling filled with enthusiasm, hope and idealism.

How do you feel the 1960s shaped you as a writer and why were you attracted to crime writing?

I have a very low pain threshold and when I read other books life doesn't have happy endings; it always ends in death. But in crime novels there is a sort of happy ending: things get solved and resolved. As a child growing up in a pretty violent household, crime fiction was an escape to a more agreeable landscape. In my teens I was reading mannered English crime. In my twenties when I started reading American noir fiction, I got on a soapbox wanting to change the way women were depicted in crime fiction.

It's more subtle in English 1930s novels. If a woman has been divorced you know she's very naughty and will be using her body to get good boys to do bad things. But in the US when you read Raymond Chandler and the most famous noir writers, they are just filled with women who present themselves in the most sexual way. I wanted to change that.

That's a little different to how the 1960s shaped me as a writer. It's the time and the person coming together. My parents called me Sarah Bernhardt because they thought I was melodramatic. They gave me a copy of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Twain was a huge fan of Joan of Arc. They wanted me to see what fate awaited girls who felt too intensely about the world around them. It made me terrified of fire, but also made me feel I just needed a big enough cause.

The 1960s were for me the horrific Jim Crow laws, the battle for women's rights and the anti Vietnam War movement. A lot of people forget that in Dr King's last big push he became a passionate speaker against the war. It cost him dearly. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had been a strong supporter of Martin Luther King, but when he started speaking out against the war and connecting the dots on class, race and poverty Johnson was furious and withdrew a lot of support.

It made me feel that you ought to dedicate your life to working for the common good and left me feeling guilty because I never feel I'm doing very much. It wasn't that I wanted to tell stories that had a political purpose. I wanted to tell stories that rescued the voices that no one was listening to.

That wasn't just from the 1960s. I was named after two great grandmothers who were both killed in the Holocaust. I think of all those people who died and had their most basic humanity taken away from them. My biggest fear is that I would be in a situation where that could happen to me. The 1960s crystallised that and made me channel that fear into a desire to rescue people's unheard voices to the extent that I could.

How much did it matter to you that the main character in your detective novels, VI Warshawski, was a woman?

I think it's essential that she's a woman. I belong to a group blog of seven crime writers called the Outfit Collective, because in Chicago the mob is called the Outfit. A recent post from a woman was talking about the 1960s and it generated a lot of talk about where we were then and where young people - the millennium generation - are today. Were we doing enough? Was writing enough?

This was the first post by one of the women in the group that generated that much discussion. It's such a female sensibility and the things VI does have this sensibility. What is wrong in people's lives and what should we be doing to fix it? Not how many people can I blow away and look really tough and cool? Of course this is a broad over-generalisation. It doesn't mean that every guy writer is thinking about violence and every women writer is thinking about social good. The sensibility in the VI novels is the social sensibility, not the glamorised sleaze and violence which is so popular in the US.

In terms of the Iraq war, what do you think George Bush's claim that the surge has reduced violence in Baghdad?

I think that that's already falling apart. There was a six-month ceasefire by one faction, and that's breaking down and some of the people who had been fighting the US forces are now actually working with them. But anti-American feeling hasn't gone. It looks like this was a lull, not a permanent solution. I have such a bias against Bush. He could say the sky was blue and I would spend the rest of my life proving it was orange. But I don't believe the surge is working, and it wasn't going to solve any of the problems on the ground to begin with.

There's already a great deal of interest in Britain in the US elections. What do you think this election offers ordinary people?

I did vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary and I agonised over it for months. I think she's been a good senator and she's paid a lot of attention to the serious unemployment and rural poverty issues that plague western New York state. She has been a serious senator. It hasn't just been her springboard for running for national office.

I like Barack Obama. He was my state senator when he was in the Illinois legislature. He lived in my neighbourhood. I knew him, though not well. I was a huge booster of his when he ran for the Senate. But I just preferred her as a presidential candidate. Now it looks like he is going to be the candidate. He is energising young people in an extraordinary way and if he can continue to create that atmosphere that change is possible and that we can turn our backs on this very sordid last 25 to 30 years of US history then a lot can happen.

But here's a big but. Is he capable of governing? He hasn't shown that kind of leadership and it's not about being a big policy wonk, but can he translate vague "change is possible, change is necessary" into real governance? Also can he get a Congress that will change? Even if the Democrats control it, it will still be pretty conservative, as it proved in the last two years. So how much change will there be?

For me the big issue has always been women's reproductive rights, because that goes to the core of whether we are defining women as human beings or as chattels. This Congress has been willing to treat women as second class citizens.

But whether they'll do the hard and dirty work that's needed to turn the economy around from the lawlessness of the hyper-wealthy, pay serious attention to the crying need for healthcare and repair the infrastructure, I don't know. The worst legacy of Ronald Reagan was that he created a mind-set in which it was wrong to pay taxes to support the common good.

There seem to be some rumblings among the people of the US that they are turning away from that attitude. If Barack can harness that, if he can get elected, we can do a lot. Just getting out of Iraq would be something. Aside from every other moral question, we've spent $1.6 trillion in the last five years on that war. You could have built a school and a hospital in every community in the US with that money. It's shocking. So getting out of Iraq, that in itself would boost morale.

You mentioned reproductive rights. What is the state of abortion rights in the US today?

It's pretty grim. We have the legal right to a procedure that almost doesn't exist now for many women. Most of the states have put up very high barriers to access to abortion. There are only nine states and the District of Columbia where a woman on public assistance can have a publicly funded abortion. Women in Illinois, one of most populous states, cannot use public aid to terminate a pregnancy, no matter what the circumstances.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that women's health could not be considered in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The 14th Amendment rules that no one shall be denied equal protection of the law based on race, former servitude, place of birth, etc, but doesn't say sex. So women don't have equal protection under the law.

The next assault has been against access to contraception. The anti-abortion forces have been holding national conventions to organise strategies to outlaw contraception. There are 38 states that have passed laws with so-called conscience clauses that allow pharmacists to withhold contraceptives and not fill prescriptions if their use is against their religion.

It's terrifying and frustrating that young women seem to feel their rights are in place and they don't need to do anything about it.

Do you know what your next book is going to be?

I'm working on a VI novel where the crime happened during one of the 1960s riots and is going to come to the surface in the present day. Corruption is a major problem in the Chicago police, and now and in the 1960s are two of its worst points. There is a long history of cops doing torture - in the way you think of Abu Ghraib - to coerce confessions out of suspects that has been coming to light in the last six or seven years.

There is strong public feeling that the police should be seriously prosecuted and dealt with and that the torturers are being protected. I think they are being protected because there are too many interconnected political fortunes at stake.

The book is set against that backdrop and my working title is Hardball because the murder committed was with someone filling a baseball with nails and throwing it at an African-American civil rights marcher, hitting her just in the right place to kill her. That's the case VI's working on, or will be if I ever buckle down to writing more seriously.


Sara Paretsky's Bleeding Kansas is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99.