V.I.Warshawski author Sara Paretsky on writing as a career

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All star mystery writer Sara Paretsky, talked with me about writing and about her career. This author of the wildly popular V.I.Warshawski series spoke forthrightly about the challenges of a writing career, especially in today’s economic downturn.

 

Sara Paretsky says, about her bold woman detective, V.I. Warshawski,

She is the quintessential urban woman. She grew up in the shadow of the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast side and knows her way around every alley. She’s a street fighter, a singer, a bit of a clothes horse, and a woman of great intensity and passion.

Chatting with Paretsky, it’s obvious she isn’t her character and isn’t conflicted about that.

My favorite anecdote from our conversation goes like this:

Sara, how did you develop your unique writing voice? Is V.I. channelling you?

“It didn’t happen overnight. When I was struggling to come up with a character, I tried different appoaches and got nowhere. When I worked at CNA Insurance, part of the first generation of women in management in large numbers, I worked with a guy who, to put it kindly, had issues where women were concerned.

In October 1979, we were working an event in Grant Park. A dreary day. This man was going on. My lips were saying, “Gosh! Heck of an idea!” But the balloon over my head was saying unprintables. I suddenly thought: That’s my character! She says what’s in the balloon, not worrying about getting fired.”

I grew up in Kansas, a good girl. She didn’t. So her edgy voice is the part of me I hide. In some ways, it’s a crutch. I’ll be in a situation where I’ll think: A stronger, more courageous person than me would say something. But I can’t. I know later I’ll let her say it in a book for me.”

On getting started as a writer

Sara, like many writers, began her love affair with words as a child. Early in her career she craved writing, but settled for business writing for a major insurance company. Still, she couldn’t shake the private dream of publication, particularly in short stories.

“I’ve always loved detective fiction and wanted to create a woman detective. It was getting to the right time for strong women; for women to take a step forward. That was on my mind. The women’s movement was at its peak. There were characters like Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia.  Sylvia began a year before V.I.– I was about to find a niche that hadn’t existed, and people were hungry for it.”

Sara enrolled in a detective-fiction writing class at Northwestern University’s Chicago extension.

Kathleen Turner as Detective V. I. Warshawski

Kathleen Turner as Detective V. I. Warshawski

Her V.I. storyline was right there, but she didn’t know how to pull it together. Later, her instructor introduced her to a literary agent and the rest, Sara says, was very slow history. She became an overnight success — in 30 years.

Sara Paretsky said she’s lucky to have begun when books were marketed through small, independent bookstores. Successful sales were counted in terms of thousands of copies rather than tens of thousands. Her fan base built slowly over time. That kind of audience stays loyal — has legs.

She certainly had to market herself and her work, but the world was ready for her and she was eager, ready to deal with booksignings, public speaking engagements, book tours, a tiring road.

“I’d go anywhere. Any library, community group, or club looking for a speaker. I’d be there. I’d meet with people. I was published in too small a way for the publisher to care about marketing,” Sara recalls.

She encourages up-and-coming and new writers to keep feet planted on terra firma, especially when forming expectations about how fast and how far a book or written work might go. In today’s economy, marketing is essential and knowing how to market your work effectively is critical to success or failure, she’ll tell you.

How to get your writing out in front of the crowd

I asked Sara what a writer’s best tools might look like. She feels that in the end, it’s about carving out time you need to get inside yourself enough to really consider what you’re doing and what it means to you. You have to feel it to portray it.

“Herman Melville talked about the green grass-growing place you need to become really connected to your unconscious mind. That gets you insight you need to go forward. When we spend too much time managing things by phone, the Internet, wherever, without allowing quiet time, we’re killing the source of our creativity,” Sara said. “America is a culture where, if you don’t look like you’re working, there’s something wrong with you. Especially true for women. Put that aside. Sit staring into space. That’s where we go when were doing groundwork and getting prepared.”

That doesn’t mean a writer in the business of writing needn’t attend to business. Sara has a personal blog where she talks about the writing life.  Her website keeps her connected to her audience.  She makes public appearances, and though she recently hired a publicist, she makes sure that she’s accessible to her public.

Sara Paretsky outside the writing life

Writing is her passion and her business. Always, she’s either planning, writing, or promoting a book. She makes herself write every day. Even in bouts of thinker’s block, she wants to be at the keyboard when the logjam breaks. But like all worker bees, she needs down time to connect with family and her community. Sara came to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to do community service work in the City’s South Side nieghborhoods. That, she says, is what made the City her home. The fury over open housing and ethnic neighborhoods marked her, changed her life.

Now, she nurtures organizations that support girls and women in the arts, letters, and sciences. She has endowed scholarships at the University of Kansas and mentored students in Chicago’s inner city schools. Sara created Sisters in Crime,  an advocacy organization for women in the mystery writing world. She founded, Sisters for Science in Chicago, supporting programs for school-age girls and Girls in the Game to give at-risk girls a place to run off pent up energy.

Internationally acclaimed writer Sara Paretsky is a brilliant, thinking woman – a pleasure to talk with. She’s due to release her latest V.I.Warshawski novel, Hardball, this fall. Get a sneak peek at the book on her website.  (Photo above, of Sara Paretsky, is by Steven Gross.)

Read more about Sara at Chicago Freelance Examiner

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