Sara Paretsky is the author of sixteen books, including her renowned V. I. Warshawski novels. Her many awards include the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writers’ Association. She lives in Chicago.
Where were you when you had had your first criminal thought? And what was it?I suppose the first criminal thought that I really remember was when I was five and wanted to murder my younger brother for taking over a game I was trying to play. I actually stabbed him with a pencil.
As far as writing about crime, my first murderous impulse came when I was fourteen, trying to emulate some of the books like Rex Stout’s and Pheobe Atwood Taylor’s that I was reading at the time. Mercifully, my juvenilia doesn’t survive. My first V.I. Warshawski novel was published many years later, in 1982.
Which comes first, the murder or the murderer?Murder and murderer are intertwined. Events drive people to the brink of committing murder, so it’s really the external context that comes first.
When were you most scared in your life?I’m such a fearful person that it’s kind of hard for me to remember when I’ve been most scared in my life. Still, there was a time when I was working on my fifth book, Toxic Shock. I was driving through back roads in a heavily industrialized part of Chicago’s south side. I was stopped at an intersection where marsh grasses grew ten feet above the road. An oil tanker – an eighteen-wheeled semi-turned the corner at a fast clip, coming straight at me. I was absolutely terrified and put the car into reverse so fast that the gears stripped. I avoided being massacred by about a tenth of a second.
Where and how do you write?I have a kind of attic space that I work in. I need separation and privacy in order to write, but I also need a lot of snacks.
What – or who – has influenced you most?The women’s movement gave me both the insights and the courage to turn the stories that had long been floating in my head into the written books about V.I. Warshawski.
Do you have a hero?I have many heroes. They tend to be people who are willing to take risks and stand up to a lot of criticism as they worked for their goals. I think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Margaret Sanger in the political arena, and writers like Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Bronte – among many others as my writing heroes.
What makes a good detective?A good detective has to have a capacity for empathy in order to hear the subtext of what’s being said to her (or to him). A good detective also has a lot of patience and stick-to-it-iveness.
What are the best research tools you use?My best research tools are the experts in many different fields who are willing to share their knowledge with me. These people have ranged from the engineer, master and crew of the J.W. McGiffen of the Canada Steamship Line who helped me when I was researching my second book, Deadlock, to Dr Bob Kirschner, the forensic pathologist who gives me ongoing advice on death and dying.
Do you carry a gun? Have you ever fired it?Handguns terrify me. A Chicago police officer who was tired of the mistakes I made in my descriptions of firearms actually took me shooting one day and I almost fainted when I held a gun that had live ammunition in it. I did end up firing several hundred rounds, but that was many years ago and I’ve never been tempted to pick up a gun since.