Ghost Country

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Sara Paretsky's genius made Chicago private eye  V.I. Warshawski a household name.  Now the New York Times bestselling author explores an unseen corner of the city she loves.  In Ghost Country she has written a parable for the millennium, a powerful, haunting novel of magic and miracles, of four troubled people who meet beneath Chicago's shadowy streets—and of the woman whose mysterious appearance changes all of their lives forever.

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Sara Paretsky's genius made Chicago private eye  V.I. Warshawski a household name.  Now the New York Times bestselling author explores an unseen corner of the city she loves.  In Ghost Country she has written a parable for the millennium, a powerful, haunting novel of magic and miracles, of four troubled people who meet beneath Chicago's shadowy streets—and of the woman whose mysterious appearance changes all of their lives forever.

They come from different worlds and meet at a time of crisis for all of them.  Luisa, a drunken diva fallen on hard times, discovers on Chicago's streets a drama greater than any she has experienced onstage.  Madeleine, a homeless woman, sees the Virgin Mary's blood seeping through a concrete wall beneath a luxury hotel.  Mara, a rebellious adolescent cast out by her wealthy grandfather, becomes the catalyst for a war between the haves and have-nots as she searches among society's castoffs for the mother she never knew.  

As the three women fight for their right to live and worship beneath the hotel, they find an ally in Hector Tammuz, an idealistic young psychiatrist risking his career to treat the homeless regardless of the cost.  Tensions in the city are escalating when a mysterious woman appears during a violent storm.  Erotic to some, repellent to others, she never speaks; the street people call her Starr.  And as she slowly transforms their lives, miracles begin to happen in a city completely unprepared for the outcome.  

In this extraordinary novel, Sara Paretsky gives voice to the dispossessed, to men and women struggling to bury the ghosts of the past, fighting for their lives in a world hungry for miracles, terrified of change.  A magical, unforgettable story of myth and madness, hope and revelation, Ghost Country is Sara Paretsky's most eloquent and ambitious work yet.

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Examiner
Gritty...extraordinary..haunting....A truly remarkable story by a wonderful storyteller.
Florida Sun-Sentinel
A thought-provoking, sensitive look at class struggles...Ghost Country constantly blends droplets of mysticism while retaining a firm hold on realism.
Chicago Tribune
Rich, imaginative, intensely moving...scene after scene of power and poignancy.
San Francisco Examiner
Gritty...extraordinary..haunting....A truly remarkable story by a wonderful storyteller.
Florida Sun-Sentinel
A thought-provoking, sensitive look at class struggles...Ghost Country constantly blends droplets of mysticism while retaining a firm hold on realism.
Kirkus Reviews
The Holy Spirit, or someone very like her, appears on the mean Chicago streets usually watched over by Paretsky's detective V.I. Warshawski (Windy City Blues, 1995, etc.)—and, brother, is she in a state. If ever a world needed a lift, it's the environs of Midwest Hospital, where bean-counters have reduced dedicated psychiatric residents like Dr. Hector Tammuz to drug-dispensing slot machines and the neighborhood streets surrounding the Orleans Street Church and Hagar's House, its shelter for homeless women, teem with the poor, the hopeless, and the dispensers of those other drugs. The ranks of the downtrodden have been swelled by the addition of Luisa Montcrief (n‚e Janice Minsky), an alcoholic diva who's fallen a long way from Verdi, and Mara Stonds, the ugly-duckling granddaughter of legendary neurosurgeon Dr. Abraham Stonds. Both women, stung by the retributive preaching of Promise Keeper look-alike Rafe Lowrie at Orleans Street, are drawn instead to Madeleine Carter, who swears that she saw the Blessed Virgin on the concrete wall of the Hotel Pleiades on Underground Wacker, and that the rust stains on the wall are the Virgin's blood. Throughout her impassioned opening scenes, Paretsky limns a world hurting for redemption despite the best efforts of its (overwhelmingly male) leaders to buy it off. But although she skillfully prepares for the advent of her savior, the aphasic street-person Starr, Paretsky isn't quite up to the task of breathing life into this psychotic saint, "the most urgently alive person Mara had ever met," as she goes about curing the sick, turning grape juice into wine, and raising the dead before meeting her own violent death and mysterious resurrection.It's disappointing to find that Starr, so shadowy and indistinct herself, lives in her far more vivid followers mainly as a rallying point for feminist social reform—which comes down here to settling scores with men. Still, Paretsky's ambitious, ambiguously religious novel earns an honorable place in the gallery of straight fiction by mystery writers from P.D. James's Innocent Blood to Walter Mosley's RL's Dream.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385333368
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 693,752
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Sara  Paretsky

Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago with her husband and their golden retriever.  She is the author of eight V.I. Warshawski novels, a short story collection, Windy City Blues, and the editor of A Woman's Eye and Women on the Case.


Sara Paretsky grew up in eastern Kansas, where she attended a small country school. The publishing bug bit Paretsky early—at age 11, her first published story appeared in the magazine The American Girl. It was about children surviving a Kansas tornado. She attended the University of Kansas for her undergraduate degree, but after spending a summer in Chicago doing community service work, she fell in love with the Windy City and decided after college to make the move permanent.

Paretsky eventually earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago but had a hard time finding a job as an academic, so she returned to school for an M.B.A., after which she started working full-time in marketing. (In order to complete her first three novels, she juggled family and job with writing at night.) An avid reader, Paretsky has always been a fan of detective fiction, but noticed a lack of intelligent, likable female protagonists in the genre. Thus, with the inspiring city of Chicago as the background, her signature character, V. I. Warshawski, was born.

Readers and critics have responded with appreciation for Paretsky's confident, modern, noir female detective. Unlike other noir heroines, V. I. refuses to be categorized by her sexuality. Despite the patriarchy she confronts on every case, she's a single woman in total control. Paretsky says of V. I., " I started aging V. I. because although she is a fictional character, she is grounded in historical events: she came of age during the Civil Rights movement and the anti-War movement. Her mother was a refugee from Fascist Italy. And her cases are all based on real events. Who she is depends on her being born in the Fifties. Now, of course, I have this dilemma of how to let her get older while still continuing to be an effective detective. I haven't quite figured that out yet."

Beyond her successful series, Paretsy has proven her range of talent with short stories (1995's Windy City Blues) and a handful of stand-alones (Ghost Country, Bleeding Kansas). She has also edited anthologies of mysteries and crime fiction by famous and less well-known female writers.

Generous with all she has learned throughout the years, Paretsky is a co-founder of Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated since 1986 to bringing the female voice in detective fiction to the attention of booksellers and libraries. Sisters in Crime is a business resource for women on how to prepare a press kit, arrange a signing at a local bookstore, or search for an agent—as well as a treasure chest of new writers on the scene. Check out all they have to offer at

Good To Know

Paretsky worked for ten years as a marketing manager at an insurance company and draws on the experience when writing about white-collar crimes for the V. I. Warshawski series.

Comparing herself to V. I. Warshawski, Paretsky says that they both love dogs, enjoy good food and good Scotch, and are both diehard Cubs fans.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Sara N. Paretsky
    2. Hometown:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 8, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ames, Iowa
    1. Education:
      B.A., Political Science, University of Kansas; Ph.D. and M.B.A., University of Chicago
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Gian Palmetto, president of the Hotel Pleiades, wants to know why they haven't heard back from their expensive lawyer at Scandon and Atter. Secretary phones secretary late in the day: a family emergency has summoned Ms. Stonds from the office.

Palmetto comes on the line in person—Sorry if Harriet has a personal crisis, but he needs advice, urgently, on how to dislodge a homeless woman from the sidewalk outside his garage. He spoke briefly to Harriet this morning; she promised to get on it. Will Harriet's secretary, for Christ's sake, find someone who knows what steps she's taken?  No one knows?  Surely Harriet isn't dragging her feet because she thinks the hotel mistreated her sister?

The secretary doesn't think so . . . the police?

Thank you, yes, he's been to the police. The sidewalk being public property the city won't arrest the damned woman for trespassing. The cops could cart her elsewhere, but they won't put her in jail. Someone suggested threats: rough the woman up a bit. Scare her into moving on. He could hardly order a subordinate to do that (wouldn't mind if it happened, but these days he can't order it: some busybody would find his E-mail or report him to the ACLU. And then, phht!—good-bye, career). Gian Palmetto needs other options. Given the three hundred dollars an hour he pays Scandon and Atter for Harriet's advice he'd appreciate a little activity.

"What kind of emergency?" he asks, wanting only to know how soon she'll be back in the office. "I didn't know Harriet had a family."

"The Stonds housekeeper, who's been with them a long time, had a heart attack this afternoon."

Family emergency. This conjures up a child falling from a swing, not a housekeeper with a heart attack. Gian Palmetto is understandably furious when he hangs up. Especially after the report he's received on Harriet's younger sister from the Special Events director. He goes out of his way to find a job for the sorriest specimen who's ever worked at the Pleiades, including dishwashers and laundry maids, and then the lawyer stiffs him because her housekeeper is sick. In the full flood of his anger he dictates a letter to senior partner Leigh Wilton.

Really, few people even at Scandon and Atter knew Harriet had a family. So burnished was her professional armor, so tightly did she keep all personal feelings locked in a remote chest, that her co-workers didn't know she was an orphan, that the housekeeper was as close as she could come to naming a mother. Not for her the chitchat with secretaries or associates on family matters. When Leigh Wilton complained about the lack of direction his children had, and how his two older sons had moved back home, Harriet shook her head in sympathy, but didn't share horror stories of Mara dropping out of Smith, hanging around in her bedroom or at bars, barely holding down a dead-end job at the Pleiades, then getting fired from that.

Yes, the hotel fired Mara, on Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Ephers had her heart attack on Thursday. Before that she'd been in perfect health, aside from the occasional cold.

"We didn't know she had any heart disease," Grandfather Stonds told the cardiologist.

Didn't know she had a heart, Mara muttered to herself. They blamed her, Grandfather and Harriet. What did you do to her, Grandfather demanded, because Mrs. Ephers refused to go to the hospital until the doorman promised her that Mara would be kept out of the apartment until the doctor got home.

"What did she tell you?" Mara yelled at Grandfather, grabbing his arm, shaking it despite his icy anger at her for jarring his operating hand. "Did she give you the letter?  Did you see the photograph?  Who is it?"

Mara, seeing herself as the ugly lurching Caliban of the Graham Street apartment, secretly agreed she had caused Mephers's illness. Although her getting fired didn't bring on the attack—that only confirmed Mara as a failure, after all. Maybe Mephers's heart beat a little faster, with pleasure at seeing Mara flounder, but that wouldn't cause damage to the muscle.

No, it was Mephers's fury when she found Mara in her room going through her papers. The housekeeper pulled Mara to her feet, slapped her so hard that Mara had a black eye for six days, and then collapsed, clutching her left arm but refusing to cry out. She was eighty: hauling a nineteen-year-old, especially one as big as Mara, was too much exertion for her.

"They weren't her papers," Mara tried to tell her sister. "She had a letter about Grannie from somebody in France. It was written to Mother. And a photograph of a man who looks just like you."

Harriet stared at her. "Mara, I can't believe with Mephers in the hospital, seriously ill, you can have the temerity to make up more stories about Beatrix. You are old enough to stop this kind of playacting."

"It's not—I'm not!" Mara's muddy skin turned mahogany in fury. "Mephers always said we didn't have any pictures or documents or anything about Mother. Well, there was a letter to Mother from someone in France. And that picture, I'm telling you, that picture looked like you in drag!"

"Mephers is really ill, Mara. Don't go bothering me with stuff about Beatrix. Mephers is the only mother I ever had, or you, for that matter. You should be worrying about whether she's going to get well, not making up stories about Beatrix and France. If Mephers hadn't been worrying about you she wouldn't have been vulnerable to an attack."

Mara gasped at the injustice of Harriet's accusation. "Worrying about me?  She never worried about me a day in her life. When I came home on Wednesday I found her in my room, reading my journal."

Harriet gave her most tight-lipped, Mrs. Ephers-imitation smile. "You came home drunk after being fired. I heard about it from the president of the Pleiades Hotel. Mephers says she was trying to make some order out of the scrap heap you leave in your room—your desk, I might point out, looks like an ill-run recycling center—when you came in and started screaming at her. You may well have fancied Mephers was reading your journal as a drunken hallucination. The less said on the subject the better."

Grandfather said Hilda couldn't rest comfortably until she knew her privacy would be inviolate during her absence. The building super brought a locksmith up to the apartment and supervised the installation of a new dead bolt in the fat oak door to Mrs. Ephers's room. The super gave duplicate keys to Grandfather and Harriet, shook his head sadly at Mara, with whom he used to share Snickers bars in his basement apartment while they watched the Cubs, and left.

No one wanted to hear Mara's version of events. Yes, she had been fired. Yes, she was drinking at lunch. She hated the job, hated the stupid way they had to answer the phone: "Hotel Pleiades, soaring to new heights, how may I help you?" hated clients who screamed because centerpieces held daisies instead of chrysanthemums, hated having to say "I'm sorry you're disappointed, ma'am: the daisies are so bright and fresh, and the florist tells me the only mums we could get now would be wilted," when she wanted to pick up the centerpiece and brain the carp-faced woman. She hated above all the pointlessness of her own life, and often persuaded one of the waiters to bring her a double bourbon to brace her for the afternoon.

It was two-thirty when Mara had her termination interview. Two-hour lunches were not part of the job description for junior assistants in the Special Events office. You've been warned twice, as a courtesy to Ms. Stonds, the personnel director said, we have no choice now but to let you go. Turn in your pass, collect a week's pay in lieu of notice.

Home, because she didn't know where else to go. Entering stealthily, hoping to avoid Mrs. Ephers, still able at eighty to hear the cleaning woman break a cup in the kitchen while lying down for her afternoon nap.

The housekeeper was in Mara's room, making use of Mara's absence at work to hunt out her journal and read it. When Mara crept in the two stared at each other in shock. Mara gasped and backed away. She left the apartment and didn't reappear until three the next morning, when the household was asleep.

Mrs. Ephers took especial pleasure in rousing her at seven that day. "You're going to be late for work, miss, if you don't get going."

"Mind your own damned business for a change," Mara said, turning over.

"None of that from you, young lady." The housekeeper marched to the bed and shook Mara. "Do you want me to bring in your grandfather?"

Mara pictured the doctor as a battering ram, wielded by Mephers to shove her out of bed. "I've been fired. I have no job to go to. Why don't you race into the dining room and share the news with him?  Then the two of you can exclaim how I'm just like Beatrix, you knew it all along, you should have put me in foster care instead of lavishing all your warmth and sweetness on such an unpromising specimen."

The doctor summoned Mara to his study after breakfast. I'm going to overlook your shocking language to Hilda. I'm most disappointed in you, young lady, for getting fired. What do you propose to do with yourself?  You know I'm not going to support you forever. I learned my lesson with your mother. No, young lady, I don't want to hear anything about Harriet: she was an orphan just like you, but she's made the most of her opportunities. If you want to go back to college, just say the word: I'm sure we can find a school, a good school, that will let you start over again. After all, you don't lack for intelligence. But otherwise you must find another job by the end of the month.

Or what, Mara wondered?  Or Grandfather would throw her out? Would she join the woman at the wall on Underground Wacker?

Mara dressed and went to the coffee shop across the street from the apartment. She had the seasick feeling that comes from too much wine and too little sleep. Her hands shook as she carried the large bowl of coffee to a stool by the window.

At nine she watched Grandfather walk down the street toward the city. It was his pride to walk the two miles to the hospital every morning, even in the bitterest snow. Although seventy-seven, he still put in a full week on surgical consulting and teaching. He'd stopped heading surgical teams when he turned seventy-two, not because he was any less confident, but because he wanted to stop while he still knew his hand was sure.

Mara thought he would die if they made him leave the hospital, even though many of the younger doctors were tired of his heavy authority on their cases. She imagined the funeral, Mrs. Ephers flinging herself into the grave in hysteria, and Beatrix and Selena suddenly appearing, having read about the doctor's demise in the paper. They shared a bottle of champagne with Mara to celebrate and the three went off to live in the south of France.

Darling, we're so sorry we left you with those two gargoyles all these years, Grannie said. Mara couldn't come up with a compelling reason for why her mother and grandmother, happily living together in this scenario, hadn't come for her sooner. Or how to overcome the published reports of Selena's death, although maybe Grandfather had forced the papers to print them—he had a lot of influence in Chicago.

Mara was on her third coffee, shaking now from the combination of caffeine and sleep deprivation, when Mrs. Ephers left the apartment, heading for the market at the hour when fish and produce would be freshest. Mara waited five minutes, in case Mrs. Ephers had forgotten something, not that the perfectly organized iron maiden ever did, and crossed the street again to the apartment.

Raymond, the doorman, who had known her since she was three, smiled and held the lobby door open in a grand gesture. "Not working today, Mara?"

Mara only smiled in return and hurried to the elevator. If Mrs. Ephers thought Mara's journal worth hunting out, maybe it was because she had desperate secrets of her own that she was trying to conceal. That inspiration came to Mara when she was drinking at Corona's, a jazz club on Kinzie, around midnight. What if the housekeeper really was Harriet's mother, for instance?  Grandfather and Mephers having a fling in the master bedroom, Harriet conceived when the housekeeper was forty-eight—stranger things have happened.

The elevator opened onto the Stonds's private vestibule. Most people in the eight-story building left their front doors open during the day, figuring that Raymond and the locked elevator were sufficient deterrents even in these difficult times, but Mrs. Ephers believed that was an invitation to theft. Mara undid the locks and stopped in the entry hall to listen. Barbara, the cleaning woman, was busy in the kitchen.

Mara took off her shoes and slipped into the housekeeper's room. This was sacrilege, like jumping rope in the Garden of Gethsemane, for no one was ever allowed into Mrs. Ephers's private room, not even Harriet, unless especially invited. Mara's shiver of excited fear dispelled her seasickness.

Harriet's face stared at Mara, from the wall by the bed where she stood larger than life in her law school robes, from the dresser where she was ice-skating, dancing as the fairy queen in fourth grade, graduating from high school, riding her pony. The doctor joined his granddaughter and Mrs. Ephers on the nightstand at her Smith graduation. Mara wasted precious time searching for herself. Two cabinet photos, one at her own high school graduation, one formally groomed for her fourth birthday, grinning at the camera, wearing a blue velvet dress that she could still remember, the color of Harriet's eyes. Her own longing for blue eyes and cornsilk hair washed over her as if she were four again and fingering the fabric.

"You stupid fool," she whispered to her four-year-old face. "Why were you laughing while you waited to be slapped down, made a fool of?"

She picked up the silver frame, one of her own Christmas gifts to Mrs. Ephers, and put it on the floor where she was going to stomp on it, forgetting for a moment her stocking feet. Fear of Mrs. Ephers, the feeling that the housekeeper would know if she made the slightest mark in the room, let alone removed a picture, made her pick it up and replace it, next to the one of Harriet's tenth birthday party, a crowd of white-clad girls with balloons on the yacht of one of Dr. Stonds's important patients.

A dark-red secretary stood in one corner, its writing surface empty. Mrs. Ephers was no reader—a Bible, an old edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a library biography of Queen Victoria stood rigidly to attention on the windowed shelves.

Mara glanced briefly in the drawers, where Harriet's school reports were neatly laid, next to old books of household accounts. She looked for her own report cards but couldn't find them. Her mouth puckered in hurt. She slammed the drawer shut, took a pin from the cushion on Mrs. Ephers's dressing table and dug a deep scratch along the secretary's glossy writing surface. Take that, you horrid old bag.

Mara slid open the dresser drawers, patted the underwear—white or beige, cotton briefs, formidable brassieres like breastplates—the neat stacks of cardigans

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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, May 15th, welcomed Sara Paretsky to discuss GHOST COUNTRY.

Moderator: Good afternoon, and thank you for dropping into the live Auditorium. The author who brought you the bestselling V. I. Warshawski series, Sara Paretsky, joins us live to chat about her powerful and haunting new novel, GHOST COUNTRY. Hello, Sara Paretsky, and welcome! We are so glad you could join us online! How are you this evening?

Sara Paretsky: It's good to be here on an absolutely gorgeous evening in New York City.

Francis from Hollywood, FL: I love your V. I. Warshawski series! Thank you for so many terrific books! I haven't yet read GHOST COUNTRY, but I have heard it is not a mystery. What sort of book is it -- could you tell us a bit about it?

Sara Paretsky: I'm glad you like V. I. GHOST COUNTRY isn't a traditional crime novel, but it does have an element of mystery to it. I think of it as a book about magic, about miracles -- and about music, because one of the characters is a diva who has destroyed her career through alcoholism. The diva comes together with several other characters: a rather tightly bound yuppie lawyer, the lawyer's very troubled young half-sister, and a young psychiatrist assigned to treat the mentally ill homeless. The four of them meet at the wall to a luxury hotel in downtown Chicago where a homeless woman believes the Virgin is bleeding through a crack in the wall. The lawyer is opposing the woman, and her sister sides with the woman -- just to cause trouble! When a mysterious figure name Starr appears halfway through the novel, summer in Chicago heats up -- and all the characters' lives are changed in dramatic ways.

Paul Rosano from Plainview, NY: Your books seem to center around Chicago... Are you from Chicago? What draws you to write about it?

Sara Paretsky: I grew up in Kansas, but I came to Chicago in the summer of '66 to do community service work. Martin Luther King was organizing in my neighborhood that summer for open housing and equal pay, and the experience was so exciting that the city really got into my blood. I moved there permanently in '68 (actually I didn't know it was permanently then -- and who knows -- that could change, too.)

Greg Johnston from Illinois: GHOST COUNTRY explores a world not all of us get to see. Did you do research to write about the lives of the homeless characters in your book? What was it like writing from their perspective?

Sara Paretsky: I spent time with a group called Thresholds that provides mobile assistance to the mentally ill homeless. They let me travel with them to visit their clients, but not to speak -- since it takes a lot of work to establish trust with their clients, so I met interesting people -- including a woman who was writing pages and pages of material. I was very curious to know what she was writing, but I had promised not to speak -- that was hard. I also did volunteer work at a drop-in shelter, where I learned that people on the streets run the gamut of life and experience that the rest of us share.

Marilyn Moyse from Bennington, VT: I just received your book in the mail, and I can't wait to read it. I am intrigued, though -- what does the dedication mean, "For Enheduanna, and All Poets Missing in Action"?

Sara Paretsky: Enheduanna was a Sumerian poet -- maybe the first poet whose work was written down. I think she dates back to 2900 B.C. But I never heard of her until I was doing research for GHOST COUNTRY, and it seems to me she was just one of many poets whose work either doesn't survive at all, or whom we never hear of. Finding a voice and maintaining a voice seems so hard to me that I wanted to acknowledge all those poets whose voices we no longer know.

Ken from Wisconsin: Have you retired V. I.?

Sara Paretsky: V. I. and I took a temporary separation while I wrote GHOST COUNTRY -- I like to tell people she went on strike -- she was tired of taking all the hits and not being able to pay her bills. But I've written about a third of a new novel about her.

Nanine from Minnesota: I just love your writing style -- straightforward, yet able to weave in all the right details in all the right places! How did you learn to write, and how did you develop your particular style? Thanks.

Sara Paretsky: Thanks! I think your style is something that develops unconsciously, out of your unique and changing view of the world around you. But the writing itself, that's something I work very hard at. I have often found that a novel wasn't going in the direction I wanted it to -- with GHOST COUNTRY, I wrote two hundred pages about a young composer -- even took music lessons, worked with several composers, and wrote some music for the book (which my publishers are thankful I didn't ask them to include!) -- and then found the book wasn't going in the direction I wanted, so I had to leave that character behind. I often work with a large sheet of newsprint, running all the plot lines in columns so I can see how I want to bring them together. And I rewrite, polish, try to make my writing good -- and then it gets in print, and I see all the things I wished I'd changed while there was still time.

Iris from Wichita, KS: I was reading an article about you on the web that said V. I. Warshawski's language at first reminded you of Humphrey Bogart in drag -- but that you soon forget that, because V. I. was all woman! What makes V. I. Warshawski such a strong character?

Sara Paretsky: What I really was trying to say was that I had the idea for a woman P.I. for about a decade before I actually came up with both the character and the confidence to write my first novel. During that time I kept fiddling around with a character named Minerva Daniels who was very much Philip Marlowe in drag -- I was trying to write satire, which is totally wrong for me, and failing. I was going to do a whole role reversal, have a handsome narrow-hipped young man come into Minerva's office late at night, giving a false get the idea. But I was working for a multinational insurance company, and one day in a marketing meeting, when my boss was being exceptionally tiresome, V. I. suddenly came to me. And I realized that what I wanted was not Marlowe in drag, but a woman like me and my friends, who were at that time -- 1980 -- pioneers in management -- and doing jobs that we hadn't known existed when we went to high school. But V. I. didn't worry about what people thought about her, and she didn't worry about getting fired, so she got to say the things that most of us keep in that little thought balloon over our heads but don't put into words. V. I.'s name even came to me that afternoon.

Rory from Florida: Hello, Sara, I have two questions for you: 1) How do you overcome writer's block? 2) What are your future plans for writing? Thanks a bunch!

Sara Paretsky: Writer's block is everyone's biggest fear. I try to keep writing, even if it's only in my journal, or stuff that I know I won't keep, just so that I keep a rhythm of words flowing. Sometimes weeks or even months will go by before the story starts coming again, but at least the language is with me, ready for when I can use it again for [a] story. I'm working on a V. I. novel right now, and also a short story featuring V. I. -- it's one that intrigues me and may grow into a novel.

Lillian from Houston, TX: What other jobs have you had, before you were a writer? Have these jobs shown up in your novels, anywhere?

Sara Paretsky: I've been working since I was 13, supporting myself since I was 17. I started washing glassware in a science lab. (Carrying 60 pounds of glassware and water in and out of sterilizing ovens at the age of 13 gave me lifelong back problems.) I've been a file clerk, a secretary, and worked for a decade in the insurance industry as a marketing manager -- which is why insurance shows up so much in my V. I. novels. I've never done anything really exciting -- I guess for me adventure has always taken place in my mind.

Bethany Villard from Southampton, NY: GHOST COUNTRY sounds like a very ambitious novel -- how did you go about writing it? Was it different from writing your other novels? How?

Sara Paretsky: GHOST COUNTRY was a real stretch for me -- I loved it and it also terrified me. A crime novel is controlled by the action, and so among the challenges of the novel was coming up with a structure that wasn't action driven. I started with a diva who's lost her career and her voice because of her drinking. She is an utterly self-absorbed person, and I loved writing about her. As Dorothy Salisbury Davis has often commented, villains are much more fun to write about than heroes. Anyway, I knew I wanted my mysterious stranger, Starr, to play a role, and the diva, and then it took me a long time, close to a year of writing and discarding, to come up with the shape that the novel finally found.

Jim from Chicago: What about Chicago made you decide to move there, and why is it the perfect setting for your novels?

Sara Paretsky: I went to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to do community service work; the city really got into my blood that summer. I worked for a man (the Rev. Tom Phillips, if anyone out there knows him, a Presbyterian minister) who was far and away the best manager I ever worked for. He had me and my fellow volunteers involved in every aspect of the city that summer, and it was a turbulent time, with Martin Luther King there trying to organize a movement for open housing and equal pay. It was such an exciting time that when I graduated from college and was at loose ends I moved back to the city, to try to recapture some of that excitement. Chicago is such a dynamic city, but also such a noir city that it is the perfect setting for the kind of books I write.

Maria from Madison, Wisconsin: What made you decide to use such a powerful image of the bleeding Virgin? Are you a religious person?

Sara Paretsky: I would say that I am a questing person, with admiration for the people I know who have genuine faith. The Virgin of Guadalupe seems like an important figure to me, since she is both the Virgin of the Americas, and is depicted like the old Aztec Moon Goddess, with her strong features, appearing on the back of a (male) angel, and surrounded by stars.

Var from Massachusetts: Do you have any more novels that are going to become movies?

Sara Paretsky: I did the story line for a made-for-TV movie that aired in December on the USA network, "When Trouble Follows You Home." Right now there are no plans to turn any of my novels into other movies.

Jennifer from Santa Monica, CA: Do you have any stories to share with us about how you got your start? Thanks. --nosy fan.

Sara Paretsky: Well, I wrote from an early age, but never thought about being a writer -- I grew up in Kansas in the '50s, when middle-class girls knew their destiny was marriage and when we were discouraged from thinking about working outside the home. But I kept writing privately, to work out my feelings or to tell the stories that kept coming into my mind, until I got to be 30, when I realized that if I didn't try actually to write a novel, I might never have the courage to do it. So, I sat down on New Year's Day 1979 to write -- and three years later, to the day, V. I. Warshawski's first adventure, INDEMNITY ONLY was published. I had a lot of help, and some luck, too.

Laura from New York City: You haven't done an author tour in some time. Will you be doing any author readings or events for this new novel? How can I find out more about your schedule?

Sara Paretsky: I'll actually be reading in New York tonight at Barnes & Noble in Union Square at 7:30, and I have a web site -- -- that lists my entire tour.

Christopher from NYC: Are the religious elements to GHOST COUNTRY based on a real event?

Sara Paretsky: As we get close to the millennium, many of us seem to start feeling a lot of uncertainty, a yearning for the miraculous to get us through these uncertain times. And one of the ways that I saw that yearning working itself out is in the many different ways and places people are seeing the Virgin Mary. She has even been bleeding from a garage wall in my native state of Kansas, which most people don't think of as a setting for that kind of intense event.

Susan from Montpelier: How did you come up with the title for your book? Were there any alternate titles lurking around before it was finished?

Sara Paretsky: Sometimes titles are with me from the beginning, sometimes I can only think of them after I've finished, and twice my publisher has had to help me name the book. (I hate those times. I'm very possessive about my work.) GHOST COUNTRY was with me from the start, I think, because of the sense of the ghosts that we all live with, the voices from our past that haunt us. In addition, a large part of the action in GHOST COUNTRY is in the streets that run underneath downtown Chicago. These are the shipping routes that businesses and hotels use to truck in supplies and truck out waste, and they have become a natural place for the homeless to seek shelter, since they're out of the rain and snow. So this underground network of streets and people began to seem like the ghost country that we try to avoid, but that haunts our lives nonetheless.

bj157389 from I love your strong female characters -- great heroines! Could you tell us a bit about the protagonist you've selected for this book?

Sara Paretsky: Thanks! GHOST COUNTRY has several protagonists. The troubled young adolescent Mara in many ways is like I was at 19 -- even with the unruly bush of hair. I grew up when long straight hair was in fashion, and I did everything I could to straighten mine, but it still grew straight out around my head like a bush (somehow aging has flattened all that curl and now I miss it). The diva, who's utterly self-absorbed, isn't much like me, but she does represent my wish that I could make my writing, my art, come first in my life -- I still am haunted by too many of my own ghost voices, so that's my ongoing struggle. For the first time I tried to write also from a male voice, with the young psychiatry resident, Hector, who's assigned to work with the mentally ill homeless. In some ways, in his journals he actually carries my personal authorial voice in the novel.

Kimber from Did you visit the sites of any other "miracles" like the one described in your book?

Sara Paretsky: Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get to any of these sites. Although I have been spending a lot of time in Kansas with ill parents, the site in Kansas is 300 miles from their home -- so I haven't been able to get to it. But that's on my travel list for this year.

Rocky from Illinois: How do you compare V. I. to Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone?

Sara Paretsky: Sue is a lot of fun, both in person and as a writer. I think V. I. and Kinsey are like the difference between Chicago and California -- Chicago is a shot-and-a-beer town, where our biggest weather worry is how much snow has come down and will we be able to get to work. California is Chardonnay -- and the weather worry is whether the surf's up today.

Niki from Sudbury, MA: What did you read as a kid?

Sara Paretsky: I read a lot of different stuff, but the writers I remember as really liking a lot were Louisa May Alcott, C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series.

Justine from Charleston, SC: I have not yet read your book, but I plan to this weekend. The jacket says that you "have written a parable for the millennium" -- did you write this book with the millennium in mind? How do you think the millennium is influencing what fiction is produced in recent times?

Sara Paretsky: I didn't write GHOST COUNTRY with the millennium in mind as much as the anxiety about the millennium suggested some of the themes of the book. That was especially true of the pivotal action of the book, the fact that a homeless woman believes the Virgin Mary is bleeding through the crack in the wall of a luxury garage in downtown Chicago. I think the anxiety about the millennium affects us more than we realize -- that that's why people are scared about all the computers crashing (personally, I think I'll get my tax bill right on time. The IRS never sleeps, but that's another story). And those issues brought the story line to me. And I see that those same issues are on the minds of other writers whose books have just come out, including A. Manette Ansay, and Robert Stone.

John Pringle from Worcester, Massachusetts: Who are your favorite authors? Who, other than your own books, do you recommend to struggling young mystery writers like myself? Thank you.

Sara Paretsky: I think anything you read helps you grow as a writer -- learning what you want to emulate, and what you want to avoid. A writer whose work helps me a lot is the poet Mary Oliver. She has written A POETRY HANDBOOK which actually has valuable advice for any writer, whether poetry or prose, and she has another collection of essays, BLUE PASTURES, which also has great advice for the writing life. I read very eclectically. I lost my mother recently, so have been seeking comfort from old writers, particularly Jane Austen.

Brenda from Mobile, AL: How long did it take you to write GHOST COUNTRY? When you are writing a book, do you write all day? Any tips or words of wisdom for a hopeful young writer?

Sara Paretsky: It actually took me almost three years to write GHOST COUNTRY. That included writing half of a draft that didn't work for me. The idea had been haunting me for about five years before that, but I wasn't quite ready to take the risk of leaving V. I, until three years ago. The rest of your question is a little tricky. Most of my work time is spent thinking about characters, and about story problems. When I know where I am, I write until I physically can't write anymore (which seems to be a shorter time now that it was 15 years ago -- wonder why that is?). I think the most important thing to do if you want to write is to write, and to write from the heart. The market is ephemeral, and if you try to write for it, you will find it has moved on while you've been writing. But if you write from the heart, then you will have work that will bring you personal satisfaction.

Moderator: Thank you, Sara Paretsky! Best of luck with your new book, GHOST COUNTRY. Do you have any closing remarks for the online audience?

Sara Paretsky: You've asked really provocative questions that have helped me think more clearly about my new novel. When you're writing a book, you're in it, and it isn't until you have finished it and see it as a book -- about a year after you're done with it -- that you step back and think, what was I doing? Where could I have done it better? What did I learn that I'll take with me to the next project?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2001

    This something different

    There is no evidence of Private Detective V.I. Warshawshi here. In fact this is far from being a detective story and has the makings of a new genre. The city is still Chicago but there the similarity to previous work ends. The characters are painted with color, but what an unusual group they. Mara, the unwanted, unloved orphan who takes to the street when the pressures at her grandgather's home become too much. The homeless women, Jacqui, Nanette, Labelle and the tragic Madeleine. Mara teams up with this motley crew along with the drunken opera singer, Luisa and the unknown quantity Starr, who turns up from nowhere. An unstable mind is the common theme with all of them. Even the psychiatrist Hector, the lawyer Harriet, the grandfather and his housekeeper have not the perfect balance. I enjoyed the look at the Chicago street scene but anyone with a a mental health problem could find it disturbing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2006

    Not really sure...

    what's going on here other than the obvious: a down and out drunk opera star, an emotionally negected 19-year old girl and some weird woman with big boobs who seems to mesmorize everyone she comes in contact with for no apparent reason. Sex - wasn't needed in fact it seems to be more of a addition to the give the reader something to find more interesting about the book. I love mysteries but this just didn't do it for me - I never got the point of the mystery part of it. 'The Lottery' from my junior high days is still more interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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