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Sara Paretsky: It's good to be here on an absolutely gorgeous evening in New York City.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 name...you 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 -- www.saraparetsky.com -- that lists my entire tour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Posted January 25, 2006
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 18, 2001
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2009
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Posted June 13, 2010
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