Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Keeping an eye on V.I.

Paretsky’s new book taps into family history

October 7, 2001


Detective-private eye V.I. Warshawski has changed as the world around her has changed. She no longer has to prove she's as competent as the boys. Concern over her gender has been replaced with respect for her investigative skills.

"When I started with the series (in 1982), V.I. was doing the job no one else was doing," author and Lawrence native Sara Paretsky said. "It was the first year that Chicago let women take the detective exam. Women P.I.s and detectives didn't exist. V.I. started and had to prove to people she could do the job (as well) as a man.

"Twenty years later, she is in a world that has its difficulties but no one questions the competency of (Supreme Court Justice) Sandra Day O'Connor. It would be absurd and off-putting to have (V.I.) still dealing with those issues."

Instead, in her newly released "Total Recall," Paretsky has her feisty heroine solving a decades-old mystery that involves reparations for the Holocaust, recovered memory and long-held secrets of her dearest friend Dr. Lotty Herschel.

"In some ways it's about questions of identity and the way the past can have a stranglehold on the present if we keep issues buried," she said. "It's a book with a personal message, not so much a social message. It's about pain and suffering.

"I was named for my two grandmothers who died in the Holocaust. Living in Lawrence, (the Holocaust) was so remote in reality, but it was painful to my father and had influenced his life. I grew up knowing I had these women's names and was fearful I would die like them."

Upbringing and research

Paretsky, who has written eight best sellers and sold nearly 4 million books, grew up in a Jewish family five miles east of Lawrence in the Wakarusa area.

Paretsky and her four brothers attended a two-room country school, where she began her lifelong love of baseball and underdogs. She played third base for a school team that always finished last in its league.

Her first published writing, which appeared in The American Girl magazine when she was 11, told a tale of surviving a tornado with her schoolmates.

She attended Lawrence High School in the 1960s, and remembers an algebra teacher telling her, "Don't use brute strength and awkwardness. Use your brain."

While a student at Kansas University, Paretsky went to Chicago to do community service in a neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing his civil rights movement. She decided to make Chicago her home, and eventually received her master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Chicago.

Paretsky has gained a reputation for doing meticulous research for her novels. "Total Recall" is no exception, even though she knew what she would learn about the Holocaust might be painful.

"It was a part of my past I didn't want to touch," she said. "But it's OK. The past won't kill me now."

In 1997, Paretsky was a visiting scholar to Wolfson College at Oxford University in England. She met a number of doctors who would have done their medical training at the same time of the fictional Lotty and learned how difficult it was for women to get accepted in medical schools at that time. She spent time in the Imperial War Museum in London, listening to taped interviews with people who came to London via Kindertransport, as did Lotty. She read books on recovered memory and news reports about war survivors' efforts to recover stolen insurance and bank accounts.

"I tried not to exploit individuals' stories but gave it the extraordinary flavor of that time," she said.

Ideas flow freely

Paretsky follows the advice espoused by poet Mary Oliver in "The Handbook of Poetry" by writing every day.

"She says poetry is not by inspiration and genius. The muse is a fertile and fugitive creature. It may not visit you every day, and if she shows up and you're not there, you'll never find her," Paretsky explained.

"I don't outline (my novels). That kills my imagination. I need surprises and for the characters to grow. The hardest part is to figure out where to go. I may be at the computer all day and write one sentence."

Still, Paretsky never seems to be at a lost for storylines or literary ideas. She is writing some poetry and is under contract to write another V.I. Warshawski book. She is working on a television series, and would like to write a book set in the Wakarusa Valley.

"If my writing doesn't mean something personal to me, then it won't mean anything to the readers," she said. "The question is can I care about this (book) enough to live with it for a year or 18 months."

One of Paretsky's greatest honors came last July in a hand-written letter from President Bill Clinton, sent with a newspaper clipping. The former president said he had just finished "Total Recall" and had given it to Hillary to read. He then turned to the New York Times to do the crossword puzzle.

" and (I) found you as a clue, 6 across," he wrote. "So I'd thought I'd send it to you and say I really liked the book "

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