Meet the author
What: "Why I Write the Books I do," discussion and book-signing by Sara Paretsky
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
Free books: A complimentary copy of "Bleeding Kansas," Paretsky's latest novel, will be given to the first 100 attendees. There will be a limit of one book per household.
Education: Graduated from Lawrence High School in 1964; graduated from Kansas University in 1967 with a degree in political science; doctorate in American history and a master's in business administration, both from the University of Chicago.
Novels: 12 books in the V.I. Warshawski mystery series; newest work is "Bleeding Kansas."
Honors: Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement from the British Crime Writers Association; former visiting scholar at Oxford University and Northwestern University.
Sara Paretsky remembered this story when writing her first novel based in Kansas.
It was about a decade ago, in the hot Kansas summer sun, when her mother was gravely ill. She was walking from the Eldridge Hotel to Teller's for dinner, and she encountered white-shirt-clad Christians trying to sell her on the Bible.
It's worth mentioning here that Paretsky is Jewish.
"One of them grabs me by the hand and tries to bring me to Jesus, and I'm thinking, 'I can't take this in the heat,'" Paretsky recalls. "So I just pretended like I didn't speak any English. It worked. I pretended I only spoke French, which I don't speak very well. But I figured she probably didn't speak it at all, so it worked."
Paretsky, a Lawrence native, may have avoided that religious confrontation. But she hit another head-on in her latest novel, which she'll be talking about and signing copies of on Tuesday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
"Bleeding Kansas" (Penguin Group, $25.95), which came out this month, examines issues of religious freedom and homosexuality in her home state.
It's a departure from her award-winning series of 12 mystery novels featuring female detective V.I. Warshawski.
"It was a stretch for me to do a book that was in the third person, a book that wasn't a crime novel," Paretsky says. "But it was a book that I'd wanted to write for quite a long time."
Paretsky, 60, came up with the idea for "Bleeding Kansas" when walking the Kansas prairie while both of her parents were ill a decade ago.
The scenario for the book: Two farming families with long-standing roots near Lawrence are continuing their generations-old feuds over issues such as how to raise children or how to properly pray. Thrown into the mix a woman - a lesbian and practicing Wiccan - who moves to the area seeking a private space to practice her religion.
"Kansas, on the political maps, is always painted as a red state," Paretsky says. "But I don't think it's that simple. People make fun of us over evolution, but it's a volatile issue in many places, even California. And it just gets writ large here.
"To me, to write a book about the way in which some of this ideology is driving American life, to write a novel, to play that out with some real families and real characters, Kansas is kind of a natural place to do it, even if I wasn't an expatriate Kansan."
The novel comes a year after Paretsky published "Writing in an Age of Silence," a collection of essays on political topics. She's known for her left-leaning views on issues such as the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq.
Paretsky is a graduate of Lawrence High School and Kansas University. While in Lawrence, she learned some about issues of religious intolerance. Her father was the first Jewish professor at KU, and a fellow student she tutored - a Christian - once told her she was going to hell because she was Jewish.
Still, she admits that "Bleeding Kansas" is a bit of a caricature of her home state.
"I think all of my books, things are exaggerated to some degree," she says. "I don't know if it's because it's fiction or because my imagination is a little over the top."
Paretsky fell in love with Chicago - the city where she's spent her adult years - while doing volunteer work on the city's south side at age 19. But a soft place in her heart remained for Kansas.
"I guess I just have a passionate attachment to the place, both the beauty of the place and the history of the place," Paretsky says. "I do get tired of people thinking it's just this place with wheat in the middle of the country, and this place to drive through as fast as you can to get to the Rockies."
Paretsky, who makes it back to Lawrence three or four times a year, says her publisher signed on to "Bleeding Kansas" with the assumption she would then write another book in the V.I. Warshawski series.
For now, she's just glad she got to describe a place she loves to an audience that might not appreciate Kansas.
"It may not be the most spectacular landscape," she says. "It's not got mesas or mountains or oceans. But it has an extraordinary beauty I wanted to describe if I could."