Sara Paretsky has a problem. And it’s becoming V.I. Warshawski’s problem, too.
Paretsky says as the years go by, she has more people vying for her time, and she finds it more difficult to simply say “no.” Sometimes, she’s too busy to find time to write.
And she says Warshawski — the fictional female private investigator who made Paretsky famous — is beginning to have these same problems.
“One of the problems with V.I., as time goes on, is she starts mirroring my own anxieties and insecurities,” Paretsky says. “And I don’t know how to deal with it, to get her out there and more brash and forthright like when I started the series. She tends to second-guess herself more.”
Today, Paretsky, a graduate of Lawrence High School and Kansas University, releases the 13th book in her V.I. Warshawski series. “Hardball” ($26.95, Penguin Group), which follows a V.I. hiatus, draws on Paretsky’s experiences as a young woman navigating racial tensions in Chicago during the Civil Rights Era.
Paretsky will be in Lawrence Friday for a book signing.
“In the end, I’m usually doubtful about my books and see the flaws in them,” Paretsky says. “But I really think ‘Hardball’ may be the best of the V.I. books I’ve written so far, at least to me.”
Reviewers are agreeing.
“Unlike many popular crime writers, Paretsky doesn’t turn out books like some battery hen (the previous novel in this series was published in 2005), so it’s a distinct pleasure to hear her strident voice once again,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in the New York Times.
She added of the book’s characters: “Voices like these can ring in your ears for — oh, 40 years or more.”
That’s because Paretsky went back 43 years — to the summer of 1966 — for inspiration for “Hardball.”
Paretsky spent the summer of 1966, right before her senior year at KU, as a community organizer working in Chicago. That summer, demonstrations — including some led by Martin Luther King Jr. — and riots filled the streets as black residents pushed for equality.
“To me, that was a time that was rather exciting, I think, because I was rather young and optimistic and just believed so much that change was possible,” says Paretsky, who now lives in Chicago. “And we have a black president now, so some change that was unimaginable really has taken place. But what surprised me in going back and seeing some of the actual television film footage or reading some of the books was just the level of serious hatred in Chicago in the white community toward the black community.
“I think I lived in it and yet didn’t feel it in the way that it really unfolded. So that was a surprise, but that’s the main thing that really drives the plot.”
The plot also is driven by more recent events in Chicago. Reporting by the Chicago Reader newspaper has revealed decades of torture by some Chicago police officers.
“A big part of (the book) is V.I. and her worry that her own father might have been part of a gang of cops committing torture on suspects in custody,” Paretsky says. “So I think what makes the book strong is that it’s her personal fears and her personal quest for needing to find out what happened in her own family.”
Return to V.I.
“Hardball” marks a return to the V.I. Warshawski series for Paretsky. Her previous book was the 2008 novel “Bleeding Kansas,” which was set in her home state and dealt with issues of religious freedom and homosexuality.
“It actually was surprisingly difficult,” Paretsky says of her return to her marquee character. “I had taken another break from her with a different book a few years back. The return from the first hiatus was so fun and so easy that I was really taken aback at how difficult it was to get back into her voice and get back into her head with ‘Hardball.’ And in some ways, I think the material made it hard, too, in a way.”
Writing “Bleeding Kansas,” she says, made her long to produce more non-detective books.
“With ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ it was a chance to write in a different way, and I loved the way I was able to write a little more lyrically, a little slower,” Paretsky says. “I also felt I wasn’t ready to leave the non-mystery form because I have so much to learn about it, and writing a book made me aware of how dependent I am on plot and dramatic action.
“So I think I wanted to think about writing non-mysteries for a while to see how I could grow and move into that direction. But my publishers made it pretty clear that they were willing to indulge me once but not twice.”
Paretsky says she has ideas for at least a couple more V.I. Warshawski books ready to go. She also is working on a young adult novel set in the 1850s near Lawrence.
She’s hoping to continue balancing detective stories with other stories.
“With the mysteries, you want to write with sharp, concrete kinds of images, and the narrative has to have a forward thrust,” Paretsky says. “And with these other kinds of novels, you can use language differently. I think doing both helps me grow as a writer.”