April 17, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 14

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Creator of V.I. Warshawski mysteries describes her genre, her teaching experience at Chicago

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    [Sara Paretsky, Photo by: Steven Gross]
    Sara Paretsky is well known as the author of the decidedly feminist and overwhelmingly popular V.I. Warshawski detective stories. The Chicago Tribune wrote that “When it comes to creating character, evoking place, writing crackling and convincing dialogue, and dealing with issues of substance within the crime genre…Paretsky has no peer.” The British Crime Writers Association, for its 20th anniversary, gave her their Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement at a ceremony Wednesday, May 8, 2002, at the British Museum.

    She was to be the first non-British crime writer to receive the Cartier Diamond Dagger award–but she also has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago, where she just finished teaching a quarter as a Visiting Professor. She talked to the Chronicle about how 19th-century intellectual history made her a better crime writer, what it is like to teach Chicago students, and how she connects her interest in social issues to the gory world of hard-boiled crime writing.

    Did your studies at Chicago influence your crime writing?

    It probably made me a more careful researcher than I ever would have been. I worked on people who laid the groundwork for today’s ultra-fundamentalist Protestants. Andover Theological Seminary trained people who founded Chicago Theological Seminary and small colleges in the Midwest, like Oberlin and Antioch. They were in the forefront of intellectual activity in the 1820s and ’30s, people who brought modern science to America. They studied in Germany and Scotland–chemistry, geology and linguistics. But the studies they founded turned out to have profound implications for religion, ones they didn’t anticipate. After the Civil War, they found themselves beleaguered by liberals, so they fled to Dallas and founded conservative theological seminaries.

    Their main publication, Biblioteca Sacra, which had been one of the main scholarly publications in America, became a dreary screed for creationism.

    How did you get out of history and into murder?

    I concurrently studied for the M.B.A. at the business school because the ’70s was a period of terrible contracting of academic positions. At the time I was getting my Ph.D., there were 29 applicants for every job, and in those days the department didn’t really help much. When I saw that it just wasn’t going to be possible for me to get a job in history, I retooled myself because I saw friends getting jobs in the middle of nowhere.

    How has your teaching experience been at the University?

    I’ve enjoyed teaching here, but it’s very exhausting. I never studied writing, I don’t have any M.F.A. or any of those things; maybe people who do have tricks up their sleeves. It has been a full-time job for me teaching this class. I’ve enjoyed the students; they’re very lively and interesting. We’ve read a lot of different fiction. I concentrated on short stories so they could get exposed to a lot of different styles. This was a beginning fiction class, and many of them had little or no experience writing, so I had them finish the last page of a short story in the original author’s style. I gave them scenarios where they had to construct dialogue and construct narrative from the point of view of a different gender or age.

    The students are a very widely and deeply reading group of young people. How seriously they read for their own interest really impressed me. Northwestern, the other place I taught, the students there were prepared in terms of basic writing skills but didn’t read the way the kids here did. Of course a lot of the kids there came out of the journalism school, so that may account for it, but they just weren’t readers the way these kids were.

    I’ve learned a lot from them just because they are such good readers, and several are better readers than I am in terms of what they bring to a text. I just felt that they had better insight into the kinds of things you ought to be thinking of when you end a story. Some of them are willing to take great risks with their writing and experiment with their structures in really innovative ways–ways that really work. That’s been good to see, too.

    Who are your favorite mystery writers? What do you think of that ritualized tough-guy talk that defines hard-boiled verbal style?

    Peter Dickinson and Liza Cody both write quite beautifully and very unusual kinds of books, but they’re not well known in the United States. I don’t read much that’s hard-boiled. The kinds of things I write are not necessarily the kinds of things I like to read. I think it’s because the kinds of things you write come out of the unconscious and are problematic in your life–you don’t necessarily want to be as disturbed by what you read as by what you write. I write in the hard-boiled form because it’s the easiest way to write about things that are important to me in law, justice and society.

    The hard-boiled style does have an interesting genesis. Raymond Chandler, who defined hard-boiled, originally wanted to be another Oscar Wilde. But he couldn’t get published in England, and so he came to North America. When he went back to trying to write when he was in his 50s, he didn’t want to fail, so he would actually outline Hemingway’s stories and rewrite them. That boiled-down Hemingway became the dominating style of hard-boiled form: short sentences, truncated thoughts.

    Do you write in response or in opposition to that style?

    I don’t think I can analyze my style. I am writing in the hard-boiled format as Chandler defined it. But really the most important part of the hard-boiled form for me comes out of the old western, the loner trying to establish real justice, since the corrupt and wealthy have taken over the institutions of justice. The Phillip Marlowe name is important in the tradition of chivalry. My heroine also is chivalrous; she’s trying to establish real justice for a few people. But she’s not able to transform society; the world remains a frontier like in the old westerns.