When Chicago author Sara Paretsky arrived on the scene 30 years ago with VI Warshawski – her kickass, Johnnie Walker-slurping, opera-singing, sexual, female private investigator protagonist – she was writing in a league of her own.
Until Paretsky created Warshawski, there were very few exciting women lead characters in crime novels.
Both writer and fictional character have evolved over the years.
“I used to think the animal that would best describe me was a tiger,” says Paretsky, 64, who recently released Breakdown, the latest Warshawski mystery. “Mean-spirited yet graceful. More and more, I’m thinking I’m more like a snapping turtle. Mean and limber.”
Paretsky was in Toronto on Jan 17 to promote her new thriller at the Star Talks series at the Toronto Reference Library. Breakdown finds VI, now 50 years old, on a dangerous and complex murder case.
Paretsky has topped the New York Times charts and received last year’s Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. She also has an insatiable readership and a significant lesbian following.
“I know that I do, and many of the women I am really close to, I would say two third are lesbians,” she says. “So even though VI isn’t a dyke, there is a strong following. I don’t know if it’s the strength of her personality or her operating solo in the world. I always thought it would be rude and inappropriate to ask my friends. Maybe it wouldn’t be.”
Paretsky says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t write. Her 17 VI Warshawski books have been translated into nearly 30 languages.
Raised in a violent household, Paretsky says her fascination with crime fiction was a refuge, and writing it was cathartic.
“I do really believe that you are experiencing the fear and death vicariously, and I think there is a way in which it makes you feel protected from violence and death because you’ve had the emotional experience in the book,” she says. “So you think now it won’t really happen to you. I don’t know. I don’t read as much crime fiction as I used to; it was once all I read. Now I read a lot of general fiction. I still get a lot of comfort from crime fiction.”
By Sara Paretsky