Sara Paretsky: Heartache in the heartland

Paretsky has taken a break from her Chicago beat to explore the faith and fear of her Kansas childhood home. Barry Forshaw meets a radical queen of crime
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The Independent Culture

Outside, the driving hail has Londoners hunching their shoulders, but in Victoria's well-appointed Goring hotel, a coal fire warms the equally well-appointed guests. A few glance up as one of America's most celebrated crime writers walks in, but then their gazes flicker away; the fame of a crime writer even one as successful as Sara Paretsky hardly matches that of glitzier celebrities. As ever, Paretsky exudes the quiet elegance that has become her hallmark: she is slim and fit-looking, wearing her 60 years very lightly (a result, she says, of a rigorously maintained fitness regime). She is visiting London to call on old friends and to promote a provocative stand-alone novel, Bleeding Kansas (Hodder & Stoughton, 16.99), set in the state she grew up in before moving like her female private eye, VI Warshawski to Chicago.

Paretsky takes a seat looking out on the garden walls of Buckingham Palace; she is some distance away from more corpulent American guests, and muses on the fact that obesity is not quite a simple class-led issue. "In certain areas of Chicago," she says, "those involved in the service industries mainly African-Americans often tend to be heavily overweight, and that's probably due to bad diet as well as avoidance of exercise. No doubt that's true of working-class obesity in the UK." She smiles. "But these well-heeled Americans haven't piled on the pounds with burgers and fries it will be expense-account lunches and haute cuisine."

Much acclaimed for her detective fiction, Paretsky is also famous for her social commitment. As she orders a mint tea, she seems keen to discuss a hundred things rather than her new book: the rise of religious fundamentalism in the US; the Iraq war; the erosion of women's rights; infringements on personal liberties. But her publicist has given her a gentle admonition about mentioning Bleeding Kansas not a particularly difficult task, as the novel crackles with many of the issues that concern its author. Its principal theme is religious intolerance in a conservative Kansas community, thrown into disarray, by a free-thinking woman from the big city.

Paretsky is quickly talking about one of her favourite themes: religion versus science. "I see you have a great brouhaha at the moment about embryo research, with Catholic MPs and bishops lining up against those who want to advance medical science, correct? I feel like I'm back in the US," she says, sadly.

"One of the things I wanted to do in Bleeding Kansas," she explains, "was to try to explore what drives the religious Right. I grew up in Kansas and I never imagined wanting to set a book there. I sometimes think that going back to the land of your childhood is... well, Thomas Wolfe said it: you can't go home again." So is the new book, set in the state where she "became the person she is" after an unhappy childhood with warring parents, a way of exorcising personal demons? "Well, it may have started that way. But if there were people you couldn't stand up to when they were alive, flogging their ghosts doesn't help you. On a purely physical level, however, I went way out of my way to burn down my childhood home.

"We were one of the few Jewish families in the area when I was growing up," she recalls, "and the service man for the vacuum cleaners and so on that my mother used had belonged to a tiny sect that believed that Jews were the original chosen people of God. So he would never charge my mother for a service call. On the other side, we had all the usual stereotypes about money-grabbing... However, I didn't have any personal experience of anti-Semitism until I was in high school, and I was asked to try to explain Judaism to religious groups who wanted to know why Jews controlled all the money in the world.

"We had a revival of religion in our small-town high school and attendance at services was mandatory. It was really very frightening being taken in to the auditorium, and the preacher would be bellowing at you for five hours on what your sins were. During my final year in school the Supreme Court had just ruled that you could not have sectarian prayer in publicly funded schools, so I and three Catholic girls and one boy whose family were flagrant atheists went to the principal and demanded to be excused from the services. And so we were taken and locked in this little room. I used to think about what would have happened if the school had burned down."

Paretsky's penetrating eyes shine with intensity, but then her expression becomes opaque and guarded. As with her "rival" Patricia Cornwell, there is a certain vulnerability both women are aware of what a fragile-boned thing success is, and Paretsky (despite her massive sales) has no trace of hubris. Perhaps she is aware that the multi-stranded Bleeding Kansas is a harder sell than her effortlessly entertaining Warshawski books, and may enjoy something of a mixed reception.

Does the politically-engaged author feel that things might be better post-Bush, under Obama, Clinton and even the Republican McCain? Paretsky's brow furrows. "I tell you I'm scared that the Democrats, Hillary and Barack, are pounding each other into bits and McCain is going to end up being elected... At one point, it seemed that despite his right-wing views, he might be a principled person, but he is dedicated to staying the course in Iraq." She found Obama's much-discussed speech about race "amazing. I had not really been a Barack enthusiast, but that speech! I won't say it made a believer out of me, but I thought: here's someone who's willing to talk about a very difficult subject race in America in a clear and honest way."

She smiles ruefully she is always concerned that she comes across as being "too serious", despite her dry sense of humour. "Barack was my state senator and I liked him enormously. Of course, he's staggeringly beautiful. My niece and I used to wait for him to run by. 'Sweat on us, Barack!', we'd fervently pray. But that was back when he was an ordinary person and he would go running along the lake front in the mornings he can't do that any more."

Do US politicians have to be morally unimpeachable ? "Oh no, you only have to love Jesus and be against abortion. Newt Gingrich... served his wife divorce papers when she was in the recovery room after a radical mastectomy, but he loved Jesus and was against abortion. There was somebody in the Bush administration... who was forced to admit that many of his sexual experiences had been with sheep, and this did not affect his ability to hold office because he loved Jesus and was against abortion. And besides, he said that in Georgia that's how most people first became sexually active."

Surely, Paretsky known for her stance on many feminist issues has to give Hillary Clinton serious consideration? "I voted for Hillary in the primary. Neither she nor Barack make my heart go pitter-pat with excitement, but there are things that I like about her very much, and one of them is that I don't know any figure in public life in the West who has taken the kind of abuse she has for 18 years and hasn't cracked under it. That's someone who can stand up to... anything. I know I couldn't. One bad review and I'm interiorising it.

"You know, my favourite bad review usually they just hurt my feelings was for one of the VI books," she says. "Time Out here in London wrote that it was time for VI to retire to a home for deranged feminists, and then I should follow her. My friends and I just said that this was such a wonderful idea a retirement home for deranged feminists! So my husband suggested the name "Gelding Manor", perhaps one of these sprawling Victorian mansions with turrets upon turrets."

In fact, Paretsky is very much a male-friendly feminist (her physicist husband is much in her conversation). And her optimism about the relations between the sexes is part of an optimistic, if unsentimental, view of life.

"Grace Paley has this sentence in one of her short stories that I love: 'unlike life I am merciful to my characters'. And life is too hard. When I read I don't want to be left utterly bereft. I just read Sarah Waters's The Night Watch, which I thought was a beautiful book, but also a little bit too heartbreaking - and maybe I'm not a strong enough person to tolerate that much heartbreak."

Biography: Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky, born in Iowa in 1947, spent her childhood in the Kaw River valley, Kansas (her father was the first Jewish academic to secure tenure at the University of Kansas). After gaining a PhD in history at the University of Chicago and then an MBA, she began to write detective fiction. Indemnity Only, her first novel featuring Chicago investigator VI Warshawski, appeared in 1982. Her books have won many awards, including Gold and Diamond Daggers from the UK Crime Writers Association. Her 14th novel, Bleeding Kansas (Hodder & Stoughton), is set in the area where she grew up. Verso publishes a collection of her political essays, Writing in an Age of Silence. Sara Paretsky is married to a professor of physics, and lives in Chicago.

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