Sara Paretsky: The crime writer on her alcoholic mother, VI Warshawski, and longing to be free

 

There is a theme in crime literature of women being either the femme fatale or the victim When I first read Raymond Chandler, in six out of seven of his novels the woman presented herself sexually, and it galvanised me into thinking, surely there are better ways of representing women, who are more believable and had to solve their own problems? [My character, private investigator] VI Warshawski grew out of that, though it took me eight years until I had the courage to put her on page.

Crime fiction is the natural medium for writing about social justice I used to write books about an environmental concern or a healthcare concern, but I was beginning to be tiresome, so now I tend to make those issues part of the backdrop to a crime story instead. Most of the time, so-called mainstream novels that tackle crime do it in a ponderous way, as writers fancy themselves to be Dostoevsky.

I grew up in a violent, ill-mannered household My mother was an alcoholic with a lot of issues, and I created an alcoholic character who in some ways mimicked what my mum said and did. But readers found her comic, not horrific; that staggered me. Either way, I got no therapeutic benefit from writing about it, any more than writing in her diaries cured the pain for Virginia Woolf.

My greatest fear is that stories will stop coming to me I write stories that I want to tell – then find a way to add the thriller and crime element to them. When I don't have a story, it feels very manufactured. I heard an interview with a composer years ago, and the interviewer said, "It's been 11 years since you last composed anything – why?" And he replied, "Songs stopped coming to me" – and that's my fear.

I felt violated working on the film of 'VI Warshawski' [released by Disney in 1991, starring Kathleen Turner.] It wasn't even close to my vision of the character; it was all very sexed-up Hollywood, with teen-boy locker-room dialogue. The producers ignored all my suggestions. It was so frustrating that for a while I stopped being able to write. One good thing at least is that it brought my character to people around the world who had never heard of her.

I've made a conscious effort to let VI resume her drinking I can't drink much any more; one glass of wine is my limit. But I had a lovely letter a few years ago from the chairman of the Armagnac Society saying, "What happened to VI? She doesn't drink Armagnac any more?" And I thought, "Oh my god, poor VI. There I am and I can't drink and I've taken alcohol from her too." It's one of the problems of first-person narrative; my issues cross over into how she faces the world.

I long to be free in a way that I don't think I am I'd like to take risks, to jump off the high dive of life and not worry about consequences. Now I don't think I will, because I still have a fear of negative criticism. My fantasy is to live in a cave in the Italian hills, but with electricity, and a beautiful boy bringing me a cappuccino every morning.

People dumping trash in the park are like rodents I live a 10-minute walk from Lake Michigan, so every day I go for an early-morning swim, but I have to clear away all these discarded nappies and rubbish. I mean, come on guys, you're disgusting!

Sara Paretsky, 67, is an American crime writer and author of 16 bestselling VI Warshawski novels; her most recent, 'Critical Mass', is out in paperback on 28 August (£5.89, Hodder). She will be appearing alongside Tom Rob Smith at the Edinburgh Festival on 16 August. For more: saraparetsky.com; edbookfest.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing