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


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The Independent Culture

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:;