The Paula Gordon Show
Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky

... mystery writer. Blacklist is Ms. Paretsky’s 11th “V.I. Warshawski” novel set in Chicago, one of thirteen to date. Her many awards include the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writers’ Association.  Ms. Paretsky is a staunch defender of civil liberties. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she has a PhD in history and an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago.  Her expertise in the dirty tricks of high finance is grounded in 10 years working for a large Chicago insurance company as a marketing manager.

Excerpts3:27 sec

Fear silences people. The United States’ so-called “PATRIOT” Act frightened Sara Paretsky so much that she turned her own fear of being silenced into the riveting “V.I. Warshawski” thriller, Blacklist. Ms. Paretsky, a widely admired mystery novelist, remembers that it took her a long time to get the courage to speak above a whisper when she spoke out loud or to write for publication. But V.I. (Victoria) Warshawski -- Ms. Paretsky’s courageous detective loved by readers around the world -- speaks for her. And acts. Blacklist is no exception, a thriller full of intrigue, fascinating detail, youthful idealism and a race to the finish.

Blacklist started out simply enough, Ms. Paretsky remembers.  She was writing a crime novel with roots in the McCarthy era, located in Chicago, of course, featuring Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “blacklist.” Then current events overtook her.

In the fall of 2002, several state library associations asked Ms. Paretsky to deliver a speech. Always keen on research -- she has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago -- Ms. Paretsky discovered terrifying effects resulting from the USA-“PATRIOT” (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001. Under it, law enforcement officials are no longer required to get a warrant to search libraries, homes or private records. Nor do they need to show probable cause. Ms. Paretsky was alarmed that the police or the FBI can be in her computer at any time and do not have to tell her they have been there. She learned that librarians can be sent to prison for an unspecified length of time if they report that law enforcement officials have been in their libraries. She was frightened when she found out that those searches do happen -- the “Connecticut Law Review” found that some 20% of the nation's libraries actually have had some police or FBI presence, with officials seizing circulation records or Internet-use records -- statements from General Ashcroft not withstanding.

The eerie similarities between McCarthy’s rampage and this Act’s virulent attacks on civil liberties landed the troubling piece of legislation an important role in Blacklist. Another “player” became the stifling consequences of America’s ever-increasing concentration of media ownership, media conglomerates whose considerable stake in the status quo ends up silencing people, Ms. Paretsky believes.

V.I. and Sara are not mirror images, Ms. Paretsky reminds us. “Vic” does the physical things beyond her creator’s ability, says what Ms. Paretsky can’t and others won’t say. So V.I. gets to play out Ms. Paretsky’s private obsession with issues of speech and silence. Together they ask, Who can talk? Who will listen? How much will you be allowed to say? A recurrent theme is a fear of being powerless, at the mercy of people against whom one has no recourse.  Fortunately, V.I.’s on the job. And she never ever worries about being a good girl from Kansas. Or what people will think of her.

While Sara Paretsky and V.I. Warshawski use their different kinds of courage to deliver a heart-thumping thriller, we are reminded of how deeply unAmerican fear-mongering is. And how urgent it is to defend our civil liberties against all comers.

[This Program was recorded October 10, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Sara Paretsky describes the worlds she creates in her novels for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Paretsky outlines what she strives to continue to learn.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:16 sec

Conversation 2

Ms. Paretsky describes lessons learned from disadvantaged Chicago youngsters when she arrived in 1966, and how they continue to influence her writing. She is frightened by the “USA-PATRIOT” Act, she says, which influenced Blacklist, her thriller rooted in the McCarthy-era with it’s infamous blacklist. Ms. Paretsky describes the helplessness she feels in the face of the “PATRIOT” Act and talks about her terror of being at the mercy of people against whom one has no recourse -- powerless. She remembers those same feelings from the 1950s and ‘60s, fearful they’re back and worse because of today’s mass media consolidation. She wonders what she would do if (Attorney) General Ashcroft came after her. She describes the role of fiction -- to heighten our sense of the world around us -- then talks about growing in her craft.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:48 sec

Conversation 3

One writes out of one’s own fears, needs and desires, which determine themes and how you explore them, Ms. Paretsky says. She talks about crime writers, convinced that knowing someone in a safe way is part of the draw of fiction. She expands, with references to Madame Bovary and to her own work.  She compares excellent writing to surgery and suggests why people turn to fiction.  She demonstrates how central Chicago is to her stories, how people all over the world use her books to get to know the City.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:42 sec

Conversation 4

Ms. Paretsky describes Chicago. Her devotion to crime fiction helped her get her Ph.D., she says, and also motivated her to create a fully-developed woman detective character. She talks about the courage and strength she learns from her readers, especially Japanese women working to reform their society in the face of grave injustices. Ms. Paretsky describes how much research goes into writing a good novel. Both the “pro”s and “con”s of the novel/movie connection and the commercial side of writing books are considered.  She remembers her career path.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:50 sec

Conversation 5

The “PATRIOT” Act permits frightening encroachments on individuals’ civil liberties, Ms. Paretsky believes. She describes how it affects libraries, allows police officers and FBI agents to search without warrants, and invites other significant and formerly prohibited invasions of privacy.  She applauds the heroism of librarians who are fighting these intrusions on behalf of their patrons.  Ms. Paretsky gives examples of the terror associated with FBI agents violating people’s freedom of speech.  She objects to government officials exploiting people’s fears. She honors her own fear of being silenced, having finally found her voice.  She describes the vision that calls her to continue writing.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:02 sec

Conversation 6

A writer writes what she or he can write, Ms. Paretsky says, confident one can grow in one’s craft but not fundamentally change what’s in one to write. She describes the person for whom she writes.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:31 sec


America is a better place because Sara Paretsky found her voice and is willing to use it, even when cowardly fear-mongers would have her silent. She refreshes the important wisdom of Franklin D. Roosevelt when he encouraged a frightened American people with this simple truth:
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Civil liberties are threatened in the United States. Those dangers are embodied in the legislation which is falsely-characterized in its acronym as the “PATRIOT” (“Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) Act. Congress should apologize to the American People for passing this legislation; the People should apologize to Congress for allowing it to do so.

Sara Paretsky is an AUTHENTIC patriot. In Blacklist, she courageously brings to life the very real dangers presented by this legislation and by political extremists who use this legislation, and fear, to pose serious threats both to liberty and to justice. Ms. Paretsky has artfully turned the legitimate fear she feels -- the sense of powerlessness her fear engenders -- into an affirmation about what is right about America: people, young and old, standing up to injustice and intolerance.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novel, Blacklist, is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons which has also published others of Ms. Paretsky’s works.
Or, visit her website.

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