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A conversation with author Sara Paretsky on politics, aging and baseball

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2010 - Author Sara Paretsky will be in town for a book signing at the St. Louis County Public Library on Aug. 31, the day "Body Work," her 14th novel featuring the exploits of private eye V.I. Warshawski, officially reaches the nation's bookstores.

While it is clear why Warshawski will once again take to the streets of Chicago -- her hometown -- to solve this edgy mystery linked to the Iraq War, what is not clear is Paretsky's motives for being in the Gateway City on book launch date. She claims that it's pure coincidence, but knowing Paretsky's deep passion for the Cubs, our hunch is that it really has something to do with a certain baseball rivalry, because, well, doesn't everything?


"Beats me,'' Paretsky said innocently enough when pressed on the topic. "They decide that in New York. They take in the requests from all the bookstores and shuffle them somehow."

Uh-huh. Shift the blame to the publicists. Ya think we were born yesterday?

Whatever. It's good to see Warshawski -- that can-do, no-nonsense gal who barged into the man-world of fictional gumshoes in 1982 -- still saving the innocent in the Flyover Zone.

Even if it is Chicago.

The Beacon recently tracked Paretsky down and grilled her about politics, baseball and the toughest topic of all: V.I.'s current age.

Paretsky, 63, good-naturedly settled into a phone interview from the Windy City, where she lives on the city's south side with her husband, a member of the University of Chicago's Fermi Institute, and is active in literary and social causes. And, just as her famous character, she enjoys running on the lakefront with her dog, a golden retriever.

Paretsky, by the way, hinted at a St. Louis connection, of sorts, revealing that her mother hailed from Roodhouse, Ill., a little town of about 2,000 in Greene County, about 60 miles north of St. Louis.

Uh-huh. Another attempt to throw off the dogs.

Here are excerpts from the questioning:

Just between us girls, how old is V.I. these days?

Paretsky: That's a question that you don't have sufficient security clearance from me to ask. (She laughs.)

When I started with V.I., I wanted her to age in real time. I was young, and I couldn't envision being old. When I published my first book my mother was about the age I am now. And I thought, oh, her aches and pains are just because she hasn't looked after herself. And you know, the evil eye is there to capture thoughts like that and hit you with them as you age yourself.

V.I. was determined very much by history -- and that was true for the characters around her. The history of the Second World War loomed very large in my own personal history growing up. So in my creation of her I made her mother a refugee from Mussolini's Italy and Lotty was a refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria, and V.I. came of age, as I did, in the era of the great civil rights movements and the antiwar movement and the second-wave women's movement. And I felt that it would be wrong not to age her because her personality was so shaped by those events.

The trouble is, she's gotten to be about 50, and I haven't been willing to move her forward in time for psychological reasons. Even though I know Lotty should not be in an operating room I can't bear for these people to get old and die. That is what would have to happen. Lotty should be 80, and I'm sort of keeping her in her early 70s and keeping V.I. around 50, and it's cheating and it's cowardly of me as a writer, but that's just how it's going to be until I'm strong enough emotionally to deal with them all aging.

When we started I was 32, and she was 30. Now I'm 63, and she's 50. So time hasn't stood still for her, but it's been gentler with her than it has been with me.

How have your readers responded to V.I.'s, let's say, maturing?

Paretsky: I put a question on my website a few years ago asking readers: Should she get older? Should she stay the same? And people were really split down the middle.

There were readers who wanted her to be like a role model. They wanted to see what V.I. would do when she was 70 or 80. To show them what they should be doing. I thought, hmmm. Right.

And there were some who wanted the fantasy of perpetual physical ability. You know, I can't drink very much alcohol anymore and I hadn't realized it until I had a letter from an English reader that I had unconsciously cut V.I.'s intake. And so I've made a conscientious effort to let her drink more.

Perhaps the deeper question is how V.I.'s character would be transformed should the Cubs ever win the World Series. Would you have to write a new novel?

Paretsky: You know I think I'm safe from that danger.

I actually want to set a chase scene underneath Wrigley Field. I've never been under there, but I've met the guy who runs the tours behind the scene at Wrigley for the Cubs wives' charity. One of their fundraisers is to take people behind the scenes. And, apparently, it's a god-awful place. It's a rabbit warren of tunnels underneath the field, and I think it would be such a great chase scene if I could come up with a storyline to lead me there.

It was built really badly in the 1920s, and the structure of the stadium is such that to renovate what is underneath you'd have to take down the whole stadium -- which would cause riots.

Apparently, it really is horrible. Rats. Leaking walls. Toilets that may or may not function, and I was thinking, "No wonder they can't win.''

And it would change the balance of history. Look at Boston and the Red Sox.

Paretsky: They adjusted in Boston. We'll overcome it here -- but I just don't believe in it.

When it looked like the Cubs were inches from the World Series, I was still working downtown then, and absenteeism was at an all-time high, but people brought in these little portable TVs and they would just sit there staring into their desk drawers all afternoon, and then the Cubs blew it. I experienced so much loss over that. I was in mourning for a month. I couldn't believe it. I was embarrassed by it. So, I put up a protective shield between me and the Cubs after that, so I don't get so wound up about them anymore.

Speaking of Chicago craziness, have you been following the trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich? Any plot possibilities there?

Paretsky: Oh, that's the kind of story that Carl Hiaasen writes so brilliantly and so wittily. I don't even know how to begin to tackle it. We're changing the state motto from "Land of Lincoln" to "Illinois: Where the governor makes your license plate." Since I moved to the state, three governors have been imprisoned.

The plot of "Body Work" delves into the stresses faced by veterans of the Iraq War. Why did you choose to make the man framed with murder a returning veteran having trouble re-adjusting to civilian life?

Paretsky: For a stew pot of reasons.

One was that I was very opposed to going to war, and I felt the fury of the impotent when it happened. And, you know, those of us who were against that war, we were a minority. We were pariahs. We were denounced. I was wearing a button that said 'Grandmothers Against War,' and went into my local grocer and the butcher wouldn't serve me. And he said, "Well, I guess there's free speech in America,'' and I said, "I guess you're right.''

So we went to war, and it's no comfort to say that I was right. We shouldn't have been there. But what makes me so angry is the people who were pounding the drums the loudest and denouncing people like me the most loudly are absolutely turning their backs on these very damaged people who are coming home. Refusing to support additional benefits for them. We're, finally, slowly getting some support for veterans.

My uncles were all career soldiers, and there's a long history in my family of military service going back to the French and Indian wars of the 17th century until this most recent conflict. So even though I'm sort of antiwar I'm very strong in feeling that you don't send people off to fight and then throw them away when they come home. They're responding to a deep sense of public service, and it makes me just furious that we're just putting it off to one side as if it isn't happening. There was a report on NPR a year or so ago that on any given night in America there are 150,000 homeless vets. Combat is psychologically so destructive and they come home and there isn't the support network.

That was all, I think, boiling up under the surface of my mind. But one of the things I have to be careful about is just because I wrote about it doesn't mean I've stopped thinking about it. But I can't keep telling that story over and over again, so I have to be careful in the book that I'm starting to work on now that I don't kept telling that story.

You have never shied away from political controversy.

Paretsky: There are days when I wish I would just shut my big mouth.

You worked with President Barack Obama in the days that he was a state senator on a board called Thresholds, which serves Chicago's homeless who are mentally ill. What was it like for you to be in the city on the night he was elected president?

Paretsky: The euphoria was just amazing. I don't know what's going to happen now, but that was a wonderful moment and just one of those times where total strangers were just filled with the milk of human kindness. Going out of their way to put strangers up for the night, buy them food. Whatever. I came here in '66 and in '68 there was the Democratic National Convention and the police whacking kids in Grant Park. The quintessential image for me: There was a kid I know, who is a smoker, and a mounted policeman was leaning over to light his cigarette for him. That's a sea change in 40 years.

What are the demographics of your readers these days?

Paretsky: I do not have as many young readers as I wish I did. But I'm not sure that having a middle-age detective is really that attractive to a young reader. On the other hand, my books are taught on college campuses and kids who read them in college do tend to become regular readers and they find that there is something there for them and it isn't just an assigned book.

Women make up about 60 to 65 percent of all fiction readers, and that's true of my readership, too. So it's about two-thirds female, one-third male. And the demographic tends to be 40 and up.

"Body Work" is set in contemporary Chicago -- complete with text messaging -- and V.I. has adapted to the world of Google searches. How do you keep your work timely?

Peretsky: It's hit or miss. There's a young woman I know. Well, like everybody age is creeping up on her, too; she's almost 40 now. She teaches at Syracuse University part-time and so part of what I do is talk to her about what that generation she's teaching is up to. So she kind of mediates the 30-somethings for me and also the college-age kids.

Even though I live on a college campus my husband has been long retired and he never was plugged into popular culture to begin with. He was a research physicist and his students tended to be the ones who had things thrown at them in study hall in high school. He was probably the only person in America who didn't know what a Swatch was. Every now and then he'll come to me and want to know what an X or Y is that everybody else in the country long ago forgot.

One of the things that I've learned is that young people are still very vampire-mad. So in the book that I've just started working on I'm bringing in kids who are obsessed with vampires and shapeshifters because vampires are kind of old hat and shapeshifting is the new, new thing. But I'm just at the very beginning and it may not end up staying in the book. It seems fun to me now, but it may not work for the storyline.

Still, it must be quite a challenge to keep your writing fresh.

Paretsky: That is my biggest fear. The thing that I struggle with the most is not to be doing it by the numbers.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.