CFA Master Class: Sara Paretsky
Wednesday April 27, 2016
Sara Paretsky changed the face of crime fiction with her creation of the instantly iconic character V. I. Warshawski, a great investigator, and a woman. Not just the usual vamp or bad girl relegated to the rank of secondary character or window dressing, Paretsky gave readers a tough, smart admirable and totally believable woman on par with the best male protagonists. Here was a new character, and writer, to be reckoned with. Sara Paretsky joined us for a spectacular Master Class at Crime Fiction Academy.
About Brush Back
Chicago’s V. I. Warshawski confronts crooked politicians and buried family secrets in the gritty new novel from New York Times–bestselling author Sara Paretsky.
No one would accuse V. I. Warshawski of backing down from a fight, but there are a few she’d be happy to avoid. High on that list is tangling with Chicago political bosses. Yet that’s precisely what she ends up doing when she responds to Frank Guzzo’s plea for help.
For six stormy weeks back in high school, V. I. thought she was in love with Frank. He broke up with her, she went off to college, he started driving trucks for Bagby Haulage. She forgot about him until the day his mother was convicted of bludgeoning his kid sister, Annie, to death. Stella Guzzo was an angry, uncooperative prisoner and did a full twenty-five years for her daughter’s murder.
Newly released from prison, Stella is looking for exoneration, so Frank asks V. I. for help. V. I. doesn’t want to get involved. Stella hated the Warshawskis, in particular V. I.’s adored mother, Gabriella.
But life has been hard on Frank and on V. I.’s other childhood friends, still stuck on the hardscrabble streets around the dead steel mills, and V. I. agrees to ask a few questions. Those questions lead her straight into the vipers’ nest of Illinois politics she’s wanted to avoid. When V. I. takes a beating at a youth meeting in her old hood, her main question becomes whether she will live long enough to find answers.
Before there was Lisbeth Salander or Stephanie Plum, there was V. I. Warshawski. Sara Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world in 1982 when she introduced V. I. in Indemnity Only. By creating a believable investigator with the grit and the smarts to tackle problems on the mean streets, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women typically were either vamps or victims. Hailed by critics and readers, Indemnity Only was followed by fifteen more best-selling Warshawski novels. The New York Times writes that Paretsky “always makes the top of the list when people talk about female operatives,” while Publishers Weekly says, “Among today’s PIs, nobody comes close to Warshawski.”
Called “passionate” and “electrifying,” V. I. reflects her creator’s own passion for social justice. As a contributor to the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers, and a speaker at such venues as the Library of Congress and Oxford University, Paretsky is an impassioned advocate for those on society’s margins. After chairing the school’s first Commission on the Status of Women as a Kansas undergraduate, Paretsky worked as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side during the turbulent race riots of 1966. More recently, Paretsky served with then-state senator Obama on the board of Thresholds, which serves Chicago’s mentally ill homeless. She has mentored teens in Chicago’s most troubled schools, and works closely with literacy and reproductive rights groups.
Not only has Paretsky’s own work broken barriers, she has also helped open doors for other women. In 1986 she created Sisters in Crime, a worldwide organization to support women crime writers, which earned her Ms. Magazine’s 1987 Woman of the Year award. More accolades followed: the British Crime Writers awarded her the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement; Blacklist won the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers for best novel of 2004, and she has received the honorary degreee of Doctor of Letters from several different universities. The actress Kathleen Turner played V. I. Warshawski in the movie of that name and Paretsky’s work is celebrated in Pamela Beere Briggs’s documentary, Women of Mystery. Today Sara Paretsky’s books are published in 30 countries.
She detailed her journey from Kansas farm-girl to New York Times bestseller in her 2007 memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. In addition, Paretsky has written two highly-acclaimed stand-alone novels, Ghost Country, used in many seminary classrooms, and Bleeding Kansas, set in the part of rural Kansas where Paretsky grew up. She has published a collection of her own short stories, and edited four other anthologies, including, most recently, Sisters on the Case.
Like her fictional detective, Paretsky lives and dies with the Cubs, runs Chicago’s lakefront with her golden retriever, and loves to sing, taking part in community musicals. Paretsky lives on Chicago’s south side with her husband, a member of the University of Chicago’s Fermi Institute.