Q&A with Sara Paretsky, creator of V.I. Warshawski

Stream our new short documentary film DEAD LAND/Sara Paretsky: A Reflection free on Vimeo

In a Sept. 2020 panel discussion, Sara Paretsky and filmmakers Pamela Beere Briggs, William McDonald and Eric Marin shared stories about launching a new book and making a film during quarantine. Natalie, the filmmakers’ daughter & Two in the World’s “Happy Guinea Pig,” moderated an engaging Q&A. Stream the discussion free on Vimeo.

From upper left clockwise: Sara Paretsky, Pamela Beere Briggs/William McDonald, Natalie McDonald, Eric Marin.

Here are some additional questions that were submitted during the Panel Discussion. Watching the 9-minute short doc DEAD LAND and the one-hour Panel Discussion would make a wonderful event to share with friends or writing/reading groups, or students.

  • LOVED “Dead Land”—it is quite a complex book with a lot of different plot strands! How do you keep track of them while you are writing? Do you use Post-Its, outline extensively, or something else? I like to work with big artists’ pads – 11 x 17 – where I write characters and actions in columns as the story progresses. It helps me see where I may need to rethink the direction the story is taking.
  • In “Dead Land,” Sara gives a wonderful sense of the richness and depth of Lydia Zamir’s music, with its connections to classical music. Are there any particular musicians that she had in mind when she crafted this character? I loved creating Lydia Zamir’s music. I even tried to find a composer to write music for the songs in the book, but it turned out to be a more complicated and expensive venture than I was ready for. However, I didn’t have a specific composer or singer in mind.
  • Do you have a favorite book or two in the V.I. series? All the books have flaws that I couldn’t figure out how to correct when I was writing, but Hardball is one of my personal favorites. The story came together really well, and the backstory has to do with the riots against Martin Luther King and integration that I experienced my first summer in Chicago.
  • With Killing Orders, I had a chance to tell my grandmother’s story – I gave a very romanticized version of it to Gabriella, but it still feels quite personal to me. And Blacklist, where I tried to create a villain who starts out as one of the good guys, was a book I enjoyed writing. I created an elderly woman who was modeled on my own mother-in-law, whom I adored, and I enjoyed bringing her to life.
  • As an adolescent in Lawrence, were you aware of the civil rights struggles, and is this period the beginning of your commitment to social justice? My mother was an active advocate for open housing in Lawrence, which practiced de facto segregation. It wasn’t until my last year in high school (1964) that I became aware of some aspects of the racism that my school and town practiced. We also, as Jews, experienced some forms of discrimination that made everyone in my family more sensitive to it. I would say that my education on civil rights and social justice is ongoing – the current Black Lives Matter movement has taught me a lot – including how much more I have to learn.
  • Are there any words of wisdom Sara would like to share with aspiring writers? You should write what you care about. Be careful in your craft – grammar, a graceful sentence, still matter, even in the age of abrupt, punctuation-less communication. Read and write, read and write, and don’t worry about selling until you have something you feel you’ve completed to the best of your ability.
  •  Please describe the procedure of writing your books. For example, do you submit a draft of the whole book to your publisher or editor, or submit an idea, or…? I write a draft, which takes a long time, many iterations, because I work out ideas by writing them. This means that when it becomes clear that an idea isn’t forming into a coherent story, I have to abandon it and start over. When I have finished a complete draft, I send it to my agent and my editor, who often have very good ideas on how to improve the story. By then, I’m sick of the book, but I grit my teeth and dig down and make the recommended changes.
  • Sara, can you speak to the transition from corporate employee to author? I took a big chance, quitting my day job after finishing my third book. I wasn’t well known and I wasn’t making much money from my writing, but I had saved enough to live on for a year. I knew it would be a difficult transition: in the first place, when I wasn’t dependent on my writing for my living, it was easier to write, but when everything depended on it, the pressure would be painful – as it has proved to be, time and again. The other challenge is that writing is a solitary occupation. I miss the camaraderie of the office. No matter how many book clubs or volunteer organizations you belong to, they are no substitute for working together with other people – I think one of the stressors of Covid is we are all having to cope with that isolation.
  • I am a fiction writer and have a character in a novel who is involved in the 1973 coup in Chile. 20 years later he is the governor of Minnesota. Have you ever considered writing directly about the ´73 coup as a novel?My most recent novel, Dead Land, is actually based in part on that ’73 coup. I would never actually set a book in that time and place because the amount of research it would take to get the political/social/judicial relationships correct would take me years. Good luck with your own novel.
Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction (Streaming on Vimeo)

Madeline Finds a New Home

Natalie went through some of her beloved toys and found her Madeline doll with suitcase of clothes, a barn/stable with animals, and some dinosaurs. Maisie, our cat, was intrigued and wondered if there were other things to be found in our hall closet. In the meantime, Natalie had written a letter to the family we call the “cute family” on the next corner asking if their little children might be interested in them. She received a reply that indeed they were quite interested. A day and time was agreed upon, and Natalie set the toys out on our garden bench (can you see them in picture?)

A little while later, the 5-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl arrived with their father. Within three minutes, Madeline was tucked under the little girl’s one arm, and the little girl marched off down our path with Madeline’s suitcase in her other hand, too excited to even wait for her brother or father. The little girl happens to have bright red hair so the sight of red-headed Madeline under her arm was delightful. Natalie and I were so glad we were standing by the window to see that wondrous sight, straight out of a storybook. Her brother followed with the riding stable and their father carried the big box, holding the barn and dinosaurs.

By the way, this delightful 1952 animation of “Madeline” is so charming, with classic animation and a lovely voice doing the voice-over. I love when Miss Clavel sits up in bed (twice) and says: “Something is not right!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHuQlcO7hyI

If you, or your little or big students want a fun writing assignment, ask them to write a story about 12 people or animals that go out and about, seeing this and that, with a serious adult who is along for the ride and says a funny line twice. Such a story might lead to discovery or laughter or a wonderful story to tell and tell again.

Here are the thank you notes that landed in our mailbox from our neighbor family.

Reading: Lifelong Learning & Coping Gift

During these COVID days, we are so glad in our house to have our books. Reading gives us a chance to dive into worlds without virus. Other times our books remind and reassure us of other difficult and scary times that were survived. Our books are like trustworthy companions. I am usually reading a few books at once and choose the one that suits my mood at the moment. A novel is always by my bed. A few picture books are always on the coffee table. In the living room, I have a row of books stacked up on a tray atop a basket where I can see their titles from the couch.

When I hear about the challenges of homeschooling and remote learning, I honestly feel like telling both schools and parents this: shorten the school day lessons and allow time to instill in your child a love of reading that will accompany them throughout their lives. It doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they are reading. It will allow stress levels to fall for everyone in the picture: children, parents, and teachers. And it will give children the chance to gain a lifelong learning and coping tool.

A mini-column in the July 24 edition of The Week, a magazine I enjoy reading, made me want to jump up and down cheering: Yes!!! It is titled “How to get a 9-year-old to read”: “There’s something about turning 9 that makes kids stop reading,” said Meghan Moravcik Wahlbert in Lifehacker.com. “They’re busier, usually, and they start to see reading less as pure pleasure than as something that’s expected of them. You can keep kids reading by first never stopping reading to them yourself. Until they’re in eighth grade, they’ll be able to handle more complex material by listening than by reading, so choose books you like that’ll stretch them intellectually. …Offer to let them stay up later if they spend the time reading, and don’t discount any reading that they are doing.” She adds, “Comic books are books, you know.”

This morning, I re-read this new children’s book (Even though I am a grown-up, I still love reading pictures books. I love the illustrations and the wise and funny observations in the stories).

This painting in our kitchen by Suzanne de Cuir (one of Two in the World’s explorers/see “Suzanne’s Studio”) reminds me of this wonderful picture in Anna Strong. Sometimes I stare at Suzanne’s painting and make up a story about the woman hanging up her laundry, or I imagine I see a person at the shadowed window in the upper left corner of the painting.

So many picture books have additional historical notes, bibliographies and even activities included. Anna Strong: A Spy During the American Revolution includes a code list (so that readers can write a code) and instructions for making invisible ink.

Here’s my code: 253 + 94 = 491

De-coded it reads: Hope + Courage = Promise

Penn Center, one of the first schools for formerly enslaved children

In 2010, ten years ago, Bill, Natalie (age 13 then) and I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We were immersing ourselves in history. It was a two-hour drive from Charleston to the Penn Center, one of the places we wanted to visit. We had to rent a car to get there. As we got closer, we drove on a long road with sea waters lapping up almost to the edge of it. I couldn’t believe how we were almost level with the water. My head was hanging out the window like we see dogs do, mesmerized by the water so close it seemed like if my arm were just a little longer, I could touch it.
The Penn Center is the former site of the Penn School, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. Founded in 1862 by Quaker and Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania, the first three teachers included Laura Matilda Towne, an abolitionist missionary from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Ellen Murray, a Quaker teacher and Charlotte Forten, born into a wealthy free black family in Philadelphia.
We also knew it was where Dr. Martin Luther King found a safe haven in 1964, to rest and write, after one of many arrests/jail sentences. No road existed at that time, so he was transported by rowboat to the Penn Center in the middle of the night. No one knew he was there. This was during a time when the KKK would have been active in the area.

Dr. Martin Luther King


When we arrived at the Penn Center, I stepped out of the car and stopped to notice the ancient oaks, the sound of birds, and the quiet. I had walked only a few steps before I saw a magical sight. A pile of leaves started to gather in a circle and then they began to swirl around and around. It was as if they had turned into a beautiful long brown skirt. I didn’t move. It felt like a message. This is what I heard: This is a place of peace and faith. We see you. Learn our story so that you can share it with others.


The Penn Center became part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor established by the U.S. Congress in 2006. The Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the region as early as the 1600s. They are now recognized as the oldest African American group to successfully preserve their language, religious customs, and cultural identity within the United States of America. The Penn Center is one of three National Historic Districts in South Carolina, and the only one that is African American. The Penn Center continues to be a vital part of its surrounding community, continuing in its legacy of cultural preservation.
This week, my donation to help fill in the holes of history goes to the Penn Center.

Mary Jackson Helped Make NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA. Jackson started her NASA career in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer, went on to lead programs influencing the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Mary Jackson

All these wonderful changes/recognitions that are happening (and will continue to happen) if we vote for Biden in November… How I wish they had occurred when I was a little girl. The world would have seemed a fairer and safer place. I wouldn’t have had to read so many Holocaust novels as a teen, to try to figure out the difference between awful people and good people. I wouldn’t have read the final pages of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and looked up (I remember exactly where I was) and seen the world from an entirely different perspective. I wouldn’t have moved from Japan in 1968, right after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King and before the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, and felt I had landed in a crazy place.

It’s time for us to be better than we’ve been.
So that a child who moves here doesn’t feel like they’ve landed in a crazy place.
So that an adult who lives here and has accomplished so much is given the recognition she deserves.
So that any discounting of accomplishments due to the color of a person’s skin or gender is not just crazy, but illegal.

Watch the wonderful movie “Hidden Figures” to learn more about Mary Jackson.

Scraping Away Injustice

One person can make a difference. Each of us can make a difference. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t powerful enough, wealthy enough, fancy enough, strong enough… to make a difference. The biggest differences are usually simple acts of kindness or justice.

Two years ago, I read an article about Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who lives in Berlin, Germany. She is a retired teacher, who taught children with severe disabilities. She was born in 1945, at the tail end of World War II. In the early 1980s, when she was in her mid 30s, she visited a concentration camp for the first time. Then in 1986, she saw a sticker at her bus stop that demanded the release of Rudolf Hess, the imprisoned Nazi war criminal. All day she thought about the sticker. Then when she was going home from work that day, she saw that the sticker was still there. She used her keychain to scrape it away and she noticed she felt better. A few days later, she spent an entire night walking her Berlin neighborhood, scraping away far-right messages she found. Twenty years went by. By the time Sally McGrane wrote her article, Irmela had erased 72,354 Neo-Nazi symbols and anti-immigrant sentiments. She continues to do so several days a week, carrying her supplies in a canvas bag with the handwritten message “Against Nazis.”

She has been assaulted three or four times. But she has also been hugged by strangers. As tensions rise over the refugee issue in Germany, others are following in Irmela’s footsteps, scraping, dissolving and painting over far-right slogans. Two years ago, Ibo Omari, owner of a Berlin shop that sells graffiti paint and other related items, founded an organization that has sponsored artists to convert swastikas into street art: Rubik’s Cubes, mosquitoes and owls. He considers Irmela Mensah-Schramm the “grandmother” of the project.

The story of Irmela Mensah-Schramm reminds me to pay attention when the voice inside me says something I see isn’t fair or just. I will follow Irmela’s example and whenever I can, I will try to scrape away injustice and turn it into justice.

Breakfast of the Birds

Gabriele Münter’s “Breakfast of the Birds” (1934) has long been one of my favorite paintings and I like it to visit it in person whenever I am in Washington DC at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Right now, I feel so much like the woman in the painting: looking out at the world, watching, waiting, wishing, wondering…

Today, for the first time, I wonder: Why is the title “Breakfast of the Birds” instead of “Breakfast with the Birds.” What do you think?

In the painting, a woman sits indoors at a table arrayed with a meal. We share her view of snowcapped trees and a host of birds through the window. The heavy looking draperies that frame the window add an element of cosiness or claustrophobia, depending on one’s perspective. This interior has been interpreted alternately as indicative of solitude and quiet reflection or entrapment and emotional isolation. With her back to the viewer, the woman portrayed here has been identified by some scholars as the artist herself. In 1911, Münter and other artists, including Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, and Münter’s then-partner Vassily Kandinsky, founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a progressive group based in Munich. Münter’s work is often associated with the expressionist style practiced by members of this group, but she demonstrated a sense of self-awareness and individuality that she applied passionately to her vivid canvases. In the midst of the Nazi era, Münter ignored the limitations imposed on her as a radical artist and continued to produce still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and interior scenes, such as “Breakfast of the Birds.”

Basket of Treats Atop Our Free Little Library

During Quarantine, we place little treats atop our Free Little Neighborhood Library. The king delighted someone today and went home with them. Also a Play-doh. We also place stationery note cards with stamped envelopes for anyone who wants to easily write a letter. Those are so popular!! Do you see the coffee sachets (like tea bags)? I thought they might be appreciated. We discovered SteepedCoffee.com in October in our Chicago hotel. They make a tasty and easy cup of coffee. They’re quite popular. I ordered more today and gave a box to the nurses at the hospital.

This Little Light of Mine – Part 1

My letter to the Los Angeles Times Editor about singing this song while hand washing at home and in public was printed in the March 13, 2020 newspaper. Here’s my Letter to the editor: I’ve read so many versions and variations on hand-washing songs that help people make sure they are really and truly spending the necessary 20 seconds washing hands with soap and water to protect against spreading the coronavirus. I’ve decided to embrace my public hand washing to spread a message of hope that we can work together, not only to face this virus, but to embrace a healthier future with a strong sense of responsible and caring leadership back in place. So when I wash my hands in public, I am singing out loud “This Little Light of Mine,” a gospel song that came to be an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. People sang this and other spirituals during the civil rights movement as a way of expressing unity as they fought for equal rights and freedom for everyone.

I’ve started to sing it quietly as I do my mindful walk around the block and I can tell it helps me breathe into my tummy, which feels really good.

And this is a very fun version we sometimes play at highest volume 🙂 with Bruce Springsteen’s band performing in Dublin a year ago.

Pancake Chef Cheers Us

It turns out after knowing my husband Bill for 35 years, I (along with Natalie) have only recently learned that he is an amazing pancake chef. We wake up thinking about his pancakes. One night last weekend, I told him I was in the mood for his pancakes and guess what? Yes!! We ate pancakes at 10 pm, after watching a good movie. Any left-over pancakes are delicious to have with afternoon tea/coffee or for dessert with a smear of jam. Pancakes can be left out on a plate for one day on the counter, unless it is a hot summer day. Pancakes made with yogurt instead of buttermilk, olive oil instead of butter, topped with maple syrup and with a side of excellent applesauce, are uplifting for both tastebuds and spirits. Recipe below:

PANCAKE RECIPE

  • up to 1 1/2 cup of plain whole milk yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup wholewheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon natural sugar cane sugar
  • pinch of salt

Stir dry ingredients in bowl. Mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to dry ingredients. Bill drops a small dollop of olive oil on our iron skillet, then wipes the dollop to lightly oil the skillet. Bring the skillet up to a medium-low heat. You know it’s ready when you flick some drops of cold water onto the skillet and they burble and dance around. Take a soup spoon of batter and plop onto skillet. It will melt into proper shape. Wait for bubbles to appear on top side, and then check bottom for lightly browned color. Flip. Wait a minute or two, then jiggle the top of the pancake with edge of spatula. If top doesn’t wiggle side to side separate from bottom, the pancake is ready. Caution: Monitor the bottom layer for over-browning, rotating and sometimes flipping pancakes an extra time or two to make sure pancakes are perfect.