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.
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