This is in fact an entry from my old blog which I have decided to transfer here so that I have everything in one place.

15th November 2008

It was back in March that we went to hear Sara Paretsky speak in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of Sandwell Town Hall (it was Sandwell Libraries, who have an excellent writer’s programme, who had arranged the visit). Paretsky was speaking as part of a promotional tour for Bleeding Kansas (which I still haven’t read) and she started by explaining some of the background to the book. She herself moved from Kansas to Chicago when was 19 in the year that Martin Luther King came to Chicago to organise against social injustice there; it was a violent but enormously optimistic time and Paretsky stayed and created VI (Warshawski) who is a quintessentially urban detective.

But Paretsky had always wanted to set a book in Kansas, the scene of her childhood and adolescence. Her family had moved there in the 50’s, her father was the first Jew hired by Kansas University. At the time there were unwritten zoning laws about where African-Americans/Hispanics/Jews could live and P’s parents decided to buy an isolated house. When they had to move back to the city they sold their house to a couple of Wiccans who thought they would have privacy for their ceremonies – but they were very wrong. Their nearest neighbour, a redneck sheriff, embarked on a campaign of harassment. It was this that gave Paretsky the idea for the story some 8 or 9 years ago.

She also wanted to use the physical landscape – prairies, extraordinary blue of sky. Kansas, Paretsky said, is both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha (as a side-note P. noted that the biggest obstacle she had in first getting published was that she was considered ‘regional’; US publishing utterly dominated by NY and LA, the rest is ‘regional’ – and what applies in this way to Chicago would go doubly so for Kansas). But Kansas has been crucial at many critical moments in US history – ‘Bleeding Kansas’ is a Civil War description. In the 60s/70s liberation struggles there was lot of violence and the same is true today; opinions and outlooks really come together and clash in Kansas.

P. then laid the book aside for a while [my notes lose track here!] but when the US invaded Iraq she heard from a friend of the funeral of the first soldier killed where it was said that it was a consolation that the parents believed in the cause. P. wanted to ask how it would have been if parents did not. She wrote a lot of historical stuff, the 1850’s and anti-slavery and contemplated a trilogy  – 1850’s/1960’s/present but ran out of energy. She did a lot of research into farming of which she was very ignorant.

There followed a QandA session. On influences she said there many writers she liked but not sure she would call them influences. She did mention her pleasure in Margery Allingham’s idiosyncrasy. On Chandler’s sexism she said she always felt a desire to reply and riposte but even so felt she wrote within the noir tradition.

On VI’s identity P. said that when she was a secretary at the Univ of Chicago she became very aware of the depth of Chicagoans national identities, and then sub-national (South Side Irish v West Side Irish) so to be authentically Chicagoan VI had to have a national perspective; P. felt there was no way she could write African-American or Hispanic so plumped for Polish – and to make her warmer added Italian mother [perhaps a rather simple view of national ‘traits’? :)].

VI was not in Bleeding Kansas because she would have been too much of an outsider. Important to P. that VI always walks away with a certain amount of triumph – P. wants to be merciful/optimistic at the end of her books (she mentioned that she found Sarah Waters’ Night Watch too bleak).

On Total Recall P. said that Holocaust had a very personal meaning for her as 2 grandmothers had died during it and she feels that there are really difficult problems in writing about it but still felt it was something she had to do and hence the book.

On Blacklist P. said that issues of blacklisting and McCarthyism were also woven into family history but the book rose more immediately out of The Patriot Act and the post 9/11 atmosphere; P. said there are parallels between McCarthy era and today but actually today is worse because of the levels of acquiescence.

As usual these are just the result of rough notes and in no sense an accurate transcript. It was a fascinating and inspiring talk which went way beyond the promotional.

At the conclusion there was the usual book-signing and I rather impudently asked if she would dedicate my copy to Albert Campion – she laughed and I am now the proud possessor of a copy of Bleeding Kansas with the following inscription ‘Albert Campion. May your free spirit live forever Sara N. Paretsky’.

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