Sara Paretsky

1. How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a child, but for a long time, I didn’t think about showing them to anyone else, let alone publishing them. Then, around the time I turned thirty, I realized that I really wanted to write a novel.

I loved detective fiction, but I was troubled by the way women were traditionally portrayed in that genre—they always seemed to be either evil or powerless. I thought it was time for a tough, smart, likable female private investigator, and that’s how V.I. came to life.

I wrote my first three novels at night while I was working full time as a marketing manager. And tutoring, and singing in a choir, and managing a home for my husband and three stepsons. I look back on that time and think I must have been insane—I couldn’t possibly juggle all that now.

2. How did Sisters in Crime come about?
I helped start Sisters in Crime in 1986 in response to a range of problems facing women mystery writers. Some were issues of attitude, but others had a direct negative effect on our careers. Many of us encountered both fans and male writers at crime conferences who assumed we did this as a hobby, not as a serious vocation.

These attitudes so permeated the publishing and reading worlds that books by women received short shrift from reviewers, libraries, and book sellers. Books with women protagonists were often marginalized if they were published at all. As a result, women’s books stayed in print for shorter periods than books by men, which meant women had a harder time getting subsequent books published.

Sisters in Crime began addressing these serious professional issues. We started a Book Review Project to track reviews, and we found that—adjusting for the male/female ratio in books published—books by men were reviewed 7 times as often as books by women (this all refers to crime fiction). We found that books by women writers stayed in print on average for a third the length of time that books by men did. These data severely affected women’s ability to earn a living as writers. With the Book Review Project, with books in print, and with our presence at ALA and Book Expo, we have gone a long way to eradicate this discrimation.

Every time we stop our vigilance with the Book Review Project, we find that discrimination re-emerges. It is therefore critical that we continue this work.

To join Sisters in Crime, go to www.sistersincrime.org and you will get all the information you need about local chapters and how to become a member.

Sara Paretsky

3. How do you write?
It takes a lot of cappuccino to get me through a book. Even today, with over twenty published books, I’m beset by anxiety, worrying about whether I’m telling the story right, having the necessary balance between action and reflection. I write directly onto the computer, but I work out story lines, and problems with story lines, on big sketch books.

I start with a basic idea of a story. This may be a crime, if I’m writing in the V.I. series, or a startling event that sparks an idea for a general novel. Until I have characters who really come to life for me, though, I can’t begin work. I don’t outline because that doesn’t work well for me. I can only tell if a story is working by writing it. This means that I often have to go back to the beginning more than once until I find the right story path.

Remember: there is no right way to write. There is only the way that works well for you.

4. Do you ever have writer’s block?
What I really have is thinker’s block. I have a ton of ideas for stories, but I get stymied in thinking about how to execute them. I don’t have a good way of overcoming this except by refusing to believe it’s a permanent state. I make myself work every day regardless of whether it’s a productive day or not. That way I know I will be at my keyboard when the logjam finally breaks.

Sara Paretsky's Cappuccino

5. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m obsessed with making the perfect espresso and cappucino and sometimes spend half-an-hour on one cup until I get just the right pull. I take voice lessons and I’m working actively on restoring abortion rights for American women.

6. Your books often explore social justice issues. How do you address them in your personal life?
I cover topics that are important to me in the op eds I write and in lectures that I give. I also have a foundation, The Sara and Two C-Dogs Foundation, which funds programs that reflect my quest for justice.