It's just a week before the publication of Sara Paretsky's new V.I. Warshawski novel Fallout--so we are featuring this conversation between Paretsky and Karin Slaughter. The mass market edition of Karin Slaughter's The Kept Woman is available on April 18th as well, or you can buy the Kindle version now).
Sara Paretsky in conversation with Karin Slaughter
KARIN: You as a person are an amazing woman, but so many readers (and authors) around the world love your private eye V.I. Warshawski. She’s iconic at this point, like the Mona Lisa or Cheetos. How has it been writing and growing her character over the years? Is it harder knowing how important she is to so many readers?
SARA: I love Cheetos, at least I used to, until politicians started rubbing them into their hair. When I was a little girl, that was my favorite junk food, and many is the bag I’ve shared with my own granddaughter. So the thought that VI occupies a place like Cheetos in the minds of readers makes me happy.
Her character has changed and grown with time. When I started the series, my focus, my goal, was to create an independent woman investigator. She was doing a job that hadn’t existed for women when I was growing up, she was independent, she had a sex life that didn’t determine her moral character, and she solved problems without needing to be rescued. That kind of woman didn’t exist in crime fiction when I was starting out. Today, with women playing so many roles across the criminal justice system, a woman PI is part of the landscape and so I’ve focused on developing her personality in other directions.
If I stop to think that she’s important to readers, I freeze. I think, I can’t do a good enough job this time, and stop writing. So I try not to think about that.
KARIN: As a fellow author, I know how hard it is to make a story feel authentically rooted in time and place. The reader should have no idea how intense your research has been, but they should also trust your ability to speak authoritatively about a subject—and it all has to feel seamless on the page. You deftly walked that tightrope in Fallout. Can you share some of your process?
SARA: One’s first impulse is to write everything learned through your research. It’s not so much to show off as to say “I suffered through all this, and by gum, you, the reader, will too.” In this as in all aspects of writing, you have to be a ruthless editor of your own prose. Over the years, I’ve learned that the best way to incorporate research into the narrative is to turn it into action. This can be through a hostile conversation, such as VI has with a bioweapons expert in Fallout or through physical action, as happens with an abandoned missile silo.
KARIN: Setting plays such an integral part of the story. I often think of it as another character. While my protagonist Will Trent has been rooted in Atlanta, you’ve had V.I. based in Chicago (which, I’ll admit, was how I learned about Chicago when I was a kid!). In Fallout, what inspired you to take V.I. out of the Windy City for the first time and were you nervous about pulling it off?
SARA: My dad was a cell biologist at the University of Kansas and some of the work he and his colleagues did ended up on the fringes of bioweapons research. Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination but when I started thinking of a story around bioweapons, I could only imagine it in the Kansas of my childhood. It turned out to be an important journey into my own past and the history of my hometown; I got quite a lot emotionally from writing this novel.
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KARIN: You’re truly one of the masters of the genre, if not one of the founding authors of modern hardboiled mysteries. How does it feel to have inspired authors like myself, Gillian Flynn, Alafair Burke, Kate White (the list is endless) as well as so many up and coming writers?
SARA: I started out wanting to create a woman investigator who upended the stereotypes of women in fiction. I’m incredibly moved to think that my work helped other women find their authentic writing voices; thank you for that affirmation.
KARIN: You’ve written V.I. to be a powerful feminist. As a women’s rights activist, how much of yourself do you find reflected in your protagonist and what have you enjoyed the most in developing V.I. into who she is today? So much has changed since you first wrote her (and so much has not). Do you feel like you’ve been instrumental in giving both women and men in the mystery/thriller community a rubric for writing about a realistic, tough, smart and interesting woman without reducing her to stereotype?
SARA: Like VI, I can find myself in hot water for speaking first and thinking second but I never undertake the kind of physical exploits she does. If I were that kind of active physical problem-solver, I’d be out doing her job instead of my job, which is to think and write. With each character I create, I try to imagine how a real person would feel and act in each situation. I hope by trying to access genuine emotions that I can avoid stereotyping.
KARIN: Most important question as one of your avid readers: what’s next for V.I.? Please tell me there’s more to come.
SARA: I had written a hundred pages of a new book that wasn’t working, so now I’m back on page twenty-six. It’s a little early to say what the book’s shape will be but I think VI will be going head to head with ICE.
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