Sara Paretsky's first novel sold only 3,500 copies. She admits that by today's standards there would have been no second chance at publication. It's an odd truth when you consider the millions of fans of Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski. But, then again, Paretsky's rise to success is equally uncommon.
There are dissenting opinions about who created the first female detective and when. Some claim it occurred even before the birth of Poe's Dupin. All agree, however, that the 1980s were the golden gate through which a bevy of hard-boiled women writers passed. Paretsky was one of them.
In 1986 Paretsky spoke at a conference about what she perceived as the growing sadism against women in mystery and detective fiction. That same year, an exploratory meeting at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention led to the formation of Sisters in Crime. The goal of the organization was (and is) to combat discrimination against women mystery writers. Asked if SinC is still relevant today, Paretsky says, "I wish I could say that in our 30 years we had solved most of the problems in the industry. One of the things we've noticed with [our] book review project is that when we stop monitoring review outlets, they tend to stop covering women and people of color."
Paretsky's commitment to helping those who struggle against stereotypes or bigotry is hardly surprising. Born to Jewish parents in Ames, Iowa, her family moved to Kansas when she was still a preschooler. Because of their ethnicity, the Paretskys faced segregated housing. The large farmhouse in which they eventually settled was quite grand, but it became something of a prison for young Sara. Her mother's crushing dependency on alcohol transformed what should have been a carefree childhood into a burdened, servile existence in which she was de facto nanny, cook and maid. Her father, a college professor, favored strong discipline. These influences were bound to affect Paretsky's writing.
"I think I grew up with too much responsibility and it has an unfortunate effect on V. I. Warshawski," Paretsky explains. "She should be insouciant but over the years the poor thing has absorbed my instinct to try to fix the problems of everyone who swims across her bow."
Paretsky first visited her adopted home of Chicago in 1966. The violence of the Civil Rights movement was on vivid display and it was clear she wasn't in Kansas anymore. She moved there permanently in 1968. With a B.A. in political science, a Ph.D. in history, and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago's School of Business, Paretsky's first jobs were freelance business writing, and a position in the marketing department of a large insurance company. For 15 years before writing her first novel she created newsletters and speeches, among other corporate communications. By happenstance, she briefly worked with Judson Gooding, a future Fortune Magazine editor. He scissored her newsletters with a ruthless hand, she says.
"It hurt my feelings at the time," Paretsky confesses, "but made me much more aware of how to write a concise sentence and how to find the heart of the story."
In 1982, Ballantine released the first V. I. Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. It is often credited with being the novel that broke the fictional glass ceiling, and put pugnacious female P.I.s on equal footing with their tough male counterparts. There are now 17 Warshawski books published in 30 countries. Unlike other mystery writers - particularly those from the Golden Age of the 1930s - Paretsky says it's not her job to try to outwit her readers. Instead, she works to craft engaging characters and a good story.
"If I've got those two things, I'm quite happy," she says.
Paretsky is equally steadfast on another aspect of both her professional and personal lives: she refuses to hide her political point of view. This has sparked some interesting conversations with her publisher.
"My editor for my third book, Killing Orders, was terrified of the anti-abortion lobby and forced me to take out some references to abortion clinics. He also didn't want V.I. crossing and uncrossing her legs, desperate to pee but unable to leave her hiding place."
Asked about her most important influences, Paretsky cites two British writers, Elizabeth Glaskell and George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans.) They are kindred spirits with Paretsky in that their goal was to make an impression on the world around them. Gaskell, while raising six children, ran programs to aid Manchester millworkers, and enjoyed friendships and tête-à-têtes with the finest cultural and scientific minds of her time.
"Although I don't claim to do as much outside my writing world as [Gaskell] did," says Paretsky, "I do feel pulled away from my work by what I see as urgent issues of the day."
As to the industry that's made Sara Paretsky a household name, she acknowledges that publishing has drastically changed since her own first book.
"In addition to needing to sell many more copies than we used to, the whole publishing and distribution of books has changed in ways that are squeezing writers badly. Amazon, for instance, now controls close to 70% of all book sales in all formats. This makes it much harder for new writers to find a readership. My books were sold by independent bookstores who hand-sold them to customers that they knew would be interested in a quirky new voice. Amazon doesn't have the interest or the knowledge either of writers or readers to provide that kind of individual sale. For the most part only writers who have substantial backing in the industry can get their books seen by a wide readership."
As evidenced by active roles in organizations like Sisters in Crime and the Authors Guild, Paretsky generously lends her expertise and advice to fellow writers. Key among those tips is to never submit a first draft to an editor.
"Any piece of writing can be improved," she guarantees, "if you are willing to put the time and effort into working on it."
Yet, regardless of natural talent or good mentoring, Paretsky recognizes the eternal struggle faced by new writers. She knows it "can be hard or harder to find an agent as it is to find a publisher," but believes writers need good agents to handle their negotiations.
For those lacking representation, Paretsky offers this advice: "Self-published writers who work with Amazon will find contractual terms absolutely non-negotiable, but if you are working with an actual publishing house you should spell out changes you want to see in a contract. Present it as you would any topic of negotiation, i.e. don't present it as a make or break issue, but put your wishes on the table and see what type of response you get."
Business aside, Paretsky's ultimate advice is to give yourself a break. "I don't think it's possible to evaluate one's own work in an objective way," she says. "Even Shakespeare wrote some pretty dreadful lines now and then."