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Literary Treasures: Sara Paretsky on V.I. Warshawski (2007)

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The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Almost 10 years ago, on February 27, 2007, mystery writer Sara Paretsky visited the Library to discuss her newly released book Fire Sale. The program, embedded below, took place at 6 p.m. in Montpelier Room on the sixth floor of the James Madison Building.

The reading was particularly notable because it marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of Paretsky’s fictional private detective, V.I. Warshawski, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Sisters in Crime organization, a worldwide organization Paretsky helped found to support women crime writers.

As part of the program’s introductory remarks, John Cole, then Director of the Library’s Center for the Book, noted the significance of Paretsky’s literary creation:

Sara revolutionized the mystery world when she introduced the V.I. Warshawski character in her 1982 novel, Indemnity Only.  By creating a strong female investigator who uses her wits as well as her fists, she challenged the conventions of a genre in which women traditionally were either vamps or victims.

Although Paretsky’s talk was ostensibly supposed to focus on Fire Sale, she instead took the opportunity, after proving a brief “biography” of the fictional Warshawski, to “talk a bit about how I came to find my own voice” and to share how she came up with the idea for the intrepid detective:

But where did my journey with V.I. start?  How did I go from my own childhood in Kansas, where my writing was so personal that I never imagined other people might want to read it, to standing here tonight in the Library of Congress?

I won’t recount the full, fascinating backstory in this postwatch the video above!—but I will note that Paretsky concluded her talk by passionately outlining her vision of the change she hoped would be effected, in part, through her writing:

When I started writing Indemnity Only, I hoped my vision might be part of the work that would forever change women’s lives.  Now I see that there are many kinds of radicalism.  Only one of them is my wish for a world in which women are judged, so to speak, not by the shape of our bodies but by the quality of our work and the ardor of our dreams.  Against that vision is an angry radicalism that wants us forever boxed in by our anatomy.

I hope it is my vision that will prevail, but I have no crystal ball.  I can’t predict what will survive.  I’m almost 60 now, which seems horrible.  I don’t have, as Tennyson put it, the strength which in old days moved heaven and earth.  All I have is hope, and a hope that my writer’s voice, which I came to in a very hard way, and your support as readers, which I value more than I can rightly say, that these will be enough to give me strength for the journey.

After her talk, Paretsky fielded questions from the audience. One question I found of particular interest was about the future of American fiction, which Paretsky used as an opportunity to reflect more generally on humans’ abiding need for stories and storytelling:

I think people have always experimented with new kinds of fiction; hypertext was very popular a few years ago.  But I do believe that there’s an abiding need in people for stories, and that stories will survive.  I don’t know that they will always survive in the form that we see them now.  But except for the fact that we read them in books instead of listening to them spoken by poets, I don’t think our stories differ very much from the stories that people loved and responded to 3,000 years ago.  We want heroes of one kind or another to bring us comfort on this very lonely journey that life is, in the end.  And stories tell that and they give us a sense of closure.  And I think that we will never lose our yearning for those things.

Paretsky’s 2007 talk was not her only appearance at the Library. In 2011, Paretsky would return to Washington, D.C., to read at the National Book Festival, and in November 2013 once more returned to the Library’s Madison Building, this time to discuss Critical Mass, her 16th V.I. Warshawski novel (the 18th novel in the series is forthcoming).

Prior to these visits, Paretsky had come to the Library on April 3, 2001, to deliver the 3rd Judith Austin Memorial Lecture.

The Library of Congress is a frequent destination for mystery writers, both in connection with the National Book Festival and through events sponsored by the Center for the Book (the Mystery Writers of America is one of the Center’s reading promotion partners) and the Humanities & Social Sciences Division. Many of these readings, talks, panels, and other related programs have been recorded by the Library and are available as webcasts on our site. We encourage you to explore them at your leisure!

For those of you who are fans of mystery fiction, let us know in the comments below why you find the genre so compelling and some of your favorite mystery writers and novels.