More from Sara Paretsky
Published: September 11, 2003
|Sara Paretsky, author of 11 books in her popular bestselling series featuring V.I. Warshawski and one novel outside of the series, sat down with editor Elfrieda Abbe for a lunch interview at a French cafe in Chicago.|
The following is a continuation of the interview that appeared in the October issue of The Writer.
Did you try other beginnings before deciding to begin Total Recall with Lotty Herschel's story?
I started with a farewell party for Morell [V.I.'s lover]. You know he went off to Afghanistan. By one of those flukes, the book was published on September 4, 2001. On September 9th I got an e-mail from a reader asking: "What were the Taliban, and why are you always putting stuff in you book that no one ever heard of?" Before I got around to answering the e-mail, of course, everyone knew what the Taliban is.
I had many different ideas that didn't gel. I had an English journalist who was Morell's former lover in town. She was going to be writing a story on American militia groups--skinheads, things like that.
What I needed was something that was going to jolt Lotty so badly that she would either run away or become unhinged in such a way that she would be forced to reveal this secret that she had been hugging to herself. So I was trying all these different things with contemporary events, with skinheads and whatnot. And they just weren't working. It wasn't credible that these things that are always in the news and around us would suddenly shake her up in that way.
Do you know who Dorothy Salisbury Davis is? She's in her 80s. There was a time when she was an extremely well-known crime writer. She grew up in Libertyville (Ill.). She's quite a gifted writer, and she's become an important person in my life, a valued friend and mentor. She has always had this piece of advice that when things aren't working, turn them upside down. Come at it from a different way, so I thought [the beginning] has to come out of Lotty's past. There I was, stuck, draft after draft. Sometimes I'd written 150 pages of stuff that wasn't working. I thought, "By gum this time I'm going to tell the damn story. I tried three times before and I'm not going to give up on the fourth. So I thought, "OK, it has to be out of her past."
Could you describe your writing process?
My favorite thing is rewriting, because it's stuff on the page, and I can fiddle with it endlessly. I feel happy because I'm working. Here's what I've learned over the years. Most people are afraid of the blank page and I'm not alone in that. In my non V.I. book Ghost Country, I wanted it to focus on a young woman who wanted to write operas. I wrote 250 pages about this woman, her opera, her family, and it wasn't getting me to where I wanted to be. I threw it all out. It all got condensed into one sentence at the dinner table between the person who became the protagonist and her grandfather.
I've learned over time that I must end my writing day with something unfinished on the page that I know I can go into in the morning and finish. I mean if I've written to the end of the chapter, I won't make a chapter break until I've written beyond that, then I'll go back and separate it out and make a chapter. So as much as possible I have unfinished business on the page. Every morning when I start writing I read through what I wrote the day before, maybe several days before, and I continue editing it on the screen. Still, I do a tremendous amount of editing on paper because it just doesn't read the same. You see a lot more on paper.
Many writers say they have a reader or writing partner to read the first draft. Do you have someone read your work while it's in progress?
My first reader is my husband, and he is very good in some things as a reader. But he's not a reader of fiction. I think I need someone who really reads a lot of fiction. I'm published in England by Hamish Hamilton and the woman who was for many years my editor there is one of the most gifted readers I've ever met. In Total Recall, she read the draft. I think it's my best book and part of what made it better was that she read it in manuscript.
What did she tell you?
She made me realize that one of the weaknesses of my portraits of my villains is that they are too one-dimensional. So I set the challenge for the current book Blacklist of having my villain become someone that I actually like--that was really hard.
To learn more about Sara Paretsky, visit her Web site at www.saraparetsky.com.