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Sara Paretsky on Modern Signed Books!

Bestselling author Sara Paretsky discusses Fallout on the Modern Signed Books podcast.

Episode transcript (also available as a PDF):
Announcer: Welcome to Modern Signed Books. If you're interested in what makes your favorite authors tick, then you'll love hearing what they have to say in our interviews. Learn how they got started writing, the books and authors that inspired them, and much more. Meet today's hottest authors, as they discuss their lives and writing with our book specialist, Rodger Nichols. And don't forget to pick up a copy of your favorite books at

Here's Rodger.

Rodger Nichols: Welcome to Blog Talk Radio. I'm your host, Rodger Nichols.

Our guest today is one of the premier mystery writers in the world, Sara Paretsky. Creator of the amazing, hard-boil female detective, V.I. Warshawski. She's one of only four living writers, along with Sue Grafton, John le Carre, and Lawrence Block to receive both the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain.

Her latest is Fallout, and takes Vic and the irrepressible golden retriever Peppy out of their customary Chicago scene into Lawrence, Kansas, on the trail of a film student and faded movie star who appear to have vanished. But there's much more going on involving an abandoned missile silo, a secretive agribusiness giant, U.S. Army, a right-wing patriotic group, and a town with a lot of hidden secrets that V.I. painfully unearths as the body count rises.

We're very pleased to welcome, Sara Paretsky. Good morning.

Sara Paretsky: Good morning. It's good to be--

Rodger Nichols: This may be some more personal book than many of the others because it takes you back to where you grew up.

Sara Paretsky: Yes, I grew up in eastern Kansas and came to Chicago as a young adult. V.I. Warshawski, my detective, was born and raised here and I send her back to my hometown. She's going in pursuit of a missing actress, who also grew up in Lawrence and had wanted to go back to film her origins story. She's disappeared and anxious friends and family hire V.I. to try to find her. It ends up being sort of a journey into my own past, into the history of my hometown and its connection to the anti-slavery movement and then the turbulent racial history of the '70s. So it kind of gave me a chance to explore my own origins.

Rodger Nichols: There's a nice tribute to your father, the microbiologist as well, and at one point in the book you list him among a group of people that are famous from the University of Kansas. I thought that was very nice touch.

Sara Paretsky: Oh, thanks. I'm glad you noticed that. Actually his photograph is a tiny one in the middle of a collage of photos on the ground floor of the cell biology building, so I have V.I. looking at him.

Rodger Nichols: Yeah, it's really nice. And you mentioned in, I think it's the introduction, that the story has its origin in a conference your father attended in Bratislava. Did that make it easier or harder to write the book?

Sara Paretsky: He did something that has haunted me over the years. He went to Bratislava for a conference on the organism he worked on, the rickettsia, which causes things like typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and so on. The Russians were trying to weaponize it, and he got a Czech scientist to inject him with a strain they were working on, so that he could bring it home to study it. He got off the plane in Kansas City with a fever of 104, but he wouldn't start antibiotics until his lab tech came and took a blood sample from him to culture.

And I've never really known why he did it. I don't know if he did it for the U.S. Army and wasn't allowed to talk about it, if he did it because he was a kind of a guy who liked to flout authority and he wanted to show that he could smuggle it past the Russians, who hadn't wanted him to come in the first place.

I just, I'll never know. But it actually, I ended up not being able to write that story. So I guess going back and trying to look at my real family history, or at least my dad's history, was a higher hill to climb than I had anticipated.

Rodger Nichols: You also of course are taking V.I. out of her native Chicago and putting her in an unusual situation, and one of the things about, when you're writing a series character, you develop a whole cast of secondary characters that help fill in, they're familiar to the readers and whatnot. And here though there are some aspect of them, most of them are not present, except of course for Peppy.

Sara Paretsky: Yes, that also proved very hard for me as I had her down there in Kansas on her own, except for her loyal dog. Peppy actually plays a couple of critical roles in the story, which would be spoilers if I said what they were.

Rodger Nichols: Right.

Sara Paretsky: Just say that, I realized when I sent her on the road with V.I., that old bromide of Chekhov's, that if there's a gun in act one it has to be used in act three. I knew that the dog had to do something, and she rose to the occasion with all the nobility of the true golden retriever.

It was very challenging for me as the writer to fly blind as it were, so that there weren't the people, the bartender, the doctor, the downstairs neighbor, and so on, for V.I. to turn to.

Rodger Nichols: There's this great line in here where you write that, "Golden retrievers are so honest and trusting, you have to tell them when you're being ironic." I love that line.

Sara Paretsky: Thank you! It is true, that my dog just looks at me and says, "No, that isn't right!"

Rodger Nichols: "You're messing with me again!" Yeah, there you go.

Sara Paretsky: Okay.

Rodger Nichols: There's also a line that I wanted to ask you about, because it's always danger, of course, in impute the feelings of the character with the feelings of the author. But, at one point you write that, "It seemed disconcerting to have my head in Chicago and my body in a field, as if I were inhabiting two unconnected universes at the same time." I'm wondering that's just a little bit of the author here being a fish out of water, putting your character out of water a bit.

Sara Paretsky: Yes, I suppose it's an experience that I often feel myself. I often feel that I'm an outsider to other people's experiences, and especially when I am transitioning between going back to see friends and family [inaudible 00:07:12] hometown versus my life in Chicago. I never feel that I belong wholly to one or the other.

Rodger Nichols: V.I. questions herself a lot too. She has doubts; she berates herself for things, so ... And I'm thinking that makes her much more rounded a character than just, you know, the Sam Spade tough character that just doesn't ever have to doubt.

Sara Paretsky: I think that ... It's a tricky thing because when you're writing a longstanding series, as I am, and Fallout is the 18th book in the series, and it's in the first person, it's very hard not to have your own kind of fears and anxieties bleed into the character. I'm glad it makes her seem more rounded, but I've felt lately that I was giving her way too many of my own fears and second-guessing and self-doubts. And I don't really know how to pull her back from that, but I think I should. I think I should be getting more intrepid and reckless, instead of her getting more anxious and self-doubting.

Rodger Nichols: Oh, the interaction between a longstanding character and the author yourself is a really strong one, isn't it?

Sara Paretsky: You know, V.I. is ... It's a voice that I love picking up when I have been away from writing about her. And I do other writing; I have sometimes written books that, I have written two novels not in this series, but I'll do short stories that aren't in this series or I write essays or op-ed pieces. And, when I come back to her, that voice is a very welcome voice to pick up and take on.

Rodger Nichols: I can see that. It feels comfortable. And, as a reader, it feels like you're very comfortable with her. And I don't always see through to you, but I see her, and I see her as a very standalone and wonderfully complex and intriguing character so, you have done well.

Sara Paretsky: I'm glad that she comes across that way; that's really wonderful to hear. Thank you.

Rodger Nichols: I have to just, in the few minutes remaining to us, I want to go behind the scenes a little bit and find out, if you don't mind, what you're working on now. Because I know that the lag time between when you finish it and when you have to go on tour to promote it is quite some time.

Sara Paretsky: Right! I'm in the beginning phases of a new book. I had gotten to page 100, saw that the story was not working the way I wanted it to, and threw it all out right before I went on tour. But I had wanted the Oriental Institute, the Middle Eastern history museum on the University of Chicago campus is one of the museums that the Department of Defense shares satellite imagery with so that they can help track when archeological sites in the Middle East are being looted, and I kind of want to tell a story about a billionaire hedge-fund manager, perhaps he rubs Cheetos into his hair to color it, I don't know, but who is spending money as billionaires like to do on stolen artifacts so that he has bragging rights among his fellow billionaires about what he's got. But that money actually goes to fund ISIS.

I kinda want to write around that, in that vein, but I can't quite figure out how to do it, since I don't know anything about archeology. That is my challenge, to learn enough to write in 18 months what people spend 80 years trying to master.

Rodger Nichols: I think you probably have some good friends or connections that would be delighted to share their experience with you. Somehow that seems-- [crosstalk 00:11:07]

Sara Paretsky: Well I am stealing everything they know, you better believe that!

Rodger Nichols: Well, that is absolutely fascinating and fantastic. Is there anything that you always wanted an interviewer to ask you that they never have?

Sara Paretsky: Oh my goodness. Boy, I'm sure there is; I can't think of it off the top of my head. I always wanted to be a ballerina, but I don't have the body or the grace to do it. I took dancing lessons as a child, and it broke my heart when the teacher used to make fun of me for being chubby and unable to move like the other girls.

Rodger Nichols: Oh.

Sara Paretsky: So I had to turn to writing fiction instead.

Rodger Nichols: And that loss in the world of ballet is a great achievement for the rest of us in the world. We thank you so much for being so cool.

Sara Paretsky: Thank you very much. Thank you for reading the book so carefully; I am very honored by that.

Rodger Nichols: Oh, how can you respect the author if you don't do that?

Our guest this morning has been Sara Paretsky. She is a delightful person. Her latest is Fallout, highly recommended. Thanks so much for giving us so much time this morning.

Sara Paretsky: Thank you so much!