An Introduction to Sara Paretsky

Long-running female detective story author Sara Paretsky of Chicago poses for pictures under train tracks in Hyde Park, Thursday, January 12, 2012.
Long-running female detective story author Sara Paretsky of Chicago poses for pictures under train tracks in Hyde Park, Thursday, January 12, 2012. (Alex Garcia/ Chicago Tribune)
Sara Paretsky received the Paul Engle Prize, awarded by Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and sponsored by the City of Coralville a little over a year ago. After the award was granted, she was interviewed on stage by NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan at the Coralville Public Library.

Here is the introduction I wrote for her.

“Every writer’s difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech.”

This weekend marks the end of Banned Books Week, the time each year when we librarians stop to call attention to the books that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to read. If you stopped at our display near the front desk, you’ll see some of the more frequently challenged books there, along with the reasons they’ve been challenged—they use bad words, or they talk about sexuality, or they express unpopular political opinions, or they encourage witchcraft. Frequently these are books for young people, because it is young people whose exposure to ideas we seem to worry the most about.

Sara Paretsky was lucky to grow up in an environment where books were encouraged—in fact, her mother later became a children’s librarian—but she also grew up in a time and in a household where women were not supposed to get ideas. Though her parents paid to send her four brothers away to school, they told Paretsky that if she wanted to go to college, she’d have to do so in state, and she’d have to pay for it herself. She did, earning a BA from the University of Kansas and eventually a PhD and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Though she’d written privately for years, it wasn’t until she was working in the insurance industry in Chicago in 1978 that, during a meeting with an executive she began thinking of all the things she’d like to say but couldn’t—and V.I. Warshawski was born. Indemnity Only, her first novel, written at nights while she was still working full time, was published in 1981.

She has since written sixteen more novels in the V.I. Warshawski, plus several standalone novels, short stories, and a memoir in essays called Writing in an Age of Silence. Paretsky’s work has garnered both critical and popular acclaim for nearly three decades. Among her many awards and honors, she was named Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987; she received Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwest Literature in 1996; the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers in 2004; and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2011. She holds honorary doctorates from MacMurray College and Columbia College, Chicago. After remarks she made in 1986 about the way women in many crime novels were treated and the paucity of reviews of books by female mystery authors set off a firestorm, she became a founding member of Sisters in Crime, the now worldwide organization for women crime writers.

With such a long list of publications and accomplishments, it is hard to think of Paretsky as ever being silent, or ever being silenced. “Every writers difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech,” she wrote in her 2007 essay collection Writing in an Age of Silence. “We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision—and we must bring our work to the outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice.” Paretsky has had experience fighting all three of those forces of silence, both for herself and on behalf of others.

The Library Bill of Rights notes that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment” and that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”

We are honored tonight to welcome Sara Paretsky, author, activist, and ally in the ongoing fight for free expression.