She's not in Kansas anymore

Sara Paretsky discusses her new book, which was inspired by the Midwest farmlands where she grew up.

Sara Paretsky 88 (photo credit: Steven E. Gross)
Sara Paretsky 88
(photo credit: Steven E. Gross)
Bleeding Kansas By Sara Paretsky Putnam Adult 448 pages; $25.95 It feels slightly strange to meet author Sara Paretsky and not be there to discuss VI Warshawski, the hard-boiled, quick-witted private investigator who has just celebrated her 25th anniversary fighting crime (her debut, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982). Having left Warshawski bloody but unbowed at the end of 2006's Fire Sale, Paretsky has taken a break from the crime fiction series that made her name to write Bleeding Kansas. A stand-alone novel set in contemporary Middle America, it is the intricate story of two feuding families: the liberal Grelliers and the Schapens, fundamentalist Christians. Having coexisted for decades in an uneasy truce, their peace is destroyed by a number of startling events: the arrival from New York of a lesbian Wiccan called Gina Haring; the death of the Grelliers' son, Chip, in Iraq; the gradual disintegration of his anti-war mother; and the Schapens' red heifer who may just be able to speak the sacred name of Hashem in Hebrew. While Bleeding Kansas's grand themes of American political history, global religious discord and the folly of the Iraq war dominate Paretsky's conversation when we talk in London, VI is never too far from her thoughts. Paretsky may be slightly more mercurial than her fictional alter ego (one minute speaking gravely of her fears that the US will invade Iran, the next advocating that dogs should run the world), but they share the same sense of fashion, the same sense of social justice and the same sense of humor. "You know VI is speaking with my voice," Paretsky says. "She says the snappy, snippy little things that I am not unlikely to say myself. Even if I don't say them with her élan." To illustrate her point, Paretsky recalls sitting in her car one day on the University of Chicago campus where her husband is a physics professor. While he walked their dog, Paretsky fixated on a bumper sticker proclaiming "Abortion is murder" on the car in front. "It sat there, and I sat there. We had a scraper in our glove compartment. So I went out and took off the 'is murder', just leaving 'Abortion.'" The owner of the bumper sticker witnessed Paretsky's moment of agitprop vandalism, and stormed over to confront her. "He was young, very big and furious. He stuck his head in the window, and said, 'Don't you know there's a law against defacing property?' I thought he was going to kill me. I said, 'I wasn't defacing your property. I was making it look better.'" The comparison does have its limits, however. Evenly matched where intelligence, courage and a social conscience are concerned, VI wins hands down when it comes to physical violence. "Had that man started murdering me, I would have been dead. If he had started murdering VI, he would have been dead." WARSHAWSKI'S RELENTLESS fight against oppression, and her defense of the "voiceless" in society, reflects a part of Paretsky's character that was awakened in 1966 when she went to Chicago to do community service work. At a time when America was being torn to shreds by race riots, Vietnam and women's rights, Paretsky worked in the same neighborhood as Martin Luther King. The experience changed her for good. "I saw up-close the painful emotional scars created when people have no power, no control, no voice in the decisions that determine their lives." Bleeding Kansas transports Paretsky even further back in time: while its concerns are unmistakably contemporary, the setting and the characters are inspired by the Midwest farmlands where Paretsky grew up. "When I left Kansas [aged 20], I was trying to leave behind my whole past," she says. "But of course that has a way of sneaking up on you." Paretsky has described this "past" as consisting of solitude, sexism and segregation. The "only girl in a family that worshiped boys and the only Jew in a fiercely Protestant world," she experienced firsthand the marginalization she would later witness throughout American society. "Nobody picked on me in Kansas because I was too totally different to be picked on. I never saw bullying. I just wasn't part of the social life of the world around me. I was really the ultimate outsider." It was not hard for the Paretskys to stand out in Kansas during the 1950s, a state that was segregated in all but name. Descended from Eastern European immigrants, Paretsky's father was the first Jewish academic hired in a tenured position by the University of Kansas. Looking to buy a house in the town of Lawrence, he was informed by a realtor that Jews, African Americans and Native Americans lived in the northern - and poorest - part of the town. The realtor added that because they were educated and well-spoken, and because they didn't "really look Jewish," he was prepared to make the Paretskys an exception. The family left immediately. Things were little better when Paretsky studied within the more liberal surroundings of Kansas University. Asked to tutor a fellow student in Western civilization, it was Paretsky who learned an unwelcome lesson. "The woman was about as dumb as an eggplant - apologies to the aubergine," Paretsky recalls. "We got to Calvin and Luther. Calvin believed the Jews were saved because once God had called you, it was forever. Luther believed all the Jews were going to hell." Paretsky's student blurted out her agreement with Luther. "I said, You mean you're sitting here - I was doing this for free, mind you - and all this time you think I'm going to hell? I was 17, but even at 17 I knew there was nothing else to be said." PARETSKY'S JEWISH heritage informs possibly the most intriguing plot line in Bleeding Kansas, in which a group of religious fundamentalists believe the Schapens' red heifer is the key to rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For the Schapens, it is a gold mine; for Paretsky, a symbol of how global apocalypse begins on your own doorstep. "It's a real thing," Paretsky says. "One of Israel's antiterrorism institutes monitors places around the world trying to breed perfect cows. They know that if one of these nutcase religious groups starts trying to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount, it's going to be the end of the Middle East. It is taken very seriously indeed." The scene where the sacred calf is supposed to speak the Hebrew name of God is more surreal than real. Paretsky consulted a rabbi and asked if anyone still had any idea on how the secret name was pronounced. "I thought, that does sound like a calf bleating. If I was just a slightly different kind of writer, then the calf actually would say the secret name in Hebrew. But I am just not that kind of writer." Paretsky has already returned to her more usual writing milieu, beginning work on Warshawski 14. "The girl detective will be back," she says. The story so far involves VI reopening a case first investigated by her father (a Chicago policeman) during the late 1960s. I ask Paretsky if she still retains the idealism she discovered in that formative period. "There are moments when I have no hope at all," she replies. "We lose the people that we love. Thinking about Dick Cheney leaves me feeling there is no hope. Life is very hard and it hard sometimes to remember the small things - that if you can't fix big problems, you can make a difference in one person's life."