Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In the Attic with Sara Paretsky

Bestselling author Sara Paretsky's new book, Hardball, comes out today, and she'll be at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda tomorrow night at 7 p.m. to discuss it. It's the first VI Warshawski crime novel to come out in four years, and it is about the private investigator's search for a man who disappears during the riots.

I recently sat down and talked with Paretsky [for an article in the Washington Post Express] about her experiences as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-1960s, which served as inspiration for Hardball, and how the city's politics influenced President Obama. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

How did your work as a community organizer influence this novel?

The summer of 1966 was a defining time in my life, since it was in the middle of a lot of social upheaval and the civil rights movement. The summer I came here happened to be the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago to help local civil rights organizations try to combat inequality. Chicago has this horrible history of housing discrimination and job discrimination and that summer was really dynamic. It was a very violent time in the city.

I wrote a memoir ["Writing in an Age of Silence"] that was published two years ago that revisited that time and I realized that I needed to write more about it. So I put it into a novel about VI Warshawski and I have events that took place during some of the riots of that summer that come back and haunt people in the present day.

What was it like to relive that time?

There was a feeling of hopefulness [at that time], and thinking about that made me kind of sad. I felt the country was briefly experiencing a feeling of hope around the election of Obama, but for whatever reason we seem to be back to a pessimistic frame of mind as a nation. I thought it was just me, but I was just talking to a group of 30-year olds trying to work on health care and everyone seems to just feel bewildered and not hopeful. Going back to that time made me long for that sense of energy and possibility we used to have as a country.

Why do you think grassroots political work is still such a big part of Chicago politics?

Chicago is still very much a machine town. The players have changed, but corruption is still deep and wide in both the city and in Cook County, and I think without grassroots organizing, we're just sort of hopeless since it's very much a one-party town. It's very much a town in which things happen to benefit politicians and their friends and the community gets completely overlooked and things are allowed to disintegrate.

How do you think that environment affected President Obama?

Mr. Obama was my state senator, and I used to know him, so seeing him in the White House, I can't help thinking — that's my kid brother, what is he doing there?

But I hope what he understands from his years here is… that you if you can't engage people on the ground; the people at the top are going to run away with the show and ignore the ordinary person.

How is Hardball different from your other books?

It's more passionate, more deeply felt than a lot of my other novels. I'm under contract to write another novel in the series, which I'm working on, and it feels like I'm coming back and doing it mechanically after writing this so much from the heart.

What do you hope people take away from Hardball about that time in Chicago's history?

I hope that they first of all, enjoy it, since it's a story and it's meant to entertain people. I also hope that maybe people come away wanting to recapture that sense of hope and possibility that we used to have.

Photo credit: Steven E. Gross

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