People often ask writer Sara Paretsky if V. I. Warshawski, the female detective at the center of her #1 New York Times bestselling mystery series, is her alter ego.
Despite clear similarities between the two (both like to run and drink a good whiskey, live in Chicago, and work stubbornly in pursuit of truth), last night Paretsky told a rapt audience gathered for the thirty-second annual Key West Literary Seminar: “She is not. She’s my voice. She says things I’m not strong enough to say myself.”
Following opening remarks by KWLS president and co-founder Lynn Kaufelt and San Carlos Institute president Rafael Peñalver, Paretsky began this year’s exploration of “The Dark Side” by weaving together contemporary social and political issues as they relate to mystery and crime in her John Hersey Memorial keynote speech, “My Quest for Heroes: Voice and Voicelessness.”
Setting the KWLS stage for this year’s insights by authors including John Banville, Lee Child, Gillian Flynn, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alexander McCall Smith, Paretsky linked the experience of writers continually trying to cut closer to the bone along their journeys from silence to authentic speech. She also answered her own question “What is the role of the writer?” by warning of the dangers of self-censorship amid government surveillance.
More than ever in an age of increased distraction by digital devices and the diminishment of libraries and other reliable sources of information, it’s essential that we strengthen the ability to sort truth—“that slippery, unknowable trickster,” in Paretsky’s words—from lies. Fiction can tell us essential truths—“emotional lodestars that help develop your own moral compass”—about what we fear, what we want, and what we need.
With affection for her fictional private eye, resilient despite frequent physical and emotional bruising, Paretsky said that V.I. was her response to stereotypes of women as victims or vamps. “She’s my own anger coming out on the page,” she revealed in describing her own restrictive childhood in a house filled with violence and alcohol abuse. After years of hiding behind an “affectless glass wall,” slowly, she came to her writing voice.
Now she studies the lives of Nelson Mandela and the women of Birmingham, Alabama, who organized a 1956 bus boycott that helped ignite the Civil Rights movement, among others who have survived extreme situations with their humanity intact.
In sorting out the answer to a fundamental question at the core of her life—how to act as a moral person in a corrupt and damaged world—Paretsky aspires to the work of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. Storytellers first and foremost, they wrote against the disparity of wealth that served as backdrop to Victorian England. As long as we have storytellers, she reminded the crowd of listeners last night, we will continue to find strength for the journey.
Cara Cannella is a writer and editor based in Key West.