Sara Paretsky’s Keynote Quest for Heroes

Keynote speaker Sara Paretsky, whose address was entitled "My Quest for Heroes-Voice and Voicelessness." Photo by Nick Doll.
Keynote speaker Sara Paretsky, whose address was entitled “My Quest for Heroes-Voice and Voicelessness.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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.

2 thoughts on “Sara Paretsky’s Keynote Quest for Heroes

  1. I was once forced to sit in the front row to hear Sara Paretsky speak (since those were the only seats available). The next time I had the chance to hear her speak, I got to the room early because I WANTED to sit in the first row.

    I loved what you wrote about Sara’s Keynote Address. She inspires all of us to be a little braver. If I had been there, you can guess where I would have been sitting!

  2. I haven’t ever attended a KWLS but have pretty much been following via Twitter the past two years. I am catching up on this blog and reading through everything that happened thus far with The Dark Side.

    I had to leave a comment to Sara Paretskys quote “She is not. She’s my voice. She says things I’m not strong enough to say myself.” — Isn’t it odd how, as writers, we are the ones writing what we write but we have to have a character to say what we’re not brave enough. It’s just funny how that works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>