10 Questions with Sara Paretsky

Critical MassMy guest today is world-renowned author Sara Paretsky, creator of the famous female private eye, V I Warshawski. The latest thriller in that series is Critical Mass. Please scroll down to enjoy her interview.

1.       Ms. Paretsky, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, Critical Mass, comes out on paperback in October. Tell us a bit more about this book.

Vienna in the 1930’s was both an exciting and a terrifying place to be a woman doing physics. Exciting because the Institute for Radium Research offered women opportunities that no lab before or since has provided. Terrifying because although the Nazi party was outlawed, pro-Nazi sentiment ran high. For a woman who was also a Jew, political events could spell the end not just of her career, but her life.

Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky’s new novel, tells the story of one such woman scientist, Martina Saginor, a physicist who disappeared in the slave labor camps of World War II. Martina’s only child made it to safety in England, and then Chicago.

Martina’s daughter’s story is closely twined with that of another Viennese refugee, Dr. Lotty Herschel, the friend and confidante of Chicago Private Eye V I Warshawski. When Martina’s tortured history starts coming to light in contemporary Chicago, Lotty turns to V I for help. In Critical Mass, the race for the atom bomb and secrets of the war, and of the human heart take V I on a quest from Chicago’s premier science labs to the Viennese ghetto where Lotty and Martina were forced to live. The journey across present and past makes V I a moving target for powerful figures who’d like to see the past stay dead and buried.

2.       Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Critical Mass came out of my reading and musing about Marietta Blau, one of the notable physicists of the 1930s, whose work, like that of other women, has been forgotten. She did groundbreaking research in cosmic ray physics and was a member of the Institut für Radiumforschung (IRF) in Vienna. The IRF was unique in the era between the world wars for its aggressive hiring and support of women scientists. When the Nazis gained power, the Jewish staff and the women were fired within short order, and the IRF lost its cutting edge in research. Blau’s work was so valuable that Einstein himself tried finding her a job in the United States. He was unsuccessful but saved her life by getting her to Mexico City in the nick of time. Her enforced exile from the heart of physics meant that at war’s end, Blau had lost her mental edge as a researcher. Her story haunted me for many years and eventually inspired me in creating the character Martina Saginor.

3.       How has V. I. Warshawski grown as a character since 1982 when you first created her?

1982 was the first year women could serve as regular members of the Chicago police force (It was 1981 in New York and San Francisco). V.I. came to life at a time when women breaking into new fields often found hostility both among clients and co-workers. In the early books, V.I. has a chip on her shoulder because of the resistance she meets as a woman. Those days in law enforcement have passed, and so V.I., like other feminists, can broaden the range of issues she tackles.

4.       What are your writing habits? Outline or not?

I don’t outline. I have tried it and it doesn’t work for me. I need to put characters in motion before I can see the trajectory of a story. I usually start with the idea of a crime, why it’s been committed, and why the perpetrator is willing to commit murder to keep this crime secret. In the case of Critical Mass, however, I started with my scientist, Martina Saginor. It took me almost eight years to come up with a story that I could use with that character.

5.       What is the single most important thing you have learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?

Every novel is different. Each novel presents unique challenges, both in the motivations of my recurring characters and in the storylines I’m trying to develop.

6.       A word of advice for new writers?

Write what you care about. There are occasional writers who are very successful in writing to the market rather than from their hearts, but the market is a fickle mistress. If you’re not writing out of your own passions, your work will almost inevitably be dead.

7.       What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, and the rise of the self-publishing?

The publishing industry has contracted dramatically in the last decade. Self-publishing offers a way for people to bring their work to the public if they can’t find access to an established publisher. Again, there are a handful of extraordinary success stories among the self-published, notably 50 Shades of Gray. However, the work involved in publicizing and distributing a self-published book is formidable. It takes 30-50 hours per week to do it effectively – more if you’re looking for overseas markets.

8.       What are your favorite pastimes?

I like to walk Chicago’s lakefront and I enjoy singing.

9.       How do you connect with you fans?

I love bookstore events as a way to meet readers in person. I’m also active on Facebook.

10.       What is your next book going to be about?

Critical Mass is set on a big stage – the race for the atom bomb, the Second World War, and the long tail of damage that war has left behind. The new book returns to the small stage of Chicago politics and corruption.


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