About the Book
Both memoir and meditation, writing in an age of silence is a beautiful, compelling exploration of the writer's art and the traditions of political and literary dissent that have informed her life and work, against the unparallel repression of free speech and thought in the USA today and the assault on civil liberties post September 11. In tracing the writer's difficult journey from silence to speech, Sara paretsky turns to her childhood and youth in rural Kansas, and brilliantly evokes Chicago the city with which she has become indelibly associated from her arrival during the civil rights struggle in the mid 1960s to her most extraordinary literary creation, the south side detective V.I. WARSHAWSKI. Paretsky traces the emergence of V.I Warshawski from the shadows of the loner detectives that stalk the mean streets of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond chandler's novels and in the process explores American individualism the failure of the American dream and the resulting dystopia.
About the Author
Sara Paretsky is the author of the bestselling V.I. Warshawski novels including most recently fire sale and blacklist. The winner of many awards, including the Cartier diamond dagger award for lifetime achievement from the British crime writers association, she lives in Chicago.
One of my favorite books is caught in the Web of Words, Elizabeth Murray's loving memoir of her grandfather, James A. H. Murray, who created the Oxford English Dictionary. I'd like to steal her title for a memoir of my own life. Among my earliest memories, besides proudly displaying a bleeding toe when I was three-proof in my mind that I belonged with the big children-or enraging my mother by washing off my first beloved pair of red shoes under the garden hose-are books, words, the smell of new books, which to me still heralds the excitement of the first day of school. My older brother Jeremy taught me to read when he started school. I was about four, but I don't remember learning. I don't remember a time when I couldn't read. Jeremy was my first and always my best teacher, patient beyond belief (until the time came when I couldn't understand his explanation of fractions). He taught me to write, as well. When I was five and he was eight, we wrote plays that we put on for the other kids on our street. I kept writing, all through my childhood and adolescence, stories, the occasional poem. Somehow I never wrote any other plays.
Jeremy and I read aloud to each other when we were teenagers. One summer we covered all of Shaw's plays; another time, we sang all of Gilbert & Sullivan to each other. When Jeremy and I were responsible for washing all the dishes for our family of seven, we played word games or sang duets while we cleaned up. He's smarter than me and has always had a bigger vocabulary, so I started making up words to even the gap; he could never be certain whether to challenge me or not-if the word was in Webster's, I won, if not, he did. Creating uncertainty was my only weapon, and perhaps that sharpened my powers of invention.
My brother is a gifted linguist (he speaks eleven languages and reads fifteen); one year he added French lessons to the dishwashing hour. I used to look forward to washing up. After he left for college, the chore became just that, a dull chore. I hate it to this day. While my older brother and I read together, my next brother, Dan, and I acted out dramas. Sometimes we emulated our three military uncles by acting out the Korean or Second World Wars; at other times we were Scotland Yard Detectives. My two youngest brothers, Jonathan and Nicholas, were so very much younger than I that we didn't often play together, but our time together was very important; I was to all intents their surrogate mother when our mother's life became too difficult for her to deal with and she withdrew into a private hell (when they started school, they didn't know I was their sister-they thought they had two mothers).
Before that time, our mother was an inventive storyteller. She had two long-running serials that she created for my younger brothers while she ironed. As a child, she had adored the Tom Mix movies, and she spun those into new versions, starring my brothers. I some- times eavesdropped, spellbound by her tales. Perhaps it doesn't seem surprising that I became a writer, but it was, in fact, a difficult journey. This memoir traces the long path I followed from silence to speech, and the ways in which my speech has been shaped by what I've witnessed along the way. The book deals with the dominant question of my own life, the effort to find a voice, the effort to help others on the margins find a voice, the effort to understand and come to terms with questions of power and powerlessness. My husband says I am a pit dog, that I will go into the ring against anyone, as long as they are at least five times my size. I will turn sixty soon, but I still haven't figured out when it's time to walk away from a Goliath.
I have four brothers in all, three younger than I. We had a childhood together that was rich in many aspects, but was also marred by the serious violence in our household. Like many violent families, we imploded on ourselves; it was hard for most of us to reach out and become connected to the larger world. My brothers are all interesting people, gifted in many ways, but it would be wrong of me to tell their stories for them, so as much as possible I have tried not to present anecdotes in which they were the key players. I was born in Ames, Iowa, where my father was completing his PhD in bacteriology. He was new Yorker, a City College man, but for a time in the thirties and forties, Iowa State College became home to some of the most gifted biochemists of the twentieth century as Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe found a home there. My father's City College professors sent him to Iowa to study with these brilliant scientists. My mother had also gone to Iowa for graduate study; she and my father met there as students.
My father was drafted shortly after they married. He spent the Second World War in the Pacific theater; she worked for a short time in New York, living with his family, then spent the rest of the war years with her mother and her new baby, my brother Jeremy, in downstate Illinois. In 1951, my father took a position in the Bacteriology Department at the University of Kansas. My mother did not finish her advanced degree in science, nor did she work outside the home until much later in her life, when she became the children's librarian in Lawrence, Kansas.
Harriet Martineau wrote of a southern politician that "he was born old." This is how I often feel on looking back on my childhood. The first chapter in this collection, "Wild Women Out of Control," discusses that part of my life. When my parents decreed that I had to attend the University of Kansas if I was going to go to university at all, I made a private vow that I would spend my summers away from home. The first year, I earned a scholarship to Vienna to study German; the second summer, in 1966, I went to Chicago to do community service work on the city's South Side. The summer I spent in Chicago changed my life in almost every important way. I wasn't then imagining that I would be a writer, but the people I worked with and the work I did shaped the way in which I looked at the world around me. Those were turbulent times, but also times of great hopefulness among those who longed for social justice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing in Chicago during the summer of 1966 and I was on the periphery of his great work. The way in which my experiences of that epoch became a major influence on my novels is the subject of the second chapter, "The King and 1.
My father was a mercurial man; charming, nervous, but subject to rages that were all the more bewildering because we never knew what might trigger them. For the first twenty years of my life, he dominated almost every aspect of my existence. When I finally started university, he even decided what courses I would take. It took many years of many different kinds of support from the man I later married, from psychotherapy, but above all, from the women's movement of the seventie before I gained an independent voice. The third chapter explains the importance of Second Wave Ferninism in my life. It was feminism that triggered my wish to write a private eye novel, and it shaped the character of my detective, V I Warshawski. The private eye is America's unique contribution to the crime novel. It comes out of our fascination with the loner heroes of the old West. The fourth chapter, "The iPod and Sam Spade," discusses the way in which American mythology glorifies the individual often at the expense of society. I also explore the ways in which my own understanding of the individual and society invert this mythology. The town where I grew up in the fifties was obsessed by the threat of Communism. Freedom committees, the John Birch society, and other right-wing groups monitored everything from school curricula to books in the library; they ran a sideline in monitoring whether African-Americans were using public facilities. They forced the resignation of a high school teacher because he was getting a PhD in Russian history-proof in their eyes that he was a Communist.
The McCarthy hearings, which took place when I was in primary school, left the adults in my life very cautious in what they said politically, and who they said it too. My parents had friends who were blacklisted; it's possible that because my father had leftist relatives my mother's military brothers were kept from being promoted. Like all Americans, I am the descendant of immigrants. Some of my ancestors came here for adventure or to make a better living, but most of them, on both sides of my family, came here to escape religious persecution. For my paternal grandparents, America meant the difference between life and death. I grew up with a very idealized vision of what the country should be and could be. I grew up believing in the America of the Statue of Liberty. The Lady with the Lamp aid to the world, "Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor/the wretched refuse of your teeming shores/send these, the weary, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
When Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in the weeks following 9/11, the name of the act itself seemed to me to be Orwellian, the kind of title Stalin or Hitler or Franco might have chosen, one that tried to force people to choose sides. "You are either with us or against us," Mr. Bush famously told the world, but he was delivering the same message at home. "You're a patriot or a terrorist," the Patriot Act screams in its very title. Indeed, in the run-up to the now-famous elections of 2006, when the Republicans lost control of Congress, Mr. Bush toured the country, proclaiming that a vote for Democrats meant, "The terrorists win and America loses. Overnight, Congress and the President had created a law which undercut our most cherished liberties, including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. In the five years since the Act was passed, we citizens have been given no credible examples of its use in stopping terrorism, but it has been extensively used to curtail civil liberties at home.
I am writing this in the late fall of 2006. I can't possibly predict the direction the new Congress will take in redressing some of these issues, but I am troubled by their unwillingness to revisit the Military Comissions Act, or the Patriot Act, which was both reauthorized and broadened by the outgoing Congress. I began speaking on the topic of speech and silence to state library associations in 2002, since libraries were on the frontline of some of the Act's most pernicious sections. In May, 2004, Booklist, one of the journals of the American Library Association, published a portion of my lecture. The title, "Truth, Lies and Duct- Tape," comes from the administration's witty advice to a nation terrified of biological warfare: we were told to seal up our houses with duct tape, which caused a run on the stuff, and at least had the benefit of driving up the manufacturer's per-share price. The fifth chapter in this collection is a substantially rewritten, updated version of that essay. The middle three chapters, "The King and I," "Not Angel, of Monster, Just Human," and "The iPod and Sam Spade," have never been published. In the course of any year, I deliver about six to ten public speeches. Portions of all five chapters have been used in some of my lectures. People who have attended have often asked for written copies of them-here they are, expanded, rewritten, updated.
Because this memoir is short, focusing on questions of voice and voicelessness, I couldn't find an appropriate way to write about a number of people and events of great importance to me. Above all, my husband, Courtenay Wright, deserves a book of his own (indeed, he is very worried about my efforts to write his auto- biography). He is a man of humor, a brilliant particle physicist, a former radar signal officer in the Royal Navy (General Eisenhower used my husband's ship, the HMS Apollo, as his headquarters when he sailed to Ormandy on D-Day plus 1. My husband was the serving officer on the bridge when the ship went aground. As the most junior man present, he wisely and uncharacteristically-kept his mouth shut, but the General's startled face was inches from his own as the ship pitched to one side). Above all, my husband is a man of great integrity. I have never known his equal.
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