NEAL CONAN, host:
The case seems straightforward. A young woman shot to death outside a nightclub one cold night in the Windy City. The cops find the murder weapon on the bed of a disturbed Iraq War vet. But his father hires detective V.I. Warshawski who soon learns that many adjectives describe this case but neat and tidy are not among them.
Sara Paretsky's latest novel, "Body Work," takes her heroine into the world of cutting edge performance art, PTSD, and the mob. If you'd like to talk with the bestselling writer about what she does and why, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Sara Paretsky joins us from a studio in St. Louis. Great to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. SARA PARETSKY (Author, "Body Work"): Hi, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And I wonder how much did you know about performance art before you started this book?
Ms. PARETSKY: Very little and I probably still know very little. I just love the idea of somebody who would sit naked on a stage and let people paint on her.
CONAN: Now, did that come from real life or is that your invention?
Ms. PARETSKY: I thought it was my invention. And then when I started doing some research on it, I found that I was really behind. And there are people out there who are fasting and cutting themselves on stage and other people pay to watch them cut themselves open. There are people who are having plastic surgery to graft something that looks like a rhinoceros horn on their foreheads. People are doing amazing, incredible and then sometimes I think horrible stuff. So my artist is really tame.
CONAN: Your artist known as the artist.
Ms. PARETSKY: Right. She's not shy. She's a little bit vain and that's how she likes to be called.
CONAN: And likes to be watched, but also likes to keep her life very private.
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes. As the case that V.I.'s involved in unfolds, as you said, there's a young woman who's shot to death outside the club, and she's been painting intricate designs on the body artist. As V.I. tries to find out what the connection is between the two women, she finds she can't even discover the body artist's name or where she lives or her history.
CONAN: Well, she will before everything is over. I think we can all rely on that. It is interesting. You have to delve into so many worlds as you go into this case - yes, the world of performance art, but then it's important what happens in this particular club and, indeed, the world of clubs in Chicago. Did you find yourself writing this - oh, my gosh, now I have to go research that.
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes. Among the things I had to research were some pretty trivial things, like a lot happens in the alley behind this club. And I thought that street does not have an alley there. So I had to quickly relocate the club and find places with alleys that were in the cutting edge club district of the city.
CONAN: And your geography, is that precise? That you know that there's no alley behind that particular location?
Ms. PARETSKY: I went and looked at it. And believe me, I'm - although I've lived in Chicago for forty years, I make a lot of mistakes. And alert readers are very generous in pointing them out to me.
CONAN: Don't you love email?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: Actually, I love hearing from old Chicagoans, people who grew up in the city in the '20s or even the teens. They'll tell me I got a detail wrong, but then they'll fill me in with some really rich historical details. So I love it.
CONAN: And then you have a subplot for your next book.
Ms. PARETSKY: Well, exactly. I have - it makes me sound more authentic. I'm not a native but I pass.
CONAN: You pass. It is interesting. You have let V.I. age along with you.
Ms. PARETSKY: Almost, almost. When we started, she was 30 and I was 32. I hate to say it, but I'm 63 now, she's 50. So she's been getting older, but now I'm a little - I don't want people starting to die. I was just listening to your previous segment about...
Ms. PARETSKY: ...old age and disability and so on. It's a worry for all of us, of course. But the people who are close to V.I., like Dr. Lotty Herschel, if I keep letting her age, she's going to die. And I think that will break my heart.
CONAN: And the downstairs neighbor, of course, who plays such a big part in her life.
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes, who's a World War II veteran. And I'm thinking, he should be 90 something now, and I can't deal with that. So everybody is in a holding pattern right now.
CONAN: It's interesting. Authors get into this fix. There are people -I'm not sure Sherlock Holmes ever got any - particularly authored than he ever was.
Ms. PARETSKY: No.
CONAN: But there are people who get into this situation. You think of, well, the historical novels of Patrick O'Brian. And he had to dispatch the Surprise into the Pacific for a couple of years because he ran out of Napoleonic War.
KELEMAN: I had forgotten that, but you're absolutely right. And then there was Agatha Christie, who, who - toward the end of her life really regretted making Ms. Marple and Hercule Poirot so old at the start of the series.
CONAN: It can come back to haunt you. And it is interesting though - her age has some implications. There are things that she can no longer do as well as she used to.
Ms. PARETSKY: That's right. She's not as physically fit as she was, although she's still way fitter than I was, 10 years younger than she is now.
Ms. PARETSKY: She can't drink as much as she used to. And somebody in England - actually, someone from the Armagnac Society wrote to me and said, why does V.I. no longer get to drink those lovely old glasses of brandy that she used to have in the earlier books?
CONAN: Well, she does a job on of a bottle of scotch, a nice bottle of scotch.
Ms. PARETSKY: Well, I thought, you know, I had not realized that I was slowing her down at my pace. And so I thought, she's taking all these risks. She jumps into sanitary canals. She's left her dead in ditches. She's got to be able to drink more than I do. So in "Body Work" I really upped her drinking levels.
CONAN: And it's interesting though, she gets into fights. She thinks of herself as a fighter, but puts down one of the major villains because he slips on her vomit and hits his head.
Ms. PARETSKY: Right. And she - and, you know, she'll take her victories any way she can. But she pretends that his boss, a Eastern European thug who's running a mob operation out of Chicago, that she took him out herself.
CONAN: Now, there's a stretch of the imagination, a mobster in Chicago.
Ms. PARETSKY: Right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We're talking with Sara Paretsky about her new book, "Body Work," publication date August 31st. I guess that's tomorrow, so congratulations.
Ms. PARETSKY: It's actually today.
CONAN: It's actually today. Oh, my landlord is going to be upset with me. Anyway, it's today. So congratulations.
Ms. PARETSKY: Thank you.
CONAN: 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Email us: email@example.com. Let's start with Pamela(ph), Pamela with us from Pine Mountain in California.
PAMELA (Caller): I just wanted to say you're one of my favorite authors. And all of your books that I have - a bunch of us friends loan each other books. But I always make sure I get my books from you back.
Ms. PARETSKY: How very nice of you. Thank you kindly.
PAMELA: So I'm looking very forward for your new book. And you've answered all my questions, actually, just talking. I'm from the area. I grew up in Michigan City, across the lake.
Ms. PARETSKY: Oh, okay.
PAMELA: And so I was curious to hear if you were still in the area and you've answered that. So just keep the books coming.
Ms. PARETSKY: I'll do my best.
CONAN: Pamela, do you find V.I.'s Chicago is your Chicago?
PAMELA: It's my Chicago. Yes, I love Chicago. I miss it very much.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. And I'm sure you're having a good time in Pine Mountain too.
PAMELA: Yes, thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. As you - this is your 13th book. But as you say, you've been writing these for some time. They don't come out every year.
Ms. PARETSKY: No. I wish I could write faster. But I - my methods - I had an algebra teacher in high school. Happy Jack, we called him, because he would grin at us as he tortured us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: And he would always tell us to use our brains and not brute strength and awkwardness. And I think of him as I'm writing. I'm thinking, he's so write. I'm using brute strength and awkwardness instead of my brains. But unlike some writers, like P.D. James or Elizabeth George, who outline and work from their outlines, I find that I can't do that. And I have to write to see where the story's going. And sometimes I just write myself into a dead end. And sometimes that's 200 pages into the book and I have to just weep and bid it goodbye and start over again.
CONAN: Really? There are 200 pages of V.I. novels that are unfinished?
Ms. PARETSKY: There are 200 pages. Fortunately, in the age of computers they're in a file someplace. But I'll just - the story won't be going the way I need it to be going. The characters aren't right for the story or the story isn't right for the characters. And I only find that out by putting them in motion and trying to get them to tell the story.
CONAN: Motion seems to be a large part of V.I.'s technique. Sometimes she just seems to drive on to somebody's office or to somebody's house just to keep things moving, to not let things be at rest.
Ms. PARETSKY: She is kind of a restless person. My hobby is sort of lying in bed with box of chocolate-covered cherries and reading.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: And I imagine V.I. doing that for one page and then thinking, oh, it's a nice day, got to get out and see if there's a pick-up game in the park or - she just is not a person who sits still.
CONAN: She is also not - you think of the lone detective, the dark knight on the mean streets. There is a scene in your book, "Body Work," where she's going to confront somebody - ask a witness about what he saw. And she goes, not just - not by herself. She takes two Iraq War veterans, a - her impulsive niece, her downstairs neighbor, and a dog.
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes. And then she thinks wistfully about Sam Spade and she feels that - or Philip Marlow. I can't remember which off the top of my head...
CONAN: Raymond Chandler, yes.
Ms. PARETSKY: Raymond Chandler showing up. She feels like she's leading a circus.
CONAN: And indeed she is. But it all works because all of them have their parts to play once they get to the scene.
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes. The dog - a cat attacks the dog, which forces the guy that she's trying to see opens his door. There's a cat and dog fight. There are neighbors screaming in the stairwells. It's really a great urban apartment scene. Anyone who has ever lived in a big city, in a sort of a walk-up apartment, will know what it's like when everybody knows your business and they're all standing in the stairwell talking about it.
CONAN: And if you think a murder mystery can't have comic moments, well, V.I.'s niece is not the only person who will be doubling over in laughter at that particular scene.
We're talking with Sara Paretsky about her latest book, "Body Work." You can tag along with V.I. Warshawski as she runs towards the shots and a victim known as Nadia in an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And you say you don't work from an outline. As you sit down to write a story, you must think about worlds you can enter into. I mean, the setting of this one in the world of performance art, for example, surely some research there needs to precede your starting to write?
Ms. PARETSKY: Absolutely. What I start with very often is the idea of a crime. And in this case the actual underlying crime that drives the whole book is - without wanting to give away...
Ms. PARETSKY: ...plotlines - but it comes out of the world of the private contractors doing business in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And then I want a way to make that a small story. I want a way to make it about people and have it set in Chicago.
And then I start thinking about it. In this case I was thinking about -I think coming as I do from a family with a long tradition of military service, even though I personally was opposed to this war, I've always been just very staunchly supportive of the people who go and put their bodies on the line for us. And it grieves me that we're bringing them back and ignoring them and - never mind all of that. But I think everybody who's listening to this show understands what I'm talking about.
And so I began thinking about that and thinking about the way that people just exist in the body, and that brought the body artist. Somehow that clicked and I thought, uhh, woman sitting on the stage. She is the embodiment of the body.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Bill, Bill with us from San Jose.
BILL (Caller): Hi, Sara. I know some of your earlier books were sometimes criticized for having a certain hostility toward children and teenagers. And I was wondering if your attitude towards youth has evolved as you've gotten older.
Ms. PARETSKY: To tell you the truth, I have never heard that criticism. I'll tell you a couple of anecdotes. One, a young woman whose mother died of breast cancer, who left her daughter all of my books and told her that V.I. should be her model and her support in life, and the young woman was a pen pal of mine for a number of years.
Another young woman, 14-year-old cancer patient who wrote to tell me that she took my novels with her into the cancer ward every time she needed a scan because she felt V.I. supported her there. So to be honest, I have never heard this criticism, and I'm wondering where it comes from.
BILL: I saw it on a website. Was it the Pro-Youth Pages that mentioned -well, it was talking about several mystery writers, but they were mentioning how in some of your earlier books you've had, for example, a character who turned out to be a child molester. And instead of V.I. seeing the person punished, she would actually, like, make some kind of a deal to protect them with her silence in return...
Ms. PARETSKY: No, I'm sorry. I'm afraid you're confusing me with another writer, because that's never been a theme of any of my books.
CONAN: Hmm. Bill, thanks very much.
CONAN: And I have to say there's a - I mentioned her young niece appears as a character in this book. And V.I. is sometimes cranky towards her, but if you saw what the niece did, you could understand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: Yes, Petra, she kind of tumbles into trouble like a load of laundry. And the book that I've just started writing, once again, I have to say the only good thing about the bad economy is that Petra keeps losing her job...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: ...and has to keep finding a new job that will lead her into a new source of trouble.
CONAN: Here's an email from Shelly(ph) in Denver: I started reading Sara's books as an escape from my life as a stressed-out working mom of young children. V.I. now feels like part of the family. When a new book comes out, it's like a family reunion for me. Thank you for your great novels.
This from Lea(ph): I'm a huge fan coming to hear you tonight at the HQ Library. I like to refer to V.I. as Six just for fun because I love her so. Keep them coming. We love all the characters.
The HQ Library, is that where you're doing a reading tonight?
Ms. PARETSKY: I am, here in the St. Louis area. And that - that's kind of funny, referring to V.I. as Six because for my last book, "Hardball," I handed out T-shirts that said on the front: V.I. is back. And I was doing a reading and a guy picked up the T-shirt and he said, what does this mean, Six is back?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARETSKY: And anyway, there she is, Six is back.
CONAN: Six is back. V.I., in Roman numerals, of course. Let's see if we can squeeze one last call in. Emily(ph) calling from Nashville.
EMILY (Caller): Hi. First off, I'm a huge fan. I've read a lot of your stuff and so has my mom, my sister. We - I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, with my family.
Ms. PARETSKY: Oh, my goodness.
EMILY: They knew your family. And so we've always followed your career. One of my favorite books by you is "Bleeding Kansas."
Ms. PARETSKY: Right.
EMILY: I realize it isn't, you know, part of the detective series. When I brought - I had that book picked for my book club pick here in Nashville, and everybody here loved it, so...
Ms. PARETSKY: Oh, thank you so much for letting me know that.
CONAN: That's where you're from originally, Lawrence, Kansas?
Ms. PARETSKY: It is, yeah.
Ms. PARETSKY: Both of us, I guess.
CONAN: Both of us. Both of you.
EMILY: Both of us. And it was - we found it so interesting reading and seeing, like - talking about all the different sights. It was really exciting.
CONAN: Hmm. Emily, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
EMILY: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: And, Sara Paretsky, good luck at your reading tonight there in St. Louis.
Ms. PARETSKY: Neal, thanks so much.
CONAN: Author Sara Paretsky joined us from St. Louis. Her new book is "Body Work," came out today. You can take a peak of an excerpt at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.