Pioneering, best-selling author—and local literary hero—Sara Paretsky tells the story of social change, of Chicago, and more.
- By January 10, 2016
- Media Entertainment and Sports
“Even though the money for most writers isn’t there like it was five, 10, or 15 years ago, the word persists. You can’t kill that desire. I think that people continue to want stories, and people will continue to want to tell stories.”
Paretsky’s circuitous route to life as a celebrated author began nearly 50 years ago, when she arrived in Chicago as a student volunteer, supporting grassroots efforts to help quell racial unrest.
“I was placed in a white neighborhood near Back of the Yards,” she said. “It turned out to be the epicenter of the race riots, as Dr. King and others marched for open housing.” It was Paretsky’s first glimpse at the chaos of the divided city and her chance to participate in a movement that held the promise of social change.
The youthful Paretsky was optimistic. “In some ways, you might think, ‘Oh, it was such a violent summer,’” she said. “‘Why would that make you fall in love with the city?’ But you just felt enormous possibility for change, and good change.”
She went back to the University of Kansas that fall to finish her degree, then returned to Chicago to earn a PhD in history. That was when Paretsky’s belief in the potential impact and responsibility of business led her to Booth to pursue an MBA.
The competition and classwork at Booth, as well as influential faculty, helped her define her leadership style and multidisciplinary career to come. “John E. Jeuck was the most inspiring person and a joy to work with,” Paretsky said of Jeuck, MBA ’37, ’AB 37, and former Booth dean (1952–55). “He just had this tremendous vitality. He had a great love of the business world and how it operated. He was so engaged. You just wanted to get out of it what he got out of it.”
To Booth, Paretsky brought her unique perspective to the community at a time when very few women were earning MBAs. “Sara was insightful with a wonderful sense of humor,” said classmate Mary Lou Gorno, ’76, managing director of Chicago-based executive search firm Ingenuity International and member of the University of Chicago Board of Trustees. “She would identify and focus on complex issues like education, social justice, and poverty, where there were no easy answers. She was always challenging herself and others to think about these things.”
As soon as Paretsky graduated from Booth, she landed on the marketing team at Chicago-based insurance company CNA, where she stayed and thrived for more than a decade. “It was hard to leave,” she said about the corporate world, remembering when she was debating her exit. “There’s such a camaraderie of being involved in a common mission. You’re all speaking the same language. I knew I was going to miss that.”
But, like so many writers, she was struggling to somehow find time to focus on her fiction around her day job. Unlike so many writers, she managed to complete and publish three novels while employed full time. (She also managed to tutor neighborhood kids, sing in a local choir, and raise three stepsons with her husband, now-retired University of Chicago physicist Courtenay Wright.)
“I only quit because I was really running out of energy,” she said about the growing demands of her life as an author on her life as a marketer.
While she never resembled the introverted writer in a garret—Paretsky was actively energized and excited by her daily interactions in the business world—eventually she felt compelled to commit full time to fiction writing. “I thought I had the chance to really develop my gift.” At the same time, she said, “I was getting promoted and traveling two weeks a month. So when I jumped off the high dive, I thought, if I am going to do this I need to be disciplined.”
She found that even coming from a place of discipline, employment, confidence, and success, she was not immune to the self-doubt that tends to come with the career choice—sometimes swerve—of writer. “My writing had actually been a small private space in me. Having it just be on the side meant that I wasn’t putting too much weight on it,” she said. “When it became how I had to make a living, then I started second guessing myself. I was always asking, ‘Am I doing it right?’”
The success of V. I. answered that question, for Paretsky and for the world.
Before Paretsky put V. I. on the case, female characters in the genre were largely portrayed as damsels in distress, gold diggers, or other stereotypes. To change that, Paretsky, with a small group of women, helped launch Sisters in Crime, in 1987. The advocacy group was designed to provide female mystery authors with networking opportunities, advice, and support. It was a direct response to the unique challenges for women writers and the disparities within the industry that Paretsky—who would publish her fourth novel that year—had experienced.
“We found that a mystery by a man was seven times more likely to be reviewed than a mystery by a woman,” Paretsky said. “If you’re not getting reviewed, they don’t buy your book. So women were dropping out of publishing in huge numbers.”
Using that insight, Paretsky was able to present a clear case to reviewers and booksellers for greater consideration of women-authored work. Ultimately her efforts helped to expand the market and broaden the genre, which cultivated new audiences. Today, Sisters in Crime has 3,600 members in 50 chapters worldwide. “I personally believe the reason mysteries continue to be such a successful part of publishing today is because of Sisters,” Paretsky said. “We grew the market. We brought women back as writers and readers.”
Paretsky’s advocacy for the disenfranchised has remained a through line for her, and one that has evolved greatly with technology and a sea change in her industry.
“I think everybody who reads regularly reads in a hybrid mode today,” she said about print and digital delivery options. “There is still a tremendous attachment to the book as physical object, and I prefer print. But I read on my device, too.”
Such cross-platform sampling—and what exactly it means—remains one of the biggest questions in publishing. Amazon has recently opened a brick-and-mortar store. At the tail end of 2015, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-reader ownership is down to 19 percent, from 32 percent in 2014. On the other hand, Library Journal recently found that 94 percent of public libraries surveyed offer e-books to visitors, and that 80 percent saw demand increase for adult e-books over the past year. The demand for young adult e-books has increased 65 percent, and for children’s 52 percent. According to a study published by Digital Book World and consumer research group PlayCollective earlier this year, children under the age of 13 read e-books once a week.
In other words, predicting the preferences of the future reader—even the present reader—is a complicated business. Paretsky has found some certainty within the industry, however. For example, as much as she enjoys traveling and meeting her readers, she recognizes that the book tour is a fairly outdated concept in terms of return on investment for any author. “Going on the road to sell a book is just not a smart thing to do anymore,” she said. “Though connecting with live readers is good, it’s very expensive.” She thinks the better money is in internet advertising, and she keeps fans close through her Twitter feed.
What’s next for publishing is a mystery—even for someone as adept at imagining and solving those as Paretsky. It’s anyone’s guess. But she remains hopeful and as passionate as ever about the power of the human narrative and the potential for positive change.
“Even though the money for most writers isn’t there like it was five, 10 or 15 years ago, the word persists,” she said. “You can’t kill that desire. I think that people continue to want stories, and people will continue to want to tell stories.” Then, added the best-selling author with an MBA, “No matter how much you analyze it or commodify it, there’s just always going to be a need for a great story.”
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