Writers on Writing

The New York Times invited Sara to participate in its “Writers on Writing” series. The following is her essay, which appeared in the September 25, 2001 issue.

Some months ago, I had a letter from a reader who was so furious she covered four pages by hand, demanding to know why my books are “infested” with political issues. “When I buy a mystery I expect to be entertained and when you bring in all that stuff about homeless people, you aren’t entertaining me.”

I thought of writing back to say, but mysteries are political. Peter Wimsey staunchly defends an England where everyone knows his (or her) place and is happy in it. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade inhabit a landscape filled with explicit sexual politics. Chandler’s women “reek of sex,” as Marlowe complains in The Little Sister; like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Chandler’s women try to make good boys do bad things, but Marlowe and Spade are both too moral for them. Mysteries, like cops, are right up against the place where people’s basest and basic needs intersect with law and justice. They are by definition political. That’s one reason I like to write them as well as read them.

In the end, though, it seemed too hard to explain this in a letter, so I did what I usually do with such an angry reader—sent the woman the price of a book and got on with my work. Which is as a storyteller, a writer whose stories take place in the world of law, justice and society.

I thought of my correspondent again later, when I was giving a reading at the Newberry Library in Chicago. A group of nine women stayed until everyone else had left. They told me then that they were married to steelworkers, to men who had not been able to find work for upwards of a decade as the global economy sent their jobs out of the country. They themselves were working two jobs to keep a roof over their families and food on the table. These weren’t great jobs—a neighborhood with fifty percent unemployment doesn’t run to great jobs. They were cashiers at the local convenience store, or waitresses in the diners.

They told me they hadn’t read a book since they graduated from high school, until one of them heard on the radio that the heroine of my detective novels, V I Warshawski, came from their own neighborhood, South Chicago. V I grew up under the shadow of the steel mills. She went to the University of Chicago on scholarship, but she’s a blue-collar gal. The women at my reading said they had never thought that a book could tell them something about their lives until they read one of mine.

“We buy them in hardcover,” one of them said. “V I helps us face the terrible things that have happened to our lives.”

My first impulse was to say, no, don’t put your hard-earned money into a hardcover book, but fortunately I had the grace not to blurt that out, to see that buying the books was an important physical touchstone. My next, meaner-spirited impulse, was to go back to the woman who’d written me and say, see, this is the point: I’m a storyteller, I’m an entertainer, but the stories that come to me are almost always those of voiceless people, not those of the powerful. These South Chicago women were entertained, they had a few hours escape from the relentless round of work, housecleaning, angry depressed husbands, adolescent sons who couldn’t find jobs, daughters marrying too young with nothing to live on. My books entertained them, but they also gave them courage.

I don’t like social-political novels, books written only to make a point—to show that four legs are better than two, or all males are testosterone-crazed villains, or that women invariably use their bodies to subvert male morality. There’s a reason that the writers we know from Stalin’s Russia are Pasternak and Akhmatova, not Gribachev, who wrote Spring in the Victory Collective Farm. Pasternak may have wanted to make a point, a most ardently felt point, about human freedom, about the confusion that one feels in the midst of social upheavals, and how hard it is to know how to act. But he wanted to write about human beings caught up in events, not idealized political types.

I don’t sit down to write books of social or political commentary. Both as a reader and a writer, I’m pulled by stories, not by ideas; I see the world in the stories of the people around me. It’s just that the stories that speak most to me are those of people like the women from South Chicago, who can’t speak for themselves, who feel powerless and voiceless in the larger world.

It may be that all writers come to their craft from a sense of being on the margins of life, of seeing the world with an outsider’s eye and needing to make sense of it. Certainly that was true of those master storytellers, Dickens and Eliot, and I suppose it’s true of me as well.

I grew up in the Fifties, in eastern Kansas, in a time and place that contemporary moralists point at as the golden era in America, before Vietnam and drugs and feminism and Black power caused permanent upheaval in our landscape.

It was a time and place where we girls knew our inevitable destiny was marriage, where only bad girls had sex beforehand—and then reaped our inevitable punishment. I grew up the only girl in a household of boys, where my parents—eccentric outsiders in a Protestant and Republican landscape when it came to religion or to civil rights—conformed rigidly in their sexual politics. Home was for me personally, specifically, a place where my value lay in housework and babysitting, not in an education leading to the careers envisioned for boys. I grew up barely able to speak above a whisper, so fearful I was of the criticism that dogged almost anything I said or did. I retreated young into the world of stories, of happy endings—for the heroines I created, as well as the ones I read about.

When I first escaped from that milieu, it was to come to Chicago in the late Sixties. The same summer that Martin Luther King was trying to organize for open housing and equal pay in Chicago, I arrived to do community service work on the city’s south side. King was organizing near the blue-collar, mostly Lithuanian and Polish neighborhood where I had been assigned.

I didn’t then and don’t now hold any brief for the fears that turned into bottle-throwing, car-burning hate in Marquette Park that summer, or led whites to sell their five-room homes at a loss and flee in terror for the western suburbs. But even at nineteen I could see that neither the banks, the realtors, nor the city government cared one iota about the dreams or fears centered on those tiny bungalows. Everyone around me felt powerless, the blacks denied access to jobs and decent housing, the whites living just half a rung above on the economic ladder and clinging to it in panic.

That summer I felt a sort of desperate need to start writing down the lives of people without voices. Instead of princesses who lived happily ever after, after that summer I began writing about ordinary people whose lives, like mine, were filled with the anomie that comes from having no voice, no power. Even then, I still felt so voiceless myself that it was another twelve years before I tried to sell my work: so fully had I absorbed the indoctrination of my Kansas childhood that I couldn’t imagine myself writing outside the home, couldn’t imagine that my words might speak to other people.

Charles Dickens moved from the remotest margin—the debtor’s prison —to the center of the Victorian page, as the most sought-out man of his age. The big house, servants, important visitors, high-fee lecture tours, five-figure contracts never brought him security. Nor did they obscure for him the underpinnings of Victorian affluence: the array of homeless children without nutrition or education; sweatshops; crime arising out of pressures of the vilest poverty. Dickens romanticized the virtues of the poor, but he didn’t sentimentalize the circumstances of their poverty. His books are, as my letter-writer put it, “infested” with social politics—but people still lined up by the thousands on the wharves in Boston to wait for the ship that was bringing the next installment of his work.

A hundred fifty years later, we still live an affluent life with an array of homeless children suffering from malnutrition and mal-education under our noses — the elephant in the living room we all ignore. A century after my grandparents met walking a picket line for the ILGWU, we still have sweatshops in this great land of ours. We still have crime, homelessness, parents selling their children for a nickel bag, and a host of other ills. If a master storyteller like Dickens could find his most compelling stories within that landscape, who am I to turn away from it?