Sara Paretsky is often given credit for breaking new ground in the mystery genre with the introduction of her female private-eye protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, in 1982’s Indemnity Only. Serious Paretsky fans were rewarded just last year with the eighteenth in the series, Fallout.
But the casual reader may not know that Paretsky is also credited with transforming mystery writing and publishing in general. How? By creating opportunities for many other women mystery writers through the creation of Sisters in Crime, today a national organization of more than 3,800 members — including myself — that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“Sisters” as it is known, or SinC (“sink”), is dedicated to the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of women crime writers. (If you’re wondering, yes, men are welcome in the group. They’re known as Misters.)
The group has more than fifty chapters around the country, including Sisters in Crime Chicagoland, which will mark the national organization’s 30th anniversary with an interview of Paretsky I’m facilitating this Saturday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m. at Morton Grove Public Library (a few reservations may be available).
The origin story of Sisters began in 1986 when, at the first-ever conference on Women in the Mystery, put together by BJ Rahn at Hunter College, Paretsky spoke on the growing use of graphic sadism against women in mysteries. “Remarks I made at the conference set off a firestorm around the mystery world,” Paretsky said in an interview about the group’s history. “Women began calling me from all over the country with their personal histories of treatment/mistreatment.”
Also troubling: women writers were not being recognized with awards or given nearly the coverage in review publications that their male counterparts have enjoyed. Paretsky convened a meeting at the 1986 Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, the largest annual gathering of crime writers and readers (in Baltimore that year), to establish the new organization. Paretsky became the founding president. In the last thirty years, many women crime writers have stepped forward to help lead the way, including Chicago crime writers Barbara D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann, who have both served as national president of Sisters in Crime.
Ahead of SinC Chicagoland’s celebration of that event thirty years ago, I asked Paretsky a few questions about the early days of Sisters in Crime.
What were the difficulties of starting the organization? Where did you get unexpected help? Or, problematically, where did you find unexpected obstacles?
When we started Sisters in Crime it was still a time where women felt doors opening and a great sense of possibility, so the only difficulties I remember are the ones of fumbling our way towards an accomplishable mission and trying to start a national organization with limited resources. Unexpected help came from people like Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Mary Higgins Clark, who both thought we had an important mission. By lending their names to our membership we were able to reach a larger audience more quickly than we would have otherwise.
Unexpected obstacles came from other crime writers, women as well as men who accused us of advocating censorship. For some reason wanting more seats at the table for women translated in their minds as taking seats away from men, whereas we thought it as adding more leaves to the table. My own agent, Dominick Abel, was enormously supportive and ran a certain amount of interference for me. An undersung hero of Sisters was Don Sandstrom, of blessed memory, who was my personal champion in the fanzines of that era against accusations of censorship.
At what point did you begin to understand the scope of what you started with Sisters in Crime? Can you think of a particular moment when you realized, “this is going to be huge”?
In the beginning we were focused on solving specific problems, primarily having to do with inclusion in reviews and shelf space in libraries and bookstores. The response of readers and booksellers to our Books in Print [a print publication showcasing women crime writers the group produced for a decade] showed that we were meeting a deep need for books with women heroes and credible women characters. I don’t think I had a “this is huge” moment as much as thinking, we’re doing something really important.
The “huge” moment came at the New Orleans Bouchercon [last fall] when I saw the great breadth and depth of issues in the writing world that Sisters currently addresses. The organization is committed to service, diversity, and the written word in a way that reflects my earliest dream but I never imagined the range of activities the organization currently undertakes.
Can you tell us a few other moments through the thirty years where you have been proud of the sisters?
There are many things that I love, including the pre-Bouchercon writing seminar, the Eleanor Taylor Bland scholarship, the presence at American Library Association and Book Expo America conferences. I’m sorry that I can’t attach names to these initiatives. Carolyn Hart, Nancy Pickard, Linda Grant and Susan Dunlap were all important early leaders of the group. Nancy helped us pass the rockier early shoals when we faced pushback from some of the mainstream publishers and fanzines. Carolyn, Linda, and Susan, along with Margaret Maron and Sharyn McCrumb helped also with some of the key early projects such as Books in Print and Brazen Hussies. I always worry that in naming some I’m forgetting other equally important figures so my apologies if I’ve done that.
The work isn’t done by far. What do you think are the goals of the next thirty years for Sisters in Crime and for the mystery community at large?
I’m not a chess player, I don’t know how to think moves ahead for three years let alone thirty years, especially not for an industry in as much flux as publishing. I hope that Sisters will continue its strong focus on diversity, on libraries, and on nurturing all voices but most especially un- and under-heard voices. I hope that we will be open to change and continue to be in the vanguard of First Amendment advocates.
Just for fun… How have you changed in the last thirty years?
I don’t think that I’m much different today than I was thirty years ago except that I don’t have, as Tennyson put it, “the strength that in old days moved heaven and earth.” I believed then, as I do now, in Florynce Kennedy’s mantra of “don’t agonize, organize.” If people just want to whine and don’t want to work on change I get pretty cranky.
I’ve tried over times to scale back my wishes for big change, to learn from people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg that step-by-step change is easier to manage and has fewer unintended consequences. In fact, though, I’m always impatient and always wanting big change. I no longer eat meat but I still consume my weight in chocolate every day and hope to do for the next thirty years.
A full history of Sisters in Crime is captured on the group’s site.
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Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.