Sara Paretsky in 1989.

Sara Paretsky in 1989.

Witches, war, and a cow of the Apocalypse-examining the socio-political geography of Kansas has never been so freaky. Although it's called "Bleeding Kansas," Sara Paretsky's novel is about as far removed from a dusty examination of the Free state's well-trod history as the title might imply.

Paretsky is indelibly associated with Chicago as the creator of fictional Windy City gumshoe V.I. Warshawski, but she's also a KU grad who grew up outside of Lawrence. Taking a break from the best selling Warshawski series, Paretsky funneled her own family's fractious past in segregated Kansas into a book about the intolerance and fear roiling within America's heart.

Slavery-fueled border wars, Vietnam-era anarchy, and the contemporary culture wars all serve as backdrop for "Bleeding Kansas," the story of feuding Kaw Valley families whose lives are tragically marked by the war in Iraq and religious zealotry.

Paretsky-whom, it should be noted, funds several scholarships at the University of Kansas and is still a rabid Jayhawk fan-spoke with about "Bleeding Kansas," pagan lunar rituals, and how she personally won the Orange Bowl for KU. Despite all the silliness with evolution, Phill Kline and Fred Phelps, do you still consider yourself-at least in some small way-a Lawrencian?

Paretsky: Yes, and part of that is going to the University of Kansas. You know, you get this kind of passionate attachment to your undergraduate school. Who could fail to both love and fear the Jayhawks? My Dad taught on the Hill, so I really have deep ties to the area. My brother still lives in Lawrence, so all those things keep me coming back.

Past Event

Lecture: "Why I Write the Books I Do" with author Sara Paretsky

  • Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 7:30 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


You've talked about Lawrence being a segregated community when your family first moved here. Did you or your family, being Jewish, ever experience any discrimination?

If my parents did, they kind of shielded us from it. What really affected us was when my folks were ready to buy a house, the realtor essentially let them know-although there were no formal zoning laws-that African Americans, Jews, and Native Americans were restricted to a section of north Lawrence. A lot of the houses up there in the '50s still didn't have indoor plumbing and some even had dirt floors. That was kind of shocking to me. The realtors told my folks that since they didn't really "look Jewish," and they were educated and nice spoken, they would make an exception for them. That kind of made my parents cranky so they bought an old house out in the country.

From abolition to abortion, what is it that makes Kansas a constant frontline for socio-political battles?

I don't really have an answer for that, unless it's as simple as the fact that Kansas really is the geographical center of the country. East meets west, north meets south, etc. If there's something volatile happening in the country, you'll see it more clearly in Kansas than you'll see it elsewhere.

Audio clips

Sara Paretsky

It's lined up on the map as a "red state," for people who count that kind of stuff, but I think it's a more complex state than that. I think back to the prohibition days and the saying of William Allen White, that Kansans would vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls. It kind of sums up the fact that the state is not "X" or "Y"-it's both of them.

You see it with evolution and the way that the school board fight has gone back and forth. You certainly saw it in the very volatile time in the '70s when KU was the most violent campus in the country. There was a period of, I think, 15 months when there was a fire-bombing in the county every day. Some of them were set by student radicals and some of them were set by right wing militia groups who were trying to destabilize the county government. Even if I weren't an expatriate living in Chicago, if I wanted to write a novel showing the most turbulent times in the country's history, Kansas would be an ideal place to set it.

How was "Bleeding Kansas" inspired by lesbian Wiccans?

This is all hearsay, so I can't say that this really happened. My parents sold the house, they were frail and ill, and these two women who bought the house were incredibly generous to my folks. As I understand it they were Wiccans and they did have one full moon ceremony, and I have no idea what that involves. It riled some of the neighbors, who started harassing them. More power to those ladies, they didn't leave the house. When that happened, I thought, "Whoa-there is a story here." In fact, there wasn't a story there. I sat down to write it and thought, "Well, goodhearted but naÃive Wiccans, idiot harasser neighbors-there's not a story there." I kind of put it to one side, but it started me to thinking about writing a book set in the Kaw Valley and about my roots. All of that was about 10 years ago.

When did the Iraq war enter into the writing process?

I kept thinking about it and I'd write some stuff and it just wasn't there. Then a woman that I know who was a television reporter in Chicago was given the assignment of covering the funeral of the first American soldier who died in Iraq. This was a boy who was from a small town in Illinois. I saw her the day after she came back from the funeral, and this was when public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the war. She said to me that the only thing that made it bearable was that the parents were such strong supporters of the war and that they felt he had died protecting the country. That just made me think about what would happen in a small community, like the one I grew up in, if a family were divided on the war issue and if their son had died in the war. That really gave me a shape to the story. I'm very sorry that Chip Gellier (a character from "Bleeding Kansas" who serves in Iraq) had to die, but people that I like die all the time in my books.


What do you think that says about you?

I think it says what a mean-spirited person I am. I'm kind of a pessimist. Some people say the glass is half empty, some say it's half full. Me? I didn't even get a glass. You know, there was a woman who was interviewing me that said she would never look at a cow shed the same way again.

What a touching yet sinister compliment. Thank you for joining us here at

Thank you and-go 'Hawks! By the way, you have to put in that I am responsible for the Orange Bowl victory. I left Kansas the day before they went to the Orange Bowl the last time, 39 years ago, and they lost. Now, here I am back in Kansas, and they won. Is this coincidence? I don't think so.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.