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my car: sara paretsky

Author Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible.

  • Profession Mystery writer/social activist
  • Age 64
  • Hometown Ames, Iowa

  • 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of her V.I. Warshawski series
  • Author of 18 books, which are published in 30 countries
  • Created Sisters of Crime, a global organization to support women crime writers
  • Worked as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side during the turbulent race riots of 1966; served with then-state senator Barack Obama on the board of Thresholds, which serves Chicago’s mentally ill homeless; mentored teens in Chicago’s most troubled schools, and works closely with literacy and reproductive rights groups
  • Book tour for her latest book, Breakdown


Sara Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world three decades ago when she created the character of female private investigator V.I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only. Since then, more than a dozen best-selling Warshawski novels have followed including her latest, Breakdown.

When Paretsky isn't penning her next big hit, she's driving around town in a stunning, red 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible.

Why did you choose a Jag?

I had a pining for a red convertible for a long time and I kept looking at different models.

In '95, I gave a pro bono speech to an abortion rights group in Columbus, Ohio, at their fundraiser. Their biggest donor was the biggest car dealership in Ohio and he was so grateful to me for coming and not charging anything he asked me what my dream car was. I said a red Jaguar convertible. He called over to his dealership and he had this one sitting on the lot so he sold it to me for the dealer's price.

I know I'll never get a speaking fee that big! I never would have indulged in it. As TV detective Kojak used to say, "It still was a lot of balloons." But it just seemed irresistible.

It's such a beautiful car. I feel like the coolest person on the planet when I drive it.

What does a Jag say about you?

That I'm tough, cool, fearless, beautiful and bold – all those things that a 65-year-old woman is by nature, by definition.

Are you a car girl – do you know what's under the hood?

I used to – back before they were computer-run and fuel-injected. I used to change my own spark plugs and fiddle with carburetors.

I don't know anything about the computer-run engines. They give you so many warnings about the damage you can do if you fiddle under the hood. So I've put that behind me, it's sad to say.

Have you had any problems with the Jag?

It used to be they'd say when you bought a Jaguar you needed to buy a mechanic, too. But that hasn't been true with this car.

Your Jag is long-in-the-tooth – are you planning on dumping it anytime soon?

The thing is, I love it so much that I wasn't driving it very much. When I took it in for servicing they told me it was really harming the engine not to drive it. So I'm taking it out a lot more although I'm only up to 25,000 miles.

My husband and I had to update our wills recently and I just don't know anyone who is worthy of it.

There was a Chicago icky mobster hit man drug dealer who was buried in his Cadillac about 30 years ago. I thought maybe I'll just follow Flukey Stokes's example.

What was your first car?

The very first car I ever bought with my own money was a Cadillac.

Cadillac used to make a little getting-around-town car called the Cimarron, which a lot of people didn't like because it was the old Chevy Nova body. But it had a great interior.

It was a fun little car if you're an urban dweller.

The first car I drove a lot was an MG Sprite. That was back when I was living in Kansas.

A guy I knew had two MGs and he let me borrow the Sprite. It makes my blood run cold when I think how not only did I court death but I risked the lives of many other people, too. But when you're 19, you don't think about that.

How did you tempt fate?

I used to take my brothers out in this Sprite and they would just sit on the back because there really wasn't any room. And we would go zooming around these country roads in eastern Kansas at these high speeds and nobody ever fell off and I never ran into anything.

I feel very fortunate about that. I outgrew the need to race around.

If I can bring you the keys to any car what would it be?

Jaguar has made some wonderful cars over the years. The 1938 SS100 – their first successful race car. There aren't very many and they sell for a quarter-of-a-million if they're in terrible shape. That would be my total dream car if I could ever afford to get a hold of one of those.

I do love the '60s XKE – every now and then some guy who has a lemon yellow one, which I think is a horrible colour for a car, parks his XKE on my street and I think V.I. would know how to hotwire that car!

But V.I. is always wrecking her cars. Are you the same?

I know. I know. She takes too many risks behind the wheel. But I bet if she had my car she would treat it with tender loving care. Well, maybe she wouldn't.

I used to drive it really fast – breaking all kinds of speed limits, taking it on the expressway over 100 miles an hour.

I was badly injured in a car wreck six years ago, but it's made me a much more cautious and law-abiding driver. I was hit from behind, knocked across four lanes of traffic into a retaining wall on one of the expressways. I've never been the same person since either physically or in terms of the risks I take.

What car were you driving?

We have a little getting-around-town Jaguar sedan. It's a 2004. I can never remember what it's called.

They're comfortable and handle well, but they're kind of boring. The car held up well – better than I did. It was about $8,000 worth of body work, but the engine was totally fine. We're still driving it. It's a real testament to the Jaguar.

This interview has been edited and condensed.