Let’s get this out of the way: You’re Californian and live in California. Sarah is Minnesotan and lives there. How’d that happen? This must be the most frequent question you get about Sarah.
The short answer is, I spent three years in Minneapolis, going to grad school in journalism. Then I got a newsroom job in California, and I hadn’t been back all that long when the character of Sarah Pribek started to take shape in my mind. It was really clear to me that she lived and worked in the Twin Cities.
However, the subtext to that question is usually, “Why not write about California? Since that’s where you live.” My answer is that I need a firewall between my real and fictional worlds. I need the setting of a book to be not quite real, like a movie set on which the story plays out.
Also, Sarah is a transplanted Westerner; she’s from New Mexico. I knew better than to try to give Sarah the voice and memories of someone who grew up in Albert Lea, eating walleye-on-a-stick at the county fair. Some of her memories of being a newcomer to Minnesota reflect mine. In Sympathy Between Humans, she remembers finding it strange to be in a place where ‘it had to get warm enough to snow.’ That’s a very weird idea to someone from a more southern climate.
By the way, that’s not the most frequent question about Sarah.
Okay, what is?
Other than whether there’ll be another book, it’s, ‘Why isn’t Sarah physically described in the novels? We don’t even have a hair color or eye color for her.’
And … ?
And I say, Well, we know Sarah is 5’11 and has long hair. And presumably readers know she’s white, because no one ever feels the need to comment on her race. Other than that, I wanted readers to visualize Sarah however they liked. It was just a choice I made at the time. I mean, no one’s ever said, “That ruined the book for me.”
What’s the most common criticism the Sarah Pribek novels get?
Some readers have difficulty with a vigilante murder/extralegal execution that takes place close to the end of 37th Hour. Others don’t like Sarah’s brief extra-marital affair in Sympathy. I generally shrug and say, Hey, fictional characters do things they shouldn’t do a lot.
Speaking of Sarah’s brief affair, where did the character of Cicero Ruiz in Sympathy come from? He’s a paraplegic doctor who’s lost his license and is practicing extra-legally out of his apartment in a housing project. Not exactly your typical crime-novel supporting character.
Yes, that’s one of the things I like about him: No one can say, “Oh, that character’s been done to death.”
If anything inspired Cicero, it was a brief news item – I don’t remember the exact details — about a paraplegic man who got out of his wheelchair and dragged himself down a riverbank to save a drowning person. It’s one of those news stories that make you think, ‘Why do I never see this in fiction?’ Our idea is, ‘Disabled people need saving, they don’t do the saving.’ That’s why Cicero, late in the book, goes out on the streets looking for Sarah when she has a head injury and calls him for help.
Of course, Cicero’s got his problems: mainly, he stays up in his apartment on the top floor of his public-housing building, like an agoraphobic. This makes Cicero like a sage on a mountain top: when Sarah needs advice or healing, she goes to him. Or, in a sense, it’s a fairy tale with a gender inversion: he’s up in his tower, and Sarah’s the knight-errant down on the streets.
Let’s say you got the opportunity to continue the Pribek series. Would you pick up Sarah’s life ten years later, or right where Sympathy left off?
That’s a tough question, because years ago I essentially finished a third Pribek novel which does pick up shortly after Sympathy. But I also see the appeal of picking up the story later in the characters’ lives. Other authors have done that, as a way of respecting a real-life gap between books. For example, there was a ten-year gap between the publication of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, with Thomas Harris picking up Clarice Starling’s story, narratively, about seven years later.
I like the idea of respecting that passage of time. Without being precious about the writing process, writers really do have a relationship with their characters, and when you haven’t spent time with someone in years, things are different. You’ve changed, they’ve changed. Plus, I think Shiloh would look great with a sexy streak of silver in his hair.