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S Is for Sue Grafton

In 1983, a novel called A Is for Alibi introduced the fictional town of Santa Theresa, California, and its soon-to-be-famous private investigator, Kinsey Millhone.

Sue GraftonTwenty-four years, 26 languages, and nineteen bestselling abecedarian mysteries later, Kinsey faces one of her most vexing cases when an elderly neighbor suffers a dangerous fall and his care is left to a little-known, strong-willed home aide.

With starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, Sue Grafton's 20th mystery featuring Kinsey Millhone is poised to do the near-impossible: It will bring even more readers to Grafton's bestselling books. USA Today calls T Is for Trespass "the best and strongest book in the series." Trespass is "vintage Grafton," Library Journal agrees, "scarily current, carefully plotted, and fast paced."

Prior to a signing at Powell's in December, Grafton dished on Kinsey, impossible tasks, identity theft, collaborative writing, kick-ass Mickey Spillane novels, and more.

Dave: Twenty books into the series, how have you been surprised by Kinsey or by the books?

Sue Grafton: I'm surprised how hard they've gotten. Obviously, when I started, it was my intention to do twenty-six books. But I sold A Is for Alibi on the basis of sixty-five pages. I had never written a mystery novel in my life. I didn't even know if it would sell.

I'd been working in Hollywood, and I was spoiled. I was used to getting paid for my work. I thought, What if I write this whole book and they say, "We're sorry. We just published one like this last year."

In the course of writing A Is for Alibi, I was teaching myself how to write a mystery novel by reading every how-to I could get hold of; I was teaching myself California criminal law, private eye procedure, police procedure, anything that seemed relevant to the job. It took me five years to write A.

It took me three years to write B because I'd scared myself so bad. I got a nice review in Newsweek for A, and it just undid me. Gosh, someone's paying attention. Then I started doing a book a year.

I thought I was going to write five or six and get the hang of it; I'd just breeze through. But I really am working to make each book different — and not in any prissy, eccentric way. I just don't want to tell the same story twenty-six times.

When I sit down to start a new book, unconsciously there's a tendency to recycle what I've done, what feels familiar. So I keep elaborate charts. For every single book, I have a chart in which I list the gender of the victim, the gender of the killer, the motive of the crime, and the nature of the climax.

I also have what are called loglines. That's from working in television. In A Is for Alibi, Kinsey Millhone is hired by a woman who has just spent seven years in prison for the killing of her husband. In B Is for Burglar, Kinsey Millhone is hired to get a signature on a minor document. In C Is for Corpse, Kinsey is hired by a kid who thinks someone is trying to kill him. Blah blah blah. This way, I can look at how I get into a book, see what the set-up is, and make sure I'm not repeating myself.

With S Is for Silence, that was the first time I did multiple points of view and the shift in time. I was writing in the late eighties, but it harked back to July 4th weekend of 1953. It was kind of fun, but when I got to T Is for Trespass, I thought, I don't want to do the same thing just for the sake of it.

Basically, I believe that my job is to get out of my own way and let the books come through. Instead of me imposing anything, I try to let the book tell me. I let Kinsey tell me. I don't tell her. It's none of my business what she does.

The surprise has been that each book gets harder, but I'm learning a lot about myself.

Dave: You say hadn't written a mystery before A Is for Alibi, but you'd written other books and scripts. Where did you get the confidence to take on a twenty-six book series?

Grafton: I was so ignorant. I was innocent. I didn't get it.

I'd been working in Hollywood, which I hated. I undertook the writing of A Is for Alibi to get back to solo writing. It was driving me insane to work by committee. It's just not my style. In Hollywood, I was getting lazy. There was no point in struggling for the right word because somebody would come in at the meeting and make me change it. If I couldn't figure out where to go with a story, I'd just wait and ask somebody. There was no point in struggling because somebody would come through and undo everything. I referred to it as "taking their fine gold pencils to my work." I decided: Before I turn into a total hack, I've got to get back to writing for myself.

I had an agent who said, "You're never going to make the kind of money writing these books that you would in Hollywood." And I said, "I don't care. I'm doing this for my soul." A was a lot of fun because I got to be my own boss.

Here's what I learned in Hollywood, and I have to give them credit: When you do movies for Hollywood, or TV scripts, you learn how to write dialogue; you learn how to write an action sequence; you learn how to get into a scene and get out of it; and you learn how to structure a story. All of that is relevant to the mystery novel. So I had good training for it, but I didn't know that I could sell B Is for Burglar.

C Is for Corpse, D Is for Deadbeat... I made a nice list. My big concern at the time was whether there would be enough crime-related words to get through the alphabet. I thought that was my big problem! But when you set yourself an impossible task and then soldier through it, it's just a staggering process.

Dave: In T Is for Trespass, you play with multiple perspectives again. The novel deals with the issue of identity theft. It's set in early 1988, before the issue was as prominent as it is now.

Grafton: I think it's probably been going on longer than we know. In the case of Solana Rojas, it seemed to me the only way she could have operated; she has to assume somebody else's identity in order to do what she does. The story dictated what had to go down.

Dave: And you start the book with Solana, not Kinsey.

Grafton: Originally, there were five or six Kinsey chapters first, and then I jumped into Solana. That was more jarring. I thought, If you're going to do something unusual, you've got to clue in the reader right at the first so they get oriented. I did some shifting around with that.

Dave: It takes someone with Kinsey's curiosity, perhaps even with her training, to catch on to what Solana is doing. We typically don't meddle in other people's business. We don't feel comfortable investigating; we live behind fences and closed doors. That was the creepy part for me: how quietly the whole thing goes down.

Grafton: Solana was a wonderful villainess. I started writing from her point of view just so I could understand how her mind worked. Once I got into it, she was stopping me and saying, "Excuse me, I will explain what I'm up to." That was nice. That I sort of fell into.

What I loved was the whole power play between them. This gal almost outsmarted Kinsey. I liked watching them go up against each other. First Solana would get the upper hand, and then Kinsey would prevail. Then Solana would up the ante.

Dave: I'm curious if a lot of your readers fall in love with Henry. He's stubborn, he can be annoying, but...

Grafton: I have to work to keep him from being too perfect. He's so adorable, and I don't want to turn him into a loveable old coot. I let him be kind of cranky sometimes because it gives him some texture.

Same thing with Kinsey. I don't want her to be perfect. She's nobody's role model. She's as flawed and inconsistent as the rest of us. She's human-sized. That's what we all are. And she voices interior life. You know how her mind works. You know how she reacts to things. And she'll say things she's not supposed to say. I think people enjoy her sassiness.

Dave: Do readers ask you to bring back particular characters from previous books?

Grafton: Sometimes. Julia Uxner from B Is for Burglar is a wonderful character. I leave the door open if they want to come back, but often they don't. A set of characters belongs to a story. Though Rosie is the same. And William.

You may see Charlotte again, the real estate gal in T; I think you'll see her some in U but not as a love interest.

Dave: I would imagine that your fans will wonder whether Cheney is coming back. At the end of Trespass, Kinsey seems like she could use a little more of him.

Grafton: She goes through her explanation of why that relationship didn't pan out so well. I thought it was amusing that she understood the differences between them.

I'm thinking Robert Dietz will come back at some point, but I don't know. Maybe he'll show up at her door someday. I don't want to do all this love story stuff. It's fun once in a while.

Kinsey's a normal human being, fictionally speaking; I don't want her so isolated and so cut off from any kind of human connection. But I don't want her to get married. She might, but these books are about her job. I don't want her to have to phone home and say, "I'm about to chase a bad guy. Could you take the pork chops out of the freezer? And don't forget to feed the cat." That's just not fun. And I don't want to hear her do a little love chat with her sweetie pie.

People want me to give her an animal. Oh, man. Kinsey Millhone talking baby talk with a cat? We'll see. I never say never.

Dave: In the last twenty-five years, what is the longest you've gone without thinking of Kinsey?

Grafton: Seven minutes, maybe. I think about her a lot.

The way I look at the world is filtered through her. Every time I read the paper, I'm thinking about Kinsey, though I don't often draw from real cases because I don't want to get my butt sued. Everybody's suing everybody these days. Besides which, a lot of true crime, the stuff you read in the paper, is so absurd. There's no art, there's no intellect, there's no cleverness to it. People get drunk and they whack each other. Where is the joy in that? The beauty of detective fiction is that you come to believe somebody is thinking about crime, thinking and doing something devious. It isn't just alcohol-fueled, impulsive nonsense. If somebody gets killed in a mystery novel, there's a reason. It isn't for their tennis shoes.

Dave: What's the first mystery series you devoured?

Grafton: Probably Nancy Drew. And I read Agatha Christie, of course. I do think she was very clever. I don't think she did stunning character work — there was always the vicar and the daffy old lady; they were just cardboard cutouts — but she was clever.

My revelation — I think I was twelve or so when I read Mickey Spillane. I went, "Holy, doodle!" That was so amazing. I'd been reading these polite, little cozies, and Mickey Spillane just kicked ass. I thought that was great fun. It opened up a whole world to me. Then I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, preferring Chandler, I must say.

Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald...That was the old days, before women pushed down the doors and marched through.

Dave: I wonder how it feels to know that your books aren't going out of print anytime soon. Even after you've completed Z, new readers will be discovering the series and digging in.

Grafton: One reason I go out on the road, I'm always looking at my readers. I've got readers as young as eight and as old as ninety-two. They're male, female — there's a whole crosscurrent of people who get smitten with these books. And people will say to me, "Thank god for your books because now we have something to talk about at the dinner table." A father who can't get along with his thirteen-year-old, all of a sudden they have a connection. That's interesting to me.

Dave: What's the strangest place you've ever been recognized?

Grafton: I was in Hawaii. That's not strange, but it was one of the first times anyone said to me, "Are you Sue Grafton?"

It's becoming a little more frequent. The name: I'm a name brand now, like Post Toasties or something. When I say my name, people will say, "Oh, like the author." Then I have to convince them that I really am the author.

Dave: Name a good thing and a bad thing about setting twenty-six books in a fictional Santa Barbara?

Grafton: It's mostly good. I'm the goddess of Santa Theresa. I control the weather. I can move real estate. I never get it wrong — that's the best part. If I called it Santa Barbara, I'd still be getting letters over everything. There isn't a stop sign at that corner. There isn't a tree behind that building.

My father used to say, "I know it's true because I made it up, myself." That's what I love.

I don't think there's a downside. I get help from lawyers and jailers and cops and sheriffs; everybody helps me, a lot of great people.

It does get tricky still being in the eighties. When the series ends, it will be the narrative year 1990 and Kinsey will turn forty, which I did myself once upon a time. There again I'll know what I'm talking about.

Dave: It's almost quaint at this point to be reading about the late eighties. Kinsey doesn't have a cell phone. The books feel modern, but some details stand out.

Grafton: I can't imagine life without a cell phone. I can't imagine life without an Internet. It's been a very exciting shift.

Dave: I read on your web site that your husband has a PhD in the philosophy of physics. You say that he's passionate about the subject. I'm curious how one acts out a passion for the philosophy of physics.

Grafton: If you meet him, you may ask and you will never hear him quit talking. You'll say, "Excuse me, I have to get a drink now."

He also teaches philosophy of space and time. He taught himself quantum mechanics so he could teach it. He loves hard science. He loves math. There's what he calls the fuzzy stuff, aesthetics and ethics — he has no use for that.

I don't understand a word he says. I've sat in some of his classes. I understand the first few sentences, and I'll be feeling pretty good about myself. Then he keeps going and I disconnect. But he's fun. He's a guy with big energy.

He doesn't read a lot of fiction. That's just not where he is. But he's also passionate about gardening. He designs knot gardens on his computer. We have these amazing formal gardens. He just put in a maze. He gets on the Internet and studies all this stuff. What's the difference between a parterre and a labyrinth?

Dave: Your mother taught high school chemistry. You've always had science in the house.

Grafton: And my father was a municipal bond attorney. I've got a family full of lawyers. My uncle did corporate law. I have a cousin who does personal injury and another cousin who did corporate.

I couldn't get through law school if you put a gun to my head. It's just not the way my mind works. I wish I had a law degree; I just don't want to go get one. I envy people who understand the law.

Dave: Over the years, you've done so much research for these books, you must have some understanding, even within a niche like California penal code.

Grafton: I have access to it. All I need to know is where to get the information. When I wrote P Is for Peril, I was writing about Medicare fraud. I got that down pretty cool. Promptly forgot it. Couldn't tell you one thing about it. I learned about auto insurance for H Is for Homicide. Gone. I have to clear my brain and make room for what's coming next. I don't retain any of it.

But I have a fabulous library and a fabulous filing system. Plus, I have a lot of good phone numbers; I know who to call to get what I need. That's all. I don't have to carry it around with me. My head would start falling over sideways.

Dave: Do you have any favorite TV crime dramas?

Grafton: I don't watch TV. I guess I've occasionally watched Murder She Wrote. The problem is that I can always see what they're up to. That takes the fun out.

The mystery novels I love — Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard — I love those guys who've been around forever, and they're just workhorses. Old school. I love watching writers of any gender do a beautiful job at anything. That's exciting. When you see someone who has a voice, a tone, a point of view, and they do their job well, that's fun.

Dave: To another writer, six books might make a career. After twenty in this series, are you starting to identify particulars that you want to accomplish before the end?

Grafton: Yes. One thing that I introduced in J Is for Judgment is that whole issue about Kinsey's family. I feel honor bound to return to those connections; I may take care of that in my next book.

My readers are divided just about down the middle. Some want to know all about Kinsey's family history. Others are going, "Would you quit doing that? It's so boring." Somehow I need to tie off those threads without laboring and dragging the story down. Surely I'll think of a way to do it, but it'll probably be pretty soon. I want to get that out of the way.

But her personal life, we'll see. I don't calculate that. I have no plans for her. I just back off, see what she's doing, and write it down.

Dave: You mentioned earlier the task of finding a word for each letter. What are you going to do with X?

Grafton: It's got to be xenophobe or xenophobia.

My true hope is that between now and the time I get to X, there will be a new crime that starts with x. I'm encouraging people: Break the law in some x kind of way.

Z is going to be for zero. What else?

Somebody was saying that w is probably witness and v is probably victim. I don't know. Sometimes I get to those obvious choices and I think, That's too boring. I'm not going to do that.

Dave: I noticed on your web site that you've been posting your journals for some of the books.

Grafton: I keep a journal for each of the books I write. I started in a very rudimentary form for A, and now I can't write a book without keeping a journal. This is a document I open on my word processor.

The journals for S Is for Silence were 395 single-spaced pages. The manuscript was 500 double-spaced. I sometimes think it's because I'm so ignorant and slow at this. I do it all by trial and error. I play Suppose. What if this happened? I go down dead end roads, cul de sacs; I find out I'm mistaken and I back up.

I'm not quick at it, but I am persistent. I'm a tortoise. I don't race to the finish line; I just plod my way.

Right now, I think, the journal for U has probably 300 single-spaced pages. I can see the story and I can't figure out how to tell it. Each of these books is a separate problem to solve. I invent the problem, and then I have to figure out how to solve it for myself.

Dave: Chip and Dan Heath wrote a column in the December issue of Fast Company about how people like to look for ideas "out of the box" when, depending on the situation, being in the right box can be much more effective. A useful and familiar framework can be a big advantage. That made me think of your series.

Grafton: That's exactly what I love about the mystery novel. There are clear rules (most of which you can break, of course).

I compare it to playing a hand of bridge. In bridge, which I'm not expert at but I love, you're always dealt thirteen cards. You pick them up, and your job is to figure out how to make them work. You don't always play offense. Sometimes your strategy is exactly the opposite.

Mystery fiction is like that. There is a clear set of rules. You can't set up a mystery and solve it randomly. Generally, the narrator cannot be the killer, although of course Agatha Christie did it.

I am honor bound to tell the reader everything Kinsey knows. In a Sherlock Holmes story, he would pick up a mysterious object and put it in his pocket; the reader wasn't allowed to know what it was. In the end, that would solve the crime. Well, that's not fair. My job is to tell the reader everything Kinsey knows without tipping my hand. That's hard to do.

Dave: People must ask what's next for you after Z.

Grafton: Stand out there tonight when I'm signing. You'll hear the question seventy-two times. I always say the same thing, "I'm going to party, honey." I'm going to take the longest nap on this planet.

We'll see. I may have other stories to tell. And if Kinsey has other adventures and we're still getting along, if I'm not mentally bankrupt by then, I'm happy to do it. I'm having a good time when it's working.

I'm never going to kill her off. Henry and the sibs are going to live, too. I keep saying that Nell is only ninety-six and she's not even sick. Why would she die?

I do say, Anybody can write six books; it's the first twenty that'll kill you. I'm just trying to get from U to the back end of Z Is for Zero. I think I can do it. Why not? It's my job.

Sue Grafton visited Powell's Book at Cedar Hills Crossing on December 12, 2007.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

One Response to "S Is for Sue Grafton"

    50 Famous Author Interviews That Shouldn’t Be Missed | Online College Tips - Online Colleges March 28th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    [...] Sue Grafton: Sue Grafton's interview covers a long career of successful mysteries. [...]

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