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An Interview With Sue Grafton

by Catherine Petruccione

#88, 19 February 2007

It was almost two years ago that a little bug was planted in Editor-in-Chief Craig Stark's ear about the one author I would really, really love to interview. The bug was planted by none other than my Ron, who frequently tolerates me holing up in the bedroom for hours at a time with a book bearing a large letter of the alphabet on its cover, a stack of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches at my side. What on earth am I doing? Why, I'm traveling off to Santa Teresa to accompany Kinsey Millhone on her latest case, as any Sue Grafton devotee will certainly understand.

So, ladies, I'm here to tell you that some men really do make dreams come true - and I have three gallant men to thank! Due to the astute observation and initial action of Ron Sollome, the determination of Craig Stark and the tenacity of Mike Hayward, aka "Hollywood Mike," contact and arrangements were finally made, and I was recently able to talk for an hour with my all-time favorite writer of detective fiction, Sue Grafton.

Nobody does it like Sue.

Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery novels have captured the imagination of readers all over the world. Private investigator Kinsey Millhone, her smart, spunky heroine, has become one of the most beloved detectives anywhere, as much for her tough-but-tender, go-it-alone attitude as for her spare approach to life. And only this author, who herself shoots from the hip, could have created her. An international best seller with fans numbering in the millions, Grafton is published in 26 countries and 28 languages, and yet she is still as hard-working, straight-talking and down-to-earth as ever.

In 2004, Grafton received the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, an annual tribute presented to "a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence." The two previous award winners, Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz, put her in solid company, but Sue doesn't talk about awards. She prefers to talk about the rewards of being a writer. Presently, she's working toward wrapping up the 20th novel in the series, T is for Trespass. This latest Kinsey Millhone mystery will be coming out in December of this year, and she's not hiding the fact that it's been a challenge for her.

Sue Grafton is 66 years old, a grandmother, and joyfully married to her husband Steve Humphrey for twenty-eight years, but like her heroine, Sue Grafton seems perennially young. Sue and Steve divide their time between homes in Louisville, Kentucky (where Sue was born and raised) and Montecito, California.

BOOKTHINK: What was it about the first book in the Kinsey Millhone mystery series, A is for Alibi, that grabbed the publisher's attention?

GRAFTON: It was submitted to an editor at Henry Holt named Marian Wood. I don't think she had ever edited a mystery before; I don't know if she was a mystery buff. What she was attracted to was the voice of the character. What I submitted was the first 65 pages.

I had never written a mystery before, although my father had written and published three mysteries in his lifetime. So for me it was just fun! I had nothing to lose; I had no reputation. If I failed - oh, well. You know we often take things on that we think we can't pull off. So, in a way, I was footloose and fancy-free; I could just write what amused me and what interested me without any concerns about publishability. When I submitted it, I thought, "For all I know, they'll write back and say 'So sorry, we just published a book exactly like this.'" It taught me something - the writing did - so there was nothing to lose. I've failed at other things; I figured I could fail at this with the best of them.

BOOKTHINK: Was it your intention when you submitted the first Kinsey Millhone mystery to do a series of books?

GRAFTON: It was intended as a series, but in the publishing business, you can intend anything you like and it still comes down to the question "Does the publisher have faith in what you are doing?"

What happened was that, in the conceptual phase of that first book, I was reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. It is a series of cartoon drawings of little Victorian children being done in: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears ..." and so on. Well, I read that and I thought, "Oh, shit. Why can't you do a mystery novel based on the alphabet?" So I sat down and sketched out as many crime-related words as I could think of in alphabetical order, and when I was convinced there were enough to go around, I started writing A is for Alibi.

Now, as I said, I didn't know I could get it published. And sometimes having published one book, if the sales are pathetic, they don't really invite you to do it again. So it has been astonishing to me that the series took off. If you'll remember, Sara Paretsky published the same year I did, and Marcia Muller had been ahead of us - she was really the first of the hard-boiled female private eye writers. So the three of us sort of changed the face of mystery fiction in terms of women and maybe men too because I think we made it possible for men to loosen up some.

You know, it's always interesting to see somebody tackle a form that you know yourself, and I learn from other writers. I think it's fun to see people stretch and push the form as far as they can push it.

BOOKTHINK: You've had 19 highly successful books published in the Kinsey Millhone series between 1982 and 2005 and two novels published before that: Keziah Dane (1967) and The Lolly-Madonna War (1969), which was made into a film. That's staying power.

GRAFTON: Well, yes. I pay very close attention to writers who have a long track record. Most of them at this point are guys, because the guys have been around. I admire the men in the business because they are workhorses. They don't complain, they don't whine, they just do the job. That's always a lesson to me, watching how other writers operate through the ups and downs, the way they maintain enthusiasm for the job.

BOOKTHINK: You must have to love the act of writing to stay at it and be successful.

GRAFTON: I find it is getting harder, which isn't a surprising thing. When I started writing, I had lots of ideas, things just buzzing around my head. Nineteen books later, with me working on the twentieth, now we're getting serious here. We've got to pay real close attention to what we're doing. T has been a bitch. It has been the toughest book I've ever written. Finally, I am nailing it. I'm not done yet; I'm just about two or three chapters from the end. If U is this hard, I'm going to have to be institutionalized!

BOOKTHINK: Is there a projected publication date for T yet?

GRAFTON: Yes. The publication date currently is slated for December 4, 2007.

BOOKTHINK: And the title will be ...?

GRAFTON: T is for Trespass. As in "We forgive those who trespass against us." I like the play on words because Trespass is also a crime.

BOOKTHINK: There were several other novels you wrote earlier in your career that went unpublished. What happened to those? Did they go in the dust bin, or do they still exist?

GRAFTON: I wrote three novels that were never published; the fourth novel was published; the fifth novel was published; six and seven were never published; and the eighth book I wrote was A is for Alibi. Those unpublished books were how I taught myself to write, and they are quite deservedly locked away. I may have to destroy them before I go to my Maker because I don't want those things hauled out and bandied about.

BOOKTHINK: This could happen for sure because your readers would feel they'd missed something.

GRAFTON: The unpublished novels are not mysteries, and they are my self-education. Therefore, I don't see them as suitable for publication. I am sparing people the agony of reading my early work. What's funny to me is that all of it was preparation for what I do now, so nothing was ever lost. Those books will never be published, but they are part of who I am as a writer, and I try to be forgiving and charitable to my young self.

BOOKTHINK: Let's talk about your Dad a little bit. I actually looked up a couple of his books on out-of-print bookselling sites, and people must be collecting those too because they were priced at $100 and upwards. Can you share a little about your Dad [C.W. Grafton] and your relationship with him?

GRAFTON: That's very nice. He'd be thrilled and amazed, I'm sure. He was a very humble man, and he wrote mystery fiction out of his true passion for the form. It was his desire, I believe, to give up the law in order to publish and write mystery fiction, but he couldn't make a living at it. Many writers who are probably quite talented can't make a living at it. And in the end, he gave up writing to support me and my sister. His intention was to go back to it after he retired, but he didn't live that long. So, I learned from that too, the lesson being, if you want to do it, you better get down to it. We don't know how much time we have on this earth. There is no margin for neglecting your own dreams.

BOOKTHINK: I understand that you are dead set against your books being made into films; and I'm sure you have the background to make a wise decision on this, but I expect the pressure is always on in this regard. Is there any possibility that the Kinsey Millhone series could appear on film?

GRAFTON: I will never give over something I love. I liken it to selling your children into white slavery. Why would we do this? If you don't like your children, maybe you would. I love these books. I love what they have done for my life and what they have done for me as a person. To turn Kinsey Millhone over to the factory in Hollywood would just be the greatest disservice I could ever do her. And I'm not up for it.

Hollywood acts like they are going to be my new best friend; they are going to help me. I don't want help like that at all. What I learned a long time ago is the power of the word "NO." That's what keeps me sane - I just say "No, thank you."

BOOKTHINK: Not even a PBS mystery series?

GRAFTON: You know ... think about who they would cast as Kinsey Millhone. There isn't an actress that could do that part.

BOOKTHINK: It's nearly always disappointing. There are very few films I can think of where I've read the book and I then see the film and say "Oh, they've done a good job."

GRAFTON: Those are few and far between. Most of it they butcher or embellish or spice up. It just gets absurd.

BOOKTHINK: There is something lovely about leaving it to the reader's own imagination.

GRAFTON: That is my intention. The pleasure of reading is that you get to create that world in your own head. You get to star in it, you get to be the art director, you get to do it all. Imagination is an important thing to the human condition and I like to leave that for the average reader and let them enjoy it.

BOOKTHINK: Did you ever have any intention of being anything but a writer?

GRAFTON: While growing up I thought I would be a teacher, because that's what women did. You could be a nurse, a ballerina or a teacher. In truth, I don't have the patience for teaching. I sometimes teach writing, but I tend to be snappish around people who are lazy, and so that makes me not that popular.

BOOKTHINK: You always come across as being a very frank and straightforward person - and that quality is expressed in your writing.

GRAFTON: I do my best. Honestly, I have seen writers in the business who start taking themselves terribly seriously, and it's just obnoxious. I don't believe in playing the Grande Dame. I'm a hard-working woman just like everybody else, and I don't like to put on airs.

BOOKTHINK: How important is this quality of honesty, the lack of pretense in expression, to successful writing?

GRAFTON: To me it's important because it keeps me grounded. I don't believe my own press notices one way or the other. My job always is to write the next sentence well. Anything that doesn't help me to do that is not relevant. I just really keep my head down and do the job in front of me, which is hard enough as it stands.

One of the things I work for in Kinsey Millhone is to keep her human side. I don't want her to be larger than life; the fate of the free world does not hang in the balance in my books. She is, like me, a hard-working professional, and I write about her work, in the main, some about her private life, but I try to stick to my subject matter where possible.

I am often told that she is a role model for girls, and I just think, "Well, that's silly," because it's too much; the poor things will never get on in life.

BOOKTHINK: She comes across as very real, though, and I think the honesty in your writing helps us relate to her.

GRAFTON: She is largely based on myself, as you might imagine. I may be good at what I do, but I don't make this stuff up. Where possible, I just project my own personality into her life and try to keep track of who she is and how she differs from me but in a way that keeps us connected.

BOOKTHINK: In fact, she seems so real to many of us that it's easy to make the mistake of thinking you are her. But you have your own life story, including a husband, children and grandchildren.

GRAFTON: I have three children: a daughter, Leslie, son Jay, and my youngest daughter Jamie. Leslie has two daughters; Erin age 21 and Kinsey, age 13. Jamie has two daughters; Taylor, age 4, and Addison, age 2. My son Jay is unmarried, but he seems to like it that way.

I'm absolutely crazy about my kids and grandkids and sons-in-law and spend as much time with them as I can. Leslie lives in Virginia Beach, Jay in Ventura, and Jamie up near San Francisco - so while they're spread out. We manage half the holidays together and a family vacation every other summer.

BOOKTHINK: Does creating a second life story through Kinsey Millhone keep you young?

GRAFTON: I hope so! When I started these books, I was maybe let's see ... I started A is for Alibi in about 1977; it took me five years to write it. And at that time I was 37. I first published A is for Alibi when I was 42; at that point Kinsey Millhone was 32. And here we are all these years later: I am now 66 and she is 37! That seems so unfair to me! She gets to have immortality, the sweet thing.

BOOKTHINK: The 1980's don't seem that distant to me, but they were a simpler time in many ways. And your character Kinsey Millhone lives a fairly simple life. Do you think that's part of the charm for readers - her pared-down life and the absence of computers, cell phones, and other technology that has cluttered up our lives?

GRAFTON: For starters, after I wrote A is for Alibi and it became apparent that I would do B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, etc., I needed to make the choice about Kinsey Millhone's aging process. I thought with 26 books, even if I'm really fast (which I'm not), that is a lot of years, and it will be absurd if she ages one year for every book. Because by the time I got to the end of the line here, she'd be 99, along with me.

So I decided she would age one year for every two-and-a-half books. When the series ends, it will be the narrative year 1990, and she will turn 40. It's a wonderful age. I think that's a nice place to leave her. I don't think she should have to go through menopause in front of the American public!

BOOKTHINK: There's a lot of planning involved in this, not only in each book, but for the series of books. You've really thought this out haven't you?

GRAFTON: Well you know, I agonize over every single book. I'm just waiting for another easy one.

BOOKTHINK: Has there ever been an easy one?

GRAFTON: Once I figured out the strategy for S is for Silence, it came quickly. But it took me a year to realize that I could do multiple point of view and that I could move back and forth through time. See, I'm slow! Any other writer - it would have occurred to them in a New York minute. I'm sitting there going "How can I do this? How can I tell this story?" Finally, my Shadow side kicked me in the butt and said, "Here, you dummy!"

Then I was in much better shape and I wrote the book in six months, which is unheard of.

BOOKTHINK: The multiple point of view was an interesting approach. You always manage to keep each new book fresh.

GRAFTON: I try. And that adds to the hysteria, I've got to tell you, because I don't want to do different just for the sake of doing different. I don't want to just get gimmicky and outsmart myself. Each book has to have a legitimate reason for being what it is, and that's what takes me so much head-scratching.

BOOKTHINK: I really enjoyed S is for Silence, but you know who I missed? Rosie and Henry. I've come to love Rosie and I hope Henry (the octogenarian hunk!) lives to be 100. Will they be back in bigger supporting roles in T?

GRAFTON: They will be much more visible in T. One of my problems with Henry is that I'm so in love with the man, and I try to keep him from just being so fucking perfect! I like to see him kind of cranky and disagreeable sometimes, because he's human like the rest of us. So sometimes I give him a little time off. When his presence is necessary to a story, I write about him; but I don't just put in the obligatory Henry chapter; that's not fun for me.

BOOKTHINK: As I remember in one of the books, he got romantically involved with someone.

GRAFTON: Oh, that was in C is for Corpse, I believe, when Lila Sams showed up. She was fun!

BOOKTHINK: People sometimes ask me if they should start with A when reading your books, and I always say you can pick up any of your books, start reading and find enjoyment. Each one is unique, can stand alone, and yet has a similar flavor. How difficult is it to accomplish, having a progression in these books, yet being able to read any one of them on its own merit without having a reader feel lost?

GRAFTON: I think sometimes readers are intimidated by the entire notion of having to read that many books. I usually recommend A because if you don't like that one, you aren't going to like the rest of them, so you might as well save your money. Give it a try, and if it doesn't suit you, no harm, no foul.

A is for Alibi was so full of sass, that to me, it's one of the fun books; it's just fun to watch her kick ass and take names. I do think these books are a little like meeting someone at a cocktail party. Maybe a person is fifty years old, and little by little, you get to understand who they are. So it's not like we all have to know each other from birth. Most of us encounter each other much later in life, and we're still able to fathom a person's past from what we know of them in the present.

And my other favorite is J is for Judgment.


GRAFTON: Over the years, before the writing of that book, I'd received a number of finger-wagging letters from readers chiding me for my use of foul language, which I always personally enjoy (the cussing, not the finger-wagging criticism of my vocabulary). I thought I'd succeeded in ignoring the letters, but unconsciously I'd begun to self-censor. Eight chapters into J I was disturbed to realize the writing was lifeless and flat. I'd been 'goshing' and 'darning' my way through the narrative, and I truly think Kinsey Millhone was pissed off at me and had gone on strike.

I heard about a Jungian therapist in L.A. I drove down and met with him once and then he and I did therapy by phone for three months. He taught me the difference between Ego and Shadow, Ego being the self we present to the world, shiny halo in place, in our pathetic hope of being liked. Shadow is our dark side, where all the creative energy lies. Shadow is about play ... about truth ... about intuition and taking risks. Shadow is about all the petty, nasty, shameful pieces of our nature that we spend our lives trying to hide.

I began to write out of Shadow, setting Ego aside, and it changed the way I work. The books are still difficult, but at least I have my head on straight. I think my understanding of Ego is what has helped me stay disconnected from self-puffery and self-aggrandizement. Ego interferes with the work. Shadow IS the work.

BOOKTHINK: One of your books, Q is for Quarry, was based on an actual cold case, a "Jane Doe" murder. Did any leads result from the publication of your book, and have there been any breakthroughs in solving that particular case?

GRAFTON: Leads came in, but none that went anywhere. Nowadays, the American public is very interested in crime and they are very eager to be of assistance. However, often I think they don't understand how these things work. For instance, I would get a letter from someone saying, "My cousin disappeared in 1972 and I'm just wondering - that picture looked a lot like her." And I'm thinking, this body was actually found in August of 1969, so wherever your cousin may be, this ain't her! But you know, you have to be polite because people want to be helpful, and who knows, maybe one of the calls coming through will be the real deal.

BOOKTHINK: I've read that not only do you work closely with law enforcement, but also that you are a crack shot! Is it true?

GRAFTON: Well, yes I am. I don't shoot often. I learned to shoot because I knew that was a skill that Kinsey Millhone would have. And I quit while I was ahead. They thought I was such a whiz at it. I thought, "Okay, my career as a shooter is over here!" But it was fun. They put me in this room where they simulated dangerous situations, and I stood there with my little gun and figures would pop up from behind buildings. You had to be careful that you were firing at the real villain, because sometimes it would turn out to be a kid with a cap gun.

Law enforcement is very particular about officers drawing a gun. If an officer draws a gun, they have to explain exactly why; it's not just a crap shoot, as it were. So they really taught me the fearful consequences of being in danger of your life.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure you've consulted with them many times over the course of your career.

GRAFTON: Yes. Law enforcement people are just the best. I love them to pieces.

BOOKTHINK: How does being a writer change the way you observe everyday life? Do you come across interesting character traits or small events in your normal activities that get inserted into a story line?

GRAFTON: In the main, I don't write about "real crime." But I'm always looking at it because it does fascinate me. I just don't understand what people do, but I'm going to learn, I'm going to figure it out. It's an interesting phenomenon - why do certain people cross the line? So I always read about crime. In my local paper, every day, there's some incredible story that you think just can't be true. The thing about real homicide is that it's so pointless and usually so poorly executed and badly planned.

I don't kid myself that what I'm doing is writing about real murder, but it is a way of allowing a reader to look at crime from the safety of an armchair, to get close to evil without being in jeopardy.

BOOKTHINK: You have a terrific website, and I love reading about how you attack your writing projects.

It's interesting to me that you keep working notes in a journal for each project that can end up being longer than the book itself.

GRAFTON: I'm going to go back and total up the pages I've devoted to T before I found the story. I would guess a thousand (I haven't counted) because I came up with and abandoned so many story lines - six to be exact. And there were some I was so sure I could make work but couldn't do it. So I would back off, start somewhere else, and my Shadow would be going, "Do that one, let's do that one!" And I'd be going, "Leave me alone!" Eventually, I just had to take myself in hand - like, "Shut up and do something here." When I finally got a fix on T, it's gone better, which is a blessing.

BOOKTHINK: But it was a lot of work getting there.

GRAFTON: Oh ... agony. Just agony.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure a lot of aspiring writers don't understand how much work is required, even when you are an accomplished writer - the tenacity and discipline it takes.

GRAFTON: What I worry about with writers coming up now is that everybody thinks they can write a book, which makes me think, "Oh, goodie! I'll stand back here and watch you do it, and then we'll have a discussion." Many people imagine that you just write a book and then magically, if you know the right people, you get it published. I get queries from people who are just so bewildered that they can't get this amazing book published.

I worry that people don't have the tenacity, the patience and the humility to learn to write well. Knowing the right people has nothing to do with it. I truly believe that, if a book is worth publishing, it will find a publisher. The publishers are panting for good writers. Everybody's daydream is to find the next good writer. It's not that there aren't willing publishers for professionally written material.

BOOKTHINK: A couple of times in other interviews you've referred to the future last book of the series as Z is for Zero. Is that a firm title, and do you already have an idea kicking around of how you will end the series?

GRAFTON: It's a firm title, but I don't have an idea kicking around for it; I'm happy to be moving along on T. I always used to say that, after I finished Z is for Zero, I'd do numbers, but that idea is now in use by another author.

BOOKTHINK: I think most writers enjoy solitude to some degree, and I think about how the kind of success you have achieved impacts a writer's life. Tell me about the contrast between the solitary work of a being writer and the pressures of going on tour to promote your books and meet your fans.

GRAFTON: My true preference would be to stay in my office all by myself and just have a blast for the rest of my life. However, I think selling books is part of the job. None of us, no matter what you do for a living, get to do just the fun part.

In a way, once I'm out on the road it is lovely to meet people. I'm treated very kindly by the public, and I need to be reminded how decent people are, since I write about the opposite of decent. So I enjoy meeting readers, and I have long correspondence with a certain number of them. But being on the road is hard work - real hard work - and it takes all my energy. I will always tour, God willing. But I'm keeping it as simple as possible.

In the early days, I once did 28 cities in 21 days, and it was horrible, punishing. Now, I think, "No, no." I've got to keep my strength up, because the true point is to write books, not to get out there and tap-dance my tiny heart out. Fortunately, I'm treated well.

My husband has no sympathy whatever. He says, "Oh, I wouldn't mind going out and having people standing in line for hours to tell me I'm wonderful." He used to go with me. After awhile I could see how boring it was for him, to stand there watching people kiss my ring. C'mon. So now he stays at home and keeps the houses running. He's usually teaching, so it's not like he has spare time.

BOOKTHINK: It's always good to have someone who can play the devil's advocate when we have a temptation to whine.

GRAFTON: Oh, I know. And my friends will tolerate a certain amount of that, and then they get real bored with it.

BOOKTHINK: What's the best thing and the worst thing about becoming such a popular author?

GRAFTON: I think the worst thing is the pressure I put on myself. Really, readers are quite charitable. If I tell them how tortured I am, they go, "Well, Sweetie, you just take your time. Don't you let them bully you. If we have to wait another year, that's just fine." So I'm the one on my case, trying to keep the writing as honest as I can make it.

The best thing is that I kind of get to do what I want, within the framework of these books. Nobody tells me how to do them. I am left absolutely on my own, which is sometimes good news, and sometimes not. But I don't take supervision very well; it's like, "doesn't play well with others." So I'm fortunate that I have an agent and an editor who know, and they are very protective of me. And they just let me operate at my own level. That has been a true gift.

One of the things I do - I just keep reminding myself all the time: This is mystery writing. I'm not a neurosurgeon. Ha! I'm just telling stories here. So it's a way of reminding myself what the job is. What it comes down to is that I'm writing mystery novels; I'm not saving humanity. And that keeps it at a level that makes sense to me. Writing truly is about playing.

BOOKTHINK: And that's probably when it's at its best - like you said, when you were writing A is for Alibi, you were just having a good time.

GRAFTON: Exactly.

BOOKTHINK: What has been the proudest moment of your writing career?

GRAFTON: Hmmm…that's a good one. My father taught me to be modest. And so I seldom toot my own horn. The pleasures I take are quite private.

For instance, I did a book signing once in Los Angeles, and there was this kid in line who had written a paper for his English class about me and Kinsey Millhone. I read his paper when I got back to the hotel after the signing and just burst into tears. I thought, "Isn't this the most amazing thing!" Now that's not something you can talk about very much because it sounds so self-serving, but it was just dear to know that this 13-year old kid had read my work and taken it seriously enough to apply his own judgment to it.

BOOKTHINK: How amazed are you at the effect you have on people?

GRAFTON: I'm pretty amazed. And again, I just try to keep it in perspective because the danger always is that I'll get so full of myself I won't be able to do the work. I really work to keep my head screwed on right, I really work to be as I've always been, which is irreverent and sassy and hard to get along with.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure your dad is very proud of you.

GRAFTON: Wherever he may be, he better be! There are times I pray he's up there somewhere and giving me a little boost here. He was a very clever man. And one of my regrets is that I never got to talk to him about writing because A is for Alibi was published four months after he died. So, he never read the book, and I never got to sit down with him and talk shop. I would give a lot to know how he approached his work.

I have an unfinished manuscript of his, but there are no notes attached, and I can't tell where his head was. I can't see what he intended to do with the story line he'd come up with. So maybe when I've finished Z is for Zero, I'll take a look at his work and see what I can make of it.

BOOKTHINK: That would be a fascinating project. I'd love to know the outcome. I'm not going to keep you any longer, because I know you have work to do ...

GRAFTON: I'm kind of sorry that you're leaving me here in this pickle, because this means I'll have to get back to working on T.

BOOKTHINK: That's what we're waiting for, so get cracking. And thank you so much for taking time out to do this interview.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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