by Catherine Petruccione

#88, 19 February 2007

An Interview with Sue Grafton

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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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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