Saturday, December 30, 2017

"You Never Know If You Are Pulling It Off": Sue Grafton In Her Own Words

By Nancy Bilyeau

I had the privilege of interviewing Sue Grafton twice, each time for The Big Thrill. Soon after I became an editor for the digital magazine for International Thriller Writers, I was keen to profile Sue. I'd long been a fan of her Kinsey Millhone private-detective series, and though we hadn't met in person I saw firsthand her bond with readers when at the Bouchercon Conference in Albany, New York, the lines stretched around the conference hall for those who wanted her to sign a book.

In the late summer of 2015, I asked Sue's publicist at G. P. Putnam's Sons if she would like to be on the cover of The Big Thrill with her novel X, and Sue agreed, to my excitement. I talked to Sue on the phone for more than an hour; the result was a smashing story. When her novel Y was coming up in 2017, I again emailed Sue's publicist, Katie Grinch, and we arranged the second of my phone chats with Sue.

At the end of that conversation, she told me how much she had enjoyed our talks--"You're a real reader!"--and that it was important to her that we talk again when she was publicizing her final book in the series, Z. I had no inkling that Sue was ill. When I saw the post on the facebook page of Margery Flax sharing the news released by Sue's daughter that she had died of cancer this week, tears filled my eyes.

Sue Grafton had many, many readers, as well as friends and admirers in the mystery community. I found her an exceptional interview. Everyone knows how talented Sue was. But she was also very funny and very down to earth. She was more honest on her middle-of-the-night doubts about her work than almost any other writer I've interviewed!

I've combined and condensed my two interviews, in 2015 and 2017, to share with everyone Sue Grafton, in her own words.


There are series and then there are series. In 1982, Sue Grafton, a Kentucky-born writer with a fondness for Ross Macdonald, published A Is for Alibi. The novel introduced readers to Kinsey Millhone, a young female private investigator working in the fictional California town of Santa Teresa. As the books made their way through the alphabet, the mystery series attracted a growing, deeply loyal following and won Grafton multiple Anthony Awards and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. One caveat: She has vowed to never option her books to Hollywood and made her children promise to do the same “or else I will come back and haunt them.”

Grafton's W Is for Wasted, published in 2013, offered two plot lines: Kinsey discovering relatives she never knew existed after a homeless man is found dead, and a shady investigator named Pete Wolinsky trying a dangerous move to get a big payday. In this August’s release, X, Kinsey is on the trail of a possible art thief while dealing with the collateral damage of Pete’s tragic mistakes--and in so doing attracts the attention of a serial killer.

Many novelists are dying to make it as screenwriters. And yet you were once a working screenwriter with a lot of credits and dying to quit that and get into fiction. What's the story there?

I worked in Hollywood for 15 years. And I don’t play well with others. I don’t like anybody’s help. I was getting angrier and angrier. I knew they were ruining me. There is no use making a decision if four people after you will have their ideas. I thought, I have got to get out of here. I wrote A Is for Alibi as my way out, to dig my way under the wall. It took me five years to write that book. I wrote it for love. I had never done a mystery before. I felt like I don’t know what this is, but it feels good to me and I am my own boss again. I got paid $10,000 for that book. And here I am today. There you have it.

X is a suspenseful read and it is a fast read, but it’s also a deceptively complex novel. You have three strands running through the plot, all of a different tempo. There's the investigation, the detecting, both a new case and the unfinished business of Pete Wolinsky’s. There are character-based comedic passages. At times, it almost feels like a caper. But in the climax of the book I was terrified. So on one page I was laughing, and on another I was shaking.

I liked having the three strands. It seemed like a piece of knitting where you’re weaving colors together, and I enjoy that. If I have one story to tell, I worry I will get stuck or bored. I want to have cutaways.

Not every book in your series was written in Kinsey’s first person point of view. Why have you changed your technique?

In S, T, U, and V, I was doing multiple points of view and time switches. The first 18 books were all first person. Then I got to a point I felt, I’ve got to break out of this, I need some air and sunshine in here. I started using multiple point of view. It was liberating. The reader knows more than Kinsey does, which I think is fun. Then a reader, I don’t even know who, said in passing, “Why don’t you go back to writing the book from Kinsey’s point of view?” I thought, That sounds like fun. Well it was a nightmare.

A nightmare?

It was like all the action was taking place elsewhere. That drove me insane. 

So after all this time the books are still difficult to write?

Well, with W it became stressful. W was fun until I got to Chapter 32. I woke up one day and I thought, I don’t have any idea how this book ends. None. I had to write to my editor and my agent and the president of Putnam and say, “I really feel bad about this. This book has no end.” They were all, “No, you’re meticulous, you’re resourceful. We know you’ll figure it out.”

I know you must be facing many questions on why the book is called just “X” and not “X Is for…”

Originally I assumed it would be X is for Xenophobe or Xenophobia, and I’m writing away, until I’m like, "Hello, there’s not a foreigner in sight." Well I can’t stick in a killing of a foreigner, just to have a foreigner. I have learned to stay out of my own way, so I kept writing. When I got to the end, there were X’s in there but they would be for the B story or not really work, so I thought to myself, Oh, hell with it, I’m the one made up this rule and I shall break it. I think my foreign publishers love it.

In reading your novels, I adore the details of Kinsey’s life. What she eats for breakfast, how she takes care of her car. How important is it to you to have that layer in the novels?

I just project myself into the part and try to describe what I would do in her shoes. While ever so grateful I don’t face half the dangers she does. I just face the critics and that’s scary enough.

So you don't compile lists of traits and tastes to build your characters.

I don’t intellectualize too much about it. I think about these people and these stories incessantly and more so as I get toward the end of the book. I try to operate out of my gut and not out of my intellect. There’s right brain being creative, and left brain being analytical. That balance is important. You can’t write without stopping to evaluate what you’ve done. But if you are in your editor brain it can shut you down.

You can’t write and criticize yourself at the same time. I have to take a lot of deep breaths.
I go by instinct. Even this late in the game I work by trial and error. I am very slow and I waste a lot of time thinking I have a good idea, and I pursue it and then I think, I don’t like this, and I have to back it up.

Have you had to completely start over with any of your books?

Oh, yes, Ma’am. I did that with H. I did extensive notes and I did research and I started to write the book and I couldn’t see how to project the story to the end. I junked it, and I was on deadline.

This is a lesson I learn every single time I write a book. Each time I think, Now I’ve got it, now I’m on track. And I start the next book and I’m right back at square one. But maybe that is what’s keeping me in business. I never get to a place where I think that I know what I’m doing. Each book is a special challenge in itself. Eudora Welty said, "Every book teaches you the lessons necessary to write that book." To which I might add, But those lessons don’t carry over.

You must know that people are mourning the end of the series as it gets closer.

On my final tour we’re going to do group therapy and I will have medication for everyone. We will work on our separation anxiety.

It’s four years from now, and I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen. I want the freedom to see what it feels like when I get there. I’ll be close to 80. Someone suggested I start a little family with fertility treatments the way they are.

What do you think it would be like if you started the series now, with the pressure on authors to have a platform and so forth?

I put more pressure on myself than I get from my publisher. My editor, my agent, and the president of Putnam, they are so protective of me. I am the one generating the stress. To me, writing is stressful. It’s like an out of body experience. I have to give up the shell of Sue Grafton to get into Kinsey Millhone. But no, I can’t get caught up in the expectations of others. That’s not my job. I have to be as truthful and write with as much integrity as I can manage. I don’t cheat, I don’t take shortcuts, I don’t fake. That’s part of what puts such a burden on the process. But I only have two to go!


Sue Grafton is very much aware that, having written and published Y Is for Yesterday, she only has one book left in the alphabet, and for the legions of fans of the 35-year Kinsey Milhone series, there is going to be some separation anxiety.

But before there is Z, there is Y Is for Yesterday. Readers are definitely responding both to the momentum of the series reaching the end and the storytelling strength of this particular novel. As of September 1, Y Is For Yesterday was No. 1 on the USA Today bestseller list and the third most read book on amazon.

In Y, Grafton has created a tense and involving story that delivers two perspectives and runs on two timelines. Some chapters are narrated in the first person by Kinsey, and in others we see the characters she's investigating, both now and then. The key to the plot is a group of teenagers at a high school catering to wealthy families, and a test-cheating scandal that leads to a worse scandal revolving around a sex tape, and then to an even more serious crime, a murder.

You did intense research for this novel, X. Tell me about that.

The son of the sheriff got involved with two or three other guys and mistreated a girl sexually and filmed it and circulated it among their acquaintances and the poor girl didn’t even realize what was going on until she was thoroughly exposed. There was a big court case over that and it was tricky because this was the kid of the sheriff, you know. The other case involved a 15-year-old kidnapped by drug dealers because his brother owed them $1,200. It was a kidnapping in which a large group of teenagers knew what was going on but no one told a parent or called the police until it was too late and the boy was dead. I couldn't believe how clueless these kids were and how irresponsible. They disassociated themselves and felt no particular responsibility.

While Kinsey is investigating a case, she has her own lethal reminder from the past to worry about. Throughout the book she is fighting down fear and taking steps to protect herself from Ned Lowe, a serial killer who is determined to get to her. Those parts of the book are downright scary. How do you do that?

You have to stay in the moment, and really imagine and not try to paint it with adjectives. What is she seeing, what is she smelling, what is going through her mind?

You've said writing isn't easy.

Oh, no. You never know if you are pulling it off or not.

I understand you don't have a circle of readers to workshop the books.

When I am working on a book, nobody reads it—nobody. If I get stuck, I start whining and I go into my husband’s office and talk about it. 'I screwed it up—you've got to help me.' And most of the way he helps me is to assure me that I’m not off track. I just lose confidence once in a while because you’re so close to the bone.

Here's what's puzzling to me. Lately I’ve been reading books and at the end there’s this lengthy mention and thank you for thirty people. I see 'Oh, Joannie, thank you so much for cookies,' and then there's Barry and Sandra. I think, Has this writer given a draft to every single one of those people? Because that means the work is homogenized. Everybody got to vote and everybody got to make decisions. The book is an amalgamation of other people’s opinions.

You make it sound as if it's dangerous to operate like that.

It is. Three-quarters of the time your instincts and impulses are correct and theirs are not. Once you start changing a little bit here and a little bit there, it throws the dynamic off. You don't have the book you thought you were writing.

The last novel in your series is taking on the importance of a top-ratings network-TV series finale.

I am not going to have a grand finale with fireworks, music and drum roll, and "Ta da." What I'm hoping is that Z will be a hell of a good read. I want to make sure I don't slack off. I have made a point of not cheating, not taking shortcuts, and I don't want to get like a barn sour horse, galloping at the end.

So Z is not going to be a hugely different book than those preceding it.

I do not want to end the series with fireworks, I want the book to be like the other books, with a good solid story, a beginning, middle and end, and a sense of who's who. I don't mind finishing up a couple of threads, I don't want to leave people hanging. But I don't feel any obligation to wrap it all up with a bow.

And what's next after that?

Maybe I'll write a standalone. That might be fun.


I'll miss you, Sue Grafton


  1. I'll take that anxiety medication now please! RIP Ms Sue Grafton, you are missed very much.

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