A Conversation With Sue Grafton

by Claire E. White

Internationally bestselling author Sue Grafton has come a long way from being a curious little girl in Louisville, Kentucky
Photo of Sue Grafton
who once rode the bus from one end of the line to the other just to see what was there. The daughter of a well-known bond attorney, C.W. Grafton, who wrote mysteries on the side, and a former high school chemistry teacher, Vivian, Grafton recalls her parents as "acoholics of a quite intellectual but benign sort. The were good people. They loved books. They were witty and amusing." While growing up, she learned to look below the surface for the hidden meaning in things, feeling keenly the emotional undercurrents in the household. Vivian died on Sue's twentieth birthday. But despite difficulties in her childhood, Grafton clearly is not the type to complain. She, like her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, have a very typically Southern outlook on life; take responsibility for yourself and when tragedy strikes, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and look for the next challenge.

Sue didn't care much for school as a child, and after graduating from the University of Louisville with a major in English Literature and minors in Humanities and Fine Arts, she heeded her father's advice and decided to skip law school (he told her being a lawyer would bore her to tears.) Her first two novels were not mysteries. Her first novel was published when she was 27 (Keziah Dane), and her second was published two years after that (The Lolly-Madonna War). She then spent ten years in Hollywood working as a screenwriter for television and films. She started writing mystery novels as an escape from her screenwriting life, which she detested.

While going through a bitter divorce and custody battle that lasted 6 long years, she would lay awake nights, miserable and "think of ways to nuke the guy...The problem was, I knew I would never be able to carry it out in real life...I really am a law-abiding citizen, a rule follower from way back." Her vivid fantasies about how to murder the man that was making her life a living hell led her to think of murder mysteries as a perfect outlet. Thus was born her famous private investigator, Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, et al. She detested her time in Tinseltown and was able to leave permanently right after G is for Gumshoe was published. She's never looked back.

Baby Photo of Sue Grafton
Sue is published in 28 countries and 26 languages-including Estonian, Bulgarian, and Indonesian. She's an international bestseller with a readership in the millions. She is known for her distinctive style, her realism, her deft hand with character, her acute social observances, and her gift for storytelling. Married for twenty years to Steve Humphrey, a guest lecturer who teaches philosophy at the University of Louisville and the University of California at Santa Barbara, she splits her time between the couple's home in Louisville and their 4½ acre spread in Santa Barbara. Extremely self-disciplined, she writes every day in her home office. And she dresses up to go to work -- no lounging in p.j.s till noon for her. She exercises twice a day, much like Kinsey herself. She has three children and two grandchildren, one of whom is named Kinsey. She loves cats, gardens, and good cuisine, unlike her fictional creation who thinks nature is best left outside and whose favorite meal is a McDonald's quarter pounder and fries.

We caught up with Sue before she began her national book tour for her new release, O is for Outlaw. She talked with us about the world of Kinsey Millhone, the creative process, and why writer's block is a good thing.

Let's talk about O is for Outlaw. In the introduction you make some interesting comments about the way time flows in the world of Kinsey Millhone. Why did you decide to keep Kinsey in 1986, without cell phones or the Internet?

Cover of
O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton
That was sort of an accidental decision that I made by default. A is for Alibi was published in May of 1982 and, in fact, took place in May of 1982. B is for Burglar took place in June or July, and C took place in August. So inadvertently, I began to do the books sequentially in her time frame, though several years had passed. B was not published until 1985, C came out in 1986. By then I had committed myself to the fact that her life operated at a slower pace. The beauty of it is that she doesn't have to age at the same rate the rest of us do. I don't know about you, but I'm not that fond of the process! (laughs) I'm trying to be brave and gracious. I think for her, having begun at the age of 32, she will be 40 years old when I get to Z is for Zero. And I think for her purposes it works well, because if she aged one year per annum (like the rest of us) she'd be 109 years old, like me, by the time we get to the end. So, I think in terms of her credibility it's better to keep her young and vital and sassy. I think it would start feeling a little peculiar if she were sixty and twirling that purse with a .44 in it.

Do you ever think that you will have her jump forward in time? Some mystery authors seem to be working in their own unique time scheme -- almost like in an SF novel.

It's possible, but that gets just as complicated in its way, because I would not age her that requisite jump. I would simply make it 1999 or 2000, and she would still be 36. And I'd still have people doing the math and writing me irate letters about my getting it wrong -- which I didn't. So, for now, I'll keep it as it is. Most of what I talk about in the story doesn't have anything to do with technology anyway. That's a choice I make, because I think the interesting thing about mysteries is not the technology but the study of human nature -- which I think stays the same over time.

The book also breaks new ground in that we learn a lot more about Kinsey's personal life and her past. What went into your decision that now is the time to let us into the secrets of her first marriage?

Desperation! (laughs). I had started work on the book, I think, on September 26th or 27th of 1997. I keep a journal for each book. I play "what if?" and "suppose..." I write this long whiny letter to myself trying to figure out what I'm doing. I considered one idea after the other, rejecting so many story lines. I would pursue one and decide it wasn't suitable. Finally, on the 24th of November, my psyche (I refer to my unconscious as my Shadow) said to me, "What about Mickey Magruder?" I thought, "Oh, well I could do that." I had always known that her first husband was Mickey Magruder. I had believed he was a police officer, older than she, and that she walked out of the marriage. But that was as much information as I had. So I thought, "Well, let's find out what's happened there." So I discovered it pretty much at the same pace with the reader. As I've said before, I get information about Kinsey's life on an "as needed" basis -- the rest of it is none of my business, she assures me. Apparently I was allowed to get this much, and I tried to be as discreet about reporting it as possible.

How did you go about creating Mickey? That must have been a tough one: coming up with her first husband.

It was fun. I try not to create so much as
Cover of
N is for Noose by Sue Grafton
I discover. One of my theories about these books is that they already exist. It's a very Presbyterian point of view. Presbyterians believe (and this is so comforting to writers)... Presbyterians have these weird beliefs about free will and predestination. Now I'm not even sure I believe in this, but it's a workable scheme so let's look at it. The Presbyterians believe that in the mind of God there is no time, which makes sense. In God's mind, it can't be Monday, August 23rd. In God's mind, it's all over, beginning, middle and end, all through the end of time. If that is true, then I have already written these books, right? All I have to do is figure out what I've already said. Which has to be easier than writing, don't you think? So, I consider that my job is to figure out what I already said, and just write it down again.

It was interesting that Mickey's life didn't really go as well as Kinsey's did.

No, it didn't, and I think she felt a really big responsibility for that. Although I don't really believe we are responsible for one another in that way. Certainly if you run over somebody with your car you have a certain responsibility. But, in the main, I think we are all here to do what we do. We imagine we have huge influence over other people, but it's a fantasy. The truth is each of us does what we need do in the order we need to do it, Kinsey, among us.

One of the difficulties with writing a series character like Kinsey is keeping the series from getting stale. But to me each of these books reads like a stand-alone novel. They all seem very different to me in tone and focus.

That's very deliberate on my part, and it's what keeps me on my toes. I don't want to write the same book 26 times. I don't even want to write the same book twice. So what I discover is that my Shadow, my psyche, will sometimes present me with a storyline. Like, "Hey boss this is new, fresh, original and different!" I get all excited and I write it all down. I start analyzing it and looking at it with my x-ray vision -- and I realize that it's a story I've told before. It's a set-up or a particular kind of plot line that I've used, and I jettison it. Out it goes!

The journals must be invaluable for that.

Oh, yes. Because I did journals in a rudimentary form for A is for Alibi, but I'm not even sure if I have those notes now. That was very long ago boys and girls -- before computers.

Oh, yes I remember. Carbons if you wanted a copy.

Cut and paste, and white out. Were we insane?

It was ugly.

It was nasty. But over the years I've begun to keep these journals and some were on those old big fat five inch floppies. We can't even translate
"Most of what I talk about in the story doesn't have anything to do with technology anyway. That's a choice I make because I think the interesting thing about mysteries is not the technology but the study of human nature."
those into common computer language these days. I have on my current computer all the journals used from G on. So, what I can do if I get scared or get writer's block (which only happens to be about once a day)? I can go back to the earlier journals and click in on any day and see that I was just as scared and just as baffled and just as stupid back then as I am today. That's a comfort to me. The journal for 0 was 367 single-spaced pages. So what it really speaks to is the fact that I work by trial and error. If I go down one road that doesn't work, I back up. I go down the next road, no, that doesn't work. Or maybe it will work in part and I take a right turn, no that doesn't work. I take a left turn; that might work. So I'm bumbling my way around trying to find the best way to tell a story. Trying to figure out who characters are. Trying to look at the pace, the balance between narrative and description and exposition and dialogue. And pummeling myself with the kinds of questions you have to ask over and over in order to discover what the right answer is.

Do you use outlines before you write your stories?

No, I generally look for the overview. I think with the mystery novel you have to know where you're going, but not in any great detailed sense. I generally know whodunit, who died, and what the motive for the crime was. Then I have to figure out what I call the angle of attack. In other words, how do you cut into the story? Where does the story begin? What's relevant in that first line or paragraph from the reader's point of view? And I have to figure out who hires Kinsey Millhone, and what she's hired to do. You would be astonished how long it takes me to figure that out from one book to the next.


Yes, because that's the place I can bury the scheme. Sometimes, like in for B is for Burglar, she was hired to find a woman because they needed her signature on a check. And in D she was hired to find a kid who was being given a check for $25,000 dollars, as I remember. So it's different from book to book, and generally of course it ends up being about murder. But, as far as I have heard, most private investigators don't start out involved in active homicide cases, so I have to find a way around that little reality.

The books are so realistic. Obviously you must spend a great deal of time on research; how do approach the research for the books?

I make phone calls. I humiliate myself. I love the research, but I am really an introvert. So I have to pick up the phone and call an expert in some field and humble myself by admitting my profound ignorance. Now many people know my work and are thrilled to death to talk to me. I have more offers of information than I have use for, and that does make it easier. Although, I always found people to be extremely generous. When I'm doing research, I do my homework upfront. I don't start from ground zero. I do as much reading as I can and thinking about things so I know what I need to know and what questions I want to ask, so that I don't feel I'm wasting people's time more than I have to. Generally if I do an interview I can do it in thirty to forty-five minutes. Then if I need to call back and get more data, I can do that too.

Let's talk about the day to day creative process. Take us through a typical writing day for you.

I get up at 6:00 AM and do a three mile walk and come back. I shower and have breakfast. I get to my office promptly at 9:00 AM. I don't work in my jammies. I've heard some writers do that. This is a professional job. I get here at nine, and I log onto the journal and look at where I was the day before. Usually in the dead of night my Shadow will give me an assignment. She lets me know what I need to be looking at. So I'll come to the desk with some question or some idea that I jot down. I will, of course, read the work I've done previously to see if it stands up and do some revisions on that. I try to do two pages a day. I'm not good for much more than that. But I spend hours in my office. Some of it's reading, some is research, some is revision and some is whining and writing in my journal. I break then for lunch at 11:30 AM or so and by 1:30 PM I'm usually done and I start exercising again. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do a four mile walk. Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, I lift weights and then spend some time in the pool, along with jogging. In Kentucky, at my other house, I have a tread mill and I belong to a gym there. My gym here I call a "Jill" because it's for women. It is Heaven on Earth; I have no competition for the machines. It's all state of the art. The machines are called Lady Paramounts, and are constructed for women. It's just wonderful. I eat dinner promptly at 6:00 PM, then by 9:30 PM I'm asleep, hoping to get in touch with my Shadow side again.

Do you write almost every day of the week?

I write everyday.

So far you've written one book a year. Is it hard to keep up that pace?

I've slowed down. I'm now doing a book every fifteen to eighteen months. I couldn't keep that pace up: each year to do the writing, the promotion and the book tour. I just couldn't do it without getting too cranky -- and I wasn't having fun. I was so stressed out trying to hit my mark. I thought, "That's not what it's about. Writing is not about hitting marks and being a good girl. It's about being a bad girl: sitting at your machine and thinking about murder and playing." Writing just takes that kind of time, so I made the decision not to have the books come out as often. Besides, you know what happens: if you bring out a book a year, they all think its easy.

The books that look easy probably had the most craftsmanship in them.

Absolutely. Of course, if a literary writer were to manage to come up with one book every three to five years, everyone would gasp and be amazed. But they expect genre writers to just crank them out.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

I think (if I can make a judgement about writers coming into the business), I feel everybody is in a horrific hurry these days. You write one book and you're ready for fame and fortune. I don't know that people are spending the time and attention on learning how to write -- which takes years. Everybody sees the success stories. So instead of taking five years to learn how to write a decent sentence, they're writing a book proposal and asking who your editor and your agent are. So I find it a little infuriating that there is not more care given to the issue of being wonderful at writing.

Everyone is in a hurry these days it seems -- it's not just writers who are impatient. Our whole society seems to be in fast forward. Instant gratification.

Cover of
A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
It's insane. It's unfortunate that we don't have a mentor system anymore. In the Renaissance, artists were apprentices to masters. You learn to do a painting by painting. But now we're all on the Internet cruising around, looking for a quick fix. So I caution writers all the time to slow down and pay more attention to the work in front of them than to the end result. I don't think you write one book and get anywhere. I think you write five books and then maybe you are finally on the right path. But it takes a long time to hear your voice, and to learn how to control material. It is amazing what words on a page can do. You think you have said it well, and you look at it three days later and realize it's a mess. I think writers coming into the business can't see the mess. Their prose seems sterling to them six months later, and its hard to recognize that there's still much to be learned.

Let's talk a little bit about your time in Hollywood. You've said before that you really didn't care for it all that much, and you were happy to get out. What did you dislike so much about doing the screenwriting thing?

I don't like to write by committee. I see writing as a very intense singular activity. I don't like to sit in a room with 26 year-olds telling me how to do my job. So that was the part that bothered me. I hated the sense of constant urgency. Someone was always saying, "Oh we have this project and you have to be down here next Tuesday." Nothing, nothing needs to happen that fast! Those projects always, in the end, came out mediocre. So what are we all rushing around for? The people I met were often smart, educated and --sometimes -- even polite. But the end result of the work, which took a year out of your life, was something you had to apologize for. I got tired of apologizing for things I hadn't decided to do. Somebody would say to me, "Oh here's a good idea." And at the time I thought "That's not a good idea; that's disgusting." But you're paid to kiss ass. So I finally got to the point where I thought, "If I'm going to succeed or fail it should be on my own process, not someone else's." Now, I did learn the following during my time in Hollywood: I learned how to structure a story. I learned how to do an action sequence. I learned how to get into a scene and out of it. I learned a lot about how putting a story together from writing screenplays. It was the business end of it and the day to day process that I couldn't hack. That is about my personality, it's not necessarily about Hollywood. Many people thrive in that world. Many people are alcoholics and many are people are still in therapy because they work in Hollywood. I am not. I am free.

You mentioned a little bit about writer's block. How do you get around it?

I love writer's block. Writer's block means that your Shadow has a little message for you, and you had better pay attention.
"I caution writers all the time to slow down and pay more attention to the work in front of them than to the end result. I don't think you write one book and get anywhere. I think you write five books and then maybe you are finally on the right path. But it takes a long time to hear your voice, and to learn how to control material."
Writer's block, I think, comes from two things, really. One is fear. Writer's block is about hysterical fear. So when I get writer's block, I think, "Okay, what am I afraid of?" Usually I'm afraid of being ignorant. Usually I'm afraid because I don't know what I'm talking about. I will be in a scene where I don't really know what it looks like. I don't really know how this particular person would speak. So I stop and do research until I am comfortable enough with the information to proceed. The other reason for writer's block (which is sort of related and probably more important) is that you're off-track and your Shadow is trying to get your attention to let you know you have made an error. So instead of looking at writer's block as a terrible thing that you have to thrash and bash yourself out of or power through, it's much better to get quiet and look at what that message from your psyche actually is. Which you always know. You can always hear that voice that says, "This is off, this isn't funny, this isn't working, this scene is misshapen." But Ego is always saying, "No it's fine, this is wonderful, this is perfect, that's not a problem." Because Ego is lazy. Ego doesn't want to trash a chapter and start all over. Ego wants to get to the end and get some praise and attention. So Shadow is that one who says, "But, but, but... the story line is muddy." Shadow's sitting there saying, "Why is she doing that? What's this about?" So you have to just welcome it. Writer's block is just a little message from your psyche. And I love that. It's like, "Oh, hello Shadow, what are you saying? Help me out here." The Shadow is there to help you do these things.

Then perhaps the trick is hearing what she has to say.

Yes, yes!

What do you love most about your job?

"[I]f a literary writer were to manage to come up with one book every three to five years, everyone would gasp and be amazed. But they expect genre writers to just crank them out."
I love being by myself. I love it when it works, and I can't for the life of me figure out how that happens. I think it is about sitting down day after day and paying attention and being open to the process. When it works, it is so wonderful to time travel. I go back to 1986. I leave my body and get into Kinsey Millhone's body, which is one reason, I think, that I resist it all so much, because that's not easy. There's something about it that is so amazing to me -- to create an entire other parallel universe and then inhabit it for a period of time.

You've said before that Kinsey is a not so disguised, alter-ego, at least in some ways. I know that you've been married most of your adult life. Kinsey's been married too, but I really think of her as a single gal at heart.

She's been divorced twice. I was divorced twice. I'm now married and will be for life. I got such a good one this time. I'm so lucky.

Is it fun, living out the single life through Kinsey?

It is. It is! I get to live her life. I get to look at relationships and figure out what makes them work and what makes them not work. In terms of her as a private investigator I just think it works better if a p.i. is single, footloose and fancy free. Part of it is that I don't write the little lovey dovey domestic scene. I don't want to watch them cook up gourmet treats and exchange witty remarks.

Well, that's a different book.

Yeah. My husband and I hardly ever do that. We do cook together, but those scenes when written always ring so false to me. I don't want to write them and I don't have to, because I'm the boss. That's the best part about writing -- I get to be the boss.

In the front of O is for Outlaw you have a dedication to your grandchild, Kinsey. Did that surprise you when your daughter named her?

Yes, I was very surprised. Very surprised. She's now five and a half. There are many Kinseys in this world. I have a whole file full of babies who have been named Kinsey. They all write to me and everybody who has a baby and names her Kinsey I send a little set of hand-painted barrettes. (I don't paint them myself.) And she gets a little letter from Kinsey Millhone telling her how to be a good person. It's fun. I think Kinsey is the Tammy and Heather of the 90s.

Now that you have a granddaughter named Kinsey, is that going to affect anything about the way you write the books?

No, I don't think so. It certainly is confusing to my granddaughter, because she doesn't quite understand the concept of herself being named after a fictional character. So, for instance, when she sees my license plate which says KinseyM, she's thinking, "Hey, I'm hot shit, she named her car after me!" I think, "Oh well, in due course she will realize that she was taking second seat to something I made up."

Lets talk a little a bit about technology and the electronic revolution. Do you use the Internet? Has it affected you at all?

I do use the Internet. I like Amazon.com. I've got a book on its way to me right now. I love getting online and ordering books. That's so keen. Obviously, there's a wealth of information on the Web. What I do not do is chat rooms, because they just seem so boring, just so boring. It's everybody rattling around being trivial. I don't do email. If I did, I would have fifty email messages a day and it would all be stuff nobody ever needs to ask me. If people have trouble, they write to me at my website. I don't get those email messages for six weeks, and half the time they don't give me their snail mail address. But if I get an address, I write to them. I do some research online. If I can get the stuff on the Internet, I do it. I think my husband is smarter and quicker about it, so I can come whining into his office and he'll help me sometimes. But it is fun.

What authors do you like to read?

My favorite is Elmore Leonard. I also like Simon Stuart O'nan. His book The Speed Queen wiped me out. It is just such a great book. It's one of those books I read and I thought, "I wished I had written this one." It's just a great set up. Who else do I read? I just finished reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which is science fiction. I do like SF and read it occasionally, but to me science fiction is what the mystery is to most people. I just don't know who's good. I recognize that it's broken down into various subgenres, and it seems overwhelming sometimes.

I know you have a national book tour planned for O is for Outlaw. Do you like touring?

I have another personality that I call on to do that work. The real Sue Grafton prefers to be here all by herself in her office. But I have a couple of personalities that do that work when I'm out on the road. Unfortunately, my body has to go with them. I do like meeting readers; it is fun. I call those my 90-second relationships. People come through a line and you have so little time to make a connection. But I don't like going from city to city, one a day. It's exhausting. I never know where I am. All you see is airports and the inside of book stores. At the end of a long tour you start suffering what is probably post-traumatic stress disorder, if the truth be known.

What's the strangest thing that's happened to you on a book tour? Or at a signing?

Once there was a person there who had a mental problem worse than mine. She stood at the front of the bookstore and greeted people as Sue Grafton. And she would ask to sign books!

Did she look anything like you?

Yes, but a great deal younger. She had dark shoulder-length hair and one of my readers was looking at the picture of me on the back of the book, then looking at her and saying, "Oh my God, they really air-brushed this chick and she looks nothing like her picture!" The bookstore people knew her and she was off her meds. They thought about calling the police, but somebody took her aside and bought her a cup of coffee and she explained all of her bitter complaints about the world. They finally got a taxi and took her home. But all I knew was when the signing was over I had an armed escort to my car, which I thought was very fancy treatment! Later, I realized that there was some concern about my personal safety, perhaps needlessly.

Certainly celebrity stalkings have been on the rise. You haven't had any troubles like that, have you?

No, nobody recognizes writers. I've been recognized a couple of times in public, in strange places by strangers. People know my name, but it's certainly not that often that they recognize my face.

How will you spend the Millennium New Year's Eve?

I'm going to be here in town, in Santa Barbara, close enough to walk home if it all turns sour on me. I'll take a pair of tennies in my purse or something.

Do you think you'll make any New Year's Resolutions?

Cover of
G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton
I tend not to do that on New Year's Eve. Everyday, I sort of resolve to be thinner. It's like everyday I look for ways to get my exercise, to eat well, to cope with stress and to get my work done at the desk here. That seems like a lifetime commitment -- I don't have to worry about that just once a year.

You and your husband like to cook, don't you?

Yes. Actually, we like really simple things. You know, you put a chicken on the rotisserie and barbecue. With a love of food, you're always looking for ways to keep from getting a wide butt. So, that's part of what the exercise is about.

If you had to pick, what do you think the greatest challenge is you've had to overcome in your life so far?

Well, I think the alphabet series would qualify right there in itself. The beauty of writing my way through the alphabet is that it always require me to dig deeper and try harder to keep the quality of the books up. I have vowed that I will never cut it, I will never fake it, I will never cheat. If I reach a point where I feel the books are suffering because I've lost my mind, or my power or my integrity -- I will quit. I will not write these books just for the sake of it. I will never sign it off to somebody else who secretly writes for my signature. So I just watch. I think it's important. I think it can be done one book at a time, one sentence at a time.

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