Sue Grafton's latest Kinsey Millhone mystery, "W" Is for Wasted,
has topped the New Times and USA Today bestseller lists.
Sue Grafton talks Kinsey Millhone
Mystery writer Grafton is much different from her creation, although they both have "family issues" to deal with.
Theatre Critic,Published on Fri Oct 11 2013
Meet the woman who’s done more for the alphabet than anyone since Campbell’s Soup.
Grafton’s the name — Sue Grafton, to be precise — and murder’s the game.
Since 1982, she’s penned 23 homicide mysteries, all featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Each one has begun with a letter of the alphabet, running in strict order, from the one that started the series, “A” Is for Alibi, to the current volume, “W” Is for Wasted.
And unlike other writers who run out of steam before they run out of paper, Grafton’s latest effort topped the bestseller lists of both the New York Times and USA Today, proof that at 73, she’s still got what it takes.
The woman who walks into Balzac’s in the Toronto Reference Library is smaller than you might have pictured her. The other surprise is that mint julep of an accent she still sports, a lasting souvenir of her Louisville, Ky., birthplace.
The lilting tones and honeyed cadences don’t quite jibe with her major creation, the hard-boiled California critter Kinsey Millhone.
Millhone is a girl who prefers jeans to skirts, boots to high heels and quarter-pounders to pheasant under glass, all of which distance her from her chic creator.
Grafton amusingly ticks off more similarities and differences between Kinsey and herself. “We’ve both been married and divorced twice. But she never went for round three, while Steven (Humphrey) and I have been going for 35 years now. Yeah, we’re lifers.
“I have children and grandchildren, which Kinsey doesn’t. I cook, which she doesn’t, but we both own a single all-purpose black nylon dress. I bought mine in Columbus, Ohio, for $98 in 1978. My kids always beg me not to wear it anymore.”
Another interesting way in which Grafton and Millhone resemble each other is that they’ve both had to deal with various skeletons in their familial closets. Millhone’s background keeps being revealed to us in all its complexity, but Grafton’s is simpler. She brought it to the forefront in a volume she brought out earlier this year, called Kinsey and Me.
It’s a collection of stories about both women’s pasts and how unfinished business can take a terrible toll.
“Family issues,” sighs Grafton. “Yeah, they can be tough. I know we’re not responsible for how we’re brought into the world, but once you know the facts, then you’d better play the hand you were dealt. That’s how it works. At a certain point, I just had to suck it up.”
What she had to cope with was her parents’ alcoholism, which was in full bloom for as long as she could remember.
“Look, I’ve come to realize that many people had it a lot worse than me. I’ve made my peace with it. The truth is that my parents were college-educated, passionate about books, soft-spoken, good-natured people. They were also alcoholics. And they just didn’t parent very well. It’s like they missed that day at school.
“But that also meant I grew up in ways that would pay off for a writer later on. I had tons of freedom. I was totally unsupervised. And I also became very observant, because that’s what the child of an alcoholic has to do. Where are my parents? How drunk are they? You start doing that an early age and of course it’s going to shape you.”
It also leads to a child inventing imaginary companions and Grafton was no exception.
“I guess that’s where Shadow comes from. I’ve been having a constant conversation with my dark side for most of my life.”
Grafton defines Shadow as “my subconscious” and says sometimes it has called her bluff on her writing.
“There was one book, a good one, too, “J” Is for Judgment. I was writing along and hadn’t decided how to end it. And Shadow said to me, ‘Oh sweetie, you don’t have the foggiest idea what this book is about.’ And I didn’t. But I learned and it came out just swell.”
Even after 23 volumes, Grafton confesses that, “I’m always worried I can’t fill up 600 pages. That’s why I often have two plots going on at once. It’s not just because I enjoy complexity, but if I get stuck on one story or bored with it, I’ve always got another to turn to.”
In the opening pages of “W” Is for Wasted, Grafton offers a pretty clear view of how she sees her world.
“Every good mystery takes place on three planes,” she has Millhone explain. “What really happened, what appears to have happened and how the sleuth . . . figures out which is which.”
Grafton offers that, “In detective fiction, the art of it is to disguise your purpose. I think of mystery writers as the magicians of literature. Our obligation is to do our tricks in full view of the audience. Nothing up our sleeves, nothing under the table.
“The goal is to fool your reader in a really nice way. If a reader finishes a book and says, ‘I don’t get it,’ then you’ve failed. If a reader guesses the killer on page 15, then you’ve failed too. The perfect book is when the reader is working through it and at the end says, ‘Oh, I get it now!’”
Did she think she’d get through all 26 letters of the alphabet when she started the series in 1982?
“I was much younger then, you have to understand, and I said to myself, ‘Surely there must be 26 interesting homicides I could invent.’ And that’s not the hard part. No, what kills you are the set-ups and the endings.
“In the old days, it didn’t matter how you set things up. A blond bombshell could walk into the detective’s office and that’s all it took. But now, the first questions I ask myself are, ‘Who is hiring Kinsey Millhone and what do they expect her to do?’ If I can’t answer those, I don’t have a book.”
To illustrate her point, Grafton brings up“H” Is for Homicide, now regarded as one of the best in the series.
“But I was in trouble with that one at the start, because Kinsey wasn’t connected to the case properly and the chemistry wasn’t working. I threw out six whole chapters and started all over again.”
And as if all this wasn’t tough enough, Grafton has given herself one additional hurdle. She has been writing the books for 31 years, but Millhone has aged only from 32 to 38. Her world moves more slowly.
If Grafton keeps to her original timetable, Millhone will turn 40 in the last book of the series. But the author isn’t sure she likes that idea.
“I don’t think putting somebody through menopause is my idea of entertainment. I don’t know what’s going to happen to her, but I promise I won’t kill her. I can’t picture her married with kids. But I don’t want to think of her spending the rest of her life alone.
“I think I might have to ask Shadow. I leave her notes in my journal, you know. ‘Dear, dear Shadow, please help me. Your friend, Sue.’”
Does this mean Shadow is her higher power?
“Maybe.” Grafton smiles “Or my lower one.”
FIVE FAVE MYSTERY WRITERS
“He was one of the people I looked most to for inspiration when I started. He doesn’t have a style you can imitate, you just enjoy it.”
“She was a very strange woman and I hear a very unhappy one, which comes through in her writing. It’s dark, compelling and full of tension.”
“I love her books because her style is silky and invisible; you never catch her pulling the strings and the psychology underneath is fascinating.”
“He was one of the greatest. I loved all of his books. I think he had the best ear for dialogue of anyone.”
“She was one of the first to make a name for herself. We write so differently, but I feel a strange kinship with her somehow.”