FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published in The Armchair Detective Vol. 22 Issue 1, Winter 1989.
There is an old Hollywood joke that goes something like this: “Did you hear about the blonde bombshell actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer?” The modern equivalent may well be, “What did the publishing company do to the writer they liked?”
Answer: “They sent her on a fourteen-day, ten-city author tour and allowed her to get beat up in seven different states.”
Sue Grafton arrived in San Francisco one sunny Friday afternoon to face the prospect of several book signings, a couple of newspaper and radio appearances, and, for all I know, she may have played third base that night for the Giants. She had a full schedule. Being a gracious lady, she took time out to allow me to ply her with liquor (Chardonnay was the drink of choice) and to perpetrate this interview. The staff of the Sherlock Holmes Pub in San Francisco was most helpful in keeping the glasses full and the tone light.
TAD: Let’s start with some general background stuff. Where you from? Where you been? How did you get here?
Grafton: Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where I lived for 20 years. I got a B.A. at U. of L. as an English major, of course. I came to California in 1962 with a marriage. I started writing when I was 22. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I had my first “straight” novel published when I was 27, the second two years later. Then I did a long detour into movies-for-television. I arrived at the mystery in the late 1970s. It took me about five years to write “A” Is for Alibi, which came out in 1982.
TAD: Why writing?
Grafton: My father was a writer. Actually, he made a living as an attorney, but he wrote three mysteries and a straight novel in the 1940s. I was raised around books and the image of writing.
TAD: I gather your dad is C. W. Grafton. Did you learn much from him about writing mysteries?
Grafton: He talked a lot about how to survive as a writer, how to deal with rejection, how to roll with the punches. He taught me to write with clarity and simplicity. He said it was never my job to revise the English language or to play games with punctuation, spelling, or capitalization. He always thought it was miracle enough if you could take the thoughts from one writer’s brain, translate them into symbols on a page, and have the same thoughts appear in someone else’s head. So he was not a fan of gumming up that process with tricks of any kind.
He talked often about the fact that you can always write the big scenes. But you have to pay attention to the transitions, because if you don’t handle the small things well, you won’t have a reader by the time you get to the big scenes. He was also very interested in minor characters, devoting as much time and attention to those as you do to your main characters.
TAD: Was the community different back then? The mystery world is so friendly today.
Grafton: Yes. He had no sense whatever of the mystery community. And I assume there was one in place. He was always startled to get a fan letter. He died in 1982, and I doubt if it ever occurred to him that there were other people out there who were aware of his work. It’s very unfortunate, because he always intended to go back to mysteries, but he just didn’t live long enough.
TAD: What do you think about his books?
Grafton: My feeling about them now is that he was just coming into his own. I’ve read Beyond a Reasonable Doubt about eight times, and it always astonishes me. I’m sorry I never had a chance to ask him how he put that together, because I think it’s so intricately constructed.
TAD: Can we assume that yours is the “classic” success story? First book accepted by the first editor, then sold to the first publisher for megabucks? That kind of stuff?
Grafton: Uh, no. We can’t assume that. When I started doing mystery fiction, the people in Hollywood told me I’d never make a nickel at it, so I said, “Hey, fine. I’ll do it for love.” The mystery was my antidote to the work in Hollywood, which I’d been doing for ten years. At that point, I needed some way to get back to solo writing after years of writing by committee, which I found very destructive. I wanted to be my own boss again, to struggle with material that mattered to me. Turns out the mystery is where I belong. Everything else has simply been part of the journey to get to this place.
TAD: Your first novels were not mysteries, though; they were “straight” novels. Tell us about them.
Grafton: Keziah Dane is my first published book, a novel about the Depression. I was 22 years old when I wrote that book, and I knew absolutely nothing about the Depression. I was so innocent about the writing process that I did no research whatever. Now, I won’t even turn on my word processor without doing some research! It just never occurred to me that you had to go out and actually study the subject about which you were writing.
The fifth novel I wrote, which was my second published novel, is called The Lolly Madonna War. It was largely a story of two families in Appalachia feuding over a piece of land … a kind of Hatfield and McCoys. In those days, I often wrote quite strange books. I don’t know where these books came from, and I was very happy when they finally went away, because I don’t think I was meant to be a mainstream writer.
TAD: Didn’t Lolly go on to be something else?
Grafton: It was done as a film, and came out from MGM in 1973 with Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Season Hubley, Gary Busey … a fine, fine cast, but not a good movie.
TAD: Did you do the screenplay?
Grafton: Yes. It was the first one I ever wrote. It’s how I learned the form. I collaborated with the British film producer who had bought the right to the book. It was my entrée into the film world.
TAD: How did you feel when you saw the film? Was it a shock?
Grafton: Yes. Because I hadn’t understood the difference between the violence that appears on the page and the violence that appears on the screen. And truly, the book was not very well suited to that translation process because there were 14 characters. I would never do that now that I know film is a much more stripped-down medium. At the time, I didn’t understand that, so it was not a wonderful movie. A good lesson, though.
TAD: Do you think they increased the violence in the filming, or did it just look different?
Grafton: When you stand there and watch a special-effects man load wet Kleenex into a gun to simulate human brains, you know you’re in trouble. When I saw a rough cut of the film, I thought, what kind of sicko put that together? And then I realized it was me.
TAD: After that screenplay, did you make connections that enabled you to go on in Hollywood?
Grafton: I was in collaboration with this British film producer for three years, and we never got anything else launched. When that collaboration broke up, I had an agent say to me, “Well all the scripts you did together have both your names on ‘em. Everybody’s going to assume that he did the writing and you did the typing. So you’ll have to do some work solo.”
Now, what happened truly isn’t possible, so how I did it, I don’t know. The same fellow told me to watch a television show I liked and do a script on spec. The only show I watched was Rhoda, so I specced a script for Rhoda, which was rejected. However, they thought it was so odd and original that they called me in for this meeting. I just went on a lark, thinking I’d probably never write another Rhoda again. But I did another script, which was also rejected. I got an assignment from that. My first television work was an episode of Rhoda that appeared in the spring of ’75. Then an executive named Donald March at CBS remembered a script I had collaborated on and hired me to do my first movie for television. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years or so.
TAD: How is writing for Hollywood or television different than writing a novel?
Grafton: When I was working for Hollywood, I got very spoiled. I was accustomed to being paid lots for what I wrote. When I decided to write mysteries, I said to myself, “Well, I’m going to write 65 pages of this book, and, if it never sells, I won’t have to finish it.” I was worried I’d devote a year of my life to “A” and the publishers would tell me they’d done a book just like it, or, “Sorry, we’re not doing private eye novels this year.” After six or seven rejections, Henry Holt–which was then Holt, Rinehart and Winston–brought it.
It occurred to me I better find a way to finish the book. They assumed I knew what I was doing when, in fact, I hadn’t the faintest idea. They never asked me for an outline. I’ve never done a proposal for them. I’ve never done an outline either. They never know anything about what I’m writing until August 15, when I deliver a finished manuscript.
I think writing television taught me to be economical and concrete. It also taught me how much better it is to write books. The writer in Hollywood is trash, but well paid. The money is meant to insure you’ll be cheerful, cooperative, keep your mouth shut, and throw in one free re-write. With the mystery novels, I make much less, but I don’t have to spend any of it on therapy.
TAD: Hollywood is that rough?
Grafton: I think you can tell from my responses that I am really adamant about not being told what to do. Those committee meetings I sat in on, where everyone tried to help me write, just weren’t good for me. I know how to be a team player. I’m enough of a hustler that I enjoy that, in a way. I’m very good at it, but I finally reached a point where I felt that if I wanted to redeem whatever minimal writing skills I had left, I’d better get back to solo work. The best way to get good writing out of me is to give me permission to write well and then leave me alone to do it.
TAD: Why did you decide to write mysteries?
Grafton: Hollywood was telling me that I could do character, but I didn’t know how to plot. So I decided that I’d just have to teach myself how to plot. And the one area where you have to know plot, where you can’t fudge that, is the mystery novel. Since my father wrote them, I guess, in the back of my mind, I always thought I’d do a mystery one day. So I just sat down and put together “A” Is for Alibi, which is partly based on a little scheme I came up with to kill an ex-husband of mine. He put me through three custody battles. He taught me how to fight, I’ll tell you that. I learned it from an expert. I’d lie awake at night, feeling helpless and frustrated. In the process, I came up with an idea for doing him in. Of course, I knew I’d get caught at it, and I’d have to spend the rest of my life in a shapeless prison dress.
TAD: What could be worse?
Grafton: That’s right. Disgracing the very children I was fighting to keep. So I decided to put the murder plot in a book and get paid for it, and thus have the best of all possible worlds. It launched a whole new career for me.
TAD: Why a three-year hiatus between “A” and “B”?
Grafton: “A” was easy because I did it as a lark, and I had nothing at stake. All that could happen was that I might fail, and I’d failed at things before. Then “A” picked up some good reviews, and I was suddenly self-conscious. By the time I got to “B,” I was facing writer’s block. It just took a little time to coax my soul back into my body.
TAD: Are you happy with Holt?
Grafton: Oh, sure. They leave me alone. I don’t like editorial interference. What happened to me in Hollywood is that I became too much of a prima donna and not enough of a star. I still have the attitude that I know what I’m doing, and I want to be left alone to do it. I must say, Bantam’s done a tremendous job for me with the paperbacks. That’s been a wonderful relationship. Between the two of them, I’m one happy pup.
TAD: I take it, then, that your books don’t require a lot of editing?
Grafton: Very little. Partly because I’m so obsessive. I revise endlessly. What I’m striving for is to go back at the end of a book and find every single sentence exactly as I meant it to be and every single word precisely what I intended. I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve that goal, but I devote a lot of my time to the refining process.
TAD: Do you have a writing “routine” that you follow?
Grafton: I get up at six every morning and I run three miles. Shower, breakfast, and at the machine at nine. My husband and I work with a Fortune 32:16 which has two monitors and two keyboards. I write from nine till about eleven-thirty in the morning. Sometimes, if I’m working on a short story or a script, I’ll write again in the afternoon, a separate session. Or, if I get slightly behind on the book, I’ll double up. I’ve been known, when I was doing a film project, to get up at 4:30 in the morning and work on that from five to six before I ran. Then work 9:00 to 11:30 on the book and in the afternoon on another script. I couldn’t keep that up for long, but I needed to know I could do it in a pinch. I’m always pressing myself.
I try to do a chapter a week. My chapters run 10 to 12 pages, so I end up doing about two pages a day, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s persistence that counts. Takes me 10 months altogether to write a book. Late afternoons, after the work is done, I walk four to five-and-a-half miles down at the beach. I was writing seven days a week, but I’ve now decided I should have Sundays off. I don’t exercise on Sundays either. Just lazy, I guess.
TAD: What do you do if you’re on page 87 of the next Kinsey book and a TV deal comes along where you only have three weeks to put it together?
Grafton: I’ve been saying “No” to those. I could do it if we were down to our last dime. I would work on it in the afternoons and still do the books in the morning because that’s when my energy is best.
TAD: You have done a few short stories. Do you enjoy them as much as novels?
Grafton: I think they’re much harder to do. The canvas is so tiny it’s like painting the lid of a pillbox with a brush with only one hair. I like to do them, but they almost have to come to me intact.
TAD: If you were to break a book down into component parts–plot, setting, whatever–what do you feel you do well and what do you feel you need to work on?
Grafton: I always need to work on plot. That’s the real struggle of my life – learning how to plot. I feel like character comes to me more naturally. Dialogue is easy to do, but it’s not very satisfying. What I love best is doing a paragraph of prose where I feel I’ve been succinct and evocative, I also love to do research and then render it back into the books–without showing off, I hope. I do a lot of research.
TAD: Who do you read that you feel has it all together?
Grafton: Elmore Leonard, Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie for her cleverness but not for character development. I like Ross Macdonald, but he tended to tell one story over and over again. Now they call it his “leit motif” and praise him for it. If I did that, the critics would have my hide.
Part of my current plotting/writing technique I learned from Tony Hillerman. He’s wonderful. He wrote an article for The Writer magazine in which he said he never did outlines, and he just decided to stop feeling guilty about it. His attitude is that writing a novel is like driving in fog. You can see some distance ahead of you, so you write to that point and then the road clears a distance ahead of that. I’ve been using this method of late and loving it. I do outline, but I keep it very loose.
TAD: How much of Sue Grafton is in Kinsey Millhone?
Grafton: She’s a stripped-down version of me. She’s the person I would have been had I not married young and had children. She’ll always be thinner and younger and braver, the lucky so-and-so. Her biography is different, but our sensibilities are identical. At the core, we’re the same, but I’ve discovered many things about her. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know. Because of Kinsey, I get to lead two lives–hers and mine. Sometimes I’m not sure which I prefer.
TAD: Any non-Kinsey books in the future?
Grafton: I don’t know about that. If I ever got bored or burned out on the series, I’d stop and do something else. Maybe a children’s book–Kinsey at age five. It would be great to hook readers in kindergarten and baby them along through young-adult fiction to adult fiction. I get dibs on that idea, by the way.
TAD: You have how many children?
Grafton: I have three, plus a granddaughter who’ll be three on Halloween. I think that’s the perfect birthday.
TAD: Have your children followed in your footsteps?
Grafton: My son is getting into special effects; he’s very interested in pyrotechnics. And I have a daughter who has a small business with her husband repairing VCRs. My youngest is in art school in San Francisco but is just discovering the joys of secretarial work. She had worked at Mel’s Diner, which is one of those ‘50s diners, and just got tired of crabby, hungry people. So I’m waiting to see whether she’ll finish school or what. They’re really good kids, and I’m crazy about ‘em.
TAD: What about the “gimmick” of the titles?
Grafton: Part of that is because my father’s short-lived series was based on a nursery rhyme. The Rat Began to Gnaw the Ropeand The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher. I remember when I started working on the first mystery, I was looking at a collection of cartoons by Edward Gorey called, I think, Catagorey, in which all the cat characters were alphabetized … I can’t quite remember. Suddenly, it occurred to me to do a mystery series based on the alphabet. I’ve since found out that Lawrence Treat wrote several stories with a similar idea – “V” as in Victim, “H” as in Homicide. His weren’t sequential, and I don’t think they featured a continuing character, but I could be wrong about that. Anyway, so much for my originality.
TAD: Publishers and editors talk a lot about writing with a “different voice.” Talk a little about that, whatever it is.
Grafton: Voice is a big issue. Until I found the right voice for Kinsey Millhone, I wasn’t in business. “Voice” is about getting connected to your “stuff.” A sense of authenticity or truth. A writer’s voice is that unique blend of viewpoint and language that echoes a writer’s soul, if that doesn’t sound too lofty or pretentious.
TAD: Out of a field of perhaps a dozen women writing private eye fiction, you seem to be the one with a sense of “marketing.” The titles, the singsong quality of the name Kinsey Millhone–both seem to imply a kind of “slickness” or a conscious effort toward marketing.
Grafton: Marketing is as important as the writing when it comes right down to it. It dawned on me some months ago that I am, in effect, in business with Henry Holt and Bantam. We’re partners. Before that, I’d taken the position that I was just a lowly writer and grateful to be published. Not any more. I was raised to be chronically modest, but you get to the point where that just doesn’t sell tickets. Consequently, I’m really very actively involved in the publication of these books. The promotion is fun; it’s the writing that’s agony.
Another reason I might seem “slick” is that I’m really an old warhorse. I’ve been writing for 25 years. When you go through the Hollywood training ground, I think it does something to you. What, I’m not sure. All I know is, I work hard on these books, and I’m so committed to the process that it’s a pleasure to get out and sell. Besides which, I like people, especially mystery readers. They’re such fanatics.
TAD: With all the time spent in Hollywood, have there been any options or movie deals?
Grafton: Some nibbles from television, but I worked in TV too long to do that to myself. Television has absolutely no regard for writers. They take your material and do with it as they see fit, and, because they pay you large sums of money, you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut. I’m not interested in that any more. I’m very possessive of Kinsey Millhone. I am interested in the notion of film, but not a movie-for-television. My inclination would be to make a deal with an actress who has a deal with a studio … an actress whose work I know and admire. Otherwise, it’s too much of a crapshoot. Plus, you run the risk of losing the rights to your own character. Think about that one. Anyway, we’ll see. I’ve got 20 letters to go.
TAD: If you could cast it…
Grafton: Sigourney Weaver or Debra Winger.
TAD: What are your feelings about the Mystery Writers of America?
Grafton: I’m a card-carrying, dues-paying fan and member. I have been since 1982. My interest in MWA and mystery writers in general is the comradeship. I don’t have any angst with the MWA, and I’m not involved in the politics. I enjoy going to Bouchercons because that’s where I see the people I love the most.
TAD: Is it true they have asked you to sit closer to the dais at Bouchercon award ceremonies?
Grafton: Listen, they’re gonna start throwing dinner rolls at me. I’m hoping to lie low for a year or two. I do think it’s an honor–especially for the Shamus–to be given awards by your peers, anyone who really knows what the struggle is about. Still, I try to treat awards the way I treat negative reviews. You can’t afford to take either very seriously. If you do, you get self-conscious, and that’ll stop you in your tracks. My business is to write books and to write each new book better than the last. If I listen too much to the praise or the blame, it interferes with the process. I try to stay very focused on the task at hand and pray I can write the next sentence. That’s where the battle lies.
TAD: You are not a member of Sisters in Crime?
Grafton: No, though I am a feminist from way back. I mean, it’s hard to argue with the facts. Women are reviewed less often than men–at least in Newgate Callendar, which is the only hard data I’ve seen. I don’t know about the rest of the country. Mystery writing is a male-dominated field; there’s no question of that.
Aside from that, I find the men in MWA to be some of the most supportive men I know, and I can cite you a chapter and verse on that score. I don’t understand why women want to be separated out. It just seems divisive to me, fostering an “us-against-them” mentality which does nobody any good.
TAD: From what you say, I would guess you’d be against any move for a separate Edgar for women.
Grafton: God forbid. When I decided to do mysteries, I chose the classic private eye genre because I like playing hardball with the boys. I despise gender-segregated events of any kind, including awards. I’m very emphatic–nay, boring, on that subject. If the men in MWA had a breakfast “for men only,” the women would cry, “Foul!” and picket. Yet Sisters in Crime had a “women only” breakfast twice a year, and they don’t seem to see anything wrong with that. It doesn’t make sense to me. I got conned into the first one, but you’ll never see that happen again. I was told the meeting wasn’t political, which turned out to be completely false. Next thing I knew, there were steering committees, action agendas, and a list circulating with an asterisk beside the name of any woman writer who hadn’t paid her “dues.” That’s when Sisters in Crime and I parted company. It might be smart to change the subject here. I’m going to take enough flak for this, as it is.
TAD: Do you ever hear from fans?
Grafton: Yes, I get letters, and I answer every one of them, as most writers do. It’s one of the ways we get feedback. I get notes from little old ladies who complain about my language. I write back, and we have chats about the F-word. It’s fun. Signings are another way to get feedback. Sometimes the smaller ones are the best because you have more time to spend with the people who buy your books. At the larger signings, you end up having these 90-second relationships that consist of “Thank you very much and how do you spell that name again?”
TAD: How do you deal with violence and language?
Grafton: I cuss like a sailor, so I try to clean it up a little where my fiction is concerned. There’s no point in alienating too many people. What I was taught, growing up, was that words are words. I mean, why should one word have any more significance than any other? To me, cuss words are just fun ways to use your mouth. Violence and sex I try not to use in any way that doesn’t serve the story. On the other hand, detective fiction is the stuff of violence, so you’ll always be dealing with some form of it. I try not to posture with sex and violence, but that’s sometimes tough.
TAD: Do you have any “themes” or “messages” you want to get across in your books? Something you want to say?
Grafton: I take homicide seriously, but I don’t have a message about it—beyond the obvious one of “people shouldn’t kill each other.” I view the mystery novel as a vantage point from which to observe the world we live in. What I hope to do is engage in a kind of truth-telling about what I see. I try to keep politics out of it. I try to keep Sue Grafton out of it. I have taken some potshots at religion, but I try to be fair in that I bad-mouth all of them equally. I personally don’t feel it’s the job of a mystery writer to convert anyone to anything. A writer’s job is to entertain in the best sense of the word. Indirectly, we’re all infusing our work with our personal viewpoints. I don’t feel I need to take a position beyond that. Other writers go about it differently, and that’s their prerogative.
TAD: What’s next? Where do you go from here?
Grafton: From here, I go home and struggle through Chapter 14 of “F” is for Fugitive. At this point, nothing else matters because I’m sitting by myself at a blank monitor, trying to come up with something that will please me, keep Holt happy, and sell tickets, in that order. What else is life about?