ABCs of Sue Grafton: When Santa Barbara mystery writer Sue Grafton started her alphabet murder series in 1983, starting with A is for Alibi, she figured it’d be a breeze, a jog past a cemetery.
Knock off the first three or four to get the style, then start cranking them out. “I thought, how hard can it be?” Grafton told me. What she soon learned is that it didn’t get any easier. Harder, in fact. Coming up with new plots, not repeating herself or writing the same book over and over, as some do. “I don’t want to do that. It’s about constantly overcoming fear of failure. I feel the critics are waiting for me to fall on my face.”
This from one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, published in 26 languages for her millions of fans. I did a stand-up-in-the-hallway interview with Grafton before her appearance at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference last week, where she confessed that there’s a lot of her in the character of offbeat sleuth Kinsey Millhone. And still a lot of Grafton’s native Kentucky in her down-to-earth, wise-cracking talk.
“I thought S is for Silence would be the death of me,” she said. “Then I got to ‘T.’ I came up with six story lines and I couldn’t pick one.” Now that T is for Trespass is out, “I’m on ‘U.’ It is worse than S and T. I have 550 single-spaced pages of notes that didn’t work.” Now, she said, “I have two chapters I have rewritten many times.”
Coming up with plots that do work “is a lesson in patience and listening to the still, dark voice” within her creative soul, she said. “It is very painful. I would just burst into tears.”
Grafton researches her books extensively, calling experts in law enforcement and consulting her voluminous library. While some readers think it’s easy for her to pick up the phone to tap her sources, “There are days when I can’t make those phone calls.”
So much for those aspiring writers who fancy that for an accomplished author, typing out one novel after another is just a walk at Shoreline Park. But, Grafton added, “I think I have U figured out.” Title? “I don’t know.”
A is for Alibi was her eighth novel, written when she was 42, set in her fictional “Santa Teresa,” a nom de plume for Santa Barbara. She has every intention of finishing the alphabet to Z, when she estimates she will be 80. She turns out a book every two years or so, and is now 68.
Later, at the Writers Conference at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree, Grafton received the conference Founders Award from Mary and Barnaby Conrad and director Marcia Meier.
Interviewed by TV newscaster and fellow author Kelly Lange, Grafton said that Kinsey only ages one year for every two-and-a-half books, which prevents Kinsey from becoming “a 60-year-old hanging out on street corners,” Grafton cracked.
How did she get started mystery writing? Lange asked. “I was in the midst of a divorce. I would lie in bed at night thinking of ways to kill him.” But realizing that she’d end up behind bars, she decided to put the impulse to good use by writing about it and getting paid. Before that, Grafton spent time in Hollywood as a screenwriter. “I hated it,” she said, dealing with “kids half my age.”
Note to aspiring writers: “I got 27 rejections for my first book.” The intriguing premise of her winning number eight, A is for Alibi: When Laurence Fife was murdered, few mourned his passing. A prominent divorce attorney with a reputation for single-minded ruthlessness on behalf of his clients, Fife was also rumored to be a dedicated philanderer.
These days, Grafton gets to her desk at about 9 a.m., then “wastes time” in order to get going. “The dark side” needs time, as she explained it. Her actual writing span is about two hours a day, including revisions. Writers who claim that they write eight hours a day are either “liars or are on fine medication I wish I could share.”
“How much Grafton is there in Kinsey?” Lange asked. “Of course, she is me,” Grafton replied. Her best advice to aspiring writers: “Patience.”
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns and a print column for Thursdays.