X Is for Grafton

Sue Grafton's Alphabet Mystery Series Hits Number 24

<b>MADAME X?</b> As she nears the end of the ABCs, Sue Grafton discusses what lies ahead, but not the plot of her latest mystery, <i>X</i>.
Paul Wellman

NEW BLOOD: I found Sue Grafton at the East Beach Grill, ready for a latte and anxious to talk about her latest alphabet mystery series book, X.

That’s it, X, no X is for … It’s the 24th letter of the alphabet and her 24th book, due to hit the bookstores August 25.

Barney Brantingham

Grafton, a trim 75, sipped coffee and harked back to 1982, when A is for Alibi was published, her first book featuring private detective Kinsey Millhone.

“What was I thinking?” she asked me. “I didn’t know if it would work.” Then she wisecracked in her native Kentucky accent, “I’m still not sure.” This is a down-to-earth woman, without pretense, and bubbling with Southern humor.

It worked, of course, and both Grafton and her alter ego, Kinsey Millhone, are famous in at least 26 languages. But now, with a national book tour coming up for X, Grafton is sweating out the unnamed Y is for … .

She takes long walks every day, thinks about Y, and writes about it in her journal, talking to herself on the computer, as she does with every book waiting to be born. As for Y, “I’m creeping up on it.”

Her journals can be read on her website (suegrafton.com) and make a fascinating look into the creative mind of a writer. For one book, the journal ran over 1,200 single-spaced pages, she said.

After about a year of plot hand-wringing, she’ll begin writing Y. In the meantime, “I suffer,” she told me. “The books are getting harder. I’m trying not to repeat myself.” The alphabet books take about two years, in all, meaning that Y is for … figures to come out in 2017, and, if the literary gods allow, Z is for … will see the light of day in 2019.

“Then,” she said with a big grin, “I’m going to party.”

After Z? “I don’t know. I may keep writing. I just don’t want to write when the juice is gone.”

Grafton doesn’t seem to take herself seriously, but she’s a deeply dedicated professional writer. She takes her alphabet series very seriously. When the writing finally begins, she writes morning, afternoon, and night, with a few breaks, seven days a week, for 10 or 11 months.

Even though she plots exceedingly carefully, things don’t always work out. While writing W is for Wasted, published in 2013, “I got to Chapter 32, and I had no idea how the book would end. It was like running into a brick wall.” But she wrote herself out of it.

In a recent New York Times interview, she said her favorite books as a child included (are you ready?) Nancy Drew. She also cut her young teeth on legendary crime writer Agatha Christie. But what really sparked her yen for blood and guts was Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. “What a revelation! I was 12, and it may have been the moment when the spirit of Kinsey Millhone first sparked to life.” Over the years she’s steadfastly refused to sell movie and TV rights to her books because her early work writing screenplays cured her of the desire to get involved with Hollywood. And she threatens to haunt her children if they sell the rights. “This is my life work. Why would I want to give it to someone else to ruin?”

Asked by the Times about her favorite mystery writers ever, she listed Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Santa Barbara’s Ross Macdonald, Patricia Highsmith, Tony Hillerman, Donald E. Westlake, and above all, the late Elmore Leonard, “the best and the brightest … my personal hero.”

She’s the daughter of detective novelist C.W. Grafton. Sue Grafton and her husband, Steven Humphrey, split their time between Montecito and her native Kentucky.

As for her personal reading, she can’t pass up any book about the unfortunate Anne Boleyn when she spots one. Anne was queen of England and second wife of Henry VIII, who had her beheaded. S is for Sword.

TELL ME: It’s got music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Don Black, and the voice of beguiling Misty Cotton. The one-hour musical Tell Me on a Sunday continues at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic through Sunday. My heart went out to Misty’s young transplant from London as she goes through the highs of love and the skids of painful breakups but comes out with chin up and head high.


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