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Sue Grafton Promotes P IS FOR PERIL
Author of Kinsey Milhone mysteries answers questions from fans at Vroman's Museum Collection in Pasadena, California.
By Steve Biodrowski
July 05, 2001
Sue Grafton (right), author of the Kinsey Milhone mysteries, at Vroman's Museum Collection.
© 2001 Steve Biodrowski
Sue Grafton wound up a tour to promote her most recent Kinsey Milhone mystery, P IS FOR PERIL, with stops in Southern California, including one at Vroman's Museum Collection in Pasadena. Addressing a standing-room-only crowd, predominantly middle-aged and female, the author read excerpts from several of her books, answered questions from the audience, and signed autographs.
There is always a temptation to identify authors with their fictional creations, especially when the books are written in the first person, and Sue Grafton is no exception. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the author, who was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, speak with a remnant of an accentwhich would seem out of place in the mouth of a private detective working in Santa Teresa, California. (At one point, Grafton addressed this issue when asked about listening to the audio-book versions of her novels, read by Judy
The audiobook version of Sue Grafton's first mystery novel, read by Judy Kaye.
© 2001 Random House
Kaye. Grafton said she finds the experience disorienting because when she writes she hears her own voice, but then admitted, "There's no reason for Kinsey to have a Kentucky accent.") Nevertheless, it was clear that the crowd loved Kinsey, and loved her creator as well.
The character, more than the plots, is the real appeal of the Milhone series. P IS FOR PERIL
(which lept to the top of best seller lists) finds Kinsey on the trail of a specialist in geriatric medicine, who has disappeared without any apparent explanation, but it's safe to say that most fans are less interested in the fate of the missing doctor than in the on-going life of their favorite detective. So it made perfect sense that Grafton began her appearance by reading passages from her novels that helped define her fictional female private eye. The alphabetically titled series began in 1982 with A IS FOR ALIBI
, then proceeded with B IS FOR BURGLAR, C IS FOR CORPSE
, etc. In each, we learn a little bit more about Kinsey Milhone's background, which the first novel only sketched in. "When I started these books," Grafton explained, "I didn't know much about Kinsey. I knew she was thirty-two, born in 1950. I knew she had the black dress. I knew she liked peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. I knew she was divorced." Subsequent novels gave us details from Kinsey's childhood, such as a scene that Grafton read from B IS FOR BURGLAR
, in which Kinsey is sent to the principal's office at Catholic school because, after hearing the story of the virgin birth, she explained to her classmates how babies are really born.
After the readings, Grafton took questions from her fans. She explained that she had turned to writing because when she grew up "girls could only be nurses, teachers, or housewives, so I thought I'd be a teacher." When that didn't work out, a career as a novelist seemed a good alternative, especially since her father had written books as a sideline. In fact, her fatheralong with John D. MacDonald and Edward Goreyhad an influence on her decision to go with the memorable alphabet titles.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
© 1997 Harcourt Brace
"My father had written two of a projected eight-book serieshe wrote mysteries in his spare time," she recalled. "He tried to link his titles. John D. MacDonald used colors in all this titles. Then I was reading an Edward Gorey book, THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES
, about these Victorian children who die in alphabetical order: 'A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.... B is for Basil assaulted by bears,' and so on. This little light bulb went off in my head. I sketched out all the crime words I could think of, and when I was convinced there were enough to get through the whole alphabet, I started A IS FOR ALIBI
The decision to write in the first person was a simple one, based on tradition. "Before I wrote the first Kinsey book, I wrote seven mainstream novelswhich means there wasn't much story!" she joked. "The seventh book sold to Hollywood. I came to Hollywood and learned the screenplay format. I ended up in Hollywood for fifteen years, during which I decided I needed to salvage my soul. I decided to write mystery fiction, which is almost always in first person."
The stint in Hollywood also led to the decision that Grafton would never sell the rights for her books to be made into movies or a television show. "When I worked in Hollywood, I learned I wasn't a team player, and I'm not a good sport. I've never heard of great art by committee. I love good movies, but I don't think many good books make good movies. When they cast Kinsey, half of you would be immediately pissed off!" Grafton is so adamant on the subject that she has taken steps to insure that her wish is carried out even after her death. "I made my kids sign a blood oathand I'm working on my grandkids. If they violate it, I will come back from the deadwhich they know I can do!"
As for the writing process, Grafton explained that she uses index cards, which come in especially handy when she is working on a section of the plot that is convoluted or muddy. "I lay them out on the floor, scene by scene. They're color-coded, according to action or dialogue," so that she can see keep track of the pacing and avoid stringing too many dialogue or action scenes in a row. Grafton said she also keeps "a journal for each book that's about four times as big as the book." These journals trace the development of the story, including all the false starts, abandoned ideas, and early versions of material that don't make it into the final version. "The journals are really boring!" she exclaimed to one fan who expressed an interest in whether these would ever be made available to the public.
Grafton went on to explain that her writing comes in stops and starts. "For twenty-seven days of the month, I feel stupid," she admitted. "Then on the twenty-eighth day I feel so smart I make myself sick! I break my arm patting myself on my back! For instance, I'm eight chapters into the next book, Q IS FOR QUARRY
, but I haven't looked at it for months, and I'm afraid when I do I'll find nonsense!"
Of course, the big question is whether or not Grafton will complete the alphabet, now that she has slowed down her output. "I used to do a book a yearuntil my hair started turning gray!" she said. Then she went on to describe her fantasy of showing up to sign copies of the last book in the series: "I pull up to the book store in a pink ambulance for Z IS FOR...
. The doors will slowly open on me, lying there with an IV in my arm. I will sign your books, and the doors will slowly close."
The sixteenth Kinsey Milhone mystery.
© 2001 Penguin Putnam, Inc
After the laughter died away, Grafton proceeded to sign copies of P IS FOR PERIL
. I couldn't help asking her one more question: Why has hard-boiled mystery fictiononce the sole province of tough-guy writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillainebecome so popular with female authors? Grafton smiled and said, "Well, I paved the way, and [Sarah] Paretsky paved the way. Then all these other authors looked around and said, 'How can we make some money, too?' The little shits!"