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Mystery novelist Sue Grafton says she has a message for women everywhere. "Your homicidal urges can be turned to good in this world. Don't let that ex-husband get you down! Just start a whole new job."
That is what the diminutive southern born writer did when she started her bestselling series of Alphabet murder mysteries in the early 1980s.
"I was in the middle of a very bitter divorce," says Grafton, her voice somehow soft, southern and staccato all at once. The words and ideas flowing quickly, as though in a race to fit all those thoughts into a few sentences: a style that characterizes her work. "I just thought you have to be nice in life and everything would come out all right. Which is often true, unless you're getting divorced. Then nothing comes out right."
Niceness, says Grafton, wasn't working in this instance. "So, I used to lie in bed at night just thinking of ways to do him in. And I came up with some doozies. But I knew I was going to get caught at it because I credit the police with quite a bit of intelligence. And I knew I'd flub it. So I thought, why don't I put this plot between the covers of a book and get paid for it? And that launched this whole new career."
The new career has thus far included 13 mysteries featuring Grafton's plucky Southern Californian PI, Kinsey Millhone. The latest in the series, M is for Malice, got a press run of 1,000,000 in its first edition from Henry Holt. More recently, the book came out in paperback.
The first book in the series, A is for Alibi, "has a very odd energy to it because I had nothing to lose. I didn't even think I'd get that book published." And when she did, it was with a first printing of only 6500 copies.
Grafton says that each book is really different and that a necessary evolution has taken place as Grafton progresses through her own life. "They claim I've gotten better. I don't have a way to assess this. I read some of the early books and think I will never be that smart again. Some of the early ones are just dazzling to me."
Now halfway through the alphabet, Grafton's fans are starting to worry about the future. "All of a sudden people are all asking me what happens when I run out of alphabet. I think it's their own abandonment issues. So I have to assure them: mother loves you and we're all going to be together forever."
Grafton has been writing a Kinsey book every year, but intends to slow down in the future. "I work like a dog on these books. I'm gonna be doing maybe 15 to 18 months between books. A book a year is killing me." The successful author has, however, met resistance from her publisher who, she says, would love nothing more than a steady stream of the popular books. "But I think it's up to me to keep myself fresh and alert and crisp. Because a publisher would run you ragged, you know? What's it to them?"
Fans as well as business people don't want to see Grafton's work flow slow down. "People want me to write faster. But if I did that we'd get to Z faster and then they'd all be pissed off. So I think, you'd better hope I write slower. Then it's gonna take longer to get to the end."
Now 56, the author calculates that at the rate she's writing, she will reach the letter Z when she's 109 years old. "I'll be crossing the country in this paramedic van, right?"
Grafton says she started her career as a "mainstream novelist." Her first published book was the fourth book she'd written: Keziah Dane published was in 1967. The fifth book -- the second published book -- was called The Lolly-Madonna War. "That's the one that was made into a film," says Grafton. "It came out in 1973 with Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan and Gary Busey and Jeff Bridges. It was a very terrible movie but a great cast. And I learned a lot. So that's the way life goes."
How life went for Grafton at that point was straight to Hollywood. A chapter in her own life that she was glad to see closed. "I learned how to write screenplays in ten days flat. And then I went on to work in Hollywood from 1973 to 1989. I was happy to bail out. It's not a nice place." While there, Grafton wrote many movies for television, including Walking Through Fire in 1979 for which she won a Christopher Award.
The intimate experience with Hollywood made a strong impression on Grafton. She has determined that Kinsey Millhone, the character she talks about with great affection and sometimes as though she's a real person rather than a fictional one, will never be rendered onscreen in any form.
"I will never sell [Kinsey] to Hollywood. And, I have made my children promise not to sell her. We've taken a blood oath, and if they do so I will come back from the grave: which they know I can do." Grafton is adamant, "They're going to have to pass the word on to my grandchildren: we do not sell out our grandma. I just will not let them touch her. I've trashed other writers, I'm not gonna let them have a crack at me."
The ex-husband that unwittingly helped start it all is still alive. "And he's heard the story and so far he hasn't sued my butt off." When Grafton's youngest daughter was married last summer, he attended the wedding at Grafton's home. "We were perfectly civil, while I'll never forgive his ass for what he did to me. There was some real satisfaction in the fact that he came to my house -- which is lavish -- and I thought, 'Eat your heart out asshole.' You know? But I was so polite." Grafton herself would say that sometimes the very best revenge doesn't involve any mystery at all. | 1997
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.
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