Sue Grafton doesn't do many speaking engagements on her book tours anymore, so it was a rare opportunity to hear her when the Poisoned Pen Bookstore brought her to the Arizona Biltmore on her U is for Undertow tour.
I attended with a friend and librarian, Cathy Johnson. When we walked in the door, Sue was working the crowd, so I reintroduced myself, reminding her I had hosted her twice in Florida, and picked her up at the airport. She looked at me, and said, "Kind of a vagabond, aren't you?" She was just as kind and warm as always, and spent a half an hour going through the audience.
Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, introduced Sue by saying they go way back to the beginning of the bookstore, when she contacted Sue, and asked her to appear at the new bookstore. Sue said, so you're asking me to change my entire schedule and come to Arizona, and Barbara said, yes. And, she did. Barbara and Sue said they're aging together.
Sue said her current tour was almost over. She left Louisville, went to New York, back to Louisville, then to Atlanta, Kansas City, and Houston. So, she thought, I'm going to Phoenix, and I can finally get warm. Instead, with our current cold weather, she was huddled in the cold while people here were in their shirtsleeves.
Barbara responded that we're always lucky to have her in Phoenix, since she spends half her year in Kentucky and half in California. She said she was very grateful that the event was being held at the Biltmore, because most of the time people stand in a conga line, wrapping around the bookstore to get books signed, and it sometimes cold in December, as now. Then, she told Sue the people in shirtsleeves ere from New Jersey, and the ones wrapped up were from Phoenix.
Barbara thanked the Biltmore for partnering with the bookstore for the celebration of the 21st Kinsey Millhone book. She told the audience they are projecting the end of the series for 2020, and Barbara promised she'd be there for that book, even if the bookstore closed, and she had to rent a shed. Then she asked Sue about the people who were "betting against her" when the series started.
Sue acknowledged that she said when she started the alphabet, there were people betting she couldn't write the entire series. When, she reached M, she said readers were cheering for her to finish. So, when she's asked what she's going to do with Z is for Zero, she told us she's going to hold therapy sessions to help everyone through their separation anxiety, and we'll all hold hands and hum. She said she's going to take a long nap, and then party. But, she assured us she's going to live to 108, so she'd have time for two quick series. They might be about old people, though.
Barbara asked her if she has the manuscript of Z is for Zero in a vault somewhere, in case something strikes her down before the end. The answer was, there's nothing in a vault anyplace, so we'd better root for her to stay alive. She asked the audience to make a commitment to make it for the next ten years, so we could come back. She told us she was going to make us sign a paper saying we'd be there. Barbara said she hated to tell Sue this, but when an author passes on, people come into the bookstore, and they don't say, "I'm going to miss Sue." They say, "What about Kinsey?"
Grafton said it was very cheeky of her to start a series, using the alphabet. She'd never written a mystery before. But, it was a sign she was committed to the future, a way to say, I'm shooting an arrow out, planning an entire series. But, the books are getting harder to write, and she has five to go. Everyone has their own demons, and she's had to outargue her demons. Every book is a struggle, a challenge. And, if you don't like one book, big deal. "I did twenty-one you liked." She said she never lets go, and never cheats with her book. She said she tries to get pity sales, and asked us to just buy one book.
She admitted she thought she'd write five or six books, and get the hang of it, and whiz through to the end. It was a sign she was young.
When asked which decisions she would not have made about the series, Sue responded she would have done everything the same. It's like life. Haven't we all done things we'd regret, but we'd live our life over again, with the divorce and the decisions?
She did make a critical decision that Kinsey would not age one year per book. When the series ends, it will be 1990, and Kinsey will turn 40. That's a good age. We won't have to watch her go through menopause. Sue assured everyone, though, that Henry Pitts and his siblings will survive. His sister is only 99, and she doesn't feel bad, so why should she die?
Grafton said she wouldn't make different choices. In J is for Judgment, she thought it would be fun to have Kinsey investigate herself, and she found cousins and a whole family. Half of the readers loved it, and half were bored. So, she didn't pick that storyline up again until M is for Malice. In L is for Lawless, Kinsey was stranded, and forced to call her cousin, Tasha. Can you imagine how mortifying that was for her? But, she didn't know how to resolve the family issues. And, it's been many years, but finally, after T is for Trespass, she resolved a letter from a reader who said, "If you don't settle that family business, I'm never buying another book. So, Sue wrote back, and said, whoa, I'll take care of that. So, in U is for Undertow, she settled the family issues, and that's enough of the family for now.
Barbara commented that we all know Sue lives in Santa Barbara, although now she spends more time in Louisville. But, she said in Santa Barbara, there's a long shadow cast by Ross Macdonald. He wrote a long series featuring Lew Archer. He thought a detective should not be visible. Sue said she was originally going to do that with Kinsey, and make her a shadow. But, she said Macdonald was so wrong, but he was an old man. Grafton said readers want a continuing character to have depth, quirks, a history.
Barbara mentioned that in U is for Undertow, the story goes back to the 1960s, a turbulent time. Did she plan that? Grafton replied, "I don't tell the book what's going to happen. The book tells me." It takes a year for her to understand the story.
Sue said she's told this before, so if we heard it, we could ignore it. She keeps journals of each book on the computer. The whole journal is there, with every trivial thought and idea. She puts her emotional state there on paper. That keeps her from sabotaging her work. She struggles internally. All of her research and everything else is in that journal. If she has an idea for a dialogue that comes later in the book, she puts it in the journal, and when the right part comes, she just inserts the dialogue. Grafton said her journal is boring. There are no treasures in it. Sometimes she makes nasty remarks about other writers, and then erases them because if she gets run over, people won't think, boy, she was a bitch. She tries to appear much nicer than she is. Sue said 1 out of 30 days her writing is dynamite. The other 29, it's stupid, but she never knows which day is going to be good, so she has to write every day.
When asked about her research, Sue admitted she's had to humble herself. She said it's a real boat on the cover of J is for Judgment. She was interviewing someone about the book, standing there with her notebook, and asked, what's that part that sticks up. "Well, Sue, that's called the mast."
Barbara thought she remembered that Sue went undercover as a chambermaid for one book. Sue said, no, she's a housewife, so she doesn't need to do that. (And everyone laughed.) According to Sue, at one time she worked for a friend who ran a home domestic business. Grafton was poor, and had kids, so she cleaned toilets, and cleaned up after people. So she knows how to clean toilet bowls, and has a back-up plan if she ever needs it.
Sue said she believes in Jungian psychology, the ego and the shadow. There's what you'd like to be seen as. Grafton would like people to see her as cheerful, cooperative, kind, and helpful. Then there's the real self, the shadow. We put those traits behind us. If you look at people you truly despise, they carry your shadow. We project our shadow on others, and denounce them.
Grafton said when she writes, she has to disconnect the ego, and let the shadow come through. The shadow is right brain; the ego is left. She writes in her journal, and that's her shadow. She'll do anything - self-hypnosis or anything, to get a piece that really works. She needs to meet the shadow. Families usually have a black sheep, and they are the shadow in the family. Barbara commented that writers of crime fiction have to have shadows for people to want to read the story. We read crime fiction to get rid of our own shadows. In fact, she was recently editing a book, and told the author to kill a person, to get rid of the shadows.
Barbara mentioned that Sue Grafton has received many honors. She was named a Grand Master by MWA. (And, it was just announced that Dorothy Gilman, author of the Mrs. Pollifax books, will be the 2010 Grand Master.) Sue's also received the Diamond Dagger, the U.K. equivalent of Grand Master.
Sue said it's very nice to get the awards and accolades, but her job is not to get stuck on herself. That doesn't help her write. Reviews don't help either. If they're bad, and say her books are crap, how does that help? And, good reviews don't help either. All of those ceremonies are great, but Grafton said her battle is in the chair. She appreciates the honors, but it doesn't help if she thinks of herself as "hot shit."
Barbara told a story of a Diamond Dagger winner who outraged people when he had it made into an earring for his wife. People were upset, saying she had no right to wear it because she didn't win the Diamond Dagger.
She went on to announce that U is for Undertow will be #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list on Sunday. She'd heard it from Sue's publicist. They both went on to thank the audience. They said we had to buy books. It's the reader's job to buy books, and the author's job to make it worthwhile.
Then, questions were taken from the audience. How did Sue come up with the name Kinsey? Grafton said she was working in Hollywood, and reading the Hollywood Reporter. She saw a column in which it mentioned a baby named Kinsey. She liked the name, and snatched it. Millhone was probably taken out of the phone book. It has no meaning.
Which comes first, the title, such as V is for..., or the story. The answer was, it varies. When Grafton first started the series, she sketched out crime related words, and used them for A-D. But, she had planned to call E, E is For Ever. She switched it to "Evidence," and the story just came. For a long time, she thought F would be forgery, but she found it boring. When she made it "Fugitive," she could hear the story. K was for kidnapping, and she wrote four chapters, and realized kidnapping is a federal crime. No one was going to hire a small-town detective for a kidnapping case, so she dumped it. That was the book that caused her to say to her publicist, I have to have more than a year to write the books. Sue liked Q is for Quarry, with its double meaning. The latest book is U is for Undertow. She admitted she gets out the dictionary, and makes a list of words that might work. There's no hard and fast rule for the title and plot.
Barbara confessed she had wanted T is for Lipton, and, when Sue came to the bookstore, she brought a box of teabags, with T is for Trespass on them.
With S is for Silence, there was a switch in time, and multiple points of view. With T is for Trespass, Sue said sometimes the content dictates the form. When Solana Rojas, the villain, took over, she had to tell that story from her point of view. Grafton said she doesn't make it up in advance, but she can't imagine telling a story from Henry or Rose's point of view. People might like it just because they'd like to see Kinsey from another point of view.
Grafton mugged to the audience, saying she's taking heavy mediation, and has a live-in therapist, trying to keep things fresh. How does she do it? "I only have five more times, baby!" She said it helps to see readers, and converse with us. She also said the journals help. It helps to look back, and see her previous battles.
She said her tour was done on Thursday. Then she does Christmas, since we all have to do Christmas. And, in January, she has to do battle again. She runs 5.4 miles a day, five days a week, to deal with her stress.
Barbara mentioned that Grafton has had the same editor, Marian, for the entire series. "How would you feel writing without her as an editor?" The answer was scared. Sue said she's had the same agent since B is for Burglar. She said Steve, her husband, is her first reader of her manuscript, but he doesn't get to see it until it's done, because she has to write the entire book. Then, if he says it's OK, she'll send it to Marian and Molly. Then, she waits to hear what they thin.
The final question involved another format, the audio, and why didn't Judy Kaye do the most recent one. Sue replied that Judy Kaye does all of her audios for Random House. She said Books-on-Tape may have another narrator, but, otherwise, if it's not Judy Kaye on the audio, it might be a pirated version.
Barbara ended by asking Sue to tell us about her train project. Sue said her husband, Steve, had this wonderful idea to get a private train car, and take it at the end of her tour. So, there were three couples, and the plan was to get on the train at the end of the T is for Trespass tour. They were going to go from Louisville, up to Cincinnati, and then to Chicago, and across North America. They had their pjs, and train movies, and a private chef, and they were all set for a romantic trip. But, it started to snow, and unbeknownst to them, the snow was packing up under the train. And, over time, because of that, one toilet after another, and the showers, began to break down. So, it was a romantic idea until the toilets and showers broke down. They had to fly home. Sue said it was the best half day ever on a train.
Sue Grafton then signed books, and, gracious as ever, insisted people check pictures, and make sure they were good ones before they walked away. And, then she signed my book.
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Sue Grafton's website is www.suegrafton.com
U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton. G.P. Putnam's Sons, ©2009. ISBN 9780399155970 (hardcover), 416p.