(Sue Grafton and my friend Carol Austin at BookPeople on August 31)
by Gale Albright
Then I was nervous.
Sue Grafton is big. William Holden said that to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “You used to be big.” She replied, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Grafton was big and is still big. She penned a long-lived, successful mystery series that made her heroine, Kinsey Millhone, a household word. In literate households, at any rate. Her California female private eye novels have remained big through 24 novels. And Grafton is still penning them, even though she has only two letters of the alphabet left.
Grafton’s most recent Millhone offering, X, is a slight departure from her usual title strategy. Her first detective novel was A is for Alibi, published in 1982. Soon thereafter came B is for Burglar and C is for Corpse. You get the drift. There is a letter of the alphabet, a verb, and a noun. Now X comes along all by its lonesome. She didn’t call it X is for Xylophone, Xenophobia, Xeriscape, Xerxes, Xerox–nothing. Just X.
I received an advanced reader copy of X to read so I could prep for the interview. Along the way, I tried to figure out intelligent questions to ask.
I found out that legendary crime writer Ross Macdonald of the Lew Archer mystery novels was her inspiration for the alphabet series. I think Ross Macdonald is one of the greatest writers of all time, have read a whole bunch of his books, and believe anyone who likes Ross Macdonald has to be really smart. That gave us something in common, even though I’m not a world-renowned successful professional mystery author. Let’s not quibble.
I was trying to be nonchalant about the interview, but kept asking Hopeton Hay things like, “What should I call her?” Your Worship? Your Honor?
He said to call her “Sue.”
I read X carefully, looking for “x” clues in the manuscript. There were several. I read about Grafton’s life. I typed up questions. Finally, as I drove to the KAZI studio on August 23, I figured I was ready.
Hopeton Hay is a professional. He does interviews all the time. No doubt he sensed I was a bit jittery, so he talked me down in his soothing way. By the time we put on headphones and he called Sue Grafton, I felt reasonably human.
She answered. She was nice and informal and friendly. She didn’t sound like Gloria Swanson. She sounded like a real person. I started to relax, but I kept clutching those questions. This was being taped!
Hopeton asked her a question. Then he turned the microphone toward me. The moment of truth. I opened my mouth and hoped I didn’t sound like Minnie Mouse, a hick, or a wavery-voiced nitwit.
She was gracious. She laughed. She was pleased when I told her X reminded me in some ways of Lew Archer on the search for truth in the dark underbelly of Southern California. We were off to a good start.
I got calmer. I was getting a handle on this thing. Then I ran out of typed questions. And Hopeton kept turning that microphone toward me. I had to go unscripted. I was panic-stricken. Then I started having fun.
By the time the interview was over, I could have gone on longer. I felt like Sue Grafton was a heck of a nice person and a lot of fun to talk to.
Hopeton said the interview went well. He reminded me gently not to mutter “Uh-huh” when people were talking. He said it was a natural thing for people to do in a conversation, but on the radio it’s a bit distracting when the microphone picks it up.
And sure enough, when I heard the tape a week later, on August 30, at one (thankfully brief) point, I heard myself “uh-humming” along enthusiastically while Sue was speaking.
Live and learn. As well as learning not to “uh-huh” on radio, I learned some interesting things from Sue Grafton.
She writes five pages a day. She doesn’t count time she spends writing, just the page count. She says it’s a more accurate way to estimate output than putting a time limit on writing. She keeps writing until she gets those five pages.
She finds index cards “invaluable.” If a section of writing is muddy and difficult, she writes everything down, scene by scene on index cards, spreads them out and finds out where she went wrong.
When she spoke about increasing her male readership, she said men should realize that a book written by a woman about a woman detective is not girly stuff. “These books are not about mascara and pantyhose. It’s about kicking serious butt.”
I agree. Kinsey Millhone is into serious sleuthing and butt-kicking, not high fashion. The novels are full of movement, mystery, questions, wry humor, and scary bad guys. If you’re a man and haven’t read the alphabet series, you are in for a treat. You have 24 great books to choose from. I would start with A is for Alibi.
It’s not about G is for Gender. It’s about G is for Great Writing.
Drop by BookPeople for a copy of X
If you want to find out more about Hopeton Hay, go to