Sue Grafton was on the phone from Santa Barbara, discussing the evolving readership of her “Alphabet Mysteries” series starring P.I. Kinsey Millhone, a franchise that debuted with “A Is for Alibi” in 1982.
“I’m getting more male readers because I say to guys, ‘This isn’t about mascara and panty hose, it’s about kicking serious ass.’ They go along with that.”
Grafton’s latest entry is “X,” on sale Aug. 25 and destined to land on all the nation’s best-seller lists (Putnam, $29, 416 pages), a recurring feat for the series titles. In “X,” Kinsey must find a serial killer before he finds her.
Grafton, 75, and her husband, philosophy professor Steven Humphrey, divide their time between homes in Louisville, Ky., where she was born and raised, and a 2-acre ranch near Santa Barbara, the coastal city that models for Kinsey’s fictional hometown of Santa Teresa. Grafton chose the town’s name to honor “hard-boiled crime” novelist Ross Macdonald, who coined it in a novel in 1949.
Grafton walks 7 miles a day and loves to entertain friends. Unlike many award-winning A-list authors, she is comfortable under the radar. “One thing I work on is staying detached from any recognition or celebrity,” she said. “It’s not interesting to me and doesn’t help me write the books.”
Q: All your “Alphabet” titles have an “… Is for ...” in them, such as “E Is for Evidence” and “G Is for Gumshoe.” What is “X” for?
A: I couldn’t come up with the “...Is for...” for this one, so I decided since I made up the rule, I could break it.
Q: “X” returns to a form you haven’t used in a while, with the story told strictly from Kinsey’s point of view.
A: I did two points of view in “T Is for Trespass” and multiple points of view for “U,” “V” and “W.” Then one of my readers suggested, “Why don’t you go back to Kinsey’s point of view?” I thought it could be fun, but it was such a nightmare. It was so restrictive, and I felt like all the good action was taking place off-camera. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get to “Y.”
Q: You published two novels and wrote TV-movie screenplays for 15 years before finding Kinsey. It seems counterintuitive that you flatly refuse to allow the character to segue to a movie or TV series.
A: Having devoted 33 years to the “Alphabet Mysteries,” with another four or five in my future, I’m not going to turn over my life’s work (to Hollywood). They would absolutely ruin it, and it would become a victim of the Hollywood Formula. The minute $1 changed hands, I would lose all my power. Writers do not have “creative control.”
Q: You and Kinsey are conjoined.
A: She does run my life and is the channel for my dark side. She can know only what I know, so I have to gather information so she can toss off lines knowingly. Because of her, I learned to shoot and I own a handgun, but I don’t know where it is. I’ve taken women’s self-defense courses and criminal-law classes because of her.
Q: Kinsey is the antithesis of fashion and domesticity.
A: Kinsey has cereal for breakfast and fast food for dinner. I am much more domestic than she is, though we do have a personal chef, Liz, who makes life so easy. We hired her when I was working on “I Is For Innocent,” and I remember the first day she came to work. I could smell dinner cooking, and it was like having a mother – only a good one. Mine was an alcoholic.
Q: You’ve said you created the series during a three-year divorce and custody battle with your second husband, when you would fantasize about ways to murder him.
A: I couldn’t afford a good attorney, and I didn’t know how to fight, so my only option was to lie in bed at night and think of ways to kill the (man). The only reason I’m sitting here today, alive and well, is because he was too cheap to pay a hit man. That was his theory about what to do with me. It’s been 35 years, we have children in common and see each other occasionally. I’m not mad at him anymore. That’s what medication is for.
Q: Why are the “Alphabet” stories set in the 1980s?
A: When I started the series, I thought if I had Kinsey age one year for every book, she would become a little old lady hiding behind bushes and whacking guys with her pocketbook. So I age her one year for every 21/2 books. Now she’s 38 and the series will end in the narrative year 1990 (in “Z Is for Zero” in 2019), when she turns 40. It’s a nice way for her to exit. Right now she’s a captive in a time capsule in 1989. Her lack of computers and the Internet keeps her grounded and caught up in old-fashioned research, which is a blessing for me, because I’m computer illiterate.
Q: What will happen when the curtain comes down?
A: I don’t know, but I’m very happy I only have “Y” and “Z” to go. My life has been so structured by the series that I want to see what happens on the day I don’t have to get up and do it. The notion of the freedom to decide seems like a gift I have earned. If I continue to write about Ms. Millhone, I’ll do stand-alones (not a series). That way I’ll always have the option to bow out gracefully.