Interview with Sue Grafton

October, 2011

Sue Grafton Mystery writer Sue Grafton doesn't renege on a deal. She's good for it, unlike many of the shady criminals who populate her novels. In 1982, the unknown author published A Is for Alibi, starring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, and committed herself to the Herculean task of writing 26 novels in what is now known as the alphabet series. Moving on with B Is for Burglar to now, almost 30 years later, V Is for Vengeance, the mystery author and her plucky heroine are still going strong. Over the years Kinsey has solved many sticky crimes, loved and lost with the men in her life, and won over a legion of readers who consider the relatable sleuth to be a friend. In V Is for Vengeance, a grieving man hires Kinsey after his fiancé — a woman Kinsey recently caught shoplifting — takes a fatal fall off a bridge. Kentucky native Grafton shares with Goodreads what's in store for her protagonist as the end of the alphabet looms.

Goodreads: Have you ever shoplifted anything, even by accident? If so, what?

Sue Grafton: "Even by accident?" You are too kind. When I was in sixth grade a friend and I shoplifted on a number of occasions. We were neither skilled nor clever, and it's a wonder we didn't get caught, as we so richly deserved to be. You probably wonder what sorts of items interested us. We stole doll clothes, which is absurd even on the face of it. Can you imagine me in juvenile hall, weeping and wringing my hands for the crime of trying to dress my dolly in upscale dolly fashions? Don't even ask me what I was thinking. I wasn't. I was doing what, in psychological circles, they call "acting out." I'd never dream of shoplifting now, and I'm still thanking my lucky stars that I wasn't arrested at age 12 for grand larceny. Actually it probably would have been petty theft because my crime buddy and I weren't talented enough to make off with more than about $20 worth of goods at one time. I'm still shaking my head at my own bad behavior.

GR: Shoplifting feels like a petty crime next to some of the heavier themes your books have explored. What inspired you to use shoplifting as this book's jumping-off point?

SG: I was inspired by my own sordid past, as you might realize by now. I'm joking, of course. I've read numerous articles about organized retail theft, which is big business these days and represents huge losses to both the small stores and the big chains; losses that are, by the way, passed on to the buying public. I suspect the average person views shoplifting as a minor matter, the crime of choice for juveniles, amateurs, and kleptomaniacs. In truth, shoplifting is a growing problem even with the sophisticated deterrents currently in place. I take the issue very seriously.

GR: Do you believe vengeance can be therapeutic? What other "V" options did you consider for this book's title?

SG: Of course vengeance is therapeutic! I really don't understand why we're supposed to "forgive and forget." Are you kidding me? I can only quote Kinsey's view on the subject. She says, "For the record, I'd like to say that I'm a big fan of forgiveness as long as I have a chance to get even first."

As for the title, I considered: Vagabond, Vagrant, Valiant, Valor, Vampire, Vandal, Vanish, Vanquish, Venal, Venom, Vice, Victim, Victory, Vigil, Vigilance, Vigilant, Villain, Vindicate, Violence, and Voodoo.

GR: How has Kinsey changed from "A" to "V"? After almost 30 years and 22 novels, how do you continue to challenge yourself with each plot?

SG: Those are two different issues, and I must say I can't speak to the question of how Kinsey's changed from "A" to "V." I write from the inside out, and I can't always see the character as others see her. I would hope she's matured, but fat chance.

With regard to the story lines for these novels, my goal is never to write the same book twice. To that end, I keep elaborate charts of the novels to date, tracking the gender of the victim, the gender of the killer, the motive for the crime, the climax of the book, and a log line for each, which tells me what the set up is...in other words, who hires Kinsey Millhone and what she's hired to do.

GR: In V Is for Vengeance, Kinsey is frustrated by a reporter named Diana Alvarez, stating, "The woman was dangerous. I hadn't understood before the power of her position." The press can be pegged as biased when reporting high-profile cases, such as the trials of Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox. Does media often play a part in thwarting justice?

SG: I'm not sure journalists have as much power and influence as they'd like to think. I do know objective and unbiased reporting is in scant supply these days. I think it's dangerous to take a newspaper account at face value. Many articles that are intended to be straight news are skewed to the political beliefs of the reporter.

GR: Goodreads member Laura Kalish asks, "Since all of the novels I have read are set in the past, I wonder if we will ever get a chance to see Kinsey Millhone in the present day? I would like that!"

SG: When the series ends at Z Is for Zero, the narrative year will be 1990, and Kinsey will be just shy of her 40th birthday. I didn't set out to do this. A Is for Alibi took place in May of 1982 and published in May of 1982. B took place in June of that year and C in August. Book by book, I've been drifting back in time, and now Kinsey's stranded in the late '80s. You'll never see her with a cell phone, and she'll never have access to the Internet. Dang! I hate that.

GR: Goodreads member Molly Hansen asks, "Is there a chance that Kinsey will finally meet the man of her dreams?"

SG: Here's what I've learned after living with Kinsey Millhone for close to 30 years. I have no idea what she'll do, and she assures me that some things are none of my business. She "shares" information on a need-to-know basis, and there are many aspects of her nature that are off-limits. As I write, she may or may not let me in on events from her past. I'm just grateful that she's offered me a ride-along. Her love life is a mystery, though we're both hopeful. I don't want her romantic interests to overshadow her professional life.

GR: Goodreads member Todd Butler asks, "I would like to know how Sue maintains what I consider the more realistic nature of these mysteries. One of the reasons I enjoy Sue's work so much is that I can actually feel these crimes taking place, that Kinsey is a real person with real problems and strengths. The books never get too wild or fantastical but are always fresh and interesting."

SG: I work very hard to keep Kinsey Millhone grounded in reality. She's not larger than life. She's not Super Woman. The Fate of the Free World never rests in her hands. She's flawed and inconsistent like the rest of us, and she has a wry view of her own failings. In the privacy of her head, she's dead honest, and that often amuses me. I confess I sometimes channel my own mean-spirited observations about the world through her.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

SG: I'm usually at my desk by 8:30 or 9:00. I like a tidy office because I find messes distracting. Being disorganized wastes time. I keep journals for every novel I write, and I start my workday by logging in, talking to myself about where I am in a novel and how I feel. I focus on the scene or story moves coming up. I worry about pacing and suspense. I revise. I stop sometimes and consult my research library, which is packed with books about crime and law enforcement. If I'm stuck, I call on the small army of experts who assist with each book. I break for a brief lunch and then work another couple of hours. Most days, I walk three to five miles when I've finished writing. I need the stress relief and fresh air.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

SG: Elmore Leonard, Anthony Trollope, C.W. Grafton, Robert Harris, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, among others. The list is long and eclectic, and none of the writers I admire are highbrow. I learn from good storytellers in whatever genre they may be working.

GR: What are you reading now?

SG: Believe it or not, I just finished G Is for Gumshoe. I go back and read the early books in the series so I can remember what I said. Again, this is with an eye to not repeating myself. I'm easily intimidated by some of those novels, thinking, "Yikes! I'll never be that smart again."

GR: What's next for you as a writer? Since the end of the alphabet is closing in, many fans wrote in specifically to ask what you plan to do when you finish writing the final "Z" book with Kinsey.

SG: I'm always being asked what I'm going to do after Z Is for Zero. I point out that since it's taking me two years per book, we're looking at another eight to ten years. Most people don't have a clue what they'll be doing next year, let alone five or six years from now. I can't imagine life without writing, and I can't imagine life without Kinsey Millhone. Here's a promise I'd like to make. I will never, never, never do linking titles again, so don't talk to me about aardvarks, BB guns, or the Greek alphabet. Ain't gonna happen, kids, but I appreciate your loyalty and enthusiasm.

P.S. I sure hope the statute of limitations has run on my crimes. Now that I'm 71, they'd probably want to try me as an adult.


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Comments (showing 1-25)




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message 25: by Laurel-Rain (new)

Laurel-Rain I LOVE Kinsey Millhone and have been following her exploits for quite awhile. I like that she's flawed, wry, and that her romantic quests are problematic. She seems like someone I would want to meet for a drink...or two.


message 24: by Clare (new)

Clare Great interview and I'm off to buy V is for V... for my Kindle now! Hope I look that good at 71!


message 23: by Laurel-Rain (new)

Laurel-Rain My copy is coming this week!


message 22: by Sheryl (last edited Nov 02, 2011 03:32PM) (new)

Sheryl I love Kinsey and Sue Grafton. What really connected me to her was after I read an article in People Magazine that she had interviewed for....and she was talking about her "bad divorce" and how she would stay awake at night plotting the demise of her husband...I was going through the same thing and thought I was the only one who had terrible thoughts like that...it was good to know I wasn't alone!! A couple of summers ago I re-read all the Kinsey Milhone mysteries...and realized what a WONDERFUL writer Ms Grafton really is....will look forward to "V"


message 21: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Mitchell I always thought Sue Grafton was much younger than me but it turns out we're the same age. Now I admire her even more - for staying so young at heart and able to portray the young Kinsey Milhone so realistically. I've loved every single one of the alphabet books.


message 20: by Iliotropio (new)

Iliotropio Kinsey is a true friend, my alter ego, who has helped me with her stories through some pretty hard times in my life.
She is the best, precisely because "she's flawed and inconsistent like the rest of us, and she has a wry view of her own failings. In the privacy of her head, she's dead honest..."
Thank you, thank you, thank you Ms Grafton for giving life to Kinsey!


message 19: by Fred (new)

Fred Forbes Interesting that I have enjoyed every book in this series but have never read one! I got the first one on audio book and it stuck. The actress who reads these is Kinsey Millhone to me so I love the grab the audio version as soon as it is available.


message 18: by Duduza (new)

Duduza Ernest A good interview which I think could make a story on its own.


message 17: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Grote-wilson I have enjoyed Sue Grafton's writing for over 20 years. I always can hardly wait for the next chapter in Kinsey's world. I always am transported to her part of CA, it may not be a real town but through Ms. Grafton's writing I am walking the street's seeing everything that is going on and right there as Kinsey works through every mystery. I am getting sad to think the alphabet has so few letters in it. But rereading my favorite books is my pleasure so Kinsey will always be alive in my home.Thank you Ms. Grafton for letting share Kinsey's world for so long.


message 16: by Sheryl (new)

Sheryl Just a comment...The town Santa Teresa is VERY much like Santa Barbara...which I think Ms Grafton lived in for awhile...and she would always talk about going down the 101 freeway...and would mention Thousand Oaks..where I lived. I have been to Santa Barbara many a time...and they sure do sound alot alike...LOL


message 15: by Judith (last edited Nov 07, 2011 09:49PM) (new)

Judith Since we're sharing about our past larcenies, I will now admit that I stole a package of spinach seeds from the grocery store in 1955 when I was 10. I planted the seeds and ate the evidence. I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on me, also.


message 14: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Popovich As a Sue Grafton and Kinsey fan, this was most enjoyable. Both my husband and I read all of her books, and enjoy the one thread at a time way in which the mystery is solved. Personally, I like her smart-ass way of dealing with the people around her and her exploits. Big shout out to Sue Grafton-I can't wait for the rest of the series...


message 13: by Joan (new)

Joan Great interview. I NEVER re-read books...but I'm doing it this time...I'm up to "Q"...enjoying them all over again. Sue Grafton is an inspiration to me. Thank you!


message 12: by George (last edited Nov 07, 2011 11:06PM) (new)

George This interview was great! The interview was as interesting as Sue Grafton's books. It's a novel in itself. Been anxiously waiting for V to come out! Now I can anxiously delve into another Kinsey Milhone mystery. Sue's writing makes me feel as if I'm right in her novel along with Kinsey. Thank you Sue for that unique style and looking forward to "V" and all future publications.


message 11: by Tina (new)

Tina I have been reading Sue Grafton since the very beginning with A is for Alibi. I have had V is for Vengeance on hold at the library for months now waiting for it to come out. This is one of my all time favorite series. One of the questions that was asked is if Sue thought Kinsey has changed. I think she has become a more caring person with each case she has taken on. One example is in one of my favorites in the series, T is for Trespass. I will be very sorry when this series comes to an end.


message 10: by Wanda (new)

Wanda Have read every book brom A-U. Can't wait to read V is for Vengance. Have loved them all. Kinsey Milhone is one of my heroines.


message 9: by Becky (new)

Becky I love all of Kinsey's stories, and own all of the books, except V, which I will be buying for my Kindle next payday. Every five years or so I go back and read them all in order. One of the benefits of getting older is that I forget some of the details and it's fun to be thrilled all over again with these wonderful stories. I love Kinsey's crankiness and her inner voice makes me laugh out loud at times. Our lifestyles are very different (me a mom with 4 grown kids, knitter, domestic type, etc) but I can so identify with her pithy opinions and observations. Anyway, I want to thank Sue for giving me so many years of reading pleasure. I also read The Lolly Madonna War when I was in my 20's, I got it at a used bookstore that carried paperback UK publications (also where I got a lot of my early Dick Francis books). Write on, and I hope I'm still around for Z.


message 8: by George (new)

George I can relate to Becky's comments. At my age, I can reread my books over and over again and its just like reading them for the first time. I have all the Grafton's books and am looking forward to receiving "V". I also have all of Dick Francis' books. My favorite authors along with Grafton is Wilbur Smith, Allistair MacLean and Howard Peace.

Sure having difficulty finding Howard Peace's books though. I read all his books when I was 14 years old (64 years ago) and sure would love to read them again.


message 7: by Rachelle (new)

Rachelle Wells I love Kinsey Millhone. She was my first foray into mysteries and still my favorite...always a good, solid, and satisfying reads...the books are never demanding or tasking, but always leave me feeling happy and fulfilled.


message 6: by Kathy (new)

Kathy My mom and I have been reading Sue's books for years. It has become a birthday tradition (since both of our birthday's are in November) for her to buy me the latest book as a gift...and for me to regift it to her! I'm going to miss Kinsey and Sue. Thank you, Sue, for so many years of mysteries, laughs, enjoyment and connections to others!


message 5: by Gilax (new)

Gilax it is great to read Sue"s book.i am going to buy the latest copy


message 4: by Farzan (new)

Farzan I just read A for Alibi and B for burglary if I don't make a mistake about the names.


message 3: by Annelie (new)

Annelie Rozeboom She's really 71?


message 2: by Jeanine (new)

Jeanine Oh my goshe! Has it really been 30 years???


message 1: by Bill (new)

Bill Carpentier I have read T is for Trespass and loved it. I enjoy her writing style. It captures and holds my interest.


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