Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Calamari Crime, and a Sue Grafton Interview

I attended Left Coast Crime last week, a writers and readers conference held annually at different locations in the Western United States. This year’s venue was Monterey, California—famous for its squid catch—so the conference was dubbed “Calamari Crime.”

The event consisted primarily of panel discussions among authors discussing their own books, the craft of writing, marketing and publicity, trends in mysteries, what agents look for in a manuscript, and various other issues of import to readers and writers.

the “A Taste for Murder” panel
l. to r. Daryl Wood Gerber (aka Avery Aames), Nancy J. Parra (aka Nancy Coco),

The panels were lots of fun, and I learned much about new authors, writing technique, and publishing. But truly, the best part of Left Coast Crime was hangin’ with fellow authors (both unpublished, like me, and published), and swapping stories and networking. In particular, finally getting to meet in person all the Sisters in Crime and Guppies members that I had previously only communicated with online was a terrific experience. (I want to give a big shout-out to my conference roommate, author Edith Maxwell, who introduced me to many of her friends and associates.)

before the Guppies dinner
l. to r. James M. Jackson, Heidi Noroozy, yours truly, my roomie Edith Maxwell
Jan Rubens & another Guppy whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten
(photo credit: some random guy we asked to take our picture)

Many world-famous authors were in attendance at Left Coast Crime, including Cara Black, Craig Johnson (a sweet man in a cowboy hat I met at the bar and chatted up, having no idea he was anyone famous), Laurie R. King (a fellow Santa Cruzian,who told me “Go Slugs!” upon hearing I also lived there), Aaron Elkins,

l. to r., Elkins, King, Johnson and Black
(you can see me in the mirror, taking the photo)

Marcia Clark (who famously prosecuted the O.J. Simpson case), Maisie Dobbs author Jacqueline Winspear,

Jacqueline Winspear

husband and wife writing team Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Canadian best-seller Louise Penny,

Louise Penny

and Sue Grafton. It is this last author I’m going to focus on in my blog post, mostly just because she gave such an amusing interview at the conference, and I took copious notes. (Although Grafton’s statements are in quote marks below, note that that what follows is not an exact transcript, and is often mere paraphrase.)

Any mystery reader who’s been at least semi-consious during the past thirty years knows of the author of the “alphabet mysteries” and her protagonist, P.I. Kinsey Millhone. In person, Sue Grafton reminds me a lot of her sleuth—she’s sharp-witted, funny, has the mouth of a sailor, and clearly does not suffer fools gladly. In sum, I thought she was good fun. (She’s from Louisville, Kentucky, by the way, and sounds like it, pronouncing her home town as “loh-vuhl.” “I have photos of my house in Garden and Gun magazine,” she told us with a grin. “Eat your heart out.”)

Sue Grafton

A Is For Alibi was the seventh novel Grafton wrote, and was published in 1982. “I’m starting the novel,” she told the conference audience, “and I see this book by Edward Gorey—The Gashlycrumb Tinies—a macabre poem with pen-and-ink drawings of children being done in in various ways, and it gave me the idea for my series.

“I grew up on Agatha Christie,” she said, “and I loved her. (I just wish she cussed more!) But then one day I read Mickey Spillane, and I thought, ‘Hot damn!’ The lights went on, and I started reading hard boiled.

“I had worked at reception at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and the thing about hospitals is that there are always these people in crisis. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of medical stuff in my novels.”

Before starting the alphabet series, Grafton had worked for years in Hollywood writing screenplays. “I learned two things working in Hollywood,” she told us. “I’m not a team player, and I’m not a good sport. So I decided, ‘I’m gonna get back to solo writing, because it’s the only thing that’s gonna save me. I got a $10,000 advance for A Is For Alibi, which sold 6,000 copies.

“My agent told me, ‘You’ll never make as much as you would in Hollywood.’ Years later, all I had to say about that was ‘ha, ha, ha!’ ”

She was asked about her concept of “the shadow” during the interview. “Your shadow is the pieces of yourself that you repress and deny,” she explained. “It’s your pettiness, your sense of humor. And once you shut it off, you’ve denied your true self with regard to your writing. For example, you meet someone and your shadow thinks ‘yuck!’ But your ego will tell you, ‘well, that’s not very nice.’ But your shadow is right: that woman’s gonna run off with your husband.

“You’ve got to listen to your shadow; she’ll always tell you if you’re off course in your writing, even when your ego tells you it’s fine. I call this ‘eating a death cookie.’ I once threw away the first eight chapters of a book. It’s very scary to have to start over; you feel stark naked. But once you have the courage to dump a book, you have the courage to trust the process.”

Grafton is currently at work on the X book. (“This is going to be about a xylophone, right?” the interviewer asked. “Yes,” she replied, “and it’s a vicious crime!”) But she’s going through a period of writer’s block, and is stuck right now, she told us.

“I recognize that I’ve achieved a certain status in the mystery writing field, but it doesn’t help when I’m working on the next book. Working on W, I got to chapter 32 of 36 and I realized, ‘I don’t have a clue how to end this book!’ Talk about eating a death cookie. I’m sure there are writers who are still having a good time after writing so many books, but I’m not one of them.”

Grafton was asked about her protagonist, and the fact that she’s only aged a few years since 1982. “When I started, Kinsey was 32 and I was 42,” Grafton said. “Now she’s 38 and I’m 73.” A beat. “I don’t want to talk about how bitter I am.”

“Would you ever let Hollywood make a movie based on your series?” the interviewer queried.

“I wouldn’t sell the rights to Hollywood for five million dollars,” she answered emphatically. “There was talk of a movie at one time, and you know who they thought of casting as Kinsey? Sally Struthers! I said, ‘Have you even read my book?’ I’m not doing it. Never. I don’t need their money; I don’t need their help.”

Grafton was asked during the Q&A at the end of the interview, “Are you going to kill off Kinsey at the end of the series?”

“Why would I?” she answered. “I am Kinsey, and she is going to live long after I’m dead. I give her to you for eternity.”

Thank you, Sue!

Grafton signing books after her interview


  1. I am a huge fan of Sue Grafton, so I really enjoyed this post.

  2. Great conference report, Leslie. And wonderful to get to you know you in person!

    1. I tried to post a comment on your Wicked Cozy Authors post, Edith, but for some reason it never appeared. Sigh...

    2. Damn. Maybe you didn't wait for the capcha? (If we have one - which I am not sure of...)

  3. Nice! I loved this LCC and am looking forward to Portland next year.

  4. That was great. I am having lunch with a friend tomorrow who is going to be green with jealousy that you have cozied up to Craig Johnson, by the way. And actually our mutual friend Rosemary will probably feel some envy that you got to meet Winspear.

    Somehow it had escaped me that Grafton is from Louisville. I don't think of her with a Kentucky accent. However, as I was born at St. John's hospital, maybe we have already met...

    Thanks for writing this up, Leslie, and I hope to hear that you are on one of those panels one day!

    1. Thanks, Seana! (And tell Rosemary not to be envious; I didn't meet J. Winspear, but just heard her talk.)

  5. Great meeting you at LCC, Leslie!

    And I loved that Sue Grafton interview -- thanks for the recap that made me smile :)

  6. Great meeting you face to face, Leslie! Nice summary of LCC, and thanks for the insider story about Doris Day!

  7. Sue is completely my idol...truly, I wouldn't be me without her. Thank you so much for this, Leslie! So terrific--i was so frustrated to have to miss LCC--and I am grateful to you for this wonderful slice of it!

  8. Great post, Leslie! It was wonderful to meet you, another Santa Cruzan, at Left Coast Crime. When you return to Santa Cruz, maybe we can carpool to some of the NorCal SinC meetings.

  9. Leslie, this is a great post. I hope I see you at SINCNorcal.

    1. I joined SinCNorCal yesterday, Ana! And yes, Vinnie, do let's!! (I'll be back mid-May.)