Sue Grafton: Writing her way through the alphabet

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Sue Grafton is in a good mood, possibly because she's approaching the end of her self-imposed alphabet marathon that began with "A Is for Alibi," published in 1982.

"Looking back, I think, 'What a cheeky thing to do. How amazingly arrogant to think I could do it,' " said the creator of female detective Kinsey Millhone, a woman who keeps an indestructible black dress handy for certain occasions.

Sue Grafton

Where: Ten Literary Evenings -- Monday Night Lecture Series presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: Tonight at 7:30.

Tickets: $15-$35 are available at 412-622-8866 or

A former Hollywood script writer, Ms. Grafton discusses her character's latest adventures in her new book, "W Is for Wasted." She is the second author in the Ten Literary Evenings series and speaks at 7:30 tonight in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.

Now 73, Ms. Grafton will be close to 80 when she finishes her literary task. (On the publishing scorecard, "X" is due out in 2015, "Y" in 2017 and "Z" in 2019, Ms. Grafton said in a telephone interview.)

Some letters are harder than others.

" 'S Is for Silence' and 'T' were hard. I was changing the way I was doing the writing process. It took me a long time to sort out how to tell those two stories," she said.

So, she filled a lot of notebooks.

"It took me a year to figure out which story to start with. I would try it one way, and it would collapse on itself. If I tried it the other way, it seemed coincidental. Finally, I got how to do it. Once I understand how to go about it, it always seems so self-evident," she said.

As all marathon runners know, there comes a point when it seems impossible to go on.

"I did hit the wall around S and T. Cleverly, I just retooled and figured out that I could do multiple points of view. Once I got to it, it was easy. But just because I did it once doesn't mean it's right for the next book."

The advantage of using multiple points of view, she said, allows her to decide who carries the story.

"If you choose the wrong character, half the story lies there flat."

Her all-time favorite mystery writer is the late Elmore Leonard.

"He had the best ear for the small-time crook and the best sense of how that mental state operated," Ms. Grafton said.

She just finished reading Scott Turow's new novel, "Innocent."

"I understood he was going back and picking up the characters from 'Presumed Innocent.' I watched his methodology with great care. I thought he did a good job of it. I could appreciate what a tough undertaking that was."

"H Is for Homicide" was tough because she was writing about Hispanics and she worried that some readers would say that she was not qualified to write about their community because she is not Hispanic.

Would she ever consider adding more characters to Kinsey's world?

"No, if I need an additional character, I can always find one -- an ex-husband. They're always lying around. Damn. Those first husbands -- they are like your freshman classes that you didn't do well in and you can expunge them from your record," said the twice-divorced writer, who has been happily married to Steven Humphrey for more than 30 years.

She does not chafe at having Kinsey Millhone stuck in the 1980s, a labor-intensive era that predates Google searches, Facebook and Twitter.

"I love the '80s. It was a simpler time, and from the point of view of my charming self, writing detective novels, it's just a great way to look at sleuthing the old-fashioned way," she said.

Ms. Grafton begins her daily writing ritual the same way.

"I have some notes. I have some notions. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You dump it all out on the table. You look for the corners and the edge pieces. My problem is that I never have the picture. I work with the little bits and pieces that I have and see how they connect."

When she reaches the alphabet's she hopes to continue to write.

"If I'm in my right mind, fine. I'll do stand-alone books," she said. "I'm not going to do linking titles again as long as we both shall live."


Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published October 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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