At 72, having reached V Is for Vengeance
in her groundbreaking Kinsey Millhone "alphabet" detective series, multimillion best-selling author Sue Grafton is temporarily shifting gears. This month she marks the series' 30th anniversary with the publication of a collection of short fiction and essays, Kinsey and Me: Stories
(Marian Wood/Putnam), in which she opens up about the difficult childhood that started her on the road to becoming a writer, discusses the fine art of plotting a mystery, and gives us some never-before-seen Kinsey Millhone short pieces. O
's books editor, Leigh Haber, asked the master storyteller why she decided to offer this peek behind the curtain.
Q: Your parents were both alcoholics whose drinking often took precedence over the day-to-day care of you and your sister. What enabled you to stay strong?
Writing. Pure and simple. Writing was my anchor and gave me a way to convert all of that unhappiness into something that would serve me. I've made my peace with what went down. My parents were smart, gentle people; they just weren't very good at their relationship.
Q: In this book, you write of yourself as a very young girl, sitting at home alone at night, reading mysteries with a butcher knife by your side just in case. You were reading scary stories all by yourself while being afraid of intruders?
I remember the knife had a bone handle and the blade was really slender from use. It would have come in handy if I'd been in trouble! The contradiction didn't bother me at all. I would sit and read a mystery novel, ready to be done in by whoever was coming down the steps, or up from the basement. I'm well acquainted with jeopardy and fear of a very visceral sort, and some of that I put into my work.
Q: When you created Kinsey, you turned the detective genre on its head by making her a woman.
When I published A Is for Alibi
in 1982, it didn't dawn on me that there were so few female private eyes. But since my only area of experience was being a woman, I made Kinsey one, too. I wasn't making a political point. I was already so far out of my expertise in terms of the forensic world, I just created an alter ego and got to funnel all my bad language and irreverent thoughts into her. At first some people took offense and thought: "She is really stepping out of her place in the world." But pretty soon, the world caught up. Now I look like a hero, when in fact I was just being sassy.
Q: You speak of Kinsey as if she's a real person. It's got to be difficult to think about parting with her, once you reach the letter Z. Would you ever consider actually killing her off?
Oh, no. When you suggest that Kinsey is not real you give me the willies. I think: "She's not?" Because she runs my life. Everything I do is about Kinsey Millhone, so if you think I'm letting her go or she's letting me go when we get to Z Is for Zero
, you are mistaken. I can't imagine letting go of her or of writing.
Q: You have never spoken publicly of what you describe in the new book as a painful childhood. Why now?
I wrote the stories about my parents when I was in my 30s and my grief over my mother's death was fresh. It took nerve to finally share them, and I'm still uneasy about it because I guess I'm more private than I thought. However, I'm 72 years old. If I can't tell the truth now, when am I going to be allowed to?
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