An Interview with Sue Grafton
X, by prolific novelist Sue Grafton, has three stories rolled into one book. One story line has codes based on both numbers and letters that have the commonality with “X,” since it is both a Roman numeral and a letter. The encryption proves that Millhone was wrong about her late partner’s morals and ethics and alerts her that he was on the track of a serial killer. Another story line has Teddy Xanakis, wanting revenge on her divorced husband, attempting to steal a priceless painting from him. The third plot line has landlord, Henry Pitts, taking drastic action to lower his water use during the 1989 California drought.
Elise Cooper: You broke with tradition in titling this book. Why?
Sue Grafton: Somewhat, since I used the alphabet but did not put what it stood for. Because I made the rules, I figured I could be the one to break them. I thought I would write about xenophobia, a hatred of foreigners. After I stated writing the story there was not a foreigner to be had. I did not want to just stick one in there so I could get a title out of it since it seemed like cheating. I never figured out how I could get out of this dilemma so I just called it X and weaved X traits into the story.
EC: How did you come up with the idea of having alphabet titles?
SG: There was an author who titled his books by days of the weeks and another one that used colors. Then there was Edward Gorey who wrote the book THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES, about the untimely death of 26 Victorian children, each representing a letter of the alphabet. I thought what a great way to link the titles.
EC: What will happen when you get finished with the alphabet?
SG: After I get done with Z, I will see what shape I am to continue writing. I do promise readers that I will never put linking titles because it has put such a burden on me. I will see if I have any juice left. I have watched writers go beyond the point when they should have stopped. I am leaving my options open.
EC: You also limit the years of your novels to the 1980s decade. Why?
SG: A is for Alibi, my first book, was published in 1982. As it happened the next couple of books took place in June and August of that year. Without meaning to I painted myself into a corner. The other issue was the aging process. I did not want my main character to age one year for every book so I slowed the whole process down. This way I could get through all 26 letters of the alphabet without making her 109 years old in 2015. I might end the series in either 1990 or on New Years Eve 1989.
SG: She is my alter ego. I always think we are one soul in two bodies and she got the better one. I think of her as the person I might have been had I not married young and had children. She is my unlived life, all the adventures I never embarked on. I am not as shy and a loner as Kinsey and much more domesticated. When I started the series I was 42 and she was 32. Now almost 35 years later she is 38 years old and I am 75. Often I feel she’s peering over my shoulder, whispering, nudging me and making bawdy remarks. It amuses me that I invented someone who has gone on to support me. It amuses her, I’m sure, that she will live in this world long after I’m gone.
EC: Why did you make Kinsey a private investigator?
SG: My father taught me to love detective fiction writers such as Raymond Chandler. When I decided to have a hard-boiled detective series I did a lot of studying before I wrote the first book. I learned police procedure, the California criminal law, and many areas outside my expertise.
EC: How do you get the ideas for the plots?
SG: I read the paper every day. There are certain subjects that will catch my attention. I have an entire file of articles. Of course I make up the story, especially since most criminals are not very smart and fictional crime must be clever. I have to make sure the story I am telling is interesting and realistic. In this book I went on line and found out the manners of codes. I thought it interesting to use them as a jumping off point.
EC: You have a quote about surveillance work. Please explain.
SG: I have talked to a lot of private investigators. They talked about having to sit around for several hours and that half the job is trying to figure out finding excuses as to why you are somewhere for long periods of time.
EC: You changed your writing style in this book compared to the last few. Why?
SG: For books S – W I used multiple points of view. A reader casually said to me I should write a book from Kinsey’s point of view. I did that, but it was one of the hardest works I ever have done. A lot of the action takes place off camera, which makes it more inhibiting. I am not sure what I will do with the next book considering writing with multiple points of view is like writing in three dimensions. Looking from various points of view allows the reader to move around through the book’s reality, creating a complex narrative.