Sue Grafton In Conversation With Peter Lovesey
SUE GRAFTON’s books sell in millions across the world. Her alphabetically themed series is one of the most courageous and far-sighted writing projects ever attempted by a mystery writer, running already from A IS FOR ALIBI to V IS FOR VENDETTA.
SG: I’ve sampled three of your series: Peter Diamond, CID Inspector Hen Mallin and the Sergeant Cribb/Constable Thackeray novels.
How do you decide which you’ll tackle next? Do you sort out the project according to the nature of the story? I can imagine, for instance, that a plotline suitable for Sergeant Cribb would be entirely different from one you’d flesh out for Peter Diamond.
Give us some insight, please.
PL: You’re so right about the differences in plotting. The Cribb books all began with a theme based on a Victorian entertainment: marathon walking, prize-fighting, the music hall, the river, the waxworks and so on. In the Diamond and Mallin series, the setting of Bath or Chichester is a given, so I like to work more with character, finding strong challenges for my detective and his team. The plotting has to be stronger, too, to match their personal struggles. In the new one, STAGESTRUCK, Diamond must resolve a deep-seated fear of being inside a theatre before he can tackle the murder mystery in Bath’s Theatre Royal. The Cribb series ran its joyful length in books and TV scripts and I can’t see myself getting back to it. Diamond and Hen Mallin are of our time and I want that extra complexity.
SG: Since I only have the one series, I can’t afford to sell the film or television rights. In this country, a producer buys the rights to the character, not the book itself, which gives him the right to do anything he pleases. When Lawrence Block sold the rights to his Bernie Rodenbarr series … the role of Bernie … a white, male Jewish burglar…was given to Whoopee Goldberg. So, of course, I worry that the part of Kinsey Millhone would go to Eddie Murphy. Please believe me, even when I get to “Z” I won’t sell the rights. I’ve made my children and grandchildren take a blood oath to that effect. I’ve sworn if they ever go up against my wishes in that regard, I’ll come back from the grave. They know I can do it, too!
I’ve also read one of your stand-alone crime novels, ROUGH CIDER. Do you prefer the one-offs or the series? Again, are some stories better showcased in one form or the other?
PL: Yes, occasionally it’s like taking a holiday to write a non-series book. My readers seem willing to enjoy the break, too. I wrote one called THE REAPER, about an engaging young vicar called Otis Joy who murders the bishop in chapter one, and of all the books it’s the one best loved. What does that say about me and my readers? But, as you suggest, some story ideas will work only in a single book. I wonder if you have some one-offs in store for us after ‘Z’ IS FOR ….. and of course after a well earned break.
SG: The one-off might be me. I’ll be close to 80 when I get to ‘Z’ IS FOR ZERO so we’ll see how much juice I have left. I don’t want to be one of those writers who goes on and on when readers are crying ‘Enough already!’ I focus on the book I’m writing at the moment. Ideas that don’t seem to be part of the series, I make note of, but I don’t devote any energy to them. If I felt I absolutely had to take a break and write a stand-alone, I’d do it, but for the moment, I’m happy where I am.
Like every other reader, I’m curious about your work habits. What time of day do you write? Where? How many hours a day? I’m also interested in how long it takes you to write a book. Please fill me in.
PL: Ever since I made writing my career I’ve tried to treat it as the day job, starting in the morning and working through till about six. I’ll take shopping breaks and so on, and sometimes time off can be productive. For me, getting words on the screen is a slow process. I average about 300 a day, but as I don’t work in drafts, each of those words must count, so I take care over them. When you add it all up, 300 a day should get the book finished in a year. These days it takes a little longer. Where? In my office in the garden. I call it my shed, but my wife Jax points out that it’s double-glazed, carpeted and heated, so it’s a cut above the average potting shed. I wouldn’t like you to see the clutter inside, though. You once allowed me to see inside your immaculate office (readers can glimpse it on your website) and I was stunned, not to say mortified. In that respect, you and the well-organized Kinsey seem at one.
SG: We recently moved and I vowed…VOWED…to get completely organized. The immaculate office you saw seldom remained immaculate for long. Drawers and cupboards were a mess. I always thought I’d be much happier in tidy surroundings, inside and out. In preparation for the move, I redid 455 research files in color coordinared folders, segregated according to whether the contents were personal, book related, or writing related (as in lectures, articles, etc.) This office looks much better than my former office and I make a point of straightening up at the end of each work day. And you know what? I am happier. As for my work habits, I’m much like you. I consider this my job so I’m in my office by 8:30 every morning and wrap up at 3:00 or so when I take a four mile walk. I work 7 days a week unless I’m sick, out of town or have house guests. I try to write two pages a day, but often I write more. Just as often I write less. I’m slow but I’m persistent. I’m a tortoise, not a hare. You seem to be the same.
What are you currently working on and where are you in the process? Planning stage, book underway, halfway home?
PL: I always need to be involved at some stage in the process and I’m happy to report as I write this that I have only about forty pages left to type. In my scale of output, that’s about five weeks. And where are you with the latest? I imagine you’ve long since decided what the remaining titles will be. I did wonder if you lost any sleep trying to think of a word beginning with X.
SG: I finished ‘V’ January 28 and I’m brain dead so it will take a while to recharge my batteries. I haven’t lost any sleep thinking about the title to X because I’m not there yet. I have a book out every two years so I’m safe for a while. My hope is that between now and the time I write X, someone will come up with a brand new crime that starts with X and I can use that as a jumping off point. No clue what W and Y will be. Z as we know is for Zero. Today, I literally sat down with a dictionary and made a list of all the W words that appealed to me. Then I fell back exhausted. So taxing, this alphabet business!
You did a book tour in the States some years ago, in the company of Liza Cody and Michael Lewin. The library event I attended was lively and amusing. Any plans to do another road trip?
PL: I believe we were among the first mystery writers – together with Paula Gosling – to get a roadshow touring Britain and the US. We continued to tour in various combinations of twos and threes for several years and we remain on speaking terms. As well as readings, we did skits, radio scripts with sound effects and even juggling. My juggling with five objects behind my back has to be seen to be believed. Far easier than devising a good plot. But we now do our own thing and I’ll tour the US bookstores again this summer. Thanks, Sue, for your encouragement and for being an inspiration to so many of us.
SG: I thought there was a fourth Brit in that road show, but I’d forgotten about Paula. Was she with you when you came to Kentucky? I’m usually out there by myself doing the old dog and pony show. Hard work any way you slice it. Next time I see you, I want a juggling demonstration! I’m quite sure it’s easier than coming up with a workable narrative. You don’t need encouragement, kiddo. You’re doing great!