Ah, January: that time of year for taking stock, separating the wins from the losses and totaling up the differences between the two. I can analyze my own progress by the simple expedient of the alphabet. In 1982, I launched ‘A’ Is for Alibi, introducing female, hard-boiled private eye Kinsey Millhone, who was then 32 years old. At the time, I was 10 years her senior, and while I’d never written a mystery novel in my life, I’d long been a fan of the form.
My parents were avid readers and leaned heavily on the secondhand paperback mysteries, which could be purchased for 25 cents apiece from the corner drugstore. My father was a municipal bond attorney, but his true passion was the detective novel. While he supported the family practicing law full-time, he also managed to write and publish two novels of a projected eight-book series. The first, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope, won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award of 1943. The $2,000 prize may have been the high-water mark of his earnings career. Eventually, he was forced to set aside his writing because he couldn’t afford the time.
By the time I reached college, I was writing bad poetry and mediocre short stories. Despite a lackluster academic showing, I acquired a B.A. in English, with minors in fine arts and the humanities. In order to find gainful employment, I had to teach myself to type. Later, by pretending I knew medical terminology, I picked up jobs in the medical field, as a receptionist in a doctor's office, a hospital admissions clerk, cashier and medical education secretary. Like my father, I indulged my passion for writing after paid work was ended for the day. By my late 20s, I’d published two quirky “literary” novels, and it looked like I was destined to make about as much money as he had, only without a respectable fallback position.
As luck would have it, the film rights to my second published novel sold. I learned screenplay form in 10 days flat, co-authored the adaptation, and picked up enough change to support myself and my children for a limited period. What followed was what I now refer to as “doing one to fifteen” in Hollywood; unjust punishment for someone whose only crimes were loving the English language and admiring the storytelling skills of writers who’d gone before. The pay seemed generous, and who could resist?
During my time in “the industry,” I learned how to write dialogue, how to get in and out of a scene, and how to write an action sequence. I also learned that I’m not a team player and I’m not a good sport. Writing by committee didn’t suit my personality, which can best be described as churlish and uncooperative. I became so snotty and unpleasant that producers and studio executives didn’t like me anymore, and I didn’t much like myself. I decided I better get back into solo writing while I still had a shred of integrity and a few bucks left in the bank.
In Hollywood, according to an agent now deceased, I was known as a writer who could create character, but who could not “do” plot, a criticism that pissed me off. I decided I’d teach myself how to plot, and what better training, thought I, than the venerable “whodunit” of my early years. To this end, I studied police procedure, private eye procedure, California criminal law, texts on burglary and theft, ballistics, and crime scene investigation. I also devoured numerous how-to manuals detailing the intricacies of the mystery novel.
A chance exposure to Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies sparked the notion of a mystery series based on the alphabet. As I was then embroiled in a nasty divorce, I had a victim in my sights, and I was able to dispose of him handily without risking arrest and sentencing. To distance myself from what might look like an unladylike enthusiasm for this fellow’s fictional demise, I invented a law-and-order type to represent my higher self, assuming I had one. Thus was born my heroine.
It was my intention (oh, let’s call it what it was...hubris) to write 26 detective novels, starting with the aforementioned A Is for Alibi and continuing through the as-yet-unwritten X, Y, and Z. The aspiration strikes me as cheeky from the vantage point of my advanced age (72, in case you haven’t heard.) With no guarantee of success, I sailed into the abyss, patiently picking my way from book to book until now: A mere 30 years later, I find myself three-and-one-quarter novels shy of my stated goal.
What lessons might we extrapolate from the tale to this point?
1. There’s no accounting for the exuberance and arrogance of youth.
2. There’s no way to predict where our dreams are taking us.
3. Choosing a destination is a hell of a lot easier than the journey itself.
4. Most important, from my perspective, is this: if I’d been a nicer “girl,” I’d still be in thrall to Hollywood and netting a sorry fraction of my current annual income.
Sue Grafton’s new book, Kinsey and Me, is being published this month. Grafton is an award-winning international best-selling author published in 29 countries and 27 languages, with a readership in the millions. Her readers appreciate her buoyant style, her eye for detail, her deft hand with character, her acute social observances and her abundant storytelling talents.