Mystery writer Sue Grafton has one of the most recognizable trademarks in fiction: the books in her series, from A Is for Alibi in 1982 to her new book, U Is for Undertow, are all named after a letter of the alphabet. That formula regularly takes Grafton's books to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and Undertow is no exception. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs talked with the prolific author about the ABCs of writing crime novels during her recent visit to New York City.
What's the origin of the alphabet tradition?
In the back of my mind, when I thought I would write a mystery novel, I understood the virtue of having titles that readers-at-large could recognize so that they'd know you had a next book out. I was reading an Edward Gorey cartoon book called The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and his book is a series of pen-and-ink drawings of Victorian children being done in various ways. If you have not read it, it is truly amusing. His book goes, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who [wasted away]," on down the alphabet. And I thought to myself, "God bless it. Why couldn't you base a series of crime novels on letters of the alphabet?"
This is the 21st book in the series. How have you come up with so many different plots?
Part of what I do is keep charts of the books I've written, so I have a record of the gender of every killer, the gender of the victim, the motive for the crime and the nature of the climax how does the book end? I also have a series of log lines for each book. In A Is for Alibi, Kinsey Milhone is hired to prove the innocence of a woman just out of prison for the murder of her husband. In B Is for Burglar, Kinsey Milhone is hired to find and get a signature on a minor document. So I know the setup for each book, and when I move to the next in the series, whatever that may be, I go back and review what I've done and figure out a way to come up with a story that is not a duplicate of something I've already done.
Tell me about your heroine, Kinsey Milhone. What is she like?
I claim she is a loner, and she is to a certain extent. She's perfectly happy in her own company. She says at one point, "I am not half of something looking for the other half." She's been married and divorced twice. She also says, "I keep my guard up along with my underpants." So she's careful about sexual connections with guys because to her it represents a hazard. She likes working for herself. She's persistent. She's curious. She's not above breaking and entering if she thinks she can do it without getting caught. Loves to lie oh, she's so good at that, and kind of takes pride in it, you know. Eats bad food. Cuts her hair with a pair of nail scissors every six weeks. Owns one dress. Now she owns, actually, I think a skirt as well, and she's pretty proud of that. She has no clue about makeup or fashion, so she's always watching women, wondering how they figure it out, and she's not above imitating women if they'll give her a little counsel.
Is she like you? Is it at all autobiographical?
Yes. She is the person I might have been had I not married young and had children. When I was growing up, I didn't get, "You could be a police officer," which might have been really, really fun. I have great respect for law enforcement, and I think it is an interesting career. I worked in the medical field before my work began to support me, and I like medicine and I like law enforcement because they're life on the edge. You are dealing with people who are in trouble by in large, and you learn a lot about human nature from seeing people who are stressed out. I always say that I'm just like Kinsey Milhone unless you don't like her, and then I disavow any connection.
Your new book deals with false-memory syndrome. How did you become interested in that?
There have been many instances in cases where people have been accused of sexual molestation, sexual abuse, satanic rituals with children, where it is purely the artifact of a therapist who decides that you have this problem and little by little elicits memories from you that are totally false. They are planted; they are conjured out of smoke ... Eventually sometimes, if you're lucky these people will recant, but the torture they put their families through is incredible because there are some people who are sexually abused, so it's difficult to sort out the true from the false in that circumstance. What interested me was the whole issue of what happens if you have no credibility, what happens if you've been in this circumstance and you've accused your parents of dastardly deeds and then recanted, and then the next thing you come up with, nobody is going to believe you. So I thought that was an interesting idea, the boy who cried wolf.
You are nearing the end of the alphabet. What is going to happen?
Well, given that I have been doing two years between books, which is making my life bearable, that means I've got five books to go, which is 10 years. I just don't know if any of us know what we are going to be doing in 10 years. Maybe I'll get a nursing degree. Maybe I'll become a professional ballerina. I don't know. [Laughs.] And I don't know what's going to happen to Kinsey Milhone because it's none of my business until I get there. Each of her adventures that I document, she's generous enough, and I speak of her as though she were a real person, but after all these years of living with her, I think of her that way. So we'll see. I don't tell her; she tells me. I'm just along for the ride and happy to be part of her strange and glorious life.