Sue Grafton is the beloved creator of the private investigator Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet mystery series, which she worked on for thirty years, progressing from A and almost making it through Z. In a spirited interview with Writer’s Digest, given when she was only five letters away from finishing, she talked candidly about writing. A few tidbits:
On her protagonist: “In my mind, I am only privileged to know what she chooses to share, and she assures me that some things are just not my business, thank you. I don’t tell her. She tells me. I discover things about her in the process of writing. I don’t have a great scheme afoot. I try to keep honest, I try not to repeat myself. I try to let her evolve as she will, not according to my dictates. It’s a very odd process.”
On what she’s learned from writing: “These books are a real struggle for me, and the universe owes me an easy one. I’m waiting for it…. I’m learning the same lesson every single time. I’m learning to trust the process. I’m trying to remember that writing should be a form of play. I keep saying the fate of the free world does not hang in the balance. Even if I write a book that fails, nothing will happen. I’ll be mortified and embarrassed, but lives will not be lost over this. I take writing terribly seriously, and sometimes that just gets in my way. Writing is about the Shadow, which is about play. I just have to learn that again.”
On the ongoing struggle to write: “I read other writers [and] I think, she does it the easy way, or he does it. It couldn’t be hard for him, for her. And I just think it’s good for people to know it’s always hard, at least for me, partly because I’ve never figured out how to do it quicker. I’m slow and I’m meticulous, and that’s just my nature.”
On her process: “I write a journal for each of the novels. I usually keep the journals
about 50 pages long, and create as many as I need. So with S Is for Silence, I think the journals were 300–400 single-spaced pages, and the manuscript itself was only 500 and some. I call it a long, whiny conversation I have with myself about what I’m doing. It’s just
self-talk—what have I done, what am I thinking about doing, what do I imagine will work, what can I do, what can I not do—and I just chase myself from page to page, hoping inspiration will strike. It takes forever. I throw away so many ideas…”
On her Shadow writer: “My problem is I can’t get out of my own way. Shadow knows how to write books. Ego does not. So when I’m trying to put together a book, Ego is the one saying, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’ And I’m going, ‘No you won’t. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ Shadow is just that still, quiet voice in your soul that tells you if you’re on track or off track.”
On what’s made her successful: “I hope it is because I try to be honest, and I try not to sell
anything. I just try to let the work take care of itself. I try to keep it fresh. I will not cheat. I will not take the lazy way out. I just won’t. That isn’t going to be fun for any of us if I get lazy. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so hard for me.
“I don’t think of myself as an author. I think of myself as a writer, because writing is what I do. I’m always taken aback when others refer to me as “famous” or a “celebrity.” What a weird idea. The concept has no real application. It doesn’t serve a writer to start thinking of
herself in those terms because it interferes with the work. Writing is an internal process. Success is external and not something we can control in any event. I foster that disconnect because it keeps me grounded. Also humble, lovable and grateful. I am blessed.”
On getting started as a writer: “My big gripe about newer writers is they’re not willing to put the time in. Somebody’ll write one book and they’re asking me who my agent and my editor are, and I’m thinking, Don’t you worry, sweetheart, you’re not any good yet. Give yourself time to get better. Writing is really hard to master. You learn by failing over and over, but a lot of people don’t care for that, thanks. I always wish new writers the greatest good fortune. It’s a helluva journey—I’ll tell you that.”
Words of wisdom to ponder and apply as we all write on!