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On Sunday, novelist Sue Grafton's latest entry in her popular "Alphabet Mysteries" series - "S Is for Silence" (Putnam, $26.95, 374 pages) - will top the New York Times best-seller list for fiction.
That won't be a surprise to her legion of fans (she's published worldwide in 26 languages). Grafton's protagonist, private investigator Kinsey Millhone of the fictional California coastal town of Santa Teresa, has been on a long roll since her introduction in "A Is for Alibi" in 1983.
In "Silence," Millhone reluctantly looks into the 34-year-old disappearance of a woman named Violet Sullivan, the town floozy, at the behest of Violet's now-adult daughter, Daisy. In the course of things, our heroine makes a major discovery and nearly loses her life over it.
OAS_AD('Button20'); I caught up with Grafton by phone from her room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan on the first day of her national book tour.
Grafton, 65, and her husband, Steven Humphrey, a philosophy professor, divide their time between homes in Louisville, Ky., where she was born and raised, and a 4 1/2-acre ranch near Santa Barbara. Grafton walks 5.4 miles a day, loves to entertain friends, goes online to chat with her fans at www.suegrafton.com, and has a personal chef. "It's like having a mother," she said. "I sit at my desk and smell something divine and wonder what she's cooking today."
Grafton has three adult children and four granddaughters - one of whom is named Kinsey.
Q: "Silence" shifts back and forth in time, a new technique for you.
A: I was thinking that it's too bad I don't do science fiction, because I would do time travel. Then I decided there was nothing prohibiting me from cutting back (and forth) in time, because I wanted readers to meet Violet Sullivan and form their own judgments. Just to hear that she was a tramp doesn't really capture her nature. She has a kind of cocky defiance I like.
Q: You got out of college with a major in English and minors in humanities and fine arts.
A: Yes, which made me virtually unemployable. In those days, Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare were on television and I thought, "I think I'll work in the medical field, those guys are cute." So I pretended I knew medical terminology and got jobs at hospitals.
Q: Before the Kinsey Millhone books, you published two novels, "Keziah Dane" (1967) and "The Lolly-Madonna War" (1969), which was made into a movie starring Rod Steiger and Jeff Bridges.
A: The movie was really bad, but I learned a lot. When the book sold (to Hollywood), somebody taught me how to do screenplays in 10 days flat, so I ended up in Hollywood.
Q: You're adamant about never allowing a Kinsey Millhone novel to be made into a movie.
A: Or a TV series. It's not bitterness, it's hostility - a much cleaner emotion. I was happy and wide-eyed in Hollywood for a while. To sit in a private theater on a movie lot and watch dailies of something you've written is just dazzling. But after awhile I realized I didn't like them tampering with my work. I'm not a prima donna, but I hated that whole committee mentality. So that's why I started "A Is for Alibi" - I wanted to get back to owning my own work.
Q: I've heard you created the series during a six-year divorce and custody battle with your second husband, when you would fantasize about ways to murder him.
A: Yes, and I came up with some lulus, including one that I knew would actually work. But I knew I'd get caught because I'm really very intimidated by authority. I have my devious side - I can cook up these schemes - but when it comes to acting out, I knew I would blow it. So I decided to just put it in a book and get paid for it.
Q: The mystery-thriller genre keeps growing. Why do you think that is?
A: Because it's the one form in which the reader and the writer are pitted against each other. My job is to be a magician and perform sleight of hand. I give you all the information but divert your attention so I can pull a rabbit out of a hat. The trick is to set up a story so that by the end of it you think, "Oh, man, of course!"
Q: Though you've said that Kinsey is you, only younger, smarter and thinner, there are also oceans of differences.
A: She is my unlived life and my sassy inner nature. There are many things I observe in the world (about which) I have learned to keep my mouth shut. But in Kinsey, I have the perfect channel for my dark side. She is defiant of authority, she is willing to break and enter, she lies at the drop of a hat and is very proud of it. Now, I too have some reputation for lying. I write fiction, after all. But really, I think of our (relationship) as one soul in two bodies - and she got the good one. She has many sassy things to say about the world, and if people object, I can say, "Man, I can't control that woman." I always claim she cusses much more than I do, but that's not entirely true. Talk about one of my lies ...
Q: You've done a book a year for a long time. Are you going to slow the pace?
A: I'm like Scarlett O'Hara - I do one thing at a time and I worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. I think that if I can just do the job I love to do, I will be OK.
Q: In real time, Kinsey would be 55 years old.
A: She's 37 (in fiction time). When I finish the series with "Z Is for Zero," it will be the narrative year 1990 and she will turn 40. Then it will be, "Over and out, folks."
About the writer: The Bee's Allen Pierleoni can be reached at (916) 321-1128 or email@example.com. - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW!
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