Accosting a world-famous author in the restroom at a conference is considered the worst kind of behavior. But there was Sue Grafton at the sink, and there I was, and I doubted I’d get another chance. Besides, I didn’t actually accost her – never touched her, in fact. All I did was babble about what a thrill it was to have her at Malice Domestic and to hear her speak in person.
She was most gracious. Something similar probably happens whenever she sets foot in a public place. Each time I saw her or heard her speak over the weekend, I was impressed by her accessibility, her cheerful personality, and her patience with adoring fans. If any author has earned the right to be a prima donna, Sue Grafton has – she was at Malice to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award – but she remains... well, nice.
She’s also very funny. On a panel with other honorees Donna Anderson and Carole Nelson Douglas, she shared some of the gratifying, amusing, and occasionally bewildering letters she receives from readers. (She responds only to real letters sent through regular mail. If she tried to answer all her e-mail, she probably wouldn’t have time to eat and sleep, much less write.) In the bewildering category, one reader accused her of endorsing animal abuse because she wrote about a character who did nasty things to innocent creatures. A lot of readers apparently want to see Kinsey Millhone on TV or in movies. Sue said she would rather roll naked in ground glass than sell the rights to her character. She worked in Hollywood for 15 years before turning to mystery writing, and she doesn’t want Kinsey in the hands of scriptwriters and producers.
A reader once asked whether she is paid for “product placement” in her novels. The answer is no, but she’s received unsolicited gifts from the folks who make Vlasic pickles and Jif peanut butter (ingredients in Kinsey’s favorite sandwich), and the company that makes Saucony athletic shoes. After someone at Saucony saw a photo of Sue wearing that brand, she began receiving a new pair of shoes every few months. After a while she’d accumulated so many that she asked her benefactor to desist. Now she’s sort of regretting that she stopped the flow of free shoes. (She wears size 6, by the way.)
On another panel, Sue told her own aspiring writer story (every writer has one). She worked in Hollywood, hated writing by committee, and was desperate to get back to solo writing. She had seven unpublished novels. An agent had told her she showed no talent for plotting. That assessment made her so mad that she was determined to show the woman just how well she could plot. We probably have a blind-to-talent agent to thank for the Alphabet Mysteries.
What will happen when she reaches the end of the alphabet eight years from now? (And would she like a nickel for every time she’s been asked that question?) She doesn’t know. Every new book scares her and makes her wonder if she can do it again. She doesn’t even know yet what the W will stand for in that book. “I don’t want to outstay my welcome,” she said, and she isn’t sure whether she’ll continue writing.
She promised her readers one thing: she won’t kill off Kinsey in the last book. But exactly where her character will be and what she’ll be doing when the series ends – “That’s up to Kinsey.”