|Arizona Biltmore Gold Room lighting|
The launch of Sue Grafton's W Is for Wasted was scheduled to begin at 7 PM on September 10 at the Arizona Biltmore, and the doors to the Gold Room were to open at 6 PM. So why were Denis and I walking into the venerable establishment at 5:15? Because I had one of those feelings. It's a good thing I did because the doors were open, people were already gathering, Poisoned Pen employees had an ever-increasing crowd at the book table, and the best seats right up front were being zeroed in on.
I can hustle when I want to (without mowing anyone down) , and hustle I did, bemoaning the fact that a group had already got the seats right in front of the podium. But as I was walking past to the next best seats, I noticed that nothing electrical was hooked up at that podium while there was a table, a lamp, and two chairs up on the rostrum... and there were empty seats. Denis and I grabbed our seats and proceeded to watch the large Gold Room fill up.
A rumor floated around that 500 chairs had been brought out for the crowd, but I wasn't about to count them. Tables of food and drink were at the far end, and a Biltmore employee worked the room, ensuring that anyone who wanted something would be taken care of quickly. The evening sun was blazing through the windows, and as I watched the play of natural and artificial light on the room's gold ceiling, I knew it was going to be another lousy photo op. The lighting in the Arizona Biltmore was a marked contrast to the intense natural light outside, since it was very low-key and intimate, and between the backlight through the windows and "no flash allowed" on any cameras, I knew my photos were going to stink. Apologies in advance!
|Grafton talking to fans|
"23 to go!" Sue exclaimed, then immediately corrected herself in time with many fans in the room. "Not to go! And before any of you ask, I am not going to combine X, Y and Z! It takes me two years to write a book, so that's six more years which will bring me close to being 80... which is a good thing, but right now I'm thinking of partying." When someone asked if she was going to continue to write once she'd written Z, Grafton replied, "I don't want to keep writing if no spark is there-- and I'm never doing linking titles again. I have my own AA sobriety check: Can I recite all the titles?" You could tell by the electric feeling in the air, the laughter, and the whispered comments that the Gold Room was packed with Grafton fans, many of whom had read every single one of her books. (Probably multiple times to boot.)
When Grafton originally began writing K, she thought K was for Kidnapped, but by the time she'd written three or four chapters and taken tons of notes, she realized she was wrong. A small town private investigator wasn't going to be able to work this case because kidnapping is a Federal offense, and the FBI would be all over it. This definitely needed more thought.
Sue is a day person. She's normally in bed by 9:30 PM. One night she didn't go to bed, but hopped in her old Toyota pickup truck to take a long drive. She saw a nighttime world she'd never seen before, and K became Killer. "See?" Grafton declared. "I get these ideas, and they're what get me in trouble!" But she's not the only "troublemaker." A reader on Facebook asked Sue, "Now we know about Kinsey's mother's family, but what about her daddy's family?" Sue's (mental) response? "Oh shit. But can I do it without just repeating what I've already done?"
One thing I observed all evening was the fact that Sue Grafton did not have to remember everything that happened in each of her books. Whenever she was momentarily drawing a blank, several people in the audience were Johnny-on-the-spot with the answer.
It took about a year for Grafton to be satisfied with the structure of W Is for Wasted. Two men in Kinsey's life return, but Sue often finds that "romance in a detective novel gets in the way of a good story. You get a guy in the picture and then what do you do with him? Half the time you have to kill him, right?"
By chapter 32, Grafton had no idea how to end the book. She contacted the head of Putnam, and husband Steve helped her through this anxious time, too. A judge in Santa Barbara helped her with the epilogue. He and his wife spent an entire weekend reading the manuscript and came up with a brilliant solution. From a Facebook comment to the head of a publishing company to a judge and his wife, everyone in the audience loved hearing that sometimes it does take a village to put a novel together.
|Sue Grafton (left), Barbara Peters (right) at the Arizona Biltmore|
What Sue Grafton spoke of next made my mouth water. She keeps journals for each book she writes. Everything goes in these journals: notes, research, ideas, bits of dialogue, even "whining and sniveling." The journal for W Is for Wasted consists of 1298 single-spaced pages. The finished manuscript for the novel is 660 double-spaced pages. Wouldn't you love to be able to go through these journals?!?
Z Is for Zero will take place in 1990, and Barbara told Sue that there was symmetry in that. Sue smiled, nodded, and then quipped, "Rest assured you will never see Kinsey Millhone suffering through menopause!" to roars of laughter from the audience. The story she told next almost brought that gold ceiling down on our heads.
Sue and her husband Steve raise chickens in Kentucky. One of their hens-- named Pecky Sue-- was poorly, so Sue took her to the vet who performed an ultrasound. Evidently Pecky Sue didn't have a diaphragm, which causes her eggs to float around in her innards. (Forgive me for all these technical terms.)
Sue: How can that be corrected?
Vet: We can spay her.
Sue: We raise chickens for their eggs. If she can't lay, why would I want to spay her?
Vet: Some people want to keep the chickens as pets.
Sue: I'm not one of them.
Vet: So your chicken should be put down?
Vet: Do you want to be with her?
Sue: No! (Seriously beginning to think the vet is crazy.)
Vet: Do you want the remains?
Sue: No! (Now definitely knows the vet is crazy.)
So Pecky Sue, the $8 chicken, had a $188 vet bill, and I would imagine that more than one person in the audience was brought up short by Sue's practicality. Not all animals are pets. Even chickens named Pecky Sue... which leads me to another question: I wonder how many other people in the audience had Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" on an endless loop in their heads for the next few days-- or was I the only one?
We'd barely stopped laughing when Barbara Peters said-- with a twinkle in her eye-- "So if there's a chicken scene in Z Is for Zero, we'll all know where it comes from!" And we were all off to the laughter races again.
A fan wanted to know if Kinsey was in possession of a new black dress. "Nope. It's the same old, same old-- and it is a dress that I own. I spent $98 on it in Columbus, Ohio, in 1978, and my children are begging me to throw it away!"
When someone mentioned email, Grafton remarked, "I do not do email. I think you should spend 45¢ on a stamp, use a pen, bring out your best penmanship, and write me a letter." There were lots of smiles at that remark, since there were plenty of fans in the proper age bracket to know all about snail mail. There were even more smiles and another wave of laughter when Grafton told us about a drink cozy that someone had designed. The words on it? W Is for Wasted-- Another Intoxicating Kinsey Millhone adventure is in the can!
Grafton's father was a lawyer in Kentucky who was passionate about mysteries. He wrote and published three, but couldn't make any money at it-- however, he had a daughter absorbing all the details of the writing and publishing process. Her first published book was in 1967, but she soon turned to writing screenplays and spent fifteen years in Hollywood. Things weren't going well in her marriage, and Sue would lay in bed at night thinking of ways to kill her husband. She soon realized that it would never work, so she decided to write about it and make money instead. A Is for Alibi was written as a way to get out of Tinseltown. She wrote 63 pages and sent them to the person who immediately bought them... and is still her editor.
Sue likes to knit "boring" things because she likes the meditation aspects of the craft. "I like to drink, and my current passion is walking. I jogged for twenty-five years until my feet started breaking down." She then went on to extoll the virtues of Fitbit One, which tracks the distance you walk, measures your sleep quality, helps you learn how to sleep better, and wakes you up in the morning. "I was the kid in kindergarten who'd do anything if you gave me a gold star," she quipped, and that competitive part of her spirit likes competing with her Fitbit One.
|Have you got your copy?|
Talk moved back to Grafton's father. C.W. Grafton won the 1943 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award for his mystery The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope. He published a second book using a line from a nursery rhyme as the title, and the partial manuscript for a third exists. This penchant seems to have carried over to his daughter with her "alphabet mysteries." An entrepreneur had had a brisk business all evening selling t-shirts emblazoned with I LEARNED MY ABCs FROM SUE GRAFTON, and he donated the three remaining as prizes in a trivia quiz, which was very hotly contested. At the end, Sue wanted to know the oldest person in attendance, and one lady stated that she was 88. She almost had possession of a t-shirt when a voice piped up from the opposite end of the room: "88 and how many months?" There were two 88-year-old Grafton fans in the audience!
The two things that I carried out of the Gold Room with me (besides my loaded-down purse and notebook) were how much fun Sue Grafton was, and how much she was loved by the people who made their way to the Arizona Biltmore to attend the event. At this stage in Sue Grafton's career, it's almost impossible to believe that the first print run for A Is for Alibi was 6300 copies... and they weren't all sold.