Bestselling mystery author to visit bookstore
By Lou Fancher
Let's face it: Some people are just attracted to danger.
Think beyond the obvious sky divers or Navy Seals to the literary category's mystery writers, fictional criminals and detective characters, readers of crime novels and independent booksellers.
These risk-taking parties will come together Friday when No. 1 New York Times bestselling author Sue Grafton brings "X," the 24th and newest book featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone in the popular "alphabet series" to a gathering of avid mystery readers at Towne Center Books.
"This is Sue's first visit to Towne Center Books and Pleasanton. We have had a huge response to this event," says bookstore owner Judy Wheeler.
The downtown bookstore that was in the 1940s a French Laundry likely carries its own mysteries -- and danger in being independently owned during an era of large chains and online retail. "We receive tremendous support from our regular customers and the community," Wheeler says. "When people attend events and purchase the books at our store, the authors are happy, the publishers are happy and, of course, we're happy."
To earn customers' trust, Wheeler says staff does the obvious thing first: they read a lot of books. After that, a loyal clientele is built upon the store's relaxed but personal atmosphere and a promise. "We like to say we have something for everyone -- adults, teens, kids and even dogs," Wheeler says.
Author visits add an essential element to the day-to-day offerings and in the case of Grafton, the benefit is mutual. "I just love chatting with people. Have your mother Facebook me," she says during a phone interview from her home in Montecito. Grafton maintains a second home in Louisville, Kentucky. "It's really nice to connect directly with readers. I thought Facebook would be a waste of time but now I do it every morning."
Some readers assume it's a staff person answering their messages, but like Kinsey, the maverick detective adored by readers in 28 countries and 26 languages, Grafton's too hands-on and independent to let others speak on her behalf. Plus, diving into the unknown -- online or otherwise -- is a habit she picked up on early.
"I don't think I was detailed," she says about her childhood tendencies. Grafton's novels are filled with vivid descriptions of characters and exacting settings. Fact-checking is a priority. "I remember being impatient as a child, losing my temper over whether I could get my hair right."
But when she "ran into mysteries" after years writing novels and screenplays, Grafton says, "It was like I'd been meant to write them." Even so, she's suffered a few hard knocks. In "K is for Killers," Kinsey sees bare citrus trees. "Well, citrus trees don't lose their leaves," Grafton says. "One hundred letters later, I can assure you, it's not a mistake I'd make again."
Grafton says errors in a book destroy a reader's confidence and it's partially due to that possibility that she's usually "scared to death" during the writing process. "Anxiety's helpful," she says, laughing, but serious about the statement. "The form itself is so exacting that I never get complacent. My general rule is I do not cheat, I do not fake, I do not take shortcuts."
In "X," Kinsey operates using the same motto. Set in 1989 (the alphabet series begins in 1982 and moves forward in less-than real time), there's a drought -- making the book uncomfortably relevant -- and a missing painting. Without giving too much away, there's also a client's brutal divorce proceedings; Kinsey's charming, 89-year-old landlord; mysterious elderly neighbors with a criminal history; a former colleague's coded list of six women's names; and a murderer with a horrid method of killing Kinsey has never encountered before.
"I suffer writer's block every day, because of my trial-and-error method," Grafton says. "I do a lot of moving forward, backing up. Once I finish a book, I have a long time when I can't write. I have no ideas. I feel totally brain-dead."
Waiting for the flow of ideas to resume, she says is to suffer "the torments of hell." Looking back she says "the early books seem breezy, and I intimidate myself by trying to remember the energy of the early books."
Unlike Kinsey, who's forced to research the old-fashioned, 1980s way (reference books, surveillance, face-to-face or phone interviews), Grafton relies heavily on the Internet. "I can get the most amazing information. That's a joy," she says.
Her strong suit as a writer is persistence. "My willingness to sit down and be stupid. Writing is not being smart, it's about being stupid until you get it right."
And like a card shark unafraid of risk, Grafton seeks the winning hand.
"I am a rule-governed person. I love mystery fiction because the rules are laid out. The fun is seeing how far I can push rules, violate them and still get the hand that I want."