female PIs and the class of 82: Sue Grafton and Julie Smith; the books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Image via Wikipedia

As many of you know I went to MALICE DOMESTIC for the first time this past weekend, the big detective fiction conference in Bethesda–Claire DeWittis my first detective novel and it’s introducing me to a bunch of new people, which is always one of many treats of a new book–each book opens whole new doors for you into crowds of cool and interesting people. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching the wonderful Julie Smith interview Sue Grafton, two major inspirations for me. You can’t write a female PI novel without giving credit to these two, who started publishing female PI novels in the early eighties along with Margaret Maron, Sara Paretsky, and a few other trailblazers.  Of course, before this rash of ladies in 1980–83 there had been isolated female dicks here and there, but I don’t know of any long-running series featuring female detectives before these guys came along, and certainly none that reached a mass audience. So it was a real thrill and, honestly, an honor to spend a little time with Julie and Sue this weekend, and watching their interview was like a master class on writing fiction.

It’s funny how once someone is so freaking successful, like Sue Grafton, it seems inevitable. So I was surprised to learn that this didn’t come easily for Sue. She wrote seven or eight books before A is For Alibi (she said one, I think unfinished, was about a boy who lived with a pack of wild dogs–I would have liked to read that!). Even after she finally got a deal for A, it only sold 6300 copies (which is among the reasons it’s so collectible as a first edition now). She didn’t quit her day job until something like G. It’s reassuring to know she had struggles like we all do–and also a little scary to think how she would fare in today’s publishing climate, which is more and more focused on instant success.

One thing I’ve noticed about more experienced writers, whether best-sellers like Sue or some guy who’s been writing in his garage, is that they have a lot of insight to share. (Another treat this weekend was to spend a few minutes talking to Raymond Buckland, best-known as a writer on the occult since 1970, selling bajillions of books, who’s now written a few thriller/PI novels–he had that same air of comfortable knowing that many of the experienced, dedicated writers I’ve met have).  Sue’s been writing these books since 1982, and she’s stayed true to herself and her vision of the series. She had some really interesting thoughts on the Shadow versus the Ego–in their interview she said that during one book (T, maybe?) she’d felt like she needed help and a friend hooked her up with a Jungian therapist who she worked with a bit. The therapist helped her understand that we need to write from our Shadow–our darker, stranger, more intuitive self–and put our Ego–our judge-y, eager to please, what-will-my-mom-think self–aside. We need to set it all up so the Ego serves the Shadow, not the other way around. One corollary of this was what she called “eating the death cookie,” a neat phrase I’d never heard before. if I understood right, eating the death cookie is when Ego takes one for the Shadow. The example Sue used was convincing her publisher (Henry Holt at the time) that she couldn’t keep up the pace of one book a year, and had to bring it down to a book every two years (a topic I have a lot of thoughts on myself, which I will spare you for the moment!). She sat in her publisher’s office and just told them she couldn’t do it. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it hurt her ego to displease them, but she let the Ego take one for the Shadow. The Shadow needs to understand that the Ego will eat that death cookie for it to feel safe. I think that’s fantastic. I was really happy to find out that Sue has a kind of semi-mystical view of writing similar to my own, as so many writers I meet these days seem to view it as a business (to me, writing is a mystical practice; publishing is a job).

One a related note, in their interview Sue said, “It does not serve us as writers to envy other writers…focus on your own work, and do it as well as you can.” She said there’s always someone selling more and someone selling less, always someone making more money and someone making less. Don’t waste your time worrying about it. No one can write what you write and you can’t write what they write. I also thought it was neat that she keeps a notebook for every book she writes, where she jots down not only ideas, dialog, et cetera but also her fears about the book. When she encounters those same fears again, she can go back and see well, yeah, she THAT book also would be a bomb, but it all turned out fine.

Another interesting topic was how Sue came up with the titles. She said at the time A was published a lot of writers were doing series with related titles, and Sue’s father was a writer who began a series based around a nursery rhyme:  THE RAT BEGAN TO GNAW THE ROPE and THE ROPE BEGAN TO HANG THE BUTCHER, which sound strange and fascinating. But I was really overjoyed to hear the idea for the alphabet came from Edward Gorey‘s the Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of my favorite things ever!

Unrelated, but speaking of good advice from older writers: when I worked at Housing Works Bookstore  Alan Furst once came in for a reading (who according to the never-wrong internet first started publishing in 1976). We had readings two or three days a week there, and I already knew dozens of writers on my own (I’d published one or two books), but Furst stands out for his kindness, professionalism, and good advice (if you want to know what writers are REALLY like, work in a bookstore with lots of events!). We were making small talk and he mentioned to me that when you’re doing a reading from your book, 13 or 14 minutes is about as long as you want to read. After that the audience starts to get restless. He was of course entirely correct (you can talk longer than that, just not read from your book uninterrupted) , and I’ve abided by the Alan Furst Rule ever since.

2 Comments to “female PIs and the class of 82: Sue Grafton and Julie Smith; the books that inspired Claire DeWitt”

  1. This is such an encouraging post. It’s funny because I was just reading in the New Yorker about Barry Michaels, the really popular Hollywood shrink (guru?) who uses (abuses?) the Jung shadow concept heavily to help the screenwriters, directors, etc. who come to them:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/03/21/110321fa_fact_goodyear
    “If you can really know your own Shadow, you start to know the Shadows of everyone,” Michaels says. “People who can write that way start to articulate universal themes, which not only makes them more successful on that level”—in other words, commercially—“but it’s a more gratifying endeavor.”

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/03/21/110321fa_fact_goodyear#ixzz1LO1j4Hj5

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