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Wednesday, December 19 , 2018, 1:59 am | Fair 46º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Sue Grafton — Great Writer, Great Friend

When the Santa Barbara News-Press assigned me to interview Sue Grafton in April 1989, I had not yet read any of her books. I wasn't even sure how to spell her famous character's name. Kinsey Milhone or Millhone?

I raced to the library and took out her current novel, F Is for Fugitive, about a woman's body found on the water's edge in Floral Beach. It showed how Kinsey followed her own path investigating who-what-when-why of sad, violent deaths.

G Is for Gumshoe came out that month, another page-turner, the kind that keeps me awake late at night, the ultimate sign of a darn good book.

My first personal contact with Kinsey was in the driveway of Grafton's lower Riviera house a blue VW Bug with the license plate, "Kinsey M." My first thought was: "She's back from Floral Beach!" Wait a minute. Kinsey didn't really exist, but Grafton did sharing similarities.

As she said, “We’re one spirit in two bodies, although hers is thinner and younger than mine.”

Grafton eventually donated the famous 1974 VW Bug to a nonprofit where it was raffled off.

We settled into two tall director's chairs in the living room with cups of tea and started talking. I knew how to spell Kinsey Millhone, but Grafton explained how it came about. She found Kinsey in a Hollywood Reporter birth announcement. Millhone showed up in newspaper article.

My questions were answered and our discussions went beyond books to several topics interjected with humor, a natural talent of hers. Such conversations continued for the next 28 years.

She then left for a 26-city book tour lasting almost a month. While somewhat enjoyable, she found tours exhausting.

"I've tried not to get crazy over this, but the stress interrupts my sleep, then my work, and then my sanity," she said.

She appreciated coming home to Santa Barbara, an important city in her and Kinsey’s life.

Santa Barbara’s Ross Macdonald, famous mystery author (The Galton Case) during the mid-twentieth century, wrote plots with psychological takes. For his novels her writing “hero” created the setting of Santa Teresa based on our city.

In honor of Macdonald, Grafton chose the same town for her alphabet series.

"I am the goddess of Santa Teresa so can make the town what and where I want," she said.

Other areas have different names such as Floral Beach for Avila Beach up north, or Horton Ravine for Hope Ranch.

When Grafton returned from her tour, we made walking a weekly four-mile habit along East Beach. As a fast walker, she made me scoot to keep up.

People have often asked, "What is Sue like?"

Not an easy short answer. She was down to earth, interested in other people and explored the unknown. Her sense of humor popped up throughout conversations. Not a gossiper, she rarely said negative things about people, but told good stories.

We explored each others' lives, shared our worries, concerns and pleasures while charging ahead.

And we talked about books. Mystery novels held her interest, but were not the only genre. She recommended books such as my favorite last year, News of the World by Paulette Jiles.

Research was another big part of her efforts. Once in her office while she answered the phone, I exercised my penchant to study people's bookshelves. Hers stunned me with 50 or more nonfiction books based on murders, investigations, forensics, to name a few.

She often connected with local law-enforcement people, investigators, doctors, etc. for information and details. Among them was Santa Barbara Dr. Robert Failing, a forensic pathologist with the coroner’s office.

Once when they met at the mortuary, she invited me along. Had there been a body, he said we could study it. A part of me wasn't sure I wanted to see that much.

Fortunately “nobody” was available, but the coroner's office fascinated us, especially the shelves of glass containers preserving human specimens of coroner’s cases. Dr. Failing told us stories about several of the death mysteries.

In 2000, Grafton, her husband Steve Humphrey and the Failings (longtime friends of ours) joined us for dinner on the patio. Dr. Failing talked about unsolved or cold case murders in Santa Barbara County.

One that stayed with him was the stabbing death in 1969 of a teenage Jane Doe on Grefco Quarry Road near Lompoc. The following year, out came Q Is for Quarry dedicated to the Failings and us, the only murder mystery she wrote based on a real, unsolved murder.

Another passion was for cats. She and Humphrey enriched their lives with cats, but the love extended beyond their own.

One of her favorite stories took place in early days when she and friend Florence Michel exercised at Santa Barbara High School’s track. Feral cats living in the area inspired them to feed, catch and take the cats to vets for shots and to be neutered before returning them.

Since the neighborhood wanted to eliminate the cats, Grafton and Michel helped find homes, mostly as farm cats. They kept a couple themselves.

In their Montecito house, one cat named Beau hung around the patio, even coming inside because he was attached to Molly, their tortoiseshell-colored cat. Molly left a legacy: her name became part of Grafton's personal email address.

Grafton also doted on our Sheltie dogs. When we walked or she and Steve came over, she carried treats for the dogs. Their tails wagged welcomes without awareness of what a true cat-lover they adored.

As a private person, Grafton rarely talked about health issues and seldom discussed her writing. Only three times did I know ahead of time what the next alphabet letter would represent or what the plot line was.

Twice she admitted a current manuscript was not working. One time Grafton put aside almost 300 pages of manuscript because it was not going where she wanted. The book’s storyline moved in another direction. Not all sad because part of the discarded work showed up in another novel.

More applause goes to Grafton’s community efforts. At least five times she served as a featured speaker for the Santa Barbara Writers. Founder and director Barnaby Conrad first invited her in 1989. She gave good advice while entertaining us with stories of her own ups and downs as a writer.

Generous with her time and importance over the years, she spoke at other conferences across the country. At CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) Auxiliary’s first Celebrity Authors Luncheon in 1987, Grafton was among the four featured authors.

One of my favorite pieces of her advice was: "Write, don't talk." Something she practiced, preached and explained — somehow the wind in your creative sails diminishes when talking before writing about your subject.

Grafton often said her last novel would be Z Is for Zero, and followed by a series based on numbers. Talk about infinitive. Or she considered doing individual novels so the books would not be linked to others.

Daughter Jamie Clark and Humphrey concluded after her death, “Y is the last letter of the alphabet.”

Grafton’s publisher Marian Wood Books/Putnam recently sent Humphrey a list of articles since her death. They add up to hundreds, nearly all news media in the U.S. and internationally. No surprise there.

My stories could go on for many more pages. Life is not nearly as lively without Grafton around, but my brain is filled with special and appreciated memories. Lucky me!

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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