A Down & Dirty Dialogue between Gayle Lynds & Sue Grafton
In the shadow world of writing mystery and suspense novels, Sue Grafton and Gayle Lynds are two authors sitting pretty. Grafton’s legendary alphabet series — starring the irrepressible Kinsey Millhone — helped turn the private-detective genre on its ear when she published her first book in the early 1980s. Her most recet paperback, Q Is for Quarry, was published in September. Gayle Lynds is doing the same in the field of international suspense. Not only has she written her own New York Times best-selling spy novels, she’s coauthored three with Robert Ludlum. Her next novel is The Coil, due out in April.
The two sat down recently for one of their spirited gabfests about books, writing, and life — and graciously allowed us to leave a tape recorder humming between their glasses of Chardonnay.
SG: So what are you working on?
GL: Well, let’s see. Just yesterday, I sent off some marketing material St. Martin’s wanted to promote The Coil, because it’s coming out in April. When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, I had a really wonderful brainstorming session with my editor, Keith Kahla. I came home and managed to get maybe halfway through Part One of the outline before I had to stop and do the marketing stuff. Don’t you feel as if you’re constantly being interrupted while you’re working on a book?
SG: That’s one of the reasons I got them to get my off that deadline shit. Because it just made me crabby. You can do one or the other … write or promote … but you can’t do both at the same time. Marketing is very different than writing a chapter in a book and the constant interruption… ‘Oh, would you mind doing a little interview, a little phoner?’ Well, yes, I would mind, but you have to do it. I think it’s an important part of the process. So now I’m much more agreeable.
GL: Yeah, you don’t have that pressure. It’s something I keep trying to reconcile.
SG: Are you doing a book a year?
GL: I’ve got to now. I was supposed to be doing two books a year. That’s where I failed.
SG: One book is plenty! What’s the length of your manuscripts?
GL: 650 pages.
SG: And that takes you ten months, eight months?
GL: It takes me at least a year.
SG: So you’re always working ahead of yourself.
GL: Yes, but that’s what keeps me alive. One of the ways I get through a book is if I’m in a bad spot…
SG: You switch out?
GL: No, no, no. I’m not that smart.
SG: Oh, good.
GL: What I do is when I’m in a chapter where I’m either bored or having problems, I know there’s a scene ahead that I really want to write. I say, “Well, when I get through this then I’ll be able to do that.” So my brain is working in both places. I think that kind of payoff helps me finish. Do you do that?
SG: Well, you have to remember I’m a Jungian at heart — very Shadow-directed and Shadow-guided. I keep a journal for each book. When I’m writing in the journal often a whole scene of dialogue comes tumbling out. I don’t do he said/she said. I don’t say, taking a sip of wine or crossing to the window — none of that. I just lay out the dialogue and stick it in the journal. Then when I get to the point in the book where the scene occurs, I retrieve it from the journal and it’s a done deal.
GL: This is the complexity of the creative process. Most people don’t understand it’s not linear. It’s all over the place.
SG: Oh, no it’s not linear. You might as well not worry about chronology. When I get into
being chronological …
SG: Right. Shadow shuts down. She’s going, “Oh, if you think you’re so smart, chick, you do it. I’m outta here.”
GL: You know I’m a fan of Carl Jung myself, but I don’t use Shadow the way you do. What you call Shadow, I call — for want of a better word — the Idea Person. I go through periods where I have so many ideas, I can’t keep up with them. I make lists of ideas, and I clip articles and jot down notes and throw everything into boxes. Then I have other periods where the well is dry.
SG: Tell me about the Idea Person. Do you see her as a separate creature?
GL: I alternate. I know that if I’m tired or I’m stressed out, she’s gone. One of the reasons I’m taking such good care of myself these days is it’s a way of taking care of her. As long as I take care of the Gayle Gayle, then she’s accessible to me. This is something that I’ve been struggling with for 20 years, and I don’t know any other way to say it. You’ve found a pipeline through your journal so there must be a confidence level there for you.
SG: This is funny. This is amusing. I’m a sniveling idiot at the machine, but the hysteria is about Ego. Ego is the one saying, “They’re gonna hate this, the critics are gonna kill me, my editor will hate it.” And that’s what you gotta get out of the way. What you’re talking about is finding ways to get Ego out of the picture so that Gayle and the Idea Person-Gayle, and all your other Gayles can get together and do the job.
GL: There are too many Gayles. Do you have a lot of Sues?
SG: No, because I name all my personalities something different.
SG: I do. I have Georgia. I have She Who Speaks. I have She Who Writes. I have the Warrior. I have Little Sue. Sometimes I go in my office and Little Sue is sitting in my chair and she doesn’t know how to write. She just wants to play with the pencils. You know, of course, that we’re deeply troubled. We’re mentally ill, but God bless us, that’s why we’re friends.
GL: I worry about so-called normal people.
SG: They just maintain better than we do, that’s all. What I think you’re talking about with your process is simply how to get through the static to the work.
GL: Yes. And also — I don’t know if you have this problem — but I have times when my brain doesn’t function.
SG: Oh, yeah. There are days I’m stupid. But you have to show up at the machine no matter what. Because sometimes you feel stupid and you turn out to be so brilliant …
GL: That’s usually at the end of the day, after you’ve suffered.
SG: I don’t know where it comes from. If I knew how to tap into it, I’d be a rich person.
GL: I have this Utopian idea that people are evolving and we are, as a species, going to learn more about the mysteries about how we operate — not just our brains, but also our hearts and our souls.
SG: You’re such an optimist.
GL: (laughs) I know. I keep writing to fix the world. To me, the biggest mystery of all is what’s here between the ears.
SG: Yeah, there are probably six people in the world who worry about these things. Everybody else is busy killing each other. That’s what keeps us in business.
GL: That does trouble me, but then again it’s one of the reasons I write. I want to connect with people who read because, generally speaking, they’re much more interested in the world, and they’re much more interested in learning. So where are you in your process? What are you working on?
SG: I’m in the middle of “R,” which has no title yet.
GL: You’re writing.
SG: Oh, yes, I am. It took me probably a year to work out the storyline. And three weeks ago, I realized that the subplot, which I’d researched and worked on so diligently… Shadow woke me up in the middle of the night and said that it was such a piece of crap. So I sat down and trimmed out an entire subplot — 50 pages — that I could hardly bear to lose.
GL: I just went through a horrendous experience with The Coil. I turned in almost 700 pages and I loved the book. It was very close to my heart. It came from 8 years of research, but the book was too big. My husband couldn’t figure out how to cut it. My agent couldn’t figure out how to cut it. My editor sat on it for a month then finally came back with a whole set of suggestions. I pulled about 150 pages out of that book. There were actually two subplots I took out and everybody kept telling me that I’d be able to use them in another book, and I’m going, “Oh, ho ho ho. Good luck. It ain’t gonna happen.”
SG: Right. The truth is, if it doesn’t work now it probably won’t work later. It just gives us comfort to think we haven’t wasted our own time.
GL: Do you feel it’s a waste? I don’t feel it’s a waste.
SG: Well, I learned from it.
SG: The problem is, I can ill afford these lessons in writing when I’m trying to finish a book. But that’s what it’s about. It’s always about learning your craft, and it’s always about teaching yourself how to do it better.
GL: That’s the way I feel, too. I want the next book to go so much more easily. For The Coil, I was emailing the rewrite a section a week to my editor. He printed out the pages in New York and stayed up weekends to work with me. He had a vision for the book and he was quite happy to do it, but my god, I was killing myself — I was killing him — and I don’t want to do that. A book is like giving birth. It’s painful, but at the same time there should be such joy. Next book I really want to be a lot simpler.
SG: Next book, you’re gonna cook up your story, and you’re going to think, “Whew! Thank goodness I’m not making the same mistake I made last time.” You’ll get it on the page, you’ll be humming and whistling, going along feeling like such a champ …
GL: You think it’ll happen to me again?
SG: Of course! You’ll run into a brick wall, and you’ll think you’re stupid, but I always say, “I don’t write the book, the book writes me.” I like to quote Eudora Welty who said, “Every book teaches you the lessons necessary to write that book.”
GL: Nicely said. I like that.
SG: The downside is that none of the lessons applies to the next book.
GL: Yup, that’s the problem. How many lessons do we have to learn?
SG: It’s gonna be thousands and thousands, right?
GL: Oh, god. You know, in an odd way, I’m doing what you did when you started ‘A’ Is for Alibi, in the sense that when I started writing international thrillers, the Cold War was over, everybody said the spy thriller was dead …
SG: But even if it didn’t sell, you still had the ride of your life, and you loved what you were doing. People ask me how to get published and I say, “It’s really easy. Write like an angel. Just write like an angel.”
GL: Or a devil.
SG: Same thing.
GL: It’s the other side of the same sword. Where I get cynical is that I think there are a lot of good manuscripts out there that can’t get published.
SG: I don’t think that.
GL: You don’t believe that?
SG: Well, good in what sense?
GL: A readable, idiosyncratic voice that speaks … a marvelous story and plot … that doesn’t fit into some kind of marketing niche book reps know how to sell.
SG: How many of these books have you read recently?
GL: None, but then I don’t read all that many manuscripts.
SG: So, I’m telling you …
GL: … sucker. (laughs)
SG: I promise you if such a book is out there, it will find a publisher.
GL: You know what I think happens? I think those books get written but they don’t get sent out. Or they send them out, get discouraged, and quit.
SG: Well, whose fault is that? Excuse me, we all have to take responsibility for where we are. If you write an exquisite book and you don’t send it out, don’t tell me you’re “not allowed” to do it.
GL: One of the things that’s bothered me over the years is that people become such fans, they want to write because they’re fans and not because they’re writers.
SG: And they all sound like you or they all sound like me. They don’t sound like themselves.
GL: Right. They’re imitating, although there’s a lot to be said for that, too. I mean, you look at painters. In art, we all start by imitating the masters, but at some point, we have to put that behind us and strike out to find our own original voice.
SG: The problem is, when you’re starting out, your own voice doesn’t sound very interesting. At least, not to you.
GL: I think that’s true. You’re unsure.
SG: So anything you relate of your own experience, using the voice in your head, you think, “Oh, no, that’s too boring. I wanna sound just like Gayle Lynds and Sue Grafton because then I know I can get published.”
GL: I don’t understand why I write thrillers. I think it was because I had read everything. I mean, I was so indiscriminate about reading. I had nobody guiding me. I gravitated toward thrillers because I felt I could do anything in them
SG: Weren’t you doing Nick Carter novels at one point?
GL: Yeah, that was my male pulp era. Before that, I was publishing literary short stories, but I realized I couldn’t make a living doing them, and with two little kids, it was a problem. But once I started writing thrillers, I never looked back. I have a real drive to reach readers — there’s some kind of communication that I’m hungry for and really treasure. I think I lost about a decade in there — maybe even fifteen years — because I didn’t start out with thrillers. I could have.
SG: I lost a decade working in Hollywood. All those are necessary detours. It’s part of the path you’re on.
GL: Your growth. I had to grow, but we have to make a living, too.
SG: Short of hooking on street corners.
GL: Well, that was hooking, wasn’t it?
GL: I got an email not too terribly long ago from a young man who’s about 30years old. He’s published two books with a very small press and he’s moaning and groaning to me because he has to go back to work. My heart goes out to him, but my god, how many shit jobs have I taken? How many shit jobs have you taken? That’s part of the process. Even if you publish with a New York publisher as a beginning mystery writer, you’re going to get a $5,000 advance and honey, you’d better keep your day job.
SG: Right. You’d better have a way to pay the bills.
GL: They don’t get it. They bought the mythology that says if you write a book, you’re automatically published. You’re automatically rich and famous … We may have to turn the tape recorder off. (laughs)
SG: (Addressing the tape recorder) We’ve tried to be candid, but there’s a limit. We’re gonna turn this machine off and really get down.
GL: You’re gonna be so unhappy because you’re gonna miss all the really good stuff.
SG: If you were here, you’d really get the low-down on mystery writing and every other kind of writing.
GL: Maybe next time …