What would “Z” be for?
That’s the question we are left wondering after Louisville literary light Sue Grafton passed away last week. Grafton wrote the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet series, a collection of rollicking reads that rejuvenated the detective genre.
Starting with A is for Alibi, Grafton penned an entire world filled with mystery and murder, with detective Kinsey Milhone at the center. Grafton made it all the way through the alphabet to Y is for Yesterday before succumbing to cancer in the waning days of 2017. Though she’d battled cancer for more than two years, her death was still sudden and unexpected. She’d been active until just days before she passed.
Writing 25 wildly successful and popular novels is an amazing achievement that requires exceptional moxie. Grafton, a Louisville native and alumna of Atherton High School and the University of Louisville, had plenty. What was her secret?
“If at first you don’t succeed…” Sue Grafton began writing fiction at the age of 18, and completed her first novel at the age of 22. She seemed off to a great start, right? But out of her first seven novels, just two were published. Discouraged, she decided to shift her focus to screenwriting. Fifteen years later, she returned to her first love and began writing her famed Alphabet series.
Moxie means never giving up, even if it takes years to achieve your vision.
Hone your craft. Grafton’s father loved detective novels and wrote at night. He recognized his daughter’s talent and encouraged it, using what he had learned as a writer to help her and coach her along. Grafton was an apt student. When her early novels didn’t find a publisher or audience, she used her work as a screenwriter to hone her skills. Scripts helped her sharpen her storytelling skills and ear for dialogue. Once she returned to writing novels, her craft had developed considerably and she was more than ready.
People with moxie are always striving to learn, to grow and to become better. Grafton was humble and smart enough to be a student and keep learning.
Use your rage. Grafton found herself in the midst of a protracted, painful custody battle. Throughout the battle, her vivid imagination painted lurid pictures of how she might exact revenge on her ex-husband. She decided those revenge fantasies were just too good to waste, so she began writing them down. The scenarios found their way into her work, giving her both an outlet for her anger and some marketable prose.
Channeling your disappointment and frustration into something constructive isn’t easy, and it takes moxie. Grafton could have let bitterness consume her, but she chose instead to put it to work in her favor.
I’m left with a certain amount of sadness that the “alphabet now ends with y,” as Grafton’s daughter wrote. It would have been so satisfying to see that 26th book resting on the shelf next to all its predecessors.
But in a way, it’s perhaps perfect that it does not. The passing of a loved one always leaves a sense of incompleteness and a longing for more. Maybe it is better that we don’t have that final story, and we can instead imagine Sue Grafton and her alter ego Kinsey Milhone going on forever.
Grafton was adamant about leaving her work as it is, and no ghost writer coming in to finish the series. But if you did have the moxie to tell that final Kinsey Milhone story, what would the title be?