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Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain

Note: Donald Bain will be a featured author at the 2012 Love Is Murder Mystery Conference, Feb. 3-5 in Chicago.  I interviewed him for the LIM newsletter.

1. JCS–You are in the unusual position of writing in partnership with someone who doesn’t exist, Jessica Fletcher. Angela Lansbury told me that she was in your publisher’s offices and someone complimented her on her book series. She told them, “But I don’t write those books.” Obviously, your unique situation is confusing. Care to comment?

DB–Because many of the 110 books I’ve written were ghostwritten for other people, I suppose that “collaborating” with a fictitious TV character isn’t so unusual. Giving us a dual byline was, of course, a marketing move by the publisher. When I make appearances there sometimes are people who are disappointed that I’m not Angela Lansbury (I apologize to them for not wearing basic black with pearls). And there is at least one fan who is really confused. She e-mailed me to say that she was amazed how much Jessica Fletcher looks like Angela Lansbury. Angela has told me the same thing that she told you, that she’s been stopped in airports and on the street by people who thank her for having written the books. She always graciously thanks them for their kind words and moves on. So far the confusion hasn’t negatively impacted my relationship with Jessica; at least I don’t think it has.

2. JCS–Your first Jessica Fletcher book came out two years before the series ended. What are the challenges of writing a book based on a TV program? Fans can get pretty snarky if an author messes with the perceived canon of an icon. Did that worry you? Did you ever have any problems with that? What advice might you share with someone who wanted to write about a pre-existing character?

DB–You’re right, of course. Writing a media tie-in book poses certain problems, but none that can’t be overcome. I owe it to fans of the “Murder, She Wrote” TV show to be faithful to the Jessica Fletcher character, as well as to other characters and to the tone of the series overall. Before I started writing the first novel 22 years ago I watched as many episodes of the show as possible, and didn’t commence writing until I felt confident that I had all the nuances down pat. Even then I missed a few. For instance, I didn’t pick up on the fact that Jessica doesn’t drive a car, and had her behind the wheel in the first book, Gin & Daggers. And there have been other slips, although they’ve become fewer as I continued writing the series. (There are now 37 books and a new 3-book contract. Remarkably every one of them is still in print).

My advice to writer who might end up basing a novel on a pre-existing character is to accept that there will be restrictions on what you can have that character do and say. Having been handed a wonderful character like Jessica Fletcher, who was created by others and given life by Angela Lansbury, is a gift for which I’m thankful. On the other hand it is limiting to an extent because I can’t deviate from that character’s basic nature, philosophies, likes and dislikes. It’s a trade-off that I’m perfectly happy with.

3. JCS–Under your direction, Jessica has gone to some pretty nifty places like Moscow and Manhattan. She’s done some way-cool things

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