Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain - Joanna Campbell Slan

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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8 replies on “Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain”

  1. What a delightful and informative interview! I have had the pleasure of conversing with Donald and Renee at Malice Domestic. They are both charming and gracious and great conversationalists.

    As for COFFEE, TEA, OR ME?, the story of a stewardess: I found a paperback copy of it on the bookshelves of some people I babysat for in high school. They had three children, two hellions and one infant, and almost no books. Thank goodness for COFFEE, TEA OR ME. It was the only book worth opening, though my parents might have disagreed if they knew I was reading it. It certainly raised the eyebrows of a 15-year-old sitter. OMG. But when I found out that Donald Bain wrote it, I was shocked, I tell you. Shocked!

    Thanks for a great post, Joanna.

  2. Hail Purdue! (Class of '74)
    I agree with Donald's thoughts on preparing to write. It seems to me that the authors I most enjoy are those who spent a great deal of their early years doing something else completely-or better yet many things. The life experiences gives them so many different views of the world to use.

  3. Joanna,

    What an interesting interview with Donald Bain. As a fellow writer, published in nonfiction and aspiring to publish a mystery, I found it very informative.

    I especially liked the part about the pre-writing the 7 pages about the story before beginning to write. My question is, are all the suspects, red herrings and steps to the sleuthing included in that preliminary outline?

    BTW, the interview would have been perfect if the authors had recognized the superiority of Indiana University over Purdue! lol

    Cathy Shouse, 1983 IU grad
    Hoosier author of "Images of America: Fairmount"

  4. Caryn, I do think it's important to have some life experiences and some interests besides writing. I remember Kurt Vonnegut saying like he was glad he hadn't been in a writing program because he thought he would have taught him what not to do.

  5. Cathy, I'll see if I can get an answer from Mr. Bain for you. I can tell you that in my work-in-progress, I turned in a 22-page summary for my editor. I did include some of the red herrings and so on. I'm not sure how much of that you might get in seven pages, but I think the more you can plan, the better. IMHO

    That said, as you write, you "see" the book and new ideas and opportunities arise as you tell yourself the story. It's one of the most enjoyable parts of being an author.

  6. From Mr. Bain–

    To answer your question:

    The six or seven pages of outline cover only the bare-bones of the plot. As the writing progresses new characters emerge who weren't in the brief outline, and twists and turns develop, fueled by what the characters do and how one event spawns another.

    Best,
    Don

Comments are closed.

8 replies on “Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain”

  1. What a delightful and informative interview! I have had the pleasure of conversing with Donald and Renee at Malice Domestic. They are both charming and gracious and great conversationalists.

    As for COFFEE, TEA, OR ME?, the story of a stewardess: I found a paperback copy of it on the bookshelves of some people I babysat for in high school. They had three children, two hellions and one infant, and almost no books. Thank goodness for COFFEE, TEA OR ME. It was the only book worth opening, though my parents might have disagreed if they knew I was reading it. It certainly raised the eyebrows of a 15-year-old sitter. OMG. But when I found out that Donald Bain wrote it, I was shocked, I tell you. Shocked!

    Thanks for a great post, Joanna.

  2. Hail Purdue! (Class of '74)
    I agree with Donald's thoughts on preparing to write. It seems to me that the authors I most enjoy are those who spent a great deal of their early years doing something else completely-or better yet many things. The life experiences gives them so many different views of the world to use.

  3. Joanna,

    What an interesting interview with Donald Bain. As a fellow writer, published in nonfiction and aspiring to publish a mystery, I found it very informative.

    I especially liked the part about the pre-writing the 7 pages about the story before beginning to write. My question is, are all the suspects, red herrings and steps to the sleuthing included in that preliminary outline?

    BTW, the interview would have been perfect if the authors had recognized the superiority of Indiana University over Purdue! lol

    Cathy Shouse, 1983 IU grad
    Hoosier author of "Images of America: Fairmount"

  4. Caryn, I do think it's important to have some life experiences and some interests besides writing. I remember Kurt Vonnegut saying like he was glad he hadn't been in a writing program because he thought he would have taught him what not to do.

  5. Cathy, I'll see if I can get an answer from Mr. Bain for you. I can tell you that in my work-in-progress, I turned in a 22-page summary for my editor. I did include some of the red herrings and so on. I'm not sure how much of that you might get in seven pages, but I think the more you can plan, the better. IMHO

    That said, as you write, you "see" the book and new ideas and opportunities arise as you tell yourself the story. It's one of the most enjoyable parts of being an author.

  6. From Mr. Bain–

    To answer your question:

    The six or seven pages of outline cover only the bare-bones of the plot. As the writing progresses new characters emerge who weren't in the brief outline, and twists and turns develop, fueled by what the characters do and how one event spawns another.

    Best,
    Don

Comments are closed.