We are pleased to have with us author Laura Levine. Laura is a former sitcom writer (The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) As an advertising copywriter, she created Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereals for General Mills. Her work has been published in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Her Jaine Austen mysteries have been published internationally. When not writing mysteries, she contributes comedy material to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.
You have experience in so many writing fields. What led you to the long narrative form and specifically, to mysteries?
What led me to mysteries was unemployment. At the ripe age of fifty, I’d been unceremoniously drummed out of show biz. (In the wacky world of sitcoms, twentysomething is ideal, thirtysomething is “getting up there,” forty is ancient, and fifty is prehistoric.) I’d always thought it would be fun to write a mystery, so I wrote one on spec. And because of my background as a sitcom writer, I decided to make it a comedy-mystery.
And PS. Getting booted out of show biz was definitely a blessing in disguise. After years of having my scripts nitpicked to death (it’s part of the “collaborative” process), at last, as a novelist, I get control over what I write.
Are there skills you learned in advertising, television, or radio writing that helped with novel writing?
Absolutely. Writing sitcoms for all those years taught me a lot about both story construction and joke writing.
I plot out my books the way I used to plot out my spec movies (only one of which ever got produced, by the way.) I put each scene on a separate index card. One color for the mystery scenes, another for the comedy scenes. Then I lay them out on my dining room table to check for pacing and an overview of the story.
Your series protagonist is Jaine Austen. Like her namesake, she’s a writer—not a novelist, but a jack-of-all-trades freelancer. What about this career makes it a good job for a mystery protagonist?
To tell the truth, when I wrote the first book in the series, I had no idea it was going to be a series, so I didn’t give that much thought to Jaine’s profession. I’d spent a few years teaching sitcom writing at UCLA extension and during that time had met another teacher, a freelance writer who lived in a charming duplex. I was fascinated by the fact that this woman was able to support herself as a freelancer (it seemed like such a precarious way to make a buck), so I decided to make Jaine a struggling freelance writer. And it’s actually turned out well. Because Jaine’s writing assignments are so varied, she gets to meet people—and solve murders—in lots of different worlds. (Fashion, showbiz, L.A. society, etc.)
What kind of writing schedule does a professional writer need to have?
Oh, lordy. I was afraid you’d ask me something like this. Highly professional goody two shoes writers get up at the crack of dawn, go racing to their computers, where they spend most of the day pounding out award-winning thrillers. I, on the other hand, stagger out of bed at the crack of nine (okay, ten), have my coffee, do the crossword puzzle and any other work-avoidance activity I can think of, and then, after wasting all that time, I goof off some more. Eventually I break down and do some writing.
I tend to be at my most shameful at the beginning of a book, but after a while, a momentum starts to build, and I find myself actually eager to get back to my story. At the beginning of a book, I may put in as little as two hours of writing in a day, and at the end, as many as seven or eight. (And although I start my day admittedly late, I will often work till ten or eleven at night.)
In my humble op, the important thing for any writer is to keep writing, and never let herself be paralyzed by self-doubt. When I first started out in show biz, I had a wonderful mentor who told me, “Laura, everything stinks at the beginning. Just keep writing. You can always come back and fix it later.” And it’s so true. Writers are often assailed with doubts at the beginning of a project, and allow their inner critic to stymie them. But if you just keep plugging ahead, the more your confidence builds and the easier the process becomes.
“Death of a Trophy Wife” came out on April 27th. Could you tell us a bit about the plot?
I’d be delighted to. In Jaine’s latest adventure, she comes to her neighbor Lance’s rescue when he’s accused of murdering one of his customers at Neiman Marcus—a venomous trophy wife with an enemies list as long as her hair extensions. While Jaine tracks down the killer, she must also fend off the advances of Vladimir Ivan Trotsky, an internet Romeo who shows up on her doorstep all the way from Uzbekistan, hoping to win her over with bad poetry and pictures of his goat Svetlana.
Does a series get easier to write as you go along, or harder?
Harder, definitely. It seems like every plot twist or gag I come up with is something I’ve already done. Arggggh!
Tell us what’s next for you.
Next October I’ve got a novella coming out in a Christmas anthology called GINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER. The headlining author is the wonderful Joanne Fluke, so you know the book will include some yummy recipes. The other author is the very popular Leslie Meier.
In my story, Jaine goes to spend Christmas with her parents at their retirement community in Tampa Vistas, Florida (always good for a dose or two of aggravation), and is called into action when her mom’s best friend is accused of murdering the resident lothario, a sleazy dude who has been wooing and cheating on several of the single ladies.
And right now, I’m starting in on the tenth book in the series, where Jaine sets off for a week at a swellegant spa, little realizing that it is a strict diet joint, run by a tough cookie she will come to know as the Spa Nazi. Needless to say, one of the guests will get bumped off before the final aerobics class, and Jaine will spend the rest of the book simultaneously searching for both the killer and something decent (as in “Chunky Monkey”) to eat.
Thank you so much, Laura. You can find out more about Laura’s books on her web site. I’d also like to note that her last mystery, Killer Cruise, is now out in paperback.