A few years ago, I was in the library browsing for some new light mysteries to read and I happened upon the Jaine Austen series by Laura Levine. I did a double-take when I saw the author’s name. Could it be? I wondered. You see, from the mid-1990s through the early aughts, I taught a class called “Improv Storytelling: On Paper and On Your Feet,” through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and one of my students was a woman named Laura Levine. She stood out because she was funny, enthusiastic, and we shared a bond – we were both female sitcom writers, part of a small but hardy – okay, hardened – tribe. I read the Jaine Austen author’s bio, and credits like the Bob Newhart Show confirmed this was my Laura Levine. The smart, hilarious dialogue and plots of the books also confirmed it. And I thought to myself, Gee, I’d love to get back in touch with Laura sometime.
Cut to – I’m in Hollywood so I can say that – almost twenty years later when a potential shared book signing led to a string of emails, which led to that reunion finally happening. It was like no time had passed at all but now, in addition to our time in the sitcom trenches, we could share adventures in the mystery publishing world. I thought it would be fun to put a few questions to the author of the beloved and oh-so-popular Jaine Austen series. Her answers here are as entertaining as her books. Personally, I think Laura is a cozy mystery legend. But knowing her, when she reads this, she’ll be like, Agh, stop, that is so not true!
What inspired your series and the hilarious Jaine Austen? Honest answer: Boredom. After toiling seventeen years as a sitcom writer, I committed the unpardonable sin of turning fifty and was put out to pasture. Actually, I was relieved, having had my fill of working till 2 AM in a room reeking of old, cold smelly pizzas. With time on my hands, and having always adored Agatha Christie, I decided to try writing a murder mystery. And because of my sitcom background, I decided to make it a comedy mystery. Jaine is essentially a younger, much braver version of me. She works as a freelance writer and her writing assignments often (but not always) lead her to a dead body.
At first I was going to give Jaine a wisecracking neighbor, but the wisecracking neighbor had been done to death. So I gave her a wisecracking cat instead. The cat’s name is Prozac and she is an unabashed diva, furious with me for not making her the star of the series. I wrote the first book on spec, and in a burst of good luck, it got picked up by John Scognamiglio at Kensington Books who has been an amazing editor and unflagging champion of me and Jaine for the past seventeen books.
PS. Thanks for calling my series “hilarious.” (Your check’s in the mail.)
As well as being joke writers, we’re both plotters, which we agree is a result of our years writing TV sitcoms. How else does your TV background influence your mystery writing? For me, plotting out my stories is essential. That’s definitely something I learned as a sitcom writer, where every story had to be outlined beat by beat. I can’t conceive of writing without an outline. I allow myself to stray from my outline, but I never start a book without a pretty solid idea of where it’s going. And sitcomland is a great place to hone your joke writing (and pizza ordering) skills.
But, of course, the most invaluable lesson I learned as a sitcom writer was to never turn fifty.
You worked on some classic shows. Share a fun anecdote from one of those experiences. Yes, it’s true I wrote for some classic shows. The tale I’m about to tell, however, is from a less than classic show (but a lot of fun to write) called OUT OF THIS WORLD. The main character was a teenage girl with magical powers. In one of the episodes I wrote, she turns her boyfriend into a frog. Whoever was in charge of frog casting got seven frogs. The lead frog, and six understudies. The night the frog episode wrapped, there was a knock on my front door. It was a messenger carrying a box. A gift from Executive Producer and world class prankster, Bob Booker. I opened the box and saw my seven thespian frogs, leaping about in a frenzy. Bob thought it would be a hoot to send them to me. I instantly shut the box and sent the messenger away.
Fade Out, Fade In. It’s the middle of the night and I wake up to see something on my bedroom floor. Squinting in the darkness, at first I think it’s a pair of pantyhose. But then those pantyhose go sproing into the air. Clearly, it’s not my pantyhose, but a frog. The little devil must’ve escaped when I’d opened the box. So, faced with a frog loose in my house, I did the only sensible thing a woman could do in my position: I called the police.
Now you should know that my house had been burglarized two times prior to that night. And both times I had to wait hours for the police to show up. That night, with a frog at large, they were at my house in less than five minutes. They started to search the house. No sign of a frog anywhere. The police were growing skeptical. Clearly they’d written me off as a nutcase desperate for company in the middle of the night. It didn’t help that my mom at that time had been sending me frog figurines. One of the police officers picked up a porcelain froggie and sneered, “Is this the frog you’re looking for?”
Finally, they found the frog in one of my closets. Refraining from giving them a stern “I told you so!” I dug up an old cat carrier and soon they’d lured the frog inside. The last thing I heard as they walked out the door was one of the police officers reporting into his walkie talkie, “Frog in custody. Frog in custody.”
And that’s my wackiest sitcom story.
What’s the worst advice you ever heard about writing mysteries? About writing for TV? This isn’t exactly bad advice, but one thing that drives me nuts is when writers say, “I let my characters tell me what to do.” Hah! Never once has one of my characters told me what to do. They’re a lazy lot who lie around eating bon bons all day, leaving me to do all the heavy lifting.
And here’s the best advice I ever got: I was working on my first sitcom and was paired with a seasoned sitcom writer, Ed Scharlach. We were starting on a script and having a rough time. I was very discouraged. “These pages stink,” I said to Ed. And he said to me, “Everything stinks at the beginning, Laura. Just keep on writing. We can always come back and fix it later.”
That advice resonates with me to this day. I find I’m most insecure when starting a project. But I keep writing. I try never to let my inner critic stop me. The more I write, the greater the momentum builds, and the more my confidence grows.
So for any would-be writers out there, remember Ed Scharlach, and KEEP WRITING!
BIO: Laura Levine is a former sitcom writer whose credits include The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, The Jeffersons, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, and 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. In her latest (and favorite) incarnation as a mystery novelist, she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Romantic Times award for Most Humorous Mystery. She lives in Los Angeles, where, in between exciting trips to the refrigerator, she is hard at work on her next Jaine Austen Mystery.
(Okay, she didn’t really win the Nobel Peace Prize. She just threw that in to see if you were paying attention.)
Visit Laura at lauralevinemysteries.com