Monday, July 27, 2015

An Interview with Laura Levine

Shirt was a gift from one of Laura's Readers

By Pamela James

MM2: Laura, give us the backstory on your writing career?

Long, long ago (I think it was some time in the Pleistocene era) I started out as a reporter/photographer at a newspaper so small we had our photos developed at the local camera shop. After a year of trying (and failing) to get my facts straight, I segued into the wonderful world of advertising, where I created the cereals Count Chocula and Frankenberry for General Mills. (I don’t think you get these cereals in the UK, but I’m proud to report that these wonderful products have decayed the teeth of generations of kiddies here in the US.)

Eventually bored with writing “void where prohibited by law” for a living, I got the show biz bug and, after churning out a gazillion spec scripts, I finally started my career as a sitcom writer, writing for shows like THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, THE JEFFERSONS, THREE’S COMPANY, THE LOVE BOAT,  and MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN.

Years later, when my gray hairs began outnumbering my credits, my agent (who later got arrested for pilfering funds from her clients’ accounts) stopped returning my calls, and I figured it was time for another career move. It was then that I decided to try my hand at mystery writing, and Jaine Austen was born. (And her cat Prozac, too, who to this day, still resents getting second billing.)

MM2: Let's talk about your series. I love Prozac, Jaine and of course her parents. I often think these books should be Hallmark Movies or television series. How did the characters, names and series come to fruition?

I’d always wanted to try my hand at writing a mystery. And at the time I was a big fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (and still am). But I knew I could never write a Kinsey-esque tough gal heroine, so I decided to make Jaine a scaredy cat detective, the kind of sleuth I’d be if I were solving a murder, stumbling and bumbling her way to the killer. I thought about giving her a wisecracking neighbor (aka Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show), but I figured the wisecracking neighbor had been done to death, so I decided to give Jaine a wisecracking cat instead. Thus Prozac was born. And she’s not stopped slinging zingers since.

I’m so glad you like Jaine’s parents, MM2. And here’s a behind-the-scenes secret about them: They actually came about by accident. While writing the second book in the series, LAST WRITES, I realized I was going to be very short on pages. So I thought, why not write about Jaine’s parents? I’d always loved epistolary novels, so I decided to tell their story through emails. I’m so glad I was running short on that book, because I adore writing for Mom and DaddyO.

MM2: Take us through a day and the life of Laura Levine?

Must I? It’s really quite embarrassing. I stumble out of bed around ten (on a good day), read the papers, do the crossword puzzle, and eventually sit down at my computer, where I then proceed to master the fine art of Work Avoidance. (Never will you find a writer with sharper pencils or more frequently watered plants.) Somewhere along the line I manage to wrench a few pages from my fevered brain. Then it’s time for dinner at one of Los Angeles’ fine eateries (and I’ve got the ketchup packets to prove it), followed by an evening of trash TV and/or a good book. (Last read and really loved: ONE MISSISSIPPI, by Mark Childress.) Finally, a few episodes of FRASIER re-runs to lull me off to sleep.
How do I stand all the excitement?

MM2: Today if you were going to say "Make mine a double." What would you mean by this statement?

In my family, we always kiss each other on both cheeks. And we call it a double. So if you run into me at a book signing and I ask you for a double, better pucker up.

MM2: What has writing brought to your life? What has life brought to your writing world?

Aside from the paychecks (always gratifying), writing has given me the freedom to work when and where I please, a wonderful gift. What can I say? It’s good to be your own boss.

What has life brought to my writing world? Plenty of plot lines. If I see a funny story in the newspaper, or hear one from a friend, zap—into my Idea Box it goes. I actually do have a box (very pretty, with flowers and butterflies painted on all sides) where I stash random ideas, and pluck them out when it’s time to start a new book.

MM2: For a minute let's talk about some fun questions about you...
What is your favorite movies, dessert, meal, books to reread and song?


FAVORITE FOOD: Pasta, potatoes, bread!! (Total starch-o-holic)

SONGS: I’m stuck in the big band era. Anything Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, or Rosemary Clooney sings, I pretty much love.  Adore June Christy singing Billy Barnes’ SOMETHING COOL. And of course, how can I leave out LAURA, one of the loveliest songs ever? So lucky to have such a beautiful song with my name on it. Whenever my late husband and I were at a place where they took requests for tunes, Mark always asked them to play LAURA. Wonderful memories!

BOOKS: I’m not much for re-reading, or re-watching; I like being stimulated by new plots and stories. But I have re-read all of Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse. Other favorite authors: Joe Keenan and the remarkable Anne Tyler.
Most unforgettable book: William Styron’s SOPHIE’S CHOICE.

MM2: You make writing humor look so easy and effortless. To me this is the mark of a great author to make their work read and feel effortless. Are you a natural at humor writing or is this something that requires many rewrites?

Moi? A great author?? You are officially my new best friend! (By the way, I think William Styron and Anne Tyler might beg to differ with you on that one.)

But in answer to your question, I like comedy writing, and I suppose it comes fairly naturally to me. In fact, I think I’d be lost if I had to write a serious book.

MM2: Okay, I would be remiss if I didn't ask if you know people who are like the characters in your series?

Jaine is essentially a younger, much braver and more resilient me. Everybody else I’ve pretty much made up.

MM2. Let's talk about your latest book in the series. Promote away and I hope there are lots of parental emails. I just love dad and mom.

I thought you’d never ask!  Jaine’s next adventure (DEATH BY TIARA) takes place in the cut-throat world of teenage beauty pageants. It all starts when Jaine gets hired by an uber-pushy pageant mom to write novelty lyrics for her teenage daughter in the Miss Teen Queen America beauty pageant. Jaine watches in disbelief as pageant moms go at each other like cougars at feeding time. Backstabbing, name-calling, and hair pulling abound. And that’s just at the registration desk! When one of the pageant staff is killed after the talent show, Jaine’s client is the leading suspect. Jaine sets out to find the true killer—all the while trying to impress the insufferably stuffy parents of her hunky new boyfriend.

Meanwhile, back in Tampa Vistas, Daddy brings home his latest love, a used golf cart named Nellybelle. And as always with Daddy, disaster ensues.

MM2: What is the best writing advice you ever received?

I will pass on a piece of advice given to me when I first started out in show business and I was teamed up with an experienced sitcom writer.  We were working on a script together and were having a tough time getting started.  My mentor told me, “Everything stinks in the beginning, Laura.  Just keep on going.  We can always come back and fix it later.”

Those words are so true. Writing is always hard, especially at the beginning. That’s when you’re filled with self-doubt and at your most vulnerable. Don’t let your inner critic slow you down. Just keep on going. The more you write, the more your momentum—and confidence—builds.

MM2: What advice do you have for humorous mystery authors? Also for those who want to turn the books into a series?

The same advice I’d give to any aspiring author. Keep writing, and reading. The more you write, the better you get.

As for series: If you’re a mystery author, hoping to write a series, you’re in luck. Most publishers (at least, here in the states) are looking for series, and will offer a first-time author a two or three book deal, in the hopes that you will be the next Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich.

MM2: Lastly what would Jaine, Prozac and Jaine's parents want us to know about you?

Jaine and her parents are perfectly lovely people who wouldn’t breathe a word of gossip, but Prozac is such a blabbermouth, she wouldn’t hesitate to spill the beans and let you know that I’ve never even tasted Chunky Monkey ice cream. (My real favorite is vanilla. How boring am I??)

MM2: Oh, one more question. Where is your favorite place to write? 

I often think of ideas while walking or driving and take notes en route. But most of my writing is done in my office, a cozy hideaway with a view of my Chinese elm out front and plenty of bread crumbs stuck in the keyboard. (See starch-o-holic above.)


  1. Laura - your series is so much fun and so are you!

  2. A fabulous review--she is one of my favorite writers. Her books are well plotted and hysterically funny. Thanks so much for featuring her.

  3. Laura,
    Thank you so much for all the great answers and advice.
    I loved doing the interview.

  4. I love this! Laura is such a talented writer and wonderful friend. Thanks so much for sharing, y'all.


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