Q&A: Jon Land
Author of MURDER, SHE WROTE: A DATE WITH MURDER
This past week, I took a much-needed vacation to Florida to spend time with my Grammy - and a conversation we had while sipping coffee on her porch happened to coincide perfectly with the next post slated to run on CBTB. We got to reminiscing about the old days - times when I would come visit her when I was just a little kid, her old house where she raised my dad and his brother… all those little memories that bring up so much nostalgia. Being that she and I are both huge readers, our conversation quickly turned to books: the books that we hold dear to our hearts because of the memories they in turn hold for us. I mentioned to my Grammy that I had the chance to interview Jon Land (best known for the critically-acclaimed Caitlin Strong series) on his new venture: taking over the writing of the Murder, She Wrote books. Little did I know that those books - and the TV show! - hold such fond memories for my Grammy. She told me how she used to always make sure her to-do list was completed in time to watch Jessica Fletcher on TV every Sunday, and she was so excited to learn that Fletcher continues to live on in the Murder, She Wrote books.
There’s something so special about these timeless stories that connect generations of readers, and I was so excited to have the chance to speak with Jon Land about his newest project, writing his first installment in the Murder, She Wrote series, MURDER, SHE WROTE: A DATE WITH MURDER. The Murder, She Wrote series is about as close to infamous as it comes, and I’m fascinated by the process that resulted in Land taking over these books—I had a lot of questions for him, all of which he answered very thoughtfully for CBTB readers! In today’s post, readers will learn exactly how Land became connected with this project, what challenges he had changing gears from writing thrillers to writing a cozy mystery, what he’s working on next, and a whole lot more.
But before we dive into the Q&A, let’s take a moment to discuss what I, a reader who typically sticks to dark and gritty crime fiction, enjoyed about this cozy mystery. I said this to Jon and I said this to my Grammy, too: I loved the nostalgia that this book conjured up for me. I’m no expert when it comes to cozy mysteries - this is a subgenre of crime fiction that’s well outside my comfort zone - but if the nostalgia I felt while exploring Jessica Fletcher’s world in this modern take on a classic series is any indication, Land has done a masterful job with a huge task—Fletcher’s legions of fans are sure to love Land’s contribution to a longstanding and beloved series. It will comes as no surprise to readers of Jon Land’s previous books to discover that he takes on this ambitious project with strong plotting and an engaging central mystery—and, in this case, he also balances this intrigue with endearing characters and a lighter, cozy mystery plot. (If you’re a reader who prefers more action-packed thrillers, you might also check out Land’s Caitlin Strong series -- action thrillers featuring a tough and resilient female lead!) Given the massive name recognition that this series holds, I can only imagine what a daunting task and incredibly exciting opportunity this must have felt like for Land all at once, and I’m so appreciative that he and his book gave me the opportunity to relive a bit of nostalgia for Cabot Cove - and gave me another opportunity to bond with my Grammy, too.
Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully - enjoy our Q&A, and a little trip down memory lane with Jessica Fletcher and Murder, She Wrote!
MURDER, SHE WROTE: A DATE WITH MURDER
Jessica Fletcher takes up the case of her good friend Barbara "Babs" Wirth after Babs' husband Hal suffers a fatal heart attack that Jessica has reason to believe was actually murder. At the heart of her suspicions lies a sinister dating site Hal had used while he and Babs were having marital issues, a site that may be complicit in somehow swindling him out of millions.
Jessica's investigation reveals that Hal was far from the only victim and when his former business partner is also killed, a deadly pattern emerges. Jessica teams up with a brilliant young computer hacker to follow the trail but as she gets closer to the truth, two near misses force her to realize that she may very well be the next victim.
The stakes have never been this high as Jessica finds herself being stalked by the killer she is trying to catch. She must now set the perfect trap to avoid her very own date with murder.
Author Q&A: Jon Land
Crime by the Book: First things first - thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions about your newest venture! In your own words, can you tell us a bit about MURDER, SHE WROTE: A Date with Murder?
Jon Land: Well, let’s start with the fact that it’s my first effort writing as Jessica Fletcher, replacing the late, great Don Bain. My familiarity is far more with the television series than the books, so I instinctively set out to capture the tone, rhythm and pacing of my favorite episodes. That said, the book features a sinister Internet dating service, so I’m also lending a more contemporary take on things. I think the book is still a cozy thanks to the presence of so many familiar faces/characters within America’s favorite town, Cabot Cove. But it has more thriller elements in terms of pacing and the fact that Jessica finds her own life in danger thanks to her efforts at solving the crime.
CBTB: Readers will know you best for your acclaimed Caitlin Strong series (the most recent installment, STRONG TO THE BONE, released in December!). Taking on the MURDER, SHE WROTE franchise is a totally new direction for you! What is most exciting to you about this new direction? And can we still expect to see more Caitlin in the future?
JL: Great questions! It’s a new direction for me indeed, but one I took to with surprising ease. What was most exciting, frankly, was the opportunity itself. I don’t have to tell you what a tough business writing is and to have the opportunity to take over an established brand that means steady income is a godsend for any writer of popular fiction, particularly in the face of such a changing publishing landscape. But fans of Caitlin Strong should have no fear—she’s not going anywhere, starting next April with STRONG AS STEEL! I enjoy writing Caitlin as much now, if not more, than I ever have and one of my greatest hopes in taking over MURDER SHE WROTE is that Jessica Fletcher’s audience will migrate to my Caitlin Strong books.
CBTB: MURDER, SHE WROTE is such an iconic series, it has to be a thrilling one to get involved with! What kind of background research and preparation went into undertaking this new role?
JL: I was very fortunate in that Don Bain, after he realized he wasn’t going to be able to write the book alone, initially penned the first 60 or so pages with his grandson Zach. Those pages not only gave me a running start and a direct pipeline to Jessica’s voice, it also gave me a great adviser in Zach and his institutional memory of many of the books. I’d never read any of the books in the series, so I did read several of those. But because I remain far more familiar with the television series, A DATE WITH MURDER resembles that more than the books in many ways, as I mentioned above. One thing I kept having trouble with was keeping two characters with very similar names, Evelyn Phillips and Eve Simpson, straight. In the first draft, they became interchangeable and I kept having to go back and remind myself which was which.
CBTB: Speaking of iconic - you’re now writing as Jessica Fletcher, a crime fiction character who has a longstanding and quite devoted following. How did you get inside the head of this amateur detective? What was the biggest challenge of this process?
JL: Let me start with your final question there. The biggest challenge was actually writing in 1st person, because that was something I’d never done before, never had a character who appears in every single scene and we see the entire book unfold from their POV. How I pulled that off starts with great support, again, from Don Bain’s grandson Zach and my terrific editor at Berkley Michelle Vega. Interestingly, this was her first effort editing a MURDER SHE WROTE entry just like it was mine writing one. Since we were both starting from scratch, I had license not to cling to any preconceived notions about Jessica’s character for the formula of her adventures. The most important thing about the process was not trying to imitate what had been done before. I needed to lend my own take to the way the plot unfolds. I needed to make sure it felt organic and natural, because that’s the way the writing unfolded.
"The show and the book series … were able to create a cozy, friendly sense of familiarity with the format and cast of characters. We welcomed them, especially Jessica herself, into our homes every Sunday night like family."
CBTB: What do you think has given MURDER, SHE WROTE its lasting appeal with readers and viewers alike?
JL: Wow, that’s a great question. I’m going to start with the writing. The series was created by, I think, the same team behind the great Columbo detective show, so the show was able to maintain a measure of quality that lasted through a dozen seasons. The other thing about the show and the book series was that the creators, and then Don Bain, were able to create a cozy, friendly sense of familiarity with the format and cast of characters. We welcomed them, especially Jessica herself, into our homes every Sunday night like family. Didn’t Bonanza own Sunday nights for nearly a generation, welcoming viewers on a weekly basis to the Ponderosa? Well, here we had Cabot Cove instead and, more than anything else, capturing that same sense of familiarity is what made the book series endure as well.
CBTB: For readers who are curious how writers become attached to projects like these - continuations of longstanding series - can you share a bit with us about the process that resulted in you co-writing the newest MURDER, SHE WROTE book?
JL: Well, Don Bain had gotten to a stage in his life where writing had become very difficult for him. People don’t realize how exhausting and demanding the process itself is. When the original plan to have Don with his grandson Zach on continuing the series didn’t work out as planned, the idea was for me to step in and work alongside Don. But he passed away before that happened. So here I was, having been given this wonderful opportunity to now succeed him as Jessica Fletcher’s co-author. And I say that in all humility because the only thing rarer than getting the opportunity to earn steady income in this crazy business, is the gift of taking over a branded series with such an incredible track record as MURDER, SHE WROTE. Don Bain wrote 46 books—think about that for a moment and consider the fact that number beats both Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie and the Sherlock Holmes classics by Arthur Conan Doyle. And beyond that I’d say Jessica Fletcher and MURDER, SHE WROTE is one of those rare pop culture brands that enjoys nearly 100% name recognition
CBTB: What comes next for Jessica? Will we see more Jessica Fletcher books from you in the future?
JL: Oh, for sure! My second effort, MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER, is finished and scheduled for publication on November 5. And I’ll soon be starting MURDER IN RED which will be published in May of 2019. I’m especially anxious about the response to MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER, because it marks my first truly solo effort. I think the biggest challenge I face in that regard is to discipline myself to stick to the trademarks that made this series iconic. As a thriller writer, my instinct is to fall back on pacing, suspense and action above all else. But I need to continue tempering that with the tried and true format that’s worked for a very long time.
CBTB: Readers will also be interested to know that you’re a crime fiction reviewer, too! Do you think that your background in crime fiction reviewing has given you an edge when it comes to writing crime novels? Have you learned lessons from the books you’ve reviewed, or do you find that writing crime fiction and reviewing crime fiction are totally separate processes?
JL: Whoa, another great question! I consider myself an amateur reviewer in that I only review books I can genuinely, and enthusiastically, recommend. So the answer is a definitive yes. Victor Hugo wrote that good writers borrow, but great writers steal. I started my career because I so loved reading David Morrell, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler. They inspired me to do what they were doing. Now the likes of those and far more inspire me to continue striving to do it better.
CBTB: What books are on your nightstand right now?
JL: Speaking of influences and writers I love to read, THE MIDNIGHT MILE by the great Lee Child is waiting for me to get back to right now. There’s simply no better, or bigger, hero than Jack Reacher. He’s this generation’s James Bond, truly iconic. I’m just glad he’s a guy so Jessica Fletcher can hold on to her title as America’s premier female sleuth!
Many thanks to Jon Land for answering my questions! MURDER, SHE WROTE: A DATE WITH MURDER is on sale now.
Series: Murder She Wrote (Book 47)
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Berkley (May 1, 2018)
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