By Clay Stafford
On January 8, 2016, a few weeks after conducting this interview (but the day ironically that this issue of Killer Nashville Magazine posted), Renée Paley-Bain passed away unexpectedly from a wrenching three-week battle against Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a rare blood cancer she has lived with for the past 18 years. Our condolences go to her husband Don and their families. God bless them all. We have truly lost an amazing friend. Here’s to incredible memories. We are better people for having known her.
Killer Nashville 2015 was on Halloween this year. During that time, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down in Nashville with Donald Bain and his talented wife and writing partner Renée Paley-Bain for one of the strangest and most delicious hamburgers we’ve ever had (burgers were topped with an over-easy egg and onions caramelized in Jack Daniel’s whisky). Like the meal, every conversation I have with the Bains is an intellectual and entertaining morsel for the spiritual palette.
I like to delve into the minds of writers, and that’s what makes Don and Renée the ideal choice for our December feature article: they are incredibly transparent.
Every time I read a Donald Bain book—be it fiction or nonfiction—I am in awe. The stories tend to be puzzles and whodunits, but that’s not what pulls me in. It is the craft that, as a writer, I see going on behind the words. And what is on the page is not accidental but a credit to the development of the craftsman and the incredible mental brilliance of the man behind them.
This past year has been a busy one for the Bains. They released three books: Internship in Murder (#28 in the “Margaret Truman’s Capital Crime” series), Killer in the Kitchen (#43) and The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher (#44) in the “Murder, She Wrote” series “co-authored” with fictional character Jessica Fletcher (in by-line only, of course).
For those not familiar, the “Capital Crimes” series takes place in Washington, D.C. and was a collaboration between Don and Margaret Truman, the daughter of President Harry S. Truman. After Ms. Truman’s death, Don carried on the series with the blessings of her family.
And how could you not know what the “Murder, She Wrote” series is about? I had the good fortune of working on that television series as a young man at Universal Studios, and so it was my good fortune, years later, to befriend Donald Bain, the force behind the series of books.
My conversation with both Don and Renée could (and previous ones have) gone on for hours. Two better conversationalists you will never find. I’ve read all three of their books this year, but for the sake of brevity for this interview I’m sticking to the last book of theirs I read (The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher). But our conversation won’t be limited just to that book. As for as my reviews of the three books, there is too much to list here, but my overall summation would be: “Donald Bain does it again. Familiar characters and twists-and-turns make any Bain book a must-read for mystery enthusiasts.”
To give you a little background before we begin, The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher is one of my favorites in the Murder, She Wrote books. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, Jessica visits a friend in the hospital. He thinks he is dying. His doctor does not. Then he dies. It’s up to Jessica to put it together and solve the crime—not saying more because it will give away the plot. When the deceased’s house goes up for sale, unusual sightings give way to the rumor that there is a ghost. Of course, Jessica doesn’t believe in such drivel…or does she?
Although I’ve known both Don and Renée for several years, I learned things here I didn’t know before. For example, I’ve always thought Don was a meticulous outliner (one would assume because of the meticulous stories he writes), but that’s not true at all.
So get ready for some surprises as we hunker down here with Don and Renée Bain.
Clay – “Don, much of your history is contained in the book Murder, He Wrote—your more-than-excellent, and very funny, autobiography—but briefly can you tell our readers who have not read that book how you became a professional writer?”
Donald – “Like many things in life I backed into becoming a writer. After graduating from Purdue University and putting in three years in the Air Force, I had a young family to support. I sold children’s shoes a few nights a week, and worked full-time selling business machines door-to-door. I learned from those jobs that I was a lousy salesman. My cousin and best friend Jack Pearl, who wrote more than 100 books, knew I needed money and started me writing articles for Magazine Management, which published “men’s adventure magazines.” Jack then introduced me to an editor at Simon & Schuster, Ed Brown, who signed me up to rewrite the history of stock car racing. It paid a flat $1,000 fee, a nice payday. Later I was working as a PR exec for American Airlines when Ed Brown called. He had two Eastern Airlines stewardesses who wanted to write a humorous tell-all book about their careers. I met them and wrote Coffee, Tea or Me? which, along with its three sequels, went on to sell more than 5-million copies worldwide and became a made-for-TV movie. I suppose you could say that I became the world’s oldest, tallest, bearded stewardess. With the money from that project I was able to leave the airline and write full-time.”
Clay – “How many books have you written in total?”
Donald – “At last count I’d written 124 books, most of them ghostwritten for others.”
Clay – “Renée, how many of these books have you written (credited and uncredited) with Don?”
Renée – “I’ve been working with Don on the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ series for about 20 years, starting out editing them but eventually co-authoring the novels. Lately I’ve been doing most of the writing with Don editing. But I’d been writing longer than that. As VP of public relations for leading trade associations in the advertising field, I’d written hundreds of articles, speeches, and position papers, so my writing muscles got plenty of exercise.”
Clay – “Don, you mention that Coffee, Tea, or Me? allowed you to quit working at American Airlines and become a full-time writer? Do you think that is a realistic expectation for first-time novelists today?”
Donald – “No, not at all, Clay. There are many good writers whose egos won’t allow them to consider ghostwriting a book on which their names don’t appear. My philosophy was ‘say no to nothing’, an attitude that held me in good stead. My name doesn’t appear on any of the four Coffee, Tea or Me? books, although I did sneakily dedicate each one to me. As a professional writer it was my obligation to not publically take credit for them, and it was 20 years before I called the publisher and asked permission.”
Clay – “I find it amazing that out of all the books you’ve written, only one has been written on spec, meaning you didn’t have a contract for publication on it. Can you explain that for us?”
Donald – “I’ve been too busy over the course of my career writing books under contract to take time to write on spec. But I started a novel of my own in 2003, 50 years into my writing career, worked on it in bits and pieces, finished it in 2013, and saw it published in 2014. Lights Out! is based upon the great blackout of 2003 that sent the eastern seaboard into days of darkness. Writing it was a pleasant departure from ghostwriting—no deadline and no collaborator to appease. My agent, Bob Diforio, sold it immediately to Severn House and it’s done very nicely in the marketplace.”
Clay – “How did you get the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and ‘Margaret Truman’ writing assignments?”
Donald – “I’d been introduced to Margaret Truman in the early 1980s. She’d collaborated on a Washington-based novel that had been published, but the writer she’d worked with wasn’t available to work on a second book. We got along wonderfully, and I collaborated with her on Murder on Capitol Hill, which was published in 1981. We became good friends and worked together on another 23 D.C.-based mysteries/thrillers. Since her death in 2008, I’ve continued the series in conjunction with her estate. The most recent book written since Margaret’s passing is Internship in Murder. Deadly Medicine will be out next year, and I’m finishing up Allied in Danger as we speak. The books now carry my byline.”
Clay – “How about ‘Murder, She Wrote’? How did you get that series?”
Donald – “I was asked to write the first novel based upon the TV show Murder, She Wrote in 1988 and have been writing the novels ever since in collaboration with my wife Renée. We’ve just delivered the 46th novel in the series, and remarkably they’re all still in print.”
Clay – “That is remarkable.”
Renée – “It’s impressive that only one writer has been involved in this media tie-in series.”
Clay – “Well, two. You and Don are a team on this one! How does it normally work?”
Renée – “Usually a series of writers will be hired to sustain a long-standing series based upon another medium. Don and I are privileged to continue writing novels based upon this iconic television show, and we feel as though the fictional character Jessica Fletcher, brought to life on the screen by the wonderful Angela Lansbury, has become a close friend in a sense. Of course, I was younger than Jessica Fletcher when Don started writing the books, and now I’m older than Jessica Fletcher. Real life isn’t fair.”
Clay – “But as Don has pointed out, there are many hidden and serendipitous surprises. For beginning writers, do you think they should concentrate more on developing a series or a standalone?”
Renée – “Neither! What they should concentrate on is becoming the best writer they can be. I’ve come to learn a lot about the publishing world and making a living in it through my involvement with the “Murder, She Wrote” series. We attend numerous conferences including Killer Nashville and come in contact with a wide variety of writers trying to forge a full-time writing career. The key, as Don mentioned earlier, is attitude, the willingness to take on a variety of writing assignments, learning from each one, and being open to new possibilities. As the author Kingsley Amis, who ghosted for Ian Fleming, once said, “Any proper writer ought to be able to write anything from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout.” We don’t have too many calls for a sermon or a sheep-dip handout, but his point is well-taken. Writers have to be flexible and willing to try new things. That’s how you sharpen your skills.”
Clay – “Don, you’ve published 28 books in the ‘Capital Crime’ series, 46 books in the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ series, and yet you and Renée continue to prolifically turn out books. How many books do you and Renée release per year?”
Donald – “The year 2015 has been an especially tough one for us. Through a combination of missteps we were contractually committed to deliver three ‘Murder, She Wrote’ books instead of the usual two. On top of that I had the next novel in the ‘Truman Capital Crimes’ series to write.”
Renée – “We’ve pledged to never let that happen again. I feel as if I’ve been chained to the computer all year.”
Clay – “With all of these books, do you find it harder and harder to come up with new plots? Or do they continue to flow?”
Renée – “Every novel begins with the ‘what if?’ question. We read multiple newspapers and magazines each day, and many of our plot ideas come directly from those pages. We’re also very place oriented, and try to come up with provocative destinations and to have Jessica Fletcher travel to them and solve a murder. We generally set every third book in Cabot Cove, although that isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Each book usually stems from a single, overarching story idea, which propels the plot forward. There really is never a lack of story ideas to play with. All you have to do is look around at the world we live in.”
Donald – “With the ‘Margaret Truman Capital Crimes’ series, I operate from the standpoint that there is absolutely nothing that I can make up that is far-fetched when it come to Washington, D.C. and the political climate there.”
Clay – “Point well-taken. Now that we are two decades into this writing partnership, how did the two of you begin working together?”
Donald – “Having married a writer made it inevitable that we would one day also become collaborators.”
Renée – “We both love a good story.”
Donald – “She has a devious plot sense.”
Renée – “Thank you.”
Clay – “Yep, she is the tricky one. Don, if you remember, she’s the one who connected us together to begin with. As you two write as a team, are there creative differences and how do you resolve those?”
Renée – “We’ve always been able to resolve creative differences. I suppose that the fact that we’re still married testifies to that. Basically, the one doing the actual writing sets the pace and tone, with the other playing the role of eagle-eyed editor. But when push comes to shove, it’s the book that counts, not our individual egos.”
Donald – “I remember when I wrote one of the ‘Margaret Truman’ novels and gave it to Renée to read and edit. She disliked one line I’d written and said it was ‘clunky’. I got my back up, defended the line, and it stayed in the manuscript. The first review of the book, while generally favorable, did cite that line as an example of ‘occasionally clunky writing’.”
Clay – “That’s funny you should say that. Jacqueline (my wife) is my first reader. Early in our relationship, I once left a short story for her to read. The next morning, with delight, I asked her what she thought. She told me, ‘It’s not your best work.’ I bristled and asked her what I should do to make it better. She pointed to the kitchen trashcan. And the truth was—and is—she was exactly right. I read the story a year later and it wasn’t even worth the recycling I gave it. The moral being: trust your editor…even if she is your wife. Is it difficult with both of you writing concurrently to maintain the voice of Jessica Fletcher?”
Donald – “We’ve both gotten down the Jessica Fletcher character and seem to seamlessly capture that voice no matter who is doing the writing. Of course, we watch videos of the TV episodes from time to time to ensure that we haven’t strayed. The best compliment we can receive from a reader is that Jessica sounds the same on the page as she does on TV.”
Renée – “We both want to sound like Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher. Since we have the advantage of writing in first person that smoothes the process.”
Clay – “Speaking of, what is your usual writing process?”
Renée – “It depends entirely on what each of us is doing on a given day. Don is often writing the latest ‘Margaret Truman Capital Crimes’ novel, which means that I do the original writing that day on ‘Murder, She Wrote’. On those days, Don edits what I’ve written. Other days, Don takes on the writing and I function as editor. There are some days, usually when the deadline is approaching, that we’re both writing scenes after having conferred on what they are and how they fit into the overall storyline.”
Clay – “What computer programs do you use to write and map your books?”
Donald – “We work on computers using Word, and pass each day’s writing back-and-forth on thumb drives. When we aren’t dealing with research in-hand from trips or interviews, we use the Internet a great deal. Renée is much more computer-savvy than I am; she handles all the blogging, keeping the website up-to-date (most of the time), and utilizes and refines photos for when I am being interviewed.”
Clay – “Do you have a daily quota of words or pages, or length of time that you write each day?”
Donald – “I used to be a morning writer, having my ten-page-a-day target met by one o’clock in the afternoon. But I get a later start these days after a leisurely morning of reading, catching up on email, and running errands. That schedule suits Renée fine; she gets started writing even later in the day. While I used to shoot for 10 pages a day, I’m content these days with fewer pages. What’s important to me is that something gets written every day, seven days a week when we’re under a deadline. Even if a day’s output isn’t very good when read in the light of the following day, it can serve as a blueprint for the rewriting. I’m a great believer in ‘all good writing is rewriting’. Too many writers strive for perfection in that first draft. As a result they never get around to finishing a book. Write every day, good or bad. I’d rather have badly written pages to improve than stare at a blank screen.”
Clay – “Do you get approval of each book from your agent/publisher before you write it? And, if so, how much of the story do you give him/her?”
Renée – “We have to submit to our publisher and to Universal in Los Angeles (which owns the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ franchise) a synopsis of the storyline for the next novel we wish to write. We also run it past our agent, Bob Diforio, whose long and successful career in publishing gives him a unique perspective. Of course, once the writing commences, that brief synopsis begins to fall apart as the story and characters take over. But it serves as a blueprint that keeps us honest as we manipulate the action and characters. I suppose we’re basically “pantsers”—writing by the seat of our pants while trying not to stray too far afield.”
Clay – “Throughout your latest book, Murder, She Wrote: The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher, each chapter reveals new information about each character or the plot (or subplots). Are each of those revelations intentionally mapped out in the outline?”
Donald – “No. Well, some are, but they tend to develop as the writing goes forward.”
Clay – “Instead of straight description, you have an enviable way of working the description into the dialogue. Yours is the ultimate ‘show (or hear), don’t tell’. Has this always been easy for you? Or is this something you have cultivated as a part of your craft? An example would be someone talking about selling first edition books rather than describing the shop as one that sells first edition books.”
Donald – “That’s a real compliment, Clay. I suppose that whatever technique we use is the result of having written so much, and learning the craft as we go. I’ve learned something about the craft of writing from everything I’ve ever written, including a couple of ‘collaborations’ that I’d just as soon forget about. I’ve also been fortunate to have had a number of terrific editors whose work on the manuscripts served not only to make the books better, they functioned as teachers, too. Another favorite saying of mine is, ‘If I had more time, I would have written less.’ You develop an innate sense of when you’re ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, and there’s no greater enjoyment for me than fine-tuning a manuscript in search of all those unnecessary words, ‘info-dumps’, and otherwise useless use of space on the page.”
Clay – “To what do you attribute—other than the grand writing of Don and Renée Bain—the great affinity of readers to the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ Jessica Fletcher franchise? Every single one of the books is still in print!”
Renée – “It all starts with Dame Angela Lansbury. She created Jessica Fletcher and imbued her with so many attractive and appealing traits that TV viewers, and the readers of the novels, relate to. Although every book has a murder or two in it, they’re ‘gentle’ books in the sense that we avoid graphic violence, four-letter words, and sexual situations. We receive hundreds of emails from readers who say how much they appreciate that approach. We also receive emails from parents who kick-start their teenage sons and daughters onto the reading habit using the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ novels. Of course, we like to think that the quality of the writing helps engender this loyalty—and our readers are certainly that—loyal!”
Clay – “You’ve taught writing courses all over the world, including onboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 (popularly known as the QE2). What are your writing courses like? How basic or advanced are they?”
Donald – “It’s probably a misstatement that I ‘teach’ writing, at least not the nuts-and-bolts of the writing craft. The lectures I gave aboard the QE2 for six consecutive years focused more on attitude towards becoming a writer, using my own experiences as examples. There are those who are able to teach writing as a craft, but I’m not one of them, and it would be presumptuous of me to try it. While I’ve absorbed the craft of writing over the many years of my career, I practice it without thinking much about it. But I’ve sat in on classes in which writing is taught and I have learned something each time. As for lecturing on the QE2, I was also expected to entertain, which dictated my approach.”
Clay – “Writers hear a lot about ‘theme’. To writers who have written as much as you both have, is ‘theme’ even on the radar? Other than Jessica’s voice, is your ‘writers’ voice’ even something you think about?”
Renée – “It really isn’t. Aside from sharing a familiarity with Jessica Fletcher’s voice as established by Angela Lansbury, Don and I do have somewhat different writing ‘voices’. I’m not sure that I could explain the difference, but when we’re editing each other’s work those differences become evident. But they’re not so different that we can’t easily meld them into a single voice, It’s something we respect and pay attention to every day.”
Clay – “Don, your writing is venturing onto the stage, as well! Can you tell us about The Lost Blonde?”
Donald – “I was close friends with the actress Veronica Lake during her post-Hollywood days in New York, and wrote her autobiography with her. A marvelous filmmaker and writer in London, Ian Beaumont, contacted me and suggested that we collaborate on a screenplay based upon Veronica’s NYC years. He came to New York and we went to work. When it was finished, we came to a painful conclusion: it didn’t work as a film. But then I suggested that it would make a wonderful play, and we rewrote it for performance on the stage. Right now it’s making the rounds of leading theatrical companies around the country, and we have our collective fingers crossed. Writing for the stage is alien to both Ian and me, so it’s been a true learning experience. Stay tuned!”
Clay – “Don, Renée is not the only one you’ve written with. You’ve also written with your daughter Laurie! Did she get the writing bug from you?”
Donald – “Laurie is a very talented writer whose articles in such areas as travel and lifestyles have appeared in myriad publications. She worked with me on a few of the earlier ‘Murder, She Wrote’ novels and added a nice dimension to them. If she got the writing bug from me, I’m not sure whether she’ll thank or curse me. It can be a tough way to make a living. She has a wonderful way of turning a phrase, something I admire greatly.”
Clay – “When I read about the book clutter in Cliff Cooper’s house in The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher, I can’t help but think you used my house as a research destination. Is your house cluttered with books (like mine), or are you more like your character Eve Simpson (who knows how to shovel them out once read)?”
Renée – “Sometimes I think that we’re drowning in books, and we’re constantly loading boxes with them for our local library’s book sales. We both find it hard to get in much reading for pleasure while writing books. I recently suggested to Don that when we turn in the latest Murder, She Wrote, tentative title Hook, Line & Murder, we get away for a week and do nothing but catch up on our reading. I have a stack of novels to get to, and Don has an equally tall stack of books in a variety of genres. But he has the latest ‘Truman’ novel to finish and…oh, well.”
Clay – “In The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher, is Arianna Olynski’s physical self patterned after Marge Simpson? She’s the only one I can think of who fits the description. And, if so, when in the world does the Bain family watch The Simpsons?”
Renée – “Ha! We hoped you’d think of Marge. That’s exactly who we had in mind. We don’t actually watch The Simpsons, but when a show is as popular as that one, the characters become known all the same. The only time I regret not watching the show is when the name of their grocer is the answer to a clue in our crossword puzzle.”
Clay – “Do you believe in ghosts? You’ve written several involving them, including ‘The Hunt for Skippy Walker’ in Killer Nashville’s new anthology Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded. I thought I knew where Jessica Fletcher stood until the very end of The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher. And then, Jessica did what Jessica does best: diplomatically and intellectually raises an eyebrow that there may be more to something than what we first see.”
Donald – “Renée and I debated the ending of The Ghost and Mrs. Fletcher and agreed that while Jessica probably doesn’t intellectually believe in ghosts, one of her endearing traits is her open-mindedness to things she might not necessarily accept.”
Renée – “This is the fourth book, we think (we lose track every so often), in which we’ve injected a ghost into the story. The very first book in the series, Gin and Daggers, features an ‘apparition’. Trick or Treachery has what we hope is a shiver-inducing ending. And how can you use a location like Savannah (A Slaying in Savannahand in ‘The Hunt for Skippy Walker’) and not reference that city’s many ghost stories? Like Jessica, neither Don nor I believe in ghosts…but maybe we’re wrong.”
Clay – “Don and Renée, I hate to end the conversation because I know this could continue on way into the night.”
Donald – “This was a delightful conversation, Clay, and we thank you for the chance to talk about writing and our approach to it. Killer Nashville is, and will always be one of our favorite writers’ conferences. Thanks to you and your excellent staff, hundreds of writers have come away with renewed confidence in their writing careers, and some solid information to help them grow.”
Clay – “And there is much here in this conversation, as well. I’m honored to get to chat with you guys and get a glimpse behind the curtain.”
Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).
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