Taking on Veronica Mars: A Q&A with Co-Writer Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham/Photo © Vintage Books

Veronica Mars returned to our screens and lives earlier this month with the release of the spin-off film, "Veronica Mars." This week, the sassy sleuth takes a literary turn in the original mystery, Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, which picks up where the film left off. Here, the core mystery concerns a co-ed who goes missing during spring break. Mars creator Rob Thomas co-wrote the novel with Jennifer Graham, whose short stories have appeared in The Seattle Review and Zahir. Graham graduated from Reed College and received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Signature was able to swing a few questions her way in time for the book's release.

Signature: Were you a fan prior to being brought on?

Jennifer Graham: Absolutely! Like a lot of people, I didn't catch it when it first aired. But I picked up the first season on a whim at the library six or seven years ago. Back then DVDs only circulated for a week at a time so I didn't think I'd finish before it had to go back -- but no worries. I watched the whole thing in about three days.

SIG: What was the collaboration process with Rob Thomas like?

JG: It's been great. Like most fiction writers, I spend most of my time alone in a room thinking about feelings. When we "broke" the plot for The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, it was much more like a TV writers' room. Rob had the seeds of an idea, and we worked together to develop it. That was new for me, but it was fun -- you learn really quickly to be brave, to stay open, and to check your ego at the door.

Once we had the major plot points hashed out, I went back home and the "alone in a room" portion of my career started again. Rob had designed a really clever puzzle of a plot; my job was to get it built, adding interesting details, emotional beats, and character touches. Once I'd done that, Rob stepped in again to make sure the whole thing was in line with his vision.

SIG: How is it evolving something like a television series or film into literature?

JG: On screen, we mostly see Veronica's feelings from the outside, through Kristen Bell's incredible acting skills. Translating that to a more internal set of cues was actually a little intimidating at first. Veronica's such an iconic character, and she's been important to a lot of people. This was a chance to see her from a different angle, and I really wanted to do her justice. I wanted to make sure we got a glimpse at what her brain looks like while she's piecing things together, and I wanted to make sure that prickly, smart, complicated woman we've been waiting for for seven years was fully realized on the page.

I definitely aimed to maintain the tone of that pitch-perfect, hard-boiled voice-over in the process. That's my favorite part of the noir/hard-boiled pastiche. Anything you can imagine Bogey saying out of the corner of his mouth makes me happy.

SIG: Was it intimidating to join the creative team of such a beloved character?

JG: Of course! I mean, Rob was super easy to work with, and he put me at ease pretty quickly. The intimidating part is that so many people have such a very personal attachment to Veronica and company. There's a ton of smart, engaged, talented fans out there who've put a lot of thought into this world. I don't want to let them down!

SIG: As a bonus Portland-y question: You've attended college in two of the funkiest cities in the US. As a Portlander myself, I constantly overhear people saying things like "I'm sick of this weather, I'm going to move to Austin." Which city has more to offer? What do you miss about Portland and what do you not miss?

JG: This is funny, because one of the things I miss most about Portland is the weather. The cold gloomy rain and the resulting gigantic trees and year-round green is much more my speed than the heat and sun in Austin. Every time it rains in Austin I get excited and all the Texans boo me.

Both places have been really good to me -- they're both full of creative, smart people. They both embrace a sense of playfulness and fun in daily life. I definitely miss the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and Portland has parks on virtually every corner and the best public library system in the country. Austin has swimming holes, breakfast tacos, and a great music scene -- so I'm not sure who's actually coming out ahead at this point.

I think both places are currently struggling to decide what kind of city they want to be. Between sprawl and gentrification and a sort of hip santization, there are parts of both towns that look more like Neptune than any of us should be comfortable with. Don't get me wrong; I love both Austin and Portland from the bottom of my heart. But I do think people in both places need to work hard to build communities that are fair and inclusive, even as the towns inevitably grow and change.