Marshmallow Noir

Photo by Ben Sklar

Jen Graham ’01 pens the further adventures of Veronica Mars

By Robyn Ross

Veronica Mars inched stealthily back from the doorway where she’d been eavesdropping. Downstairs, the raucous spring break party raged on. Upstairs, in the mansion owned by heirs to a Mexican drug cartel, she strained to listen to the men she suspected were behind the disappearances of two college girls. But now the men were standing, about to walk into the hallway. Trying to stay out of sight, she slipped into the next room—right into the grip of Eduardo, the smooth-talking MBA student she’d met the night before, who just happened to be the kingpin’s nephew.

The Veronica Mars in The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, the first novel spun off from the popular television series, is the same fearless, snarky character fans loved onscreen. Her transition to print was made by Jen Graham ’01, who collaborated with series creator Rob Thomas on the book. 

Cancelled in 2007 after three seasons, Veronica Mars inspired a cult following that rejoiced when, six years later, Thomas announced plans to make a movie. He opted to raise the money through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and more than 91,000 fans (including Graham) opened their wallets. The campaign raised more than $2 million in its first 11 hours and once boasted the largest number of backers in Kickstarter history. Less than a year later, in March 2014, the movie premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where both Thomas and Graham live. Tan Line came out right after the movie, sweeping onto the New York Times bestseller list. A second book is slated for an October release.

Played by the actress Kristen Bell, Veronica is sassy, fierce, quick on her feet, deadpan, and unyielding. In the television show, she attends high school in Neptune, a moneyed Southern California beach town that’s equal parts glitter and grit. Viewers learn at the beginning of the series that her father, private investigator Keith Mars, used to be the town sheriff but was forced out of office after pursuing what may have been a mistaken case against a prominent citizen. In the wake of this scandal, Veronica becomes an outcast at school, and her alcoholic mother abandons the family. Neptune’s leadership, including the replacement sheriff, is corrupt, and Veronica and her father have to step in and solve the cases that law enforcement won’t.

“It’s got this broody, noir sense to it, modified for adolescent contexts,” Graham explains. In the first episode, viewers learn that Veronica’s best friend has been murdered, and that Veronica was drugged and raped at a party by an unknown assailant. “You get access to really genuine, if melodramatic, adolescent traumas that you explore through this postmodern Nancy Drew character who is really sassy and spiky and doesn’t let anything keep her down,” Graham says. “But she has genuine vulnerability and genuine feelings. She’s a character I’ve never seen on TV before.” 

Tan Line picks up shortly after the movie ends. After college and law school, Veronica is back in Neptune, having returned to her life as a private investigator to solve a case clearing the name of her high school boyfriend. Spring break is under way, bringing thousands of college students, drugs, alcohol, and tourist dollars to town. When a young woman disappears from a party, Veronica is hired by the chamber of commerce to find her and restore Neptune’s reputation as a safe destination. 

The opportunity to write the book came through Graham’s editor at the publishing company that produced the Mars novels. Graham had done previous ghostwriting work on young adult thrillers, and her editor—“a crazy Veronica Mars fan”—knew of Graham’s own affinity for the series and offered her the job.

Unlike the prior ghostwriting, Tan Line is a true collaboration between Thomas and Graham. The two met, along with a few other contributors, to “break the story”—a television term for mapping out the plot—in a series of intense five-hour meetings. Graham then took the outline of the mystery and hung suspense, introspection, “feelings, and sass” on that scaffolding. 

But while Graham worked from the outline, that didn’t mean the job was easy. She wrote and revised the manuscript in a breakneck four months. And writing a book for fans who were deeply invested in the characters and had strong expectations for the story presented its own set of challenges. 

Graham describes them as primarily young women, many of them self-identified feminists, whose devotion is similar to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, “or maybe Trekkies, in a different way.”

Through Twitter, the fans—known as “Marshmallows,” after a line in the first episode—voiced their preferences for the second book, such as more page time for Veronica’s love interest.

“Fandom allows people to engage with their media in a way they never used to, and Twitter gives them such access to creators,” Graham says, diplomatically.

While she had to research Southern California geography, guns, and private investigation, Graham could draw on her longstanding interest in true crime to imagine some of the grittier details. She grew up in Anchorage, which she describes as having “a severe seedy underbelly” and outlaw culture that made her curious about trauma, recovery, and the roots of violence.

Graham found Reed as she sifted through the pile of college brochures that arrived after she took the SAT. Reed’s materials included haiku from Nitrogen Day and trading cards of the campus dogs, and they were “just bonkers” enough to convince her to visit. An English major, she opted to write a critical rather than a creative thesis, but other programs like Reed Arts Weekend and the Kaspar T. Locher Summer Creative Scholarship helped her focus on developing her voice.

The Locher scholarship “was a big life changer for me,” she says. She stayed in Portland that summer and finished four complete stories, the first serious fiction she’d written. “It was the first time I understood what it meant to live that life, and the kind of sacrifices you make, and also the boundaries you have to put up. I understood so much more about how to put a story together, and about my voice, after that.”

After Reed, she earned her MFA at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers in Austin and has had two stories published in literary magazines. What Graham calls her “own work” is on hold. Two hundred pages of her novel, a literary mystery, disappeared in a computer crash a couple of years ago. “I don’t know what my own work will look like, but I have faith that it’s still there,” she says. For now, “I’m so lucky to have been paid to make things up for a franchise that I like with people who support me.” Among legions of Marshmallows, the feeling appears mutual.