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'Downton Abbey' writer Julian Fellowes carries on without Matthew

When last we left Downton Abbey, the miracle of birth met with the tragedy of death. Poor Matthew Crawley met his end in a ditch — because actor Dan Stevens decided to move on. What would become of Lady Mary, new mother and widow? What would become of the rest of the lords and ladies, and those who attend them?

When last we found Julian Fellowes, the series' creator and sole writer, he was in Manhattan promoting Season 4, which premieres on PBS' "Masterpiece" on Sunday. Having just heard the good news about the show's Golden Globe nod for dramatic series, as well as Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for Maggie Smith and the ensemble, he was about to head out for a celebratory drink with members of the cast, including Stevens, who now lives in New York. "Dan's done a lot of movies since he left us, so I can't pretend it's been a bad decision for him," Fellowes says. "In the end, you've got to stop crying and get on with it, really."

You could say that about the fans too.

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I'm always very touched by how emotionally involved they get in the whole thing. I find it quite moving, actually. This woman grabbed me in California and she said, "Please make Edith happy!" There were tears in her eyes. I said, "Well, I'll do my best." It is rather extraordinary that these people you've made up in your head become so important to their supporters.

And garner so many nominations.

And I love the ensemble nomination. They really are all such wonderfully interlocking performances, and all of them are kind of equal weight. So it seems to me a really nice award for them to be up for.

How do you keep track of all these interlocking relationships when you're writing?

When I do each episode, I just write it, but then I check it for characters, so that I can see they are appearing regularly through the show. They don't all have a big plot every week, obviously, because there's more than 20 of them. So, basically, they have a sort of reasonable plot about once every three episodes, and then they figure in other people's plots for the other ones, and that seems to keep the balance going. But I do check, literally, mechanically, with the page count, that we haven't had too long a gap for Mrs. Patmore or too long a gap for Edith, whatever it is. That's how I check it. It's just me and my trusty computer, and my wife saying, "This bit's incredibly boring. Please rewrite it." She's the first person to read the script, always, and I always do her notes before anyone else gets it.

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What can you tell us about Season 4?

I can tell you that because Dan decided to leave at the end of 3 and not die in 4, it meant we could have a time jump, so we come in six months after his death, to a kind of a disagreement in the family. Some of them think it's time Mary got her finger out and get on with it. Others feel, "Oh, no, she's got to do it in her own time." So we do see Mary's return to the land of the living. She doesn't gallop off and get married in Episode 2. Her mourning goes on for a long time, but she does rejoin the human race during the show. That is one of the themes of the fourth season.

Is that how you start out when you write a season? Here are my themes, here's how I'll arc them out?

There are smaller plots that come in as you're writing it, but the whole thing, where are they going to be at the end of Episode 8, you do sort of have that. I say that as if I was in the least organized, which, of course, I'm not. I do have vague ideas and then sometimes you're doing something and it's much better, so you switch it. I think you've got to have a vague handrail or else you're just wobbling along the side of the cliff and you have nothing to hold on to at all.

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