Just in time for Christmas, award-winning author Ellen Byron visits with A Cajun Christmas Killing.
And writing mysteries isn’t all that Ellen is up to. She writes for television as well, and has a blog post up today at Chicks on the Case, about working with Martha Stewart.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Ellen’s newsletter sign-up
- Louisiana links on Ellen’s site
- Ellen’s post at Chicks on the Case about what it’s like working for Martha Stewart (!)
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Ellen Byron
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor, this is It’s A Mystery podcast and I’m here today with Ellen Byron. Hi, Ellen.
Alexandra: How are you today?
Ellen: I’m great. Thank you.
Alexandra: Good. Good. You’re not in a turkey coma yet?
Ellen: No. No. Actually, I’m starting to really kind of go like, “Okay, I’ve had enough turkey.” But, you know, I’m still kind of…still into it.
Alexandra: Excellent. And you were telling me about pastalaya just a minute ago which is jumbalaya, but with pasta.
Ellen: But made with pasta.
Ellen: It’s actually, I cheated and used a Zatarain’s mix. But I’m very proud of myself because I created, I’ll call it, cauliflower-alaya because I made jumbalaya and instead of using rice or pasta I used riced cauliflower and that actually came out great. So I actually gotta put a recipe together for that.
Alexandra: Oh, nice. Okay. And I’m going to ask you about your recipes that are in your books in just a second. So let me introduce you to our listeners.
“Body on the Bayou” won the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. “Plantation Shutters” which is the first book in the series was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne Awards and made the U.S.A. Today best seller list.
Ellen has written over 200 national magazine articles, she’s published plays including the award winning “Graceland” and her TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly Oddparents, and Pilots.
Ellen is a native New Yorker and she now lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled rescue dogs. So, welcome, Ellen. Let’s talk about “The Cajun Country Mysteries”.
Introduce us to Maggie Crozat, I’d like to hear more about her.
Ellen: Well, Maggie, she’s 32, she’s an artist, and she went to school in New York, she went to college art school in New York and then she was there for years and she had a relationship that didn’t work out so she’s come back home to Pelican, Louisiana where the town motto is, “Yes, we peli-can.”
And she’s trying to get her footing again. She always kind of felt like a bit of a fish out of water. But her parents own a plantation that they turned into a B&B and she also works a day job at one.
All the while she’s trying to get her art career going again. So she’s using some of her talent to make souvenirs that they’re selling at some of the plantations but then she’s also doing her own, finding her own voice now that she’s moved back to Louisiana.
Alexandra: Finding her own voice artistically or in other ways, as well?
Alexandra: Oh, okay. Yes.
Alexandra: I love that her actual name is Magnolia.
Ellen: Yes. Well, it’s funny because a friend had a daughter, a young daughter named Maggie and he said…and I thought, assumed it was short for Margaret and he said, “No. It’s short for Magnolia.” I went, “Oh, it’s another Magnolia.”
Ellen: So, you know, just coincidence.
Alexandra: Yes. Lovely. Now you have to explain to me why you’ve written books set in Louisiana.
You’re a native New Yorker, and as we mentioned, you’re living in Los Angeles. So why Louisiana?
Ellen: I went to college there, I went to Tulane University and I just completely fell in love with the area, my parents would come to visit sometimes, and we just would…you know, they’d rent a car and we’d go tootling around the small towns and the bayous I just became kind of obsessed with it.
And it’s really one of the few places in America where it’s a very strong culture within a culture. The culture was kind of they were trying to get rid of it, like, in the 30’s and stuff and then in the past trying to assimilate and homogenize and then a group came out started to fight to preserve it.
And then I think they’ve done a very good job. You know, people are very proud of being Cajun or Creole in South Louisiana. I really don’t know much North of I-10 I’m kind of a…a little sketchy on. But I’ve really just gone to as many places South of I-10 as I can on my own or with my husband or my parents and I just love it.
Alexandra: And Pelican is a fictional town. Yes?
Ellen: Yes. It was inspired, it’s kind of an amalgamation of many real towns of St. Martinville or Breaux Bridge. I call it a Cajun Brigadoon because I want it to have that magical feeling.
But, the plantations are all inspired by real places. In fact, the general inspiration for the series idea of a plantation turned B&B was my husband and I in the late 90’s went down, we were in Louisiana, traveling and just exploring the little towns and bayous.
And we spent a night at a plantation called Madewood and it was no host, they left us a lovely letter and there were workers there to take care of us and feed us. But it was like a dozen strangers. So and I’m like, “Wow, does this feel like, ‘And then there were none…’.” So, it really…and it stayed with me and I, you know, was very busy raising, you know, raising our kid and working in television and then there came a period when things were, you know, I had a break, and I used that to start writing this series.
Alexandra: Oh, nice.
Alexandra: And so are Maggie’s parents…they’re running the B&B and she’s come back to help them out.
Alexandra: Is it struggling a little bit? I got that impression.
Ellen: Yes. Because it costs a lot to maintain those plantations and some of them that are in private hands are in wealthy private hands and they’re doing okay.
I’m not gonna name it, but I was at a plantation a couple of times about four or five times in the last couple of years and drove up River Road past one that had been just beautiful years ago and now is in disrepair because the son inherited it from the parents and it’s just really kind of, you know…I feel, it makes me sad. You know?
I guess he just doesn’t have the finances to keep it up. So a lot of them now are quite…or, you know, in foundations. A few are owned by the State but not that many. In fact, originally, in Plantation Shudders, Dusette which was in Maggie’s mother’s family and was donated to the State and run by the State. And then recently I put it in private, non-profit hands. So changed it up a little bit.
Alexandra: Oh, okay. Cool. And speaking of Maggie’s parents, so there seems to be another family in town, the Durand family, and it seems to be a bit of a Montague and Capulate situation going on.
Why don’t you tell us a bit about that?
Ellen: Oh, yes. Yes. Absolutely. Well, in Plantation Shudders and in Body on the Bayou, the first tow books in the series, the police chief is named Rufus Durand and the Durand is a family that’s been around almost as long as Maggie’s or as long as Maggie’s.
Way back in the mid-1800’s one of their descendants, like, was cheating…was supposed to marry one of her descendants and cheated on her and she gave him the heave-ho. The legend has it that she cursed the family’s relationships. So Rufus really has an issue with the Crozaks and then his cousin comes to town, Bo Durand, who’s your classic tall, dark, and handsome.
And he and Maggie at first are like this and then they hit it off. But they’re keeping it all on the down low because Rufus is the police chief, has a lot of power, and she doesn’t want him making life miserable for her family. Now, as the series progresses Rufus is on leave because he got into a fight with the mayor over a parking space. So, yeah, he’s a character.
And then in the third book their relationship kind of changes because I really think it’s important to evolve the characters and their relationships and not always have it be the same.
So, or not have the villain always be the villain, to show other sides because he has a relationship break up and he blames Maggie for that but then there’s a child as a result of the relationship and when he meets his infant daughter he realizes…he has kind of an epiphany. So, yeah. So, and it’s fun, it’s fun to play with that relationship.
Alexandra: Yes. And so, tell us a little bit about the most recent book, A Cajun Christmas Killing.
It’s set around Christmas, which will be perfect for our listeners who will be hearing this at the beginning of December.
Ellen: Oh, perfect.
Ellen: Yes. And that is inspired, it revolves around an actual Louisiana tradition called Bonfires on the Levi.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Bonfires on the levi and what happens is Christmas Eve, if the weather holds, these giant bonfires are built and then lit at 7:00 PM on Christmas Eve along the Mississippi River in several parishes that are just about 45 minutes to an hour North of New Orleans. And I just, it’s such a unique specific to this area and the legend has it that they were supposed to guide the way for Papa Noel to reach the Cajun children.
And I thought, “Oh, that’s so perfect for a Christmas mystery.” But I really wanted to experience it for myself so in 2015 I brought my husband and my daughter…I have, you know, friends in the area. I have a lot of friends in Louisiana and I actually ended up winning a contest for the Visit New Orleans Plantation Country website and Facebook page so I got, we got to go to a private party that was right across the street from bonfires and had some of the best Cajun food I’ve ever had in my life.
It was all home made by this fantastic family of older siblings. It was touch and go because the weather wasn’t good that day so there was a possibility they were going to have to postpone it to New Year’s Eve when we wouldn’t be there, so I was in a panic because I really wanted to experience it for myself. And write that into the book.
Lckily, even though it was drizzling it did go but I wrote that all into the book. So it’s like it’s drizzling and then all of a sudden these bonfires that are, like, 20 feet tall burst into flame and a lot of them are covered with firecrackers.
So there are firecrackers going off and soot and smoke and then there are fireworks in the river, going off in the river. And I was just, like, completely coated with rain and soot and I wanted to go to midnight mass but we had to go home and I had to take a shower first. Completely just black with soot.
Alexandra: Yes. Yeah.
Ellen: But I wrote all of that into the book and the pivotal scene at the end when, you know, Maggie is confronting a murder, it takes place in while the bonfires are going on and they’re being…you know, it’s a chase scene through the smoke and the rain and the firecrackers. So and that was so much fun to write.
Alexandra: Oh, amazing. Yeah. It must be just such a visual extravaganza kind of writing that scene out.
Alexandra: It must have been delightful. Wow. Amazing.
We touched on the fact that you wrote for television, how do you think your television writing affects your writing a novel?
Ellen: Well, I think because when you’re writing for TV every scene has to end with a bit of an, “Uh oh,” even if it’s a comedy because you’ve gotta bring people back from a commercial. So there has to be something to come…you know, they have to…your goal is to make them stick around for a whole episode.
So I think that’s ingrained in me and I think the way I write is that each scene there’s a little bit of an “uh oh” so, you know, people wanna keep going. And, also, you know, humor. Bringing humor to finding the answers wherever I can.
Without getting too jokey because it’s like the difference between a multi-camera sitcom like a Big Bang Theory and a single camera sitcom like Veep. Or, well, Veep was hard because they have a lot of very hard jokes but, like, you know the rule for, at least multi-camera is three jokes a page. And even sometimes more.
Will and Grace probably has every line as a joke and and it comes from character but, yes, but also if it’s single camera where it’s more character based and the world is a little wider.
It’s not the shot on a set, you really have to come from character. So I think that’s been because of my TV experience, it’s ingrained in me to find that humor that way. But I also was a playwright, although I haven’t done it in a long time. I try to bring that to my writing. And, so, for that it’s like creating a sense of place.
That’s why I write in third person, because I feel like I can create a sense of place better than I could in first person. It can be more poetic as it were.
Alexandra: I imagine that television writing is a bit more collaborative, too.
Ellen: Oh, oh, absolutely. Drama and comedy and single camera, it’s all very different. There’s single camera comedy and multi-camera comedy. The procedure is very much the same except in multi-camera comedy you have run throughs, so you have a table read which you have in every show and, but, like by the next day you’re going to a run through and then there’s a network run through and a studio run through.
And you’re getting notes and after the run through you’re just constantly writing and even when the show is shooting that night in front of a live audience, if a joke doesn’t work you’re going off and huddling as a group.
You break a story and luckily, some shows are gang-written so they’re written in the room like a lot of Chuck Lorre’s shows like Big Bang Theory and Mom and those shows where everyone is collaboratively writing and we did that on Fairly Oddparents.
And then other shows, you get sent off and you write a script but then you come back and it’s collaborative to rewrite it and to break the story. And that’s true in drama, too. It’s like it’s collaborative to break the story but then when usually you go off and write a script and usually there’s not a room pass, there’s more a show pass on it.
Then of course in single camera comedies you don’t have the run…you know, you might have an initial run through but after that, they’re shooting right away. And it’s on a very short schedule. So you might be able to set too many corrections but you’re also not getting the feedback from an audience that might make you change a joke. But, again, it may be a little more character than joke driven, a lot of the single cameras. But not all of them.
Alexandra: Between playwrighting, novel writing, and writing for television do you have a favorite?
Ellen: You know what? I love that I get to do it all because I get to scratch a lot of itches. When I feel like I need some live writing then it’s great for TV. When I feel like I need to be a little more poetic then I and then I go to my novel writing. I haven’t written plays in a while but every so often I get, you know, that itch to scratch and I might do a short one in the next few years. But, like, right now I’m just really loving the combination of television and mystery writing.
Alexandra: You still are writing for TV at the moment?
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Ellen: I’m on a hiatus right now but, yes, I am absolutely still writing for TV.
Alexandra: And so you write the Cajun mysteries in your spare time then?
Ellen: A lot of writing on, you know…I mean, a lot of writing at night, a lot of writing on the weekends. We’ve got a teenager now and she is kind of doing her own thing.
Ellen: So it would have been much harder when she was younger, I don’t know if I could have pulled it off.
Because, well…but my husband, who’s now…he says that he sees me more these days but he talks to me less because I’m always writing.
Alexandra: Right. Yes. I don’t know, is that a blessing or a curse?
Ellen: Is that a blessing or a curse, honey?
Husband: Oh, it works both ways.
Ellen: Works both ways, he says.
Alexandra: Okay. And so we mentioned that the latest book has a Christmas theme and it came out in October so it’s available right now.
Ellen: Yes, yes. It’s a great present, everyone.
Alexandra: It’s a great present. Exactly.
What’s next for Maggie?
Ellen: Well, I have a four book deal and I’m hoping to get more but the fourth one is gonna be called “Mardi Gras Murder”.
Ellen: And it’s going to involve, again, I try to really pull from some of the real traditions in the area that people may not know about and I think people like that because it’s not just the expected…I mean, of course, there’s Mardi Gras break because there has to be but it really revolves around a Cajun, the Cajun tradition called Courir de Mardi Gras and is adjacent to Mardi Gras.
But that’s not how they, they would not say completely French which is Mardi Gras Run. And where it is is people dress up in these, like, wild costumes and their faces are hidden and they wear these hats that look like dunce caps and they have these masks and they go from home to home begging the ingredients for a communal gumbo.
And sometimes they still make the communal gumbo with those ingredients and sometimes it’s premade. You know, and then there’s a dance later on in the day. But some of them are these groups are sometimes on horseback and sometimes there are flatbed trucks that they’re…you know, they can jump on and off.
And, so, Pelican is having that…that’s, you know, that’s their Mardi Gras so and then…so she gets involved with that and it’s really fun.
Alexandra: Do you have a rough date for when we could expect that?
Ellen: You know what? I actually don’t know the publication date, but it’ll definitely be sometime in 2018. Probably Fall.
My books have been coming out, I’m doing one a year. If I had more time I might increase it if they give me more books but right now, I really spend a lot of time on each book and really go through many drafts and really want to get it right. Maybe in the future I can increase my output but right now that’s what that’s kind of like. Hey, if Louise Penny can get away with one a year…
Alexandra: That’s right. Yes. Exactly.
And there are recipes in the most recent one, are there recipes in all of the books?
Ellen: Yes. And that came about because when I was writing the first book I was describing the Cajun food because it’s a bed and breakfast and they also, this place, they also served food, breakfast, you know even a lunch if someone wants it and often dinner.
I was really making myself hungry because I love jambalaya and I love Cajun food. So I thought, “Well, if I’m making myself hungry I’m probably going to make the readers hungry.” So I thought, “Well, I guess I’m going to put some recipes in.” And it’s funny because I’m really not a natural cook.
I mean, I’ve always loved to bake and stuff and…but just cooking is harder for me so the recipes are sometimes the hardest part because I have to do my own take on something. You can’t just lift it from an Emeril cook book, much as I’d like to.
Ellen: But, you know, or a Paul Prudhomme cook book. But what I can do is I can take a jambalaya and play with it. Jambalaya which is in the Body in the Bayou book, the recipe there I’m super proud of because I made Cajun jambalaya recipe versus Creole. And Creole is made with tomatoes.
Cajun jambalaya’s not, it’s a brown jambalaya and I really worked hard to get the right mix of spices and flavors and it came out…I was very proud of that one. You know, but there are a lot of sweet recipes, too. You know. But I always give my own twist.
Alexandra: Baking recipes, as well, in the books?
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Ellen: Yeah. Like, I actually, in “A Cajun Christmas Killing” I’m very excited because I came up with a sugar cookie recipe but I wanted it too be, like, specific to the…so I, it’s a spicy Cajun sugar cookie and it’s got a hint of cayenne pepper in it.
And it’s not too spicy at all because I don’t like…I actually don’t like spicy and, actually, that’s a misnomer about Cajun food, that it’s supposed to be spicy. And good Cajun cooks will say, “No, no, no, no. It’s supposed to be flavorful.”
And, actually, in some jambalaya or gumbo contests if it’s too spicy those contestants will be disqualified. So, you know, they prefer that you spice it up yourself. My guess is it kind of started with the black and red fish. But, I mean, a lot of it will have an…absolutely have a kick to it and they love tabasco sauce, you know. I’d prefer to let people do that but these cookies have a little, teeny kick to it so it’s fun.
Alexandra: Oh, nice. That’s great. And so just one more question before we go.
One of your reviewers mentioned that they really loved Maggie’s grandma. Tell us a little bit about her.
Ellen: When I wrote Plantation Shudders I gave Maggie a friend, I gave her a friend who was inspired by someone in real life who’s a good friend of mine and we met when she was working as a guide at a plantation and we just hit it off and we’ve been friends ever since.
And I tell a little…I actually, each of my books have what I call a lagniappe chapter and that’s a Cajun…that’s a New Orleans, Louisiana term that means a little something extra. And in that chapter I tell about the real people and places that inspired the fictional ones.
It’s a little back story, a little history, and a little bit of a travel guide. I figured Maggie needed a friend and an ear, of course, just stayed in all the books. But GrandMere became, like, this really fun character to write and she has a little bit…she has an edge to her and she’s a very elegant, you know, landed lady but she also has got a great sense of humor and, you know, she’s a little mischievous, she gets into trouble now and then.
And “A Cajun Christmas Killing”, no, in “Mardi Gras Murder” she gets into some trouble. But in Body in the Bayou she does, you know, and she’s really been fun and now she has a boyfriend.
I love her relationship and so she’s kind of become Maggie’s ear and she can be a little bit of a bad girl and encourage Maggie a little, “Yeah, go ahead and, you know, break the rules.” Even though she’s, like, a town doyenne and she owns it and she…you know, she plays that card sometimes. But she knows she’s doing it.
Ellen: Well, I love writing her. She’s really fun.
Alexandra: She sounds like she would be a fun character to write.
Ellen: She’s got a little bit of Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey, there’s a little, teeny bit there but she’s not a, like, “What’s a weekend?”
Alexandra: Yeah. Right.
Ellen: She’s much more with it, much more of the world.
Alexandra: Good. Oh, that’s great. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for this, Ellen. It’s been great.
Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books.
Ellen: I have a website, ellenbyron.com. And you can find everything you need to know there and I also have an author page on Facebook, ellenbyronauthor. And then I have an ellenbyronla is my Twitter handle although I’m not so much on Twitter. I’m on Facebook a lot, I really like Facebook. And you can contact me through my website and it has information about all the books. And, oh, I also have a newsletter. A Cajun Country Mystery’s Newsletter and I love…you know, that’s something that’s become really fun for me to do because it’s not just about my books and, you know…
I also have a section I call “Your Louisiana Library” which talks about other books about the area. I’ll put recipes in there, I’ll put little travel, you know, places to go in the area, and I have contests. So you can sign up for that on the home page of my newsletter…of my website.
Alexandra: Great. And, so, what I’ll do is I’ll put a link to that in the show notes at itsamysterypodcast.com so people can find it. And on your website you also have a page cal;ed “Louisiana Links”.
Ellen: Yes. Yes.
Alexandra: Yeah. So I’ll link to that, as well.
Ellen: Great. And, yeah, that’s wonderful. Thank you.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Well, this has been a real treat and, yeah, we’ll broadcast on Monday, December 4th, 2017.
Ellen: Perfect. Perfect. Thank you, looking forward to it.
Alexandra: And, oh, and I also wanna put a link in, too…is it okay for me to say that you’ve got a blog post coming out that same day?
Ellen: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. That’s on Chicks on the Case.
Alexandra: Chicks on the Case.
Ellen: I do a multi-author blog called…I run a multi-author blog called Chicks on the Case with some wonderful writers. Marla Cooper, Kelly Garrett, Vicki Fee, Lisa Q. Mathews, and Cynthia Kuhn. And we all have a…we all blog together and they’re fun. They’re really fun, kind of, like, light, you know, goofy posts.
Alexandra: Oh, cool. Okay. So I’ll…
Ellen: Absolutely. Not all of them are goofy but some of them are just, you know…or [inaudible 00:25:21] a light touch.
Alexandra: Okay. Good. So I will link to that, as well. Well, thanks again, Ellen. This has been awesome.
Ellen: Thank you.
Alexandra: Take care. Bye bye.
Ellen: You, too. Bye.