Author, TV writer, and playwright Ellen Byron reveals her distant connection to the mob!
‘Writers write what they know.’ That’s the adage and it’s true. We pull from our real lives and mix our experiences with imagination and creativity and create something that is both grounded in reality and imaginary at the same time.
Ellen Byron is doing just that with her new Catering Hall mystery series, set in Astoria, Queens, a place she is very familiar with. On this episode, Ellen reads from book 1 in that series, Here Comes the Body, and in the interview shares with us the fascinating story of one of her grandfather’s possible connections to the actual mob. (Yes, really!)
It was a delight to talk to Ellen about this new series. If you’d like to know more about Ellen’s writing, you can also find our conversation about her Cajun Country mysteries in episode 61 of It’s a Mystery podcast.
You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.
This Week’s Mystery Author
Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won an Agatha award and multiple Leftys for Best Humorous Mystery.
Her new series, the Catering Hall Mysteries, written as Maria DiRico, was inspired by her real life. She’s an award-winning playwright and non-award-winning TV writer of comedies like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly Odd Parents. But she considers her most impressive credit working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart.
You can learn more about Ellen and all her books, including the Catering Hall series, at EllenByron.com
Here Comes the Body by Maria DiRico (Ellen Byron)
After her philandering husband’s boat went down, newly single Mia Carina went back to Astoria, the bustling Queens neighborhood of her youth. Living with her nonna and her oversized cat, Doorstop, she’s got a whole new life—including some amateur sleuthing . . .
Mia is starting work at Belle View, her father’s catering hall, a popular spot for weddings, office parties, and more—despite the planes that occasionally roar overhead on their way to LaGuardia and rattle the crystal chandelier. Soon she’s planning a bachelor party for a less-than-gentlemanly groom. But it goes awry when the gigantic cake is wheeled in and a deadly surprise is revealed . . .
Since some of her family’s associates are on the shady side, the NYPD wastes no time in casting suspicion on Mia’s father. Now, Mia’s going to have to use all her street smarts to keep him out of Rikers Island . . .
Italian recipes included!
Interview with Ellen Byron / Maria DiRico
Alexandra: Thank you so much, Ellen, that was fantastic. My goodness. You’re such a good reader.
Is that part of your TV background, do you think?
Ellen: Well, you know, I started as an actress. I did improv for years but that career didn’t last very long.
I kind of fell into writing. I wrote plays. And then I quickly segued.
I did comedy improv and I was writing and as I wrote plays and friends that freelance magazine articles. And I actually did it for about 10 years until I did TV and then I didn’t have the time anymore to do the improv on the side.
Alexandra: Today, as we’re recording this at the end of February, you released an article about Here Comes the Body and mentioned that you’re kind of going back to your roots, that you grew up in Queens and are familiar with that neighborhood. I could really feel the flavor of the place as you were reading. So the neighborhood where Elisabetta lives and and then and even the event venue close to the airport.
Has it been fun for you to write about Queens?
Ellen: Oh, it’s it’s so much fun because I’m reliving it.
I moved out to California in 1990 to pursue my TV career. And I always miss that aspect of my life. Where Mia lives is where my Nonna lives.
My Nonna lived downstairs and my aunt and uncle and their kids lived upstairs. So I literally, as I’m writing in my head it’s my Nonna’s apartment and she is upstairs where my cousins lived, although the furniture is different.
When she walks from the subway to her house, it’s the path I walked to visit my Nonna. Where she works is one of the venues that our cousins by marriage managed. It was the Grand Bay Marina. And it’s now called something different. Jer and I had our New York reception because Cousin Polly still ran it then.
The bakery, I actually use the real name of the bakery that we that we frequented, which is called LA Gooley. It is still there. And it’s been there since 1933.
It’s very personal to me, but it’s it’s so much fun to write it and have this affectionate look at my how I grew up here.
We moved when I was 10. We moved to a suburb called Scarsdale. But the rest of the family, a lot of cousins and stuff moved out to the island or out to Jersey, but Nonna lived in Astoria till she died. And Ziti Rose and Uncle Henry lived there for years after.
Alexandra: I happen to be writing about a neighborhood I lived in in Vancouver for 23 years and I totally agree. It’s such a treat to use real places and fold them into the story
So we got the sense there a little bit from that chapter that Mia’s dad has skirted on the edges of the law, shall we say.
Was it fun to write about a character like that who’s maybe crossing the line sometimes?
Ellen: Well you know he did time in jail.
I keep it vague. I did a lot of reading. This is a very interesting fact about my life, that my grandfather, not on the Italian side, on the Jewish side, disappeared in 1933.
He was low level mob. And he he actually was in jail.
He did time in jail for embezzlement. And I found a cousin who told me that he appeared at his door once and basically was trying to like shaken down a little with a couple of his associates, quote unquote, and then he disappeared.
In my whole life, we wonder what happened to him. And I only recently found out from my mother that my grandmother, when she went to look for him and he was up in Boston at the time, they were from New York. He grew up in Brooklyn. And some of my research has shown that there is an area in Brooklyn of Brownsville, which was where the Jewish mob, where the mob kind of was born.
He lived only blocks from that and blocks from this candy store that served as a front and a recruitment for some kids.
I read a Meyer Lansky biography that said in the late 20s and early 30s, he was spend time in Boston setting up a crew there. And I thought to myself, how many Jewish mobsters would there have been in Boston at the time?
So I really have come to believe that my grandfather was either trying to be part of that or was part of it. And then I found out from my mother that when my grandmother went to work for him because he never came back home. So I called associates. My mother said, “What associates?”
They were gangsters. They told her she’d be lucky he if he wasn’t at the bottom of the river. So I’m guessing that’s where he ended up.
I did Ancestry to see if maybe he disappeared and started a second family. Supposedly money from the family business, which was import export of food from Italy and from Greece and stuff. It disappeared with him. They were never able to track him down and no unknown relatives came up.
So in a way, even though I’m writing about Italian mob connections, of which not in my immediate family, but they were always tense.
In fact, one of the cousins I remember, we were at a family event. They had moved to Englewood Cliffs, of Tony Soprano, and one of the cousins who who was managing the story.
At the time, my dad was having business problems. And Brown said to my dad, look, if you need help, I got a guy for you. And it was literally like I got his name is like Joey six figures Bacigalupi and he can take care of your problems.
It was like it was straight. I remember I was so vivid because it was like, Oh, my God. I mean, we’ve heard these rumors, but, you know.
My dad thought about it and said, thanks, I really appreciate the offer. But, I think I’ll pass for now. So, growing up with this haunted by my grandfather’s past, I imagine myself as as Mia.
My dad had a father who was a mobster, low level, but still.
Alexandra: Incredible. Was it those family connections that motivated you to start this new series? Because when we last spoke, we talked about the Cajun Country mysteries.
Was it the family connections that motivated you?
Ellen: I think what motivated me was I have cousins who ran a catering hall and what a great setting for a cozy mystery series. If it hasn’t been done.
So I went to my go-to Web site, cozy-mystery.com, where Donna has done the most brilliant job of keeping track of mysteries and to see if anyone there already done that. And I did not find that.
I was a little nervous because it’s an urban setting. And really there were very few except for Cleo Coyle, but her series, they’re terrifically successful.
And in some of the reviews, like Dru’s Musings and then Carstairs considers and when Mark Baker really talked about how it even though it’s set in an urban setting, it really ticks all the boxes of a cozy series, which is why I went for it. But I’ll tell you a funny story.
At one point during the draft before my terrific agent, Doug sent this out I described Astoria as charming. And Doug wrote back and said, I lived in Astoria and there’s nothing charming about it.
Now, of course, it’s gentrified, but it’s a very New York working class area. It does have its own kind of broad charm in that way, New York neighborhoods. And it was it’s very much a neighborhood. So in a sort of creating that sense of place even without the word charming you get to feel that this is an enclave. In the way a cozy neighborhood is.
And people say, now I want to go to a LaGuli and buy cannoli. And I’m like, so do I?
Alexandra: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, that within large urban centers, neighborhoods are like little villages unto themselves.
I used to live in a neighborhood in Vancouver and I walked everywhere. I didn’t have a car. And there was everything. There was a library, there was a wine store, there was a grocery store, there was a bakery. Restaurants, everything. That was the little village.
Ellen: That’s one thing I’ve always desperately missed about New York. I lived in the Upper West Side and I had more of a sense of community there than than anyplace. I lived there for years. And even I go back now, I haven’t lived there in 30 years.
And I go into Zamboni’s a block from my old apartment and it’s like the same guy was helping me. And, people go, hey, like, I just like they saw me yesterday, and and I really think you can create that sense of place anywhere.
You could probably sort of cozy mystery in a minimum security prison. Orange is the New Black. It’s hardly a cozy. They probably wouldn’t like it if they heard me describe it that way.
Alexandra: Before we started recording, just as we wind up here, you mentioned you’re working on the next book.
So you’ve already got that next book on the go.
Ellen: Yes. And right now, I hope the title lives. It’s called Long Island Iced Tina.
Alexandra: I love that.
Ellen: It’s so much fun to write. I love writing both series and back when I was writing plays, which I haven’t done in far too long, my then playwriting agent said to me once, she said, you have two voices. You have a TV voice and you have a theatre voice.
I think the Cajun Country mysteries, I wrote them because writing prose allowed me to describe the setting and the beauty of what I loved about Cajun country in Louisiana.
I could really get into that. And a lot of my plays took place there. And then I wrote a play called So When You Get Married, which was inspired by asking my grandmother to give me the money she’d saved for my wedding dowry as a down payment, as key money to get an apartment in New York.
Breaking the news to her that her oldest grandchild was getting an apartment and not a husband. And so I write more in my TV voice, I think, this series.
Alexandra: Isn’t that interesting? Does it feel different as you’re doing it? Or do you notice that after?
Ellen: It feels different. It’s a little less poetic, a little more joke driven in its own way.
The Cajun Country mysteries have tons of humor. But I think it’s a drier, more subtle humor. In this series, the characters are a little more out there, like in Long Island Iced Tina there’s a family, a very wealthy family on Long Island. And they’re just crazy.
They’re just that kind of like kind of like WASPy, under the surface crazy. It’s like on character says, oh, you’ll have to forgive Spalding, he’s deaf like this after he drinks. And the other character is like, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning.
Alexandra: We’ll look forward to the next one. We should say that Here Comes the Body was released last week. So people can find that at all the different online retailers.
Ellen: And book brick and mortar stores. And it’s available in paperback and e-book, Audible.
Alexandra: You would be amazing reading the audiobook. But you didn’t do that.
Ellen: No. I’m sure they found someone who’s who does a good job. You know, who’d be perfect for it would be Leah Remini. Someone should say, actually, if they haven’t done audible, they should see about getting her to do it.
Alexandra: Wouldn’t that be great? That’d be awesome. I love her.
This has been fantastic. Ellen, thanks for chatting with me again.
Why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about you and your books?
I have a Facebook Ellen Byron Author.
Oh, and sign up for my newsletter at either website.
Alexandra: OK, great. Thank you so much. We’ll put links in the show notes to all of that.
Ellen: Thanks to you.
Alexandra: Oh, it’s been great chatting with you, Ellen. Take care.
Ellen: You, too. Bye.