I'm pleased to welcome Ellen Byron to Cozy Up With Kathy today. Ellen writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. Plantation Shudders is the first book in the series.
Kathy: In Plantation Shudders Maggie Crozat returns home to her family’s plantation-turned-bed-and-breakfast. Is the B&B based on one you've visited, or is it purely derived from your imagination?
EB: It was inspired by a night my husband and I spent at Madewood Plantation on Bayou Lafourche in Napoleonville, Louisiana, in 1998. It was such an interesting experience that it stayed with me all these years. Although in my mind, Crozat Plantation looks like Ashland-Belle Helene, whose architecture I fell in love with in the mid-1980s. Ashland-Belle Helene is also where I met my friend Gaynell Bourgeois Moore, the tour guide who inspired the Gaynell in my book.
Kathy: The B&B is full due to a local food festival. I love food festivals! Do you have favorite food festivals that you attend?
EB: I love New Orlean’s JazzFest. It’s the most phenomenal festival ever. Its full title is actually the Jazz and Heritage Festival, so in addition to stage after stage of musical acts, there are crafts and food. It’s where I first met a voodoo priestess who took credit cards (hence the character Helene Brevelle in my book, whom we don’t meet but we hear about) and where I ate the legendary pasta dish, Crawfish Monica. This dish inspired Ninette’s Crawfish Crozat, but my recipe is completely different. I put a spin on it that’s a bit more healthy because I’m always on a diet!
Kathy: Many years ago I spent a wonderful vacation in Louisiana and would love to return. Why choose Louisiana as your setting and what makes it the perfect location for your series?
EB: I fell in love with Louisiana as a student at Tulane University, and became fascinated by the Cajun culture. I first used it as the background for a character in my one-act play, Graceland. When I was musing about an interesting locale for a series, I was once again drawn to Cajun Country. I feel such a strong connection to it – even though I’m a New Yorker who now lives in Los Angeles. But my dream is to someday live at least one month a year in south Louisiana, and just meander all over the area.
Kathy: What first drew you to cozy mysteries?
EB: I spent the summer before ninth grade commuting from the suburbs to Manhattan for a six-week program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I needed books to read on the train to and from the city, and somehow landed on Agatha Christie. By the end of the summer, I’d read almost everything she’d written, as well as many books by Daphne Du Maurier. And I was totally hooked on cozies.
Kathy: Do you write in any other genres?
EB: I began as a playwright, and have four published and produced plays. My day job these days is working as a television writer. I’ve been on series like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Still Standing. I have a writing partner for television, and we’re currently working on an animated series.
Kathy: Tell us about your series.
EB: My Cajun Country series is set in New York. KIDDING! It’s set in Louisiana’s fabulous Cajun Country of course, one of my favorite places ever. My protagonist, Maggie Crozat, is an artist who moves back to her hometown, tiny Pelican, Louisiana – town motto, “Yes, We Peli-CAN!” She’s trying to get her art career going while working at two different plantations. She’s a tour guide at Doucet, which was owned by her mother’s ancestors and is now an historical site. And she works at Crozat Plantation, her father’s ancestral home, which her family operates as a B&B. However, when a murder threatens the family business, she forced to become an amateur sleuth.
Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?
EB: My favorite character to write is probably Grandmere (aka, Granmere or Gran’). On the surface, Gran’ is your classic Southern belle, but she’s sharp and totally self-aware. I can really have fun with her comebacks and character, but still use her to propel the story when necessary. Yet she doesn’t have to carry the story, like my protagonist Maggie does. There are actors who are perfectly happy playing second bananas for this very reason. When I wrote on Just Shoot Me, David Spade—whose snarky persona is an act, he’s a total sweetheart—would ask us not to build a story around him. He liked coming into a scene, landing jokes, and then moving on.
Kathy: Did you have a specific inspiration for your series?
EB: I was inspired by my journeys through Cajun Country during and after my college years at Tulane.
Kathy: What made you decide to publish your work?
EB: I’ve always been a published writer, whether it was in theatre, journalism or TV. But I was also driven by my passion to share my love of south Louisiana with others. My dream would be that some readers finish my book and think, wow, I would love to visit this part of the world. Readers, if that happens, let me know how your trip goes! And if you contact me through my website, ellenbyron.com, I’ll happily share any tips I have for exploring the area. My family is going over Christmas break, so I’ll have some new insights after that trip.
Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?
EB: Charles Dickens, all the Bronte sisters (I’m counting them as one), Agatha Christie, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Kathy: What are you currently reading?
EB: I recently did my first bookstore signing at the awesome Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, where I appeared with three wonderful cozy writers: Daryl Wood Gerber, Nancy Cole Silverman, and Diane Vallere. I bought all their new books and am reading them in alphabetical order.
Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?
EB: Absolutely! Reading is my number one hobby, but I’m also craftsy. I love to needlepoint, and just finished a Louisiana-themed Christmas mini stocking. I also make jewelry sometimes; recently I couldn’t find any necklaces that had a Mardi Gras color scheme to them, so I bought brooches online, and turned them into necklaces using crystal and glass beads. And I’m doing a decoupage demonstration at the upcoming mystery convention, Bouchercon, in Raleigh, NC.
Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.
EB: Mustard, pasta, sparkling water, and Weight Watchers 2 Point bars!
Kathy: Do you have plans for future books either in your current series or a new series?
EB: I’m finishing up the second book in the Cajun Country series, Body on the Bayou, and have ideas for future installments. I also have a mystery I wrote called You Can Never Be Too Thin or Too Dead, set in a super-rich and elite Los Angeles high school, that I’d love to sell. And I’m tossing around an idea for series that would involve needlepoint.
Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?
EB: I love when the magic happens and I’m able to craft an image, a character, or a location in a fresh way. But I have another favorite thing about being an author – interacting with readers. I love to read, and I always have. I have a small scar on my forehead because when I was a teenager, I was reading while I walked and bonked my head on a tree. For me, reading is such a wonderful escape. To know that I’ve brought that experience to at least a few readers through Plantation Shudders means the world to me. And I love when readers reach out with thoughts or questions or comments. I respect and appreciate all of them.
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