Today I’m delighted to welcome Ellen Byron to Miss Demeanors. Ellen is the Agatha Award-winning and USA Today bestselling author of Cajun Country Mysteries. She’s worked for Martha Stewart, written for TV, and loves her dogs. She’s a delight, but don’t take my word for it…
Please tell us about your fifth Cajun Country mystery, Fatal Cajun Festival, which is coming out on September 10.
Music is such a vital part of Louisiana’s culture. I always knew a book in the series would revolve around the music scene. I’m a Tulane alum and I’ve always loved Jazz Fest. (aka/the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.) I thought, what if my little fictional town of Pelican decided to inaugurate its own music fest to attract tourists on their way to Jazz Fest? Then I began thinking about shows like American Idol and The Voice, and that inspired the character of Tammy Barker, a local girl who won a national show called Sing It and returns to town as the headliner of the festival. She’s a diva now, with an entourage, but she carries a grudge against Gaynell, the best friend of my protagonist, Maggie. When a member of Tammy’s entourage is murdered, she points the finger at Gaynell. I had a blast creating Tammy’s band of misfit musicians, who are such fish out of water in Pelican.
All your Cajun Country mysteries have been nominated for Agatha awards, and last year, Mardi Gras Murder, won the Agatha for Best Contemporary Mystery. Beyond the fact that they’re fabulous, why do you think your stories resonate so strongly with the cozy community?
Oh my gosh, thank you! This is such a great question, and one I ask myself all the time. How did I get so lucky? I think it helps that I won the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished writers, which introduced me to the Malice community. Many grant winners have wound up being nominated for Agathas. In fact, Sujata Massey, who won Best Historical Mystery my year, is also a past grant winner. In terms of the writing, I can only guess at a couple of things. I try to gently layer social issues into at least some of my books. There are elements of racism, anti-Semitism, class distinction. Maybe people respond to that. I also try to apply the same rule to novels that I use for writing plays. I’ve always found it so rewarding to see audience members both laugh and cry during a performance. With my books, my goal is to do the same thing: both amuse and move readers.
I’ll add a bit of a manifesto. I’ve found that the cozy genre is often dismissed in our community and the world at large – sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. I got a few backhanded compliments after my book won, which boiled down to surprise that a cozy got such a prestigious honor. I felt like Marisa Tomei must have felt after winning an Oscar for “My Cousin Vinny!” To this day, there are people who think that was a mistake. I really hope my win offers encouragement to other cozy authors. There are plenty of terrific ones out there who deserve respect.
You worked as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart. What was the most remarkable moment?
I love Martha. A lot of people don’t know that she has a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. In terms of the most remarkable moment, I’d say it was the first time I ever met her. I was hired to work a party and we were meeting up at her Westport house on Turkey Hill Road. (Now legendary, but this was before her first book, Entertaining, which I am in! If you have one of the early editions, you’ll find me standing next to her on page 29.) I walked into the house, which was stunning, and looked to my right. Martha, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, was in her perfectly appointed Early American front parlor assembling a giant brownstone gingerbread house with a crème brulee blowtorch. That image is as vivid to me today as the day I saw it.
What drew you to set your series in Louisiana (given that you grew up in New York and live in LA.)?
As I mentioned, I attended Tulane University in New Orleans. I fell head over heels in love with the Big Easy, and with Cajun Country. When I’d visit after college, I’d rent a car and tootle around the region soaking up the food, the music, the people. I set several plays in the region before I kicked off my Cajun Country Mystery series. It’s an obsession. And guess what? Our daughter is a rising sophomore at Loyola University, New Orleans. She’s even taking some classes at Tulane, right next door!
BTW, I never thought I’d live in L.A. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. I moved out here to write for TV. But now when I fantasize about retiring, I fantasize about living in NOLA. The humidity is an issue, though.
You have a new series coming out in 2020. What is it like to start something new?
It’s incredibly exciting! I tapped into a huge aspect of my life growing up. My mother was born in Italy and we had a big extended family. There were weddings, funerals, baby showers, ad infinitum, and most were held at a couple of catering halls in Queens that cousins by marriage ran. In fact, my husband and I had our New York reception at the venue that inspired the main location of my Catering Hall Mysteries. It overlooks the Flushing Bay Marina, as well as LaGuardia Airport. The premise of the series is that after being considered a person of interest in the disappearance of her adulterous husband, a young woman returns home to Queens to help her mobbed-up father run a catering hall as a legitimate business. It’s for Kensington and they asked me to use a pseudonym, so look for Here Comes the Body in March 2020, by Maria DiRico – which is my late nonna’s name.
You have a lot of TV writing credits. Do you find that helpful in your mystery writing?
Absolutely. Writing for TV trained me in how to build a story. You learn a ton about structure when you’re writing to the dictums of a TV show. I also outline because that’s part of the TV process. It’s built into your pay schedule. I create what I call a fluid outline because aspects of it will change as I write, although not really by that much. I make sure to end every chapter with a hook because I view them like the scenes before a commercial break. You want the audience to return to your show, not start channel-surfing. (Even though no one watches commercials these days. But you get the idea.)
You have two rescue dogs. What are their names and what are they like?
Sadly, we lost our beloved Wiley in the spring. It was heartbreaking. We still have Pogo, who is a pistol. We adore him. I swear, he’s got so much personality he makes me believe in reincarnation. I immortalized all our dogs in my series. Lucy, our late basset hound rescue, is the cover girl. She’s Gopher in the series. (Who’s male, no idea why I did that.) Pogo is Jolie, a stray Maggie finds. And Wiley is King Cake, the support dog for a character I introduced in A Cajun Christmas Killing. I think of all our furbabies as support animals. I can’t put into words how much we love them.
Welcome to Miss Demeanors, Ellen! I think that tip about making the end of a chapter like the hook on a television show before a commercial is brilliant. And I’ve noticed how you’ve maintained your own effervescent enthusiasm about your series in each book and find it contagious. Another little secret
Thank you so much, Michele! I’m not gonna lie. I get tired. But I never lose the thrill and gratitude of a book launch. And I really appreciate the Miss Demeanors hosting me today. Great questions!
BTW, what an AMAZING collection of authors at Miss Demeanors. Wow.
Ellen, Thrilled to have you here today. And I love all of your TV writing tips.
Thanks so much, Tracee! Thrilled to be here.
Hi Ellen! I’ll never forget the look on your face when they announced YOU as the winner of the Agatha Best Contemporary. Priceless. Writing about what you love gives your books authenticity and depth. I can’t wait to read the new series. Best of everything!