Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Ellen Byron

Ellen Byron is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. The USA Today bestselling series has also won multiple Best Humorous Mystery Lefty awards from the Left Coast Crime conference. She also writes The Catering Hall Mysteries (under the pen name Maria DiRico), which launched with Here Comes the Body.

Byron’s TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles, and her published plays include the award-winning Graceland. She also worked as a cater-waiter for the legendary Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing. A native New Yorker who attended Tulane University, Byron lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and rescue chi mix, Pogo. She still misses her hometown - and still drives like a New York cabbie.

Byron's new novel is Murder in the Bayou Boneyard.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The titles for my Cajun Country Mysteries have to accomplish three tasks: clue the reader in on the plot theme, have an element of suspense, and a hint of the Cajun Country location. Pulling off this hat trick isn’t easy and coming up with a title for this particular book was a struggle. The working drafts were titled Halloween Horreur, but I knew that would never fly because you can’t have a foreign word in a title, and “Horreur” is so close to “Horror” that people would assume it was a typo. I batted around title ideas with everyone. I have a list of at least thirty. My publisher finally stuck the landing with Murder in the Bayou Boneyard. The title is great because it relays to readers the book is a mystery set in Louisiana that somehow involves a cemetery. It also inspired a wonderful cover that brings home the storyline and amps up the atmosphere by adding the plot’s semi-abandoned mansion and the red eyes of a mythical creature called a rougarou, plus pumpkins and a dog in costume, which lets readers know the action takes place around Halloween.

What's in a name?

My protagonist’s full name is Magnolia Marie Crozat, although everyone calls her Maggie. I wanted her to have a name that evoked Louisiana, and Magnolia does that. Then I created a back story where Magnolia Marie was the name of a distant and admirable ancestor on Maggie’s mother’s side of the family. While Maggie has great respect for this ancestor, she is much more comfortable as a Maggie and not as a Magnolia. The dichotomy between the two names illustrates the conflict between the legacy she carries as the member of a storied Louisiana family and her rebellion against it as an artist who spent twelve years living in New York City. Maggie is not and will never be the stereotypical delicate Southern flower that her full name calls to mind.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teen self is the one who discovered Agatha Christie and read every mystery by Dame Agatha that she could get her hands on. I think she’d be thrilled that in the village of Pelican, I created the Louisiana equivalent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I’m a plotter, so I lay out a story with a lot of detail before I start writing. I find beginnings much harder because you really want to pull a reader into the story. If I don’t get the beginning right, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the book is because the reader has already moved on. I get a rush when I nail the very first line and very first page. I put so much effort into this that – knock wood! – I have yet to get an editorial note on the first page of a manuscript. Those first pages have stayed the same from draft #1 to publication. Here’s the first line of Murder in the Bayou Boneyard. I couldn’t move on to write the rest of the book until I made it work: “It’s a good thing we lay our departed to rest above ground,” Gran whispered to Maggie, “Because if I sunk any further, I’d be standing on a coffin.”

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think it’s hard to write a protagonist who doesn’t reflect yourself in some way. Maggie and I share a lot of the same characteristics – strong-willed, stubborn, loving, acerbic – but I think she’s less of an extrovert than I am. Still, I often see myself when I write her. But here’s the interesting thing regarding the protagonist of my Catering Hall Mystery series, which I write under the pen name of Maria DiRico. Even though that series is totally inspired by my real life – Mia, my lead character, literally lives in my nonna’s old two-family home in Astoria, Queens – I don’t see myself when I write her. I see a combination of a close friend of mine and the actress Leah Remini.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m influenced by Louisiana history, the news, and family – always family. That’s a running theme in everything I write – both the family you’re born with and the family you create through friends and workmates. A huge source of inspiration comes from another source. For years, I did a form of improvisation called Theatresports. It taught me how to collaborate, to say “yes” to offers, to ask myself, “What happens next?”, and to take chances. It was fantastic training for both my career and my personal life.
Visit Ellen Byron's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Ellen Byron & Wiley and Pogo.

--Marshal Zeringue