Wednesday, September 23, 2015

An Interview with Ellen Byron by E. B. Davis

In Plantation Shudders, Magnolia “Maggie” Crozat, a feisty artist in her
early thirties, moves back to her hometown, eccentric Pelican, Louisiana, after
a decade in New York. Maggie’s family needs her help running Crozat Plantation,
their historic family home-turned-B&B. The place is in peril after an obnoxious
eightysomething couple staying at the B&B on their honeymoon—yes, their
honeymoon—mysteriously dropped dead within minutes of each other.

Rufus Durand, the lazy Pelican Chief of Police, carries a longstanding grudge
against the Crozats, so he’s no help in the investigation. And she can’t trust the
sexy new detective in town, Bo Durand, because he happens to be Rufus’s cousin.
So Maggie Crozat is forced to become an amateur sleuth, aided by her
accordion-playing best friend Gaynell, her cross-dressing pal JJ,
and her cocktail-loving Grandmere.

Ellen Byron combined the best elements of the cozy mystery in Planation Shudders. Her Louisiana setting, shrouded in Spanish moss, lends a mysterious mood. Most of the action takes place at the family plantation of main character, Magnolia “Maggie” Crozat’s family infusing a historical backdrop, which Ellen explains without lecturing.

A possible romantic interest investigates the scene, but there are Romeo and Juliet issues that could affect their relationship. Cajun (or is it Creole? Or both?) food prepared at Crozat Plantation and Pelican, the nearby town, makes for stomach-growling reading. The family’s faithful Basset Hound named Gopher growls at bad cops. And there’s also a touch of down-home voodoo.

If you love cozy mystery, put this book on your TBR pile! 

Please welcome Ellen Byron to WWK.              E. B. Davis

You went to Tulane University. How far is plantation country from New Orleans? Why did you want to set a story there? Plantation Country is only about an hour to an hour and a half from New Orleans, up the Great River Road, which runs on both sides of the Mississippi as the East River Road and West River Road. Originally my subtitle was “A Plantations and Pralines Series,” but the publisher asked me to change it; since my setting is contemporary and not historical, I agreed that the subtitle might confuse readers. But the subtitle, “Cajun Country Series,” works because I was inspired by the bayous and small towns of that region. I just love the fact there’s a section of America that is such culture unto itself, to the point where many residents still speak French as their first language. Yet the Cajuns have been in Louisiana for over two centuries, way longer than most of us. I wanted to set my story in this fascinating part of the country to pay homage to the history and culture of Southern Louisiana. I feel deeply connected to the area.

Tell our readers about Maggie Crozat, please. Maggie is a thirty-two year old artist who sometimes speaks before she thinks, has a dry sense of humor, and is struggling to find her personal and professional destiny. She had a six-year relationship with a boyfriend in New York, and generously gave him six months to decide whether or not he wanted to fully commit to her by getting married. During that time, he met and married someone else. Maggie reacted to this betrayal by retreating to her hometown of Pelican, Louisiana – town motto, “Yes, We Peli-CAN!”—to figure out the next phase of her life. She works as a tour guide at Doucet Plantation, once owned by her mother’s ancestors and now a historical site. She also works at Crozat Plantation, her father’s ancestral home, which her family operates as a B&B. And she’s trying to establish herself as respected local artist.

Why does Maggie think her case of the “shudders” is an omen? Everyone in Pelican does. Like many places in Louisiana, there is a hint of preternatural in the air. My sorority sisters and I used to get gris gris bags at JazzFest from a priestess who took credit cards. The otherworldly meets the mundane!

What is the difference between Cajun, Creole, and Acadians? Cajun is slang for Acadian. If you say Acadian fast enough, it becomes “Cajun.” Cajuns are the descendants of the Acadians who were forcibly removed from Canada by the British between 1755–1764 during what is called The Great Expulsion or Le Grande Durangement. The definition of Creoles is more fluid, but generally means people who are fully or partially descended from white European colonial settlers. And then there’s African Creole, which refers to the mix of European and African settlers. For example, a close friend of mine is descended from the relationship between a French plantation owner and his African mistress.

Maggie’s family has opened their plantation house as a B & B. When two of their guests die, police investigate. One death is by natural causes, but the other has been murdered by arsenic. I thought arsenic poisoning occurred over time. Is there acute poisoning? Why did you pick poison as the modus operandi?  I researched poison and discovered that if someone ingests enough arsenic, it can be fatal pretty much instantly. I loved the idea of tying the cause of death to a box of rat poison that sat untouched in the family’s plantation store for eighty years. Also, I’d just re-read a bunch of Agatha Christies and she was the queen of mystery poisonings!

Why does Grandmere say Maggie likes men who are “hot messes?” Maggie’s track record with men is not great. I think she suffered a bit from “I can fix him” syndrome. She was attracted to men with baggage. That’s why she’s hesitant to form a relationship with detective Bo Durand. She’s trying not to repeat her pattern. He’s recently divorced and she’s not sure where he’s at emotionally. Plus, his cousin Rufus Durand is her arch-enemy.

Why do the Durants and the Crozats have a feud? Maggie’s great-great-great-grandmother on her mother’s side, Magnolia Doucet, was engaged to Rufus Durand’s great-great-great-grandfather, Henri Durand. I will share that story here. It was originally the heart of the first chapter, but I had to cut the chapter because it really wasn’t relevant to the rest of the book. So this is the only place where the detailed story of what caused the Durands’ animosity may ever appear!  The setting is about 1855… As an engagement present, Henri gifted Magnolia Marie with a beautiful pearl necklace, which she happily wore to the season’s first ball. Not long after she arrived, she noticed a similar necklace on another young woman’s neck. Then another. And another. Magnolia Marie did a little digging, as we’d say today, and soon learned that Henri had a collection of mistresses—all of whom he gifted with the same pearl necklace. Needless to say, she broke off the engagement. 

According to Rufus, who’s had bad luck in love, Magnolia Doucet put a curse on his family dooming all their relationships. So he blames Maggie’s family—her mother being a Doucet—for all his ill-fated romances. Oh, and by the way, the story of the pearl necklace was inspired by a true story a friend told me about a famous opera singer (who shall remain nameless) who gifts all his mistresses with them. A friend of my friend’s was going to an event where the singer was to be honored, and someone told her not to wear a pearl necklace—people would think she was the opera singer’s latest conquest!

Lia Tienne, Maggie’s older French/African descent cousin, runs the Bon Bond Sweet shop and Fais Dough Patisserie. Where did Lia come by her experience and expertise in the culinary arts? Lia is completely self-taught. She’s a natural baker and candy maker, and uses recipes that have been handed down in her family through generations, as well as recipes she invents herself.

Would you describe some of the food presented in the book, such as Grits and Grillades, Bourbon Pecan Croissant Bread Pudding, and Brown Sugar Ice Cream with Bananas Foster? Grits and Grillades is a delicious dish usually served at breakfast or lunch where seasoned steak, pork, or veal is served over grits. Regarding Bananas Foster, this is a legendary dessert served at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans. Bananas, brown sugar, rum, cinnamon, and banana liqueur are flambéed together and then poured over vanilla ice cream. I chose to have Ninette serve it over brown sugar ice cream that she made herself. (I made it once myself, and it was delicious!) And I’m proud to say that Bourbon Pecan Croissant Bread Pudding is my own recipe. I’m not a big bread pudding fan, but when it’s made with croissants, that’s a whole other story. I love it! The recipe is included in my book.

Ninette Doucet Crozat has been in remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Has anyone you’ve known suffered from that dreadful disease? I had a friend who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in her twenties.  She’s been in remission for over thirty years, thank God. I myself was diagnosed with a rare tumor when I was twenty-five. I immediately underwent surgery, but it took a year for doctors to determine that it was benign. And it took me years after that to feel safe. Looking back, I realize that I suffered from PTSD for at least five years post-op. Every time I had a pain or a cramp, I thought, oh no…is it back?

Grandmere Crozat is a wonderful character. How did she pick up her computer skills? How does she use her skills to help the B & B and research murder? I adore Grandmere, and she’s proven to be a very popular character! She was inspired by two women who are very dear to me, and both very, very different: my mother, born in Italy and raised in New York, and my good friend Charlotte, a gracious New Orleanian whose family goes back generations. (Her father was both a Poche and a Waguespack, two names you’ll see throughout Plantation Country.) I loved how my mother took to the computer once she mastered it - and now you can’t get her off Facebook! My friends are always entertained by her comments on their posts. Gran’ is like my mom in that way. She helps the family run their website and manage online bookings. She also uses the computer to help Maggie research possible suspects. I see Gran’ as a tip of the hat to all the savvy seniors out there who utilize computers and the internet to great advantage.

Is Gopher, the basset hound, a barometer of character? Aren’t all dogs, wink, wink? But yes. And he’s very protective of those he loves. Well, as protective as a lazy basset hound can be. He was inspired by Lucy, our late, lamented basset hound rescue. I once took her on a walk with me to vote in our neighborhood and had to carry her home when she decided that she’d had plenty of exercise and wouldn’t take another four-legged step. I think my back is still paying for that day.

In Plantation Shudders, Gaynell is a friend of Maggie’s who works with her at Doucet Plantation. Who is the real Gaynell? The real Gaynell is Gaynell Bourgeois Moore, an amazing Cajun musician, artist, writer, and tour guide. We met when she led my friend Jan and me on a tour of Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation in 1986, and it was friendship kismet. Gaynell and I lost touch for a while and then reconnected in the late 1990s in a fun way that I share in the “Lagniappe” chapter at the end of Plantation Shudders.

I know you are from New York, Ellen. Does that make you a beach or a mountain gal? Both! I like to hike trails and I like to look at the ocean—although I’m not much for swimming in it. I’m more of a “walk at sunset” ocean lover. The one scenic scenario where I’m not comfortable is wide-open spaces. I once went to a scenic overlook in Calgary, Canada, where the view of prairie was endless, and I had a panic attack. It’s ironic that I set my series in one of the flattest places around, Southern Louisiana. But there’s always a bayou or a bend in the road or an oak tree covered with Spanish moss to delight me.



Shari Randall said...

I think E. B. got it right - your book is a wonderful combination of cozy elements. Especially the food! Truly stomach growling reading. Congratulations, Ellen, and thank you for stopping by WWK.

Warren Bull said...

It sounds like your book would be a delightful read. Sigh, one more for the to be read pile.

E. B. Davis said...

Ellen's book was a fun read--compelling and mouthwatering! Yes, the food descriptions were wonderful, but she had a sixth-sense element that I love. It wasn't overtly supernatural, but just enough to give you a good case of the willies! Thanks for the read and the interview, Ellen.

Of course I forgot one last question--What's next for Maggie and her family?

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

looking forward to Ellen's next book.

Gloria Alden said...

Welcome to WWK, Ellen. Your book sounds delicious. I'm adding it to my TBR list.

Grace Topping said...

Thanks, Ellen, for visiting us on Writers Who Kill and your interesting responses. Thank you also for clarifying the differences between Cajun, Creole, and Acadians.

KM Rockwood said...

I love mysteries set in locales like this, and I love mysteries with food sub-plots. Sounds to me like this is a series I'll have to investigate!

Kara Cerise said...

Welcome, Ellen! What a wonderful setting for a mystery. I'm looking forward to reading your book.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

A tasty read. Congrats Ellen on such a great book

Ellen Byron said...

Thanks so much for having me!! So sorry I checked this late. Crazy day at work.

What's next for Maggie, family and friends is that Maggie gets stuck being the Maid of Honor at Vanessa Fleer's over the top wedding to Rufus Durand, and chaos ensues when a guest is murdered pre-wedding. It's all in book two of the Cajun Country Mysteries, Body on the Bayou.