Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

An Interview with Ellen Byron by E. B. Davis

Maggie Crozat is home in Cajun Country during the most magical time of the year.
But the Grinch has come to stay at the Crozat Plantation B&B,
and he’s flooding travel websites with vicious reviews. Maggie ID’s him
as rival businessman Donald Baxter –until Baxter is found stabbed to death.
With her detective boyfriend sidelined as a suspect, Maggie must catch
the real killer or it will be the opposite of a Joyeux Noel for her.

Ellen Byron writes cozy mystery set in Cajun country. A Cajun Christmas Killing invites readers to lounge in a lawn chair, watch the bonfires set off on Christmas Eve by the levees along the Mississippi, listen to Cajun Christmas carols, dine on gumbo and dessert on pralines or a coconut pecan pie bar, sip some fine hooch, and pet the basset hound sleeping by your side. Readers can’t avoid slipping into the cultural treats Ellen bestows. Now that I’m a southerner, I didn’t even miss snow.

But economic realities aren’t cozy. Like impoverished English gentry trying to preserve their homes and land, the families of Cajun Country reinvent their plantations to serve guests—sinking the profits into maintenance of their properties. Catering to the tourists brings unwanted, but sometimes necessary, outside investment forcing them into middle management of their own homes and causing conflict—and murder.

I interviewed Ellen two years ago when Plantation Shudders, the first book of the series, popped onto the market garnering nominations for the Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards. Her second book, Body on the Bayou, was nominated for an Agatha award and won the Lefty award for Best Humorous Mystery.

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

Your series is set in Pelican, Louisiana. It’s located on the banks of the Mississippi about an hour away from New Orleans. Why is it called Pelican? I thought pelicans were ocean birds.

The Brown Pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, a result of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. The state’s nickname is “The Pelican State,” and there’s even a pelican on the state flag, as well as on many state symbols. When I was thinking up a name for my fictional town, I toyed with French names, but nothing really popped (although the town next door ended up being called Ville Blanc). Then I thought of pelicans, which are just the coolest birds. I figured there must already be a town in Louisiana with that name, but when I checked the atlas, there wasn’t. I was so thrilled, because it allowed me to work in a fun town motto: “Yes, we Peli-CAN!”

Main character Maggie Crozat (Magnolia Marie Crozat), discovers, via her father’s twin brother, Uncle Tig, that a NYC hedge fund manager bought Crozat, their B&B. Why didn’t her father, Tug, tell her?

Tug was hoping against hope that the situation would change for the better, and he’d never even have to tell his family about the dire threat to their home and business. Or perhaps one night over cocktails he could say, “You’ll never believe what almost happened.” Of course, this put him under so much stress that his body rebelled, and the truth finally had to come out.

When the hedge fund manager becomes a murder victim, whose body Maggie finds, her boyfriend Detective Bo Durand becomes a suspect and must recuse himself from the case. Unlike previous books, Rufus Durand, Bo’s cousin who continued an old feud with the Crozats, turns into an ally and friend. Why did Rufus do such an about face?

In the previous book, Body on the Bayou, Rufus hits bottom. Then his ex-fiancé gives birth to his daughter – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, yes, named after England’s own little Princess Charlotte! After being left at the altar by Vanessa, the baby’s mother, Ru is a mess. He doesn’t even want to meet his baby. But Maggie and Bo drag him to see her, and he instantly falls in love with infant Charli. Rufus vows to be a better man for his beloved child. In A Cajun Christmas Killing, we see him follow through with that promise. I think characters and relationships should evolve in a series, but organically. Fatherhood is a life-changing event for any man – or should be - and I wanted that to be reflected in Rufus.

Bo is the father of Xander, an autistic child, from his former marriage to Whitney. Whitney is another character who changes from one extreme to another. At one point, while Maggie and her friends are sweating and fatigued, Whitney says that she “trained herself” not to perspire. How does anyone do that?

LOL, it takes a level of will power unknown to me! This was inspired by women I met in New Orleans, where I went to college. It could be the warmest, most humid day on earth, and they didn’t seem to shed a drop of perspiration. Honestly, I don’t know if you can actually train yourself not to sweat, but it sure seemed like those Steel Magnolias did!

When Maggie’s ex, Chris, shows up, memories of her previous life in NYC bring her nostalgic longing for the city. Is Maggie a city or a country girl?

What a great question! I instantly thought of that old Donnie and Marie Osmond song, “I’m a Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll.” I think Maggie is more a city girl than a country girl, which is why she was driven to leave Pelican and why it’s hard for her to re-acclimate. But as she gets older, she’s growing into the part of her that is drawn to the quieter, laid-back country life. And of course, life in Pelican is never dull with all those murders! It helps that it’s only an interstate ride away from the vibrant city life of New Orleans. I was so happy I finally got to send her to NOLA in this book. It gave me the opportunity to describe the city during the holidays, when it celebrates with its own special flair.

Sandy Sechrest, formerly an exotic dancer, moved to Pelican and opens an aerobic dance studio called DanceBod. In her former profession, the victim assaulted her. How does Maggie’s basset hound, Gopher, become a hero to Sandy?

Well, if I answer this question, I’ll give away a plot point! But I will say that Gopher is a hero because he finds something very special to her.

I was surprised that Maggie blew off dinner with Lulu. Did she use Lulu a bit? What put off Maggie?

I don’t think she really used Lulu. They happened to stumble upon a very important clue, which changed the trajectory of Maggie’s visit. She wanted to share that info with Bo ASAP. On a personal level, I do think she dreaded dinner a bit because she knew Lulu would press her about her relationship, and Maggie herself wasn’t sure about its status. But if she and Lulu hadn’t come across a surprising development, they would have had dinner together.

Vocab time, Ellen! Please define the following terms that you use in your book:

Pirogue canoe – a flat-bottomed boat used to navigate bayous, which are defined as slow-moving, relatively shallow streams.

Shrimp Étouffée – literally “smothered” shrimp; it’s shrimp – or crawfish or crab – covered with a thick roux-and-tomato-based sauce.

Garçonnière – a separate small building where the boys in a family lived after reaching puberty. Also referred to as a “bachelor’s quarters.”

Boulevardier – an old-fashioned term for playboy; you know, a guy “on the make,” as my mother would say!

Inamorata – a female sweetheart or lover

Muffaletta frittata – Muffalettas are a sandwich unique to New Orleans. The traditional Muffaletta, created by and still available at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter, is a variety of Italian deli meats and a special salad on a round loaf of bread. I created my own recipe for a frittata inspired by the Muffaletta sandwich. This recipe is in my new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing.

Bananas Foster coffee cake – Bananas Foster is another dish unique to New Orleans. The original dessert consists of bananas cooked tableside in rum, butter, and brown sugar, and then served over vanilla ice cream. I again used the original recipe as inspiration for a coffee cake version of the dish. The recipe is in my second book, Body on the Bayou.

Abita beer –a delicious craft beer brewed near Abita Springs, Louisiana.

Maggie’s ancestor, the original Magnolia Marie, visits family members in their sleep. Her portrait hangs in Doucet, her mother’s family planation, which was donated to the state. Can Magnolia only visit when her ancestors are in close proximity to her portrait?

No, Magnolia Marie can also visit dreams. That’s when Grand-mere is more likely to see her.

I never heard of Cajun Christmas Carols, like “Zat you, Santa Claus” or “Santa’s Second Line.” Really? Why don’t they get airtime so the rest of us know them? Is Santa really called Papa Noel?

Louis Armstrong sang, “’Zat you, Santa Claus?,” but I’m thrilled to share that you can find it and

other unique Cajun-Creole holiday tunes on Banu Gibson’s CD, “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” Banu is a fantastic jazz artist and the wife of my late college professor, Buzz Podewell. If you ever get the chance to see her perform, run, don’t walk, to the show. I don’t know why these songs don’t get more airtime. Probably too esoteric? And yes, Santa is both Santa and Papa Noel in Cajun Country.

Do Nazis like Philip Charbonnet exist in New Orleans?

Oh, absolutely. He was inspired by a mix of several guys I knew in college at Tulane University.

A defense lawyer, who benefited from Maggie’s investigation, tells her—“You ever need a defense attorney, I’m all yours at an extremely reduced hourly rate.” Is this a harbinger of things to come?

LOL, not in book four, Mardi Gras Murder, which will be out in 2018. But if my current book sells well, I hope to get a deal to write more Cajun Country Mysteries, and then Maggie may definitely be in need of defense attorney Quentin MacIlhoney’s services! I love writing him, and actually have an idea for spinning him off into his own series.

You did your research by experiencing Christmas on the bayou and the bonfires. Tell us about your visit.

Oh, it was amazing. I highly recommend adding the experience to your bucket list. Local residents spend weeks building these giant bonfires. Most are shaped like thin pyramids for safety reasons these days, but we saw one shaped as a pirate ship. A lot of them are laced with firecrackers, too. The weather wasn’t good the day we were there, and I was terrified the bonfires would be postponed until New Year’s Eve, when we wouldn’t be in town. But even though there was a light rain, the powers-that-be decided the event could happen. So at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, bonfires up and down the river burst into flames. Fireworks exploded in the sky above them. I ran from one bonfire to another like a kid, getting completely soaked from the rain. The smoke haze became so thick I couldn’t see the person next to me, and I was covered with a thick coating of ash. I had to shower and scrub off the ash before we could go to 9:30 Christmas Eve Mass at a local church. I shared every aspect of this adventure with my protagonist, Maggie, in A Cajun Christmas Killing. I really hope readers feel like they’re experiencing the bonfires with her.


Ellen Byron said...

Thanks for a great interview! It was lots of fun to answer all the questions.

Gloria Alden said...

Ellen, I bought and read what I think was your first book at Malice, Plantation Shudders. I really enjoyed it, and would like to read your other two now also.

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks for the interview, Ellen. I really enjoyed this book and learned about the Cajun Christmas traditions. I hope you will share more of those traditions next year. Love the basset hound, too!

Warren Bull said...

It sounds like a great series.

KM Rockwood said...

You have woven such atmosphere for your series!

I think I will get a copy of your Christmas book, read it myself very carefully (no coffee mugs or wine glasses anywhere near it!) and then at Christmas, give it to a friend from a Cajun background who gets nostalgic at Christmas time.

Endora said...

I love all three of your books, Ellen. In this one I felt as if I were right there with you enjoying the Cajun customs. (My father was a Cajun from Louisiana.) I'm so glad to hear that another one is on the way. Dorothy Bodoin

Shari Randall said...

Hi Ellen! I loved this interview - it felt like a mini trip to New Orleans. A deli near my house does muffalettas but they're no where as good as the ones from Central Grocery.
And BTW, a friend used to play Zat Chu Santa all the time at Christmas - love it :)

Ellen Byron said...

Thanks for the great comments! AND the great questions. I really, really enjoyed doing this post. WWK rocks!