by Grace Topping
Readers take many things into consideration when selecting a book. Some are drawn to a captivating cover or an intriguing back cover description. Some are influenced by books on a bestseller list or hear how good it is from friends. Then there are those of us who will pick a book simply because it has the name of a favorite author on the cover. That’s how I am when it comes to books by Ellen Crosby. When she launches a new book, I don’t need a terrific cover or description because I know I’m in for an enjoyable read. Ellen recently released her latest book, Blow Up, the third book in her Sophie Medina mystery series, and I was thrilled that she took time to talk to me about it.
International photojournalist Sophie Medina and her old school friend Father Jack O'Hara are out for a run on Capitol Hill when they find the body of Associate Supreme Court Justice Everett Townsend lying in an alley, barely alive. When Townsend, a diabetic, later dies in the ER from complications due to hypoglycemia, his death has repercussions for Sophie after Javi Aguilera, a homeless man who is Sophie's friend and was at the hospital when Townsend was admitted, is murdered.
The night before he died, Javi told Sophie a shocking story about Townsend that could have a devastating impact on the nation's highest court if word got out. Unable to persuade anyone that what she learned is true and on the run from whoever is protecting Townsend's dark secret, Sophie searches a collection of her photographs of Washington D.C.'s homeless community, looking for evidence before everything blows up in her face.
Welcome, Ellen, to Writers Who Kill.
You’ve worked as a freelance journalist in the US, London, Moscow, and Geneva, Switzerland, and studied in Spain and Italy. How did that work and those places influence your fiction writing?
Throughout Blow Up, Sophie discovers several shocking things that she must keep secret to protect those involved and then to save herself. All of the secrets and events result in a very intricate and suspenseful plot. Which leads me to ask, did you carefully plot the book or did you write it by the seat of your pants?
I am most definitely a planner. Because I write a book every year, I need to know exactly where I am with the writing so I can turn in a manuscript to my editor when it’s due. So planning is about being on schedule rather than a rigid system of writing. I think—and write—in scenes so I usually know what I’m going to write when I sit down at my computer each day. Having a script is especially helpful a year later when a copyeditor catches a timeline error or something that doesn’t make sense, because by then I’m well into the next book, and it’s hard to go back and reconstruct what I was doing or thinking in the dim distant past. My scene-by-scene outline (it’s actually a spreadsheet in Numbers) is a huge help. However my hard and fast rule is that I don’t have to stick to the plan. If the story goes in a different direction, I go back to make the outline track what I’ve written, never the other way around.
Sophie seems to have love-hate relationship with the city of Washington. Why is that?
I’ve lived on and off in Washington or the Washington area—I live in northern Virginia, which is part of Metro Washington—for 50 years. (I can’t believe I wrote that). I went to undergraduate and graduate school, got married, worked on Capitol Hill for 8 years, my oldest son was born in Washington. So I have a long history with the city. Since 9/11—over twenty years ago now—the federal part of Washington has increasingly become a fortress with so many monuments and buildings walled off or with ugly jersey barriers or chain link fence around them. I get why there is a need for enhanced security, but I hate the way it looks. Since the pandemic, the crime rate is way up for the first time in decades; I hear from more and more people that D.C. is not a safe place anymore, which is heartbreaking.
One message that comes across in your books is that people in the public eye are not always as they appear to be, including someone in Sophie’s own family. How does Sophie continue to trust the people in her life?
Someone once said to me that we’re all allowed to have a private life but having a secret life will get you in trouble. Discovering secrets about people she knew and loved was difficult for Sophie but happily it didn’t make her a cynic, or even bitter. She’s not naïve but she does tend to look for the good in everyone.
Sophie has connections with a number of influential people in Washington. Does that make is easier for her to solve mysteries or cause her to be cautious in her dealings with people?
Sophie is used to being around people who are influential—world leaders, royalty, iconic public figures—because of her career as a photojournalist, so on the contrary, she’s quite comfortable being around people she doesn’t know. Over the years she has learned how to put strangers at ease so she can photograph them as they really are and not something posed or artificial.
Sophie photographs life from one extreme to another. Tasked with taking photos of a Virginia mansion, she sees the life of the ultra-rich, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, takes photos of homeless encampments. Does that present her with a dilemma?
One of the things I liked so much about working as a journalist is that every day was different, every story was an opportunity to learn something new. I infused my passion into Sophie’s photojournalism, so she has the same curiosity about life that I do.
A thread that carries through Blow Up is Sophie’s concern about the homeless or unhoused people in Washington, DC. What inspired Sophie to work for this cause?
What inspired Sophie to become involved with homeless (or unhoused) people in Washington was an article I read in The Washington Post about the ongoing effort to raze homeless camps throughout the city. It’s brutal: people come in with bulldozers, garbage trucks, and dumpsters and sweep up everything until the camp is gone. What outraged me was that one of these “clean ups” involved dumping a tent into a dumpster—when a man was still inside sleeping.
Sophie works with Streetwise, a group committed to helping the homeless, and offers to work pro bono as a staff photographer for their street newspaper. What is a street newspaper.
A street newspaper is a newspaper sold on the street by homeless individuals; it is written for and about their community. The (real) D.C. street newspaper is a weekly; homeless individuals buy copies for fifty cents from Street Sense, the (real) non-profit that publishes it, and then re-sell it on the street for two dollars, plus tips. It is a way of earning a bit of income; the sellers—called vendors—stake out different parts of Washington as their territory.
Even with a promise of accommodation, many of the homeless choose to stay in encampments. Why is that?
In some cases homelessness is a generational matter: someone who grew up homeless never lives in a home and then raises children who are homeless as well; it’s the only life they know. It sounds incredible but it happens. Among the reasons people choose to stay in an encampment rather than a shelter: fear of vandalism, sexual abuse, curfews/restrictions, and inability to have alcohol or use drugs.
Sophie takes photos of the homeless individuals, with their permission, and gifts them the photos. Why does she do that?
Sophie takes photos of homeless individuals and then prints out a small copy on an instant printer so the person whose photo she’s taken can immediately have a copy as well. It’s a way of saying thank you, and she finds that everyone always appreciates the gesture.
Javi is a young fellow who Sophie and her reporter friend, Grace, take under their wing. Please tell us about him and why their interest in him.
Javier Aguilera—Javi—is a young man who grew up in foster homes until he aged out and ended up on the street. But he was smart and ambitious and quickly learned to spend days keeping warm (or cool) in the Martin Luther King Library in downtown Washington. An astute librarian hooked him up with the adult literacy program; he also started showing up at the offices of Streetwise, a non-profit that helps homeless individuals, where he took creative writing classes. He was so talented that Grace Lowe, Sophie’s friend who works for The Washington Tribune and was one of the mentors at Streetwise, decided to sponsor him for an internship at the paper.
Hearing Washington called the City of Trees was new to me. How did Washington get that nickname?
Washington has been known as the City of Trees for more than a century because so many of its international inhabitants brought trees here from all over the world, giving it a rich and diversified arboreal history. Pierre L’Enfant, who designed D.C., planned for it to have a lush tree canopy with wide tree-lined boulevards and lots of green space. (Today Washington has more green space per capita than most major US cities). George Washington, who chose the location for the capital, was passionate about planting many different types of trees, as was Thomas Jefferson, who designed the city’s first street tree planting record.
The descriptions of things you include in your books are almost like viewing an individual, item, or scene through a camera lens. Are you a photographer yourself?
I am an amateur photographer—I don’t get to devote as much time to photography as I’d like to, but when I’m researching a book I always take a lot of photos that I use later for reference and to make sure I get the details right.
Why do the Streetwise people call Sophie Click?
Because she’s a photographer! (In journalism photographers are sometimes referred to as clickers).
With a background as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, which do you find more challenging or rewarding to write?
I like to go back and forth between writing fiction and writing the occasional non-fiction article or even an op-ed piece (which I’ve done several times for The Washington Post). You use different muscles when you write non-fiction, but as with anything, you need to use them or they atrophy. So it’s good to dip back into non-fiction every now and again.
In addition to your Sophie Medina series, you write The Wine Country Mysteries, featuring Lucie Montgomery. What prompted you to write a series that focuses on the management of a vineyard and wine making? Did you know anything about them before you started writing your series?
Only that I liked to drink wine—otherwise I knew nothing about the business of growing grapes and making wine. It was my then-British literary agent’s idea to write a mystery set in a vineyard after I described a trip back to the US one summer when we were living in London. A friend living in northern Virginia decided that after seeing the great French vineyards it was time to learn about Virginia vineyards (something my French husband was rather dubious about). After much arm-twisting on the part of my agent, I agreed to write one book.
I have written twelve.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned since you started writing fiction?
That the writing or the story can always be better, but eventually what I’ve done has to be good enough and I have to let go because I need to turn in the book to my editor. So the most valuable thing I’ve learned is probably how and when to say, “Okay, it’s finished.” BLOW UP is my 16th book, so I’ve had some practice!
What’s next for Sophie Medina and Lucie Montgomery?
I’m not sure what’s next for Lucie, but my 2024 book, which is called Dodge & Burn, is another Sophie Medina mystery.
Thank you, Ellen. I look forward to another book featuring Sophie.
For more information about Ellen Crosby and her books, visit www.ellencrosby.com.
Grace Topping is the author of the Laura Bishop Mystery Series.