Television writer and novelist Ellen Byron is a Louisiana junkie.
The New York native and Tulane University graduate, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, can’t get the Bayou State out of her system, admitting that she sheds tears of joy when she visits New Orleans and tears of sadness when she leaves. In 2015, Byron sunk all that residual Louisiana passion into a new mystery novel, Plantation Shudders, a fun and breezy jaunt with nods to classic inn murders (which guest is really the baddie?), except told in modern day Cajun Country. The second in the series, Body on the Bayou, will be released in September 2016.
I especially appreciated the heroine’s name, Maggie, short for Magnolia, bringing back memories of me trying to buffalo college friends in Washington, DC, that my real name was a southern flower and not the truer, dowdier Margaret.
Ellen and I discovered each other recently, and had a great time connecting and sharing notes as writers inspired by Louisiana. I picked up her book and read it over one weekend, relishing her depictions of my zany adopted home. Here’s some of what we discussed.
My interview with writer Ellen Byron:
MHR: What brought you to Tulane in the first place?
EB: I started off at SUNY Binghamton, but I was a huge Tennessee Williams fan, and when I visited New Orleans for the first time to look at Tulane, I found right away that it has this very visceral pull on you. It’s the closest thing we have to a European city. It was like being in another world, living there. I still have a memory of writing poetry in a nighttime rain storm, and taking study breaks at 3 am at a 24-hour doughnut shop in a sketchy neighborhood.
MHR: Did it impact your pursuit of writing as a career?
EB: Yes. I was a theater major, but I accumulated this stuff in me from living in New Orleans. I would not have been a writer without it.
MHR: So in addition to Plantation Shudders, which is the first in your Cajun Country Mystery Series, you work as playwright, freelance journalist and TV writer.
EB: Yes, my plays, Graceland and Asleep on the Wind came out in 1984. Graceland is about two Elvis Presley fans competing to be the first person to set foot inside his home on the day that it’s opened to the public. One of the two is a young Cajun girl, and Asleep on the Wind is a memory play about her past in Cajun Country. I moved to LA in 1990 and transitioned into TV. I’ve written for shows like Wings, Just Shoot Me and Still Standing. I wrote this novel because I was feeling like I needed to try something different artistically.
MHR: How is writing a mystery different from other writing? Do you have the twists and turns figured out in your head before you start?
EB: It’s more like writing a play than a TV show or an article. Both of those are much more structured. With my books, I need to have an idea where I’m going, generally. I have some sense of the beginning, middle and end. The basics are there, but I allow for new characters and twists to introduce themselves.
MHR: Food figures large in the book, especially Crawfish Crozat, a signature dish prepared by the central family in the story, at whose plantation inn the murders occur. What was the inspiration for it?
EB: When I was writing the book, I thought there’s no way I can’t not include recipes, so a few are actually included at the end of the book in a Lagniappe chapter (and I explain what “Lagniappe” is). Crawfish Crozat was inspired by Crawfish Monica at Jazz Fest, but it’s very basic, and made with olive oil, herbs, okra and crawfish.