The series is set in Louisiana, a state Ellen loves. As this interview goes live, Louisiana faces a massive natural disaster with deadly flooding. For people who want to help, Ellen suggests the Red Cross. Here are pictures from the first week of the flood, and Charity Navigator’s view of top charities working the crisis.
Ellen’s passion for Louisiana comes through in her writing and the world she creates for her heroine, Maggie. She named one of her characters after her friend Gaynell Bourgeois Moore (here she is on YouTube singing The Nascar Blues and here’s her very own CD!) Ellen also talks about a Facebook page she loves, New Orleans Plantation Country, and mentions two real plantations, Houmas House Plantation and Ashland-Belle Helene. I give a shout-out to one of the TV series she worked on, Maybe It’s Me, which (criminally!) is not available on DVD. Yet. I continue to hold out hope.
You can check out her plays, Graceland and Asleep on the Wind, and if, like me, you are a fan of her Cajun Country Mysteries, you can pre-order Body on the Bayou, which comes out on September 13th. The delightful first book in the series, Plantation Shudders, was nominated for an Agatha, a Daphne, and a Lefty (for best humorous mystery).
As always, if you’d rather read than listen, here is the transcript.
Transcript of Interview with Ellen Byron.
Laura Brennan: My guest today is multitalented writer Ellen Byron. Ellen has written over 200 magazine articles, her published plays include the award-winning Graceland, and her many television series include “Just Shoot Me,” “Wings,” and “Maybe It’s Me,” one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. Most of all, she is the author of the Cajun Country Mysteries, set in Louisiana.
Ellen, thank you for joining me.
Ellen Byron: Thank you for having me.
LB: You are such a prolific writer! Articles and books and plays and television — which came first? Where did you start?
EB: I started writing plays. I actually started as an actress, quote unquote. Because it feels so silly to say that now. Got my union card doing a commercial while I was in college. I ended up writing a play that was inspired by my friends and I, I cast my friends in their roles and none of them did a really good job of playing themselves. And after that I took a class at Ensemble Studio Theater in playwriting because I’d never studied it. I wrote one play there and then I wrote Graceland. And then I kept writing plays, but I couldn’t support myself that way so I started writing freelance magazine articles. And the playwriting path was so torturous in terms of readings and readings and readings until you got productions, that I remember I was on the phone with the man who ran the workshop at Circle Rep Theater, which was a great theater in New York that is no longer in existence, sadly. I was taking notes from him, and I remember the exact moment when I thought, you know, if I’m going to take this many notes, do this many rewrites, someone should be paying me for it. And that’s when I decided to switch over to TV.
LB: So were you in New York at the time?
EB: Yes. I’m from New York, I went to school in Louisiana, Tulane. But I didn’t really want to leave New York because I love New York, it’s really where my soul is. But unfortunately there are way more TV options in California than in New York so in 1990 I made the move to Los Angeles. Kicking and screaming.
LB: I totally understand. Especially, there is such a culture difference between New York and Los Angeles.
LB: If someone hasn’t yet picked up your series, could you give me just a brief overview of what launched the series?
EB: Maggie Crozat, she is an artist and she went to school in New York. And she had a boyfriend, they had an art gallery together, and she gave him some space to decide whether or not he wanted to commit. And during that period he met and married someone else. So her life was completely —
EB: Yeah. Not knowing quite what else to do with herself — because her home kind of went away and her business went away, everything went away. She’s come back to Pelican, Louisiana — town motto, “Yes, We Peli-Can!” — to regroup. And it’s a small village in Cajun Country, in plantation country, kind of a lovely, bucolic place. And her family, there are two plantations that her family on either side. Her mother’s family plantation, Doucette, was donated to the state and is an historical site, but her dad’s, Crozat Plantation, they’ve turned into a B&B. Family and a sense of family and a sense of community is very important to me because I grew up that way. My mom was born in Italy and had a large, extended Italian family that would get together for big functions.
With Maggie, she lived in New York for 12 years, because it really helped me — or more than that, actually, 14. She went there when she was 18. She’s a combination of friends of mine and of course my voice. And my sense of being displaced a little bit, about having a foot in different worlds. She’s a little discombobulated. And her parents are, they are lovely nice people, but some of the people around her are a little quirky and a little odd. My favorite is her Grand-mere. She’s a little bit of Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey, the kind of dry wit and very smart yet very elegant. I always see in my head Blythe Danner when I write her.
LB: Oh, that’s perfect. I see that, too. Grand-mere is my favorite.
EB: So, she works at Doucette as a tour guide and she works at the B&B to help out her parents, and meanwhile she’s also trying to get her art career, find her voice as an artist again and rediscover her passion and pursue her passion for art. And there’s a sexy detective and there are murders…
LB: Well, you surprised me in your very first novel. In Plantation Shudders, I was surprised with who the victims were. I usually can pick out who’s going to get killed on the very first page. I actually think it was because they were so delicious, that I expected them to be there throughout.
EB: You know what? That’s funny. It was really fun to write and create the back story for these people. And honestly, if you are someone who likes someone knocked off in the first chapter, so far that’s not me. Although for book 4, I have this vision of the first chapter and it will end in an unexpected death. But everything else, for me, I like to develop who the victims are before I bump them off and have my characters have relationships and attitudes toward them. So we’ll see if I can pull it off in book 4.
LB: Your books are so fun. It’s a combination of the mystery and the southern charm and they are funny. They’re really funny.
EB: Thank you.
LB: You’re welcome. I was thinking of that line, Dying is easy, comedy is hard.
LB: And you have both. You have dying and you have comedy.
EB: I think that comes from my playwriting experience. Ever since I went to college, I’ve just been fascinated with Cajun country, and finally, I couldn’t figure out why and I think part of it is, I grew up, my Italian family is like a world within a world. I could go an entire day without hearing English when we went to a family function. In Cajun country, it’s fascinating to me that there’s a part of America where they literally speak another language, but they’ve been here for 250 years. I was just there in December and we went to a local place for a bite and there were four people, probably in their 40s may be their 50s, and they’re speaking Cajun French. They’re laughing and joking and I’m so thrilled. Because you know they tried to get rid of that, they tried to wipe it out. And so they’ve had to bring that back in the culture. I just love that.
In Graceland, one of the characters, Rudy, was a Cajun girl who was abused, emotionally abused and ran away. And then, the companion piece, Asleep on the Wind, is a memory play. We learn about her relationship with her brother, who she adored and who died in Vietnam. What I really liked with both plays, and with all my plays, was to make people laugh and cry in the same period of time. People would be chuckling or laughing and then, especially with Asleep on the Wind, at the end some people would be weeping.
I try not to be too jokey. I try to make the humor come out of real conversation in real situations. And I got a note from — I was with a writers group that wasn’t mystery writers, and I have some mystery writers who read my work, too, and I got the note. Someone said, God, someone was just killed. Have her react in a real way. And I was like, oh, yeah. I tried to write to the real of like, okay, you’re staring at a dead body. Even if there is a moment of black humor, it’s not going to be a Feydeau farce. You’re going to have human reactions to it. But I can’t, I find that I can’t not write with humor. I just can’t.
I think my third book, that I just turned in the manuscript for, it’s probably the most serious of three books. It really actually has themes and subtexts and deals in very minimal ways with racism and anti-Semitism a little bit. And touches on those things. But there’s still humor.
LB: I love to hear that the series is deepening. I think that’s one of the great joys of book series, is that they can become deeper and more as you go along.
EB: And the great thing about writing a series, like a TV series, there’s an arc to character relationships. Young kids age and go from elementary to high school to college. Relationships on the shows I’ve worked on, there have been arcs to relationships between people. I’ve written some hour-long pilots with my writing partner, and in my head, in our head, we saw what the season would look like. One that I was especially proud of and that almost got produced, it was a very clear — it was like, episode of the week, but that was within an overarching season arc. Writing a mystery series gives me that opportunity because there’s the mystery of the week, if you want to call it that, but within that I’m also developing the relationships between the characters. And moving them along, so they grow.
LB: Now, you’ve talked about how some real people have actually inspired some of your characters.
EB: Well, my friend Charlotte, she was one of the first people I met Tulane. And her family, I remember walking into her house, I’ll never forget this, and there was this huge sideboard. And I said, oh, that such a cool piece of furniture. And she goes, oh, that’s from a plantation of ours that burned down. And it turned out her family on her father’s side goes back centuries. I mean they came over in the late 1700s some of them. And they had plantations. So I named, Grand-mere’s first name is Charlotte. And I named another character after her last name.
My friend Gaynell, who is an older woman, but I met her when she was a tour guide at Ashland-Belle Helene, which is one of my favorite plantations. It’s not open to the public. When I was there in the mid-80s, it really was derelict. They shot the movie The Beguiled there. A family owned it and there’s a thing called forced inheritance in Louisiana where everyone has to agree to sell something and he was the one holdout. And he was letting her do tours, paying her to do tours. And we just struck up a friendship and we’ve just been friends ever since. We lost touch for a while, but when I brought my husband back in the late 90s, we stopped at Houmas House Plantation. And I said, oh, I had a friend, Gaynell, who worked at Ashland-Belle Helene. “Gaynell Moore? Gaynell Bourgeois Moore? Why she’s right here!” And they called, they walkie-talkied her, and she came running down in her big plantation ballgown. We’ve been close ever since.
The fact that my characters work at a plantation was inspired by Gaynell. I tell a story at the end of Plantation Shudders about how I called Gaynell and said that I wanted to name a character after her. She is also a musician, she’s written her memoirs, she’s an artist. She’s just this incredibly multitalented, 100% Cajun woman. And I tell the story that, I said I want to name a character after you. It can either be the grandmother or there’s a 19-year-old blonde girl who’s a musician. And she goes, “Oh, I want to be the 19-year-old.”
And I just spoke to her on the phone, actually, because we were just there at Christmas and we stayed with her, and I was very concerned because it was the whole area that was flooded. I called her and yeah, their house, it’s right next to Black Bayou. And she lives in, I believe it was her grandmother’s house, it’s a tiny little charming house. And they didn’t take on water at first but then all of a sudden she said we had to run for our lives on Sunday. So their house got a couple of feet of water in it. She was just listing all her kids and her grandkids and the houses that were lost or not, that were completely damaged, partially damaged, not damaged at all. I mean it was just like mind-boggling.
LB: I want to talk about Louisiana because, this flooding, I realize I am not in the state but it came as a complete surprise to me. It doesn’t seem as if people realized this was going to happen. It wasn’t a hurricane right?
EB: No. Note was not a hurricane, it was just torrential rains. And nobody expected it. It’s like, what is it? The thousand year flood or something. It’s just, there was so much rain, it fell so fast, that it just — you know, with Gaynell, the bayou has pumps. But what happened, and this kind of happened in Katrina, too, in some areas where the pumps were overwhelmed by the amount, by the water. And so they failed. And that’s why she got flooded.
In the other parts, you know the state is below sea level for a good portion of southern Louisiana. And so the rivers just lost it. They just flooded. And what’s really heartbreaking is that people who lost in Katrina and relocated to the Baton Rouge area lost their homes again. It’s devastating.
LB: Oh, the numbers are staggering. Something like 60,000 homes are destroyed.
EB: Yes. Entire communities. And the thing is, the Louisiana people are a strong people. And having survived Katrina — and one big difference when I spoke to Gaynell and spoke to a couple of other people, is that it is a different scenario than Katrina in the sense that the government was ready. And people can criticize all they want, but FEMA was there and they’ve already got people, they’ve had classes to help people fill out forms, they had beds ready and cots ready and supplies ready. And the governor, I think did a great job. People were trapped on freeways for 22 hours by the floods. They were air dropping supplies in to them. The thing that is also happening now that is really scary is that alligators are at people’s back doors. Because they just came with the rivers. It’s apocalyptic.
LB: It’s also really hard — I mean, this is going to be around a while because it is so flat, it is below sea level. This is a very tough cleanup.
EB: I don’t know if the get another flood like this, but again, it harkens to climate change. What Katrina really revealed was the ugly underbelly of what’s been going on in the lower part of Louisiana in terms of the oil industry and dredging and canals and the Army Corps of Engineers. And many of the barrier islands have just completely disappeared. I’ve done a number of swamp tours and I’ve done them where you’re going through these canals that worked there to begin with but have been designed for transportation. You know they’ve really kind of messed around with the natural ecology of the lower part of the state.
And of course I’m also, I consider myself the self-appointed Ambassador. Nobody’s going to ever — I don’t know if anyone from Louisiana would find me annoying or appreciate the fact that I’m just, I’m passionate about where they live and supporting it and encouraging people to visit. I’ve even worked out tours for people, just like said, “Go here. Do this. Stay here.” Because I think it’s just such a fascinating part of America and people should experience it.
LB: Well, I think that the thing you bring to any discussion of Louisiana is a love for the people and the culture and the warmth of the welcome.
EB: Yes. Have you experienced that, too?
LB: I haven’t been there, no, but I experienced it through your books.
EB: Oh, great! Great. I just wanted to say that the third book I’m writing involves the bonfires, the bonfires on the levee that they light every Christmas Eve. And I was lucky and I won a contest on this Visit New Orleans Plantation Country Facebook page where I just kept sharing their posts and I got to know the woman who did it. And I won a contest, and my family on Christmas Eve, we actually spent Christmas Eve and Christmas in Louisiana, we’d never been away from home. And part of the prize was going to a party, a viewing party that was at a house on the river road, on the east river road where you could see all these fabulous bonfires. And these people were so warm and so welcoming, they didn’t know who we were or didn’t care. They just, they said, “We’re so honored to have you here.” There is a warmth and a caring, I find, with the Cajun and Creole cultures of southern Louisiana.
LB: If people wanted to help, do you have any recommendations?
EB: I always recommend, I think in any disaster, your best bet is donating to the Red Cross. Even if you Google ‘how to help the flood victims,’ there are tons of options. I just donated to the Red Cross and it just said, I said, for the Louisiana flood victims. You can make a specific donation for that. I also sent a check my friends to make sure that even if they’re covered by FEMA and insurance, you know, it takes well to get going. And honest to God, even if they just use it to buy themselves a round of drinks, I’d be happy.
LB: Yeah. The love for Louisiana, I think, comes through in your writing so strongly.
EB: Oh, thank you. You know, I would just really like to encourage people, if they’ve never been to the area to go. A lot of what I write about is within an easy day trip of New Orleans. But then go beyond that, buy books and explore the little Cajun towns. Some are scenic, some are very dusty and aren’t necessarily scenic, but they all have their own charm and personality. Really experience the culture. Do a swamp tour. One thing I want to say is that, I noticed on our last trip, which I think is fantastic, is that many of the plantations, instead of pretending that slavery never happened, are — what we say in TV — are writing to it. They’re incorporating it into their tours. They’re being honest, they’re showing, this is what a slave cabin looks like, this is how they lived, this is what happened. It’s not all Scarlet O’Hara and flouncy ball gowns. It’s the reality that there was a dark, ugly side to these lovely-seeming homes and situations. And I think that makes it more realistic and very informative. It’s a fascinating culture and worth everybody exploring.
LB: You know, I didn’t realize that there was a distinction between Cajun and Creole.
EB: There’s a big distinction. Oh, It’s completely different. Cajun are the descendents of the Acadians who came over, I think it was in 1765 — I may not have the right year but I think I do — and what was called Le Grand Derangement, when the English kicked them out of Acadia. And they, literally, it was a diaspora. They all moved and for many reasons I can’t even go into, they ended up in Louisiana and developed their own culture. Creole, you know there are all different types of Creole and there are all different definitions. The definition that they went with when we were there was ‘first born in this country,’ although that’s not necessarily true because I know plenty of people who say they are Creole and they are certainly generations removed from being the first born. There’s African Creole, but usually what it means is that they had descendents like French or Spanish who established roots in that area. There’s a lot of intermingling of cultures. You know, Creoles tended to be more New Orleans, a lot of them lived in New Orleans, too. They have a townhouse in New Orleans. Cajuns were more of a rural folk. They fished, they hunted, they trapped. But that’s, you know, I don’t want to go with any stereotypes. There are people of every level in every culture. There was a huge, in the 1700s, there was a huge part from the German coast, people came over from Germany, which is why there are German names that go back 250 years. There’s Italian, Irish, many many different cultures are all embraced within the melting pot that is Louisiana. But primarily, Cajun is very specific. That’s really descendents of the Acadians who came over in the mid-1700s.
LB: That’s fascinating. I’ve been looking forward to your next book, which is coming out very soon now, September 13th, right?
EB: September 13th, yes, Body on the Bayou.
LB: Yes. Well, what can you, what can you tell me about it? Can you tease a little bit?
EB: Yes. I have to say, I had so much fun writing this book, because it involves a total bridezilla. Vanessa Fleer, Maggie’s annoying coworker, strong arms her into being her maid of honor, because she’s getting married to Rufus Durand who is Maggie’s arch-enemy. So Maggie agrees to do this because she thinks maybe she’ll get Rufus off her back and score some points, because she’s dating his cousin and she’d like to get rid of that 150-year-old family feud between the Durands and the Crozats and the Doucettes. So she agrees to do this. But Vanessa is out of control and she wants a theme that’s LSU even though the only time she’s ever been on the campus was to crash a frat party. But, you know, there’s some — murders ensue and so her big task as the maid of honor is to keep the bride out of jail.
LB: That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Ellen, for joining me.
EB: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.