Interview: Ellen Byerrum

Please welcome Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crimes of Fashion series.

  • Killer Hair
  • Designer Knockoff
  • Hostile Makeover
  • Raiders of the Lost Corset
  • Armed and Glamorous
  • Shot Through Velvet
  • Death on Heels

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
After moving West to the land of many droughts, my soul is parched for lack of rain. Therefore, a perfect day (and there are many varieties) begins with a lovely soaking rain. It is the kind of cool morning that lets you sleep in late. Somehow I am awakened with a great mug of good coffee, delivered bedside. I would have no pressing deadlines. That perfect day would be in October in the midst of a fiery fall in New England where my husband and I could walk for miles in the woods by a stream, in the mist, and amidst colorful leaves. The air is perfumed by the peppery smell of foliage and wood smoke. Perhaps we would buy a pumpkin at a roadside stand. Lunch would involve a hearty soup, hot bread with melting butter, and steaming coffee. Afterwards, perhaps a nap, settling in front of a fire with a great book, maybe a ghost story. Later, dressed up for dinner out at a restaurant with steaks and a roaring fire in a stone fireplace. Followed by a fabulous play I’ve never seen before with great actors, directing, and yes, a wonderful set. (I’ve grown tired of poverty productions with a few sticks and my imagination to suggest furnishings. Sue me). We would discuss the play back at a cozy inn in front of that fireplace with a few friends who tell hilarious stories about theater and cozy inns and former residents who may be dead but never really left. Something like that. As for the rest of the evening . . . you may use your imagination.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
When I attend mystery events or conferences, I try to wear vintage clothes from the 1940s, which I think are wonderful because they are classic and they fit my frame. In addition to vintage clothing, I love jackets and wear them when there isn’t a hundred-degree heat wave going on. I’ve always loved clever jackets. I first remember wanting one in the 7th grade, which I suppose makes me a bit weird. My mother had a forest green fine-wale corduroy jacket that she gave me. I wore it until it was in tatters. She stole it back when I wasn’t looking and hid it. Sigh. Now I have a pretty 1940’s jacket in forest green. I also had a copy of a different 1940s jacket made in dark green. Are you sensing a theme? A great jacket can hide a multitude of sartorial sins. Always pick a color you love.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Can I first simply acknowledge the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught me in grade school? They encouraged me to love reading and writing and said I had a fine brain. Thank God I wound up at a parochial school, the public school kindergarten teacher told my mother I wouldn’t make it through the first grade. Never a good sign.

I will always be grateful for my college English professor Art Kistner who was the only person at my university who encouraged me. (So much for the School of Journalism.) Art said I should write novels because I had too much plot for short stories. He also said that journalism would ruin me, but I ignored that advice.

And Ernie Joselovitz of the Playwright’s Forum, the playwriting guru in Washington, D.C. Ernie has always been generous with his time and encouragement.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes, I’m listening to music right now. Mostly I listen to classical music, but at the moment, I’ve been trying to find songs for Autumn, having been inspired by my perfect day. It seems that I have a playlist for the different books. When I was writing Death on Heels, I listened to a lot of old Marty Robbins cowboy songs. In other books I’ve listened to big band music, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Tom Waits.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A dark chocolate truffle with an orange and caramel center. A truffle because truffles are always a bit fun. It would be dark chocolate because there is a dark aura around Death on Heels about women whose barefoot bodies have been abandoned on lonely country roads. The orange and caramel center is there because there are unexpected happenings and twists to the action both sweet and tart.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
As I write the Crimes of Fashion mysteries, the characters change and evolve. As Lacey Smithsonian’s love life and career progresses and she becomes more confident and sure of herself, I thought it was time to delve into Lacey’s past and take her back to the place where she worked at her first reporting job and met her first real love. It was in a town to which she never wanted to return—Sagebrush, Colorado. In order to go forward with her current flame Vic Donovan, it was necessary for Lacey to resolve her unfinished feelings about cowboy Cole Tucker. And it’s always fun when an old boyfriend shows up. At least in fiction! I wanted Lacey to become involved in a grittier mystery with a thriller feel. I also thought it would be fun to turn around some of the Western themes focusing on a smart woman instead of a guy.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The most prominent theme is how what we wear tells stories about us. Lacey is a genius at decoding outfits on a basic level. Women working hard to reach their career dreams despite miles of obstacles is a recurring theme. My books also deal with women friendships, loyalty, and love. The books are satiric and reflect current topics such as textile plant closings. While researching my latest book, I traveled to the town on which Sagebrush is based, and where I had my first journalism job. I walked miles in the sagebrush, found an ancient cowboy line camp, was followed by a wild horse, examined bleached cattle bones underfoot, and interviewed a legendary cowboy.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Lacey’s main attributes as a reporter are curiosity and follow-through, even when that might not be the best thing to do. She’s also loyal to her friends, honest, and brave. She tries to make the best of a reporting profession, which is changing in today’s world. Lacey loves vintage clothing and she has inherited a trunk full of 1930s and 1940s clothes and patterns from her late great Aunt Mimi. She takes a lot of her inspiration from the women who lived through WWII and took over the factories and the job. I wish I had Lacey’s wardrobe.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Lacey could be a combination of Brenda Starr, Dorothy Parker, and Hildy Johnson as played by Rosalind Russell from the movie His Girl Friday. I realize these choices are all a little vintage, but so are the clothes in my books.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

  • Raymond Chandler, even if I had to lock up the liquor cabinet.
  • Dashiell Hammett, because he would bring Lillian Hellman and it would be a fabulous brawl. Ditto on locking up the liquor cabinet.
  • Elizabeth Peters, I’d love to hear her talk about archaeology and Amelia Peabody.
  • Mildred Wirt Benson, the original Nancy Drew.
  • Diane K. Shah, who wrote two elegant mysteries set in the late 40s Los Angeles, As Crime Goes By and Dying Cheek to Cheek. Oh why, weren’t there more?
  • Dorothy Sayers, because I love the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and he had a strange life.

What’s next for you?
The ninth Crime of Fashion mystery, Veiled Revenge, will be released in February 2013. Washington, D.C. fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian always believed clothes could be magical, but she never thought they could be cursed. Until now. What do a haunted Russian shawl and a fainting psychic’s cryptic warning have to do with a dead party crasher at her friend Stella’s utterly pink bachelorette bash? When a villain vows that nobody at these cherry blossom nuptials will live happily ever after, a walk down the aisle becomes a race against time. Cars crash, bullets fly, and ancient curses come to life as maid-of-honor Lacey scrambles for vital fashion clues.

It’s fun.

***

Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Her most recent book is Death on Heels. While researching fashion for her sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s styles, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter, and a playwright. And even though she has moved away from the East Coast, she holds a Virginia P.I. registration.
Web site: http://www.ellenbyerrum.com/
Blog: http://ellenbyerrum.livejournal.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EllenByerrum

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11 thoughts on “Interview: Ellen Byerrum”

  1. Ellen,

    I love that your closet reflects your & Lacey’s shared love of vintage, and that your mash-up description of Lacey fits the bill, too. And yes: “A great jacket can hide a multitude of sartorial sins.” SO TRUE! Genius to have a favorite jacket copied.

    I also love how your characters change and grow through the series. It’s fun for a reader to be on that journey with them, and I bet it’s fun for you as the writer to push into thriller territory and explore Lacey’s past! But my favorite line of this whole interview: Lacey is a genius at decoding outfits on a basic level.” Never underestimate what your clothing says about your personality!

    Like

  2. All hail great sin-covering jackets!

    Is it too late to ask you another question? I am very interested in hearing a bit about how you decided to incorporate fashion and mystery…

    I’ve enjoyed the whole series and am looking forward to Veiled Revenge (for the story, of course, but also to see what amazing vintage item/pattern comes out of Lacey’s magical fashionista trunk next)!

    Great interview–thanks for visiting us.

    Like

  3. Thanks everyone for commenting. I’ve been out all day, but wanted to check back in. I loved this interview. So much fun with thought provoking questions. I do believe that send messages through our clothing. And jackets are wonderful and so expressive.

    And Cynthia, when I first started writing the Lacey series, there were no characters like her. There were lots of hard boiled women and at least once in every book a line about the character not knowing how to dress. She just fished her jeans out from under the bed and wore a plain white t-shirt. It drove me crazy and not just because a round neck t-shirt looks terrible on me. I thought “come on!” I wanted to write about a woman who’s smart and witty and can out think the guys, but who can also dress herself attractively. And then I thought maybe that’s her strength, she sees a little bit more just by looking at someone’s clothing. I’ve been a reporter so I know that world, but I wanted to make it hard for her (like it’s not already hard) by giving her a fashion beat that gets no respect. So that’s how Lacey was born.

    Like

  4. An interesting, fun interview! Your series sounds fascinating.

    Best,

    Jacqueline Seewald
    DEATH LEGACY–romantic suspense

    Like

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