1. Tell us about your latest book.
My latest is the third in the Crescent City Mystery Series, Chocolate City Justice. It takes place during hurricane Katrina and brings my protagonist and my story into post-Katrina New Orleans. The novel picks up a few weeks after the second book ends, and prosecutor Ryan Murphy is back at work. She’s assigned to what seems to be a slam dunk case, a gang member shooting up a child’s birthday party, all caught on videotape. But in New Orleans, things are never what they seem and Ryan is on the verge of solving the real mystery behind the shootings when Katrina hits. In typical Ryan fashion she ends up left behind, forced to face the storm, gang members, and bad cops–and that’s just for starters.
2. Tell us a little bit about where you live.
I live in New Orleans, which is not the New Orleans you see in the movies or on TV. Every day is not Mardi Gras and we don’t spend all our time on Bourbon Street, although I did work in a Can-Can club on Bourbon Street during undergrad. Most people live in the suburbs, because the downtown area is expensive. We have gangs, but they are not organized like L.A. gangs, which is probably why they generally get caught. We have the best food in the world, but we don’t drink liquor for breakfast. We are primarily Catholic, although Baptist probably runs a close second. Our architecture is beautiful, a mix of Spanish and French, and you’d be hard put to find a local who isn’t obsessed over the N.O. Saints football team. My biggest complaint would be the weather, which is humid most of the year, and the insects, particularly cockroaches and wasps, which to me serve no purpose other than to scare people. The bad thing about the big flying roaches is that they prefer to be in dry, warm environments, so even if you keep your house spic and span, you still risk finding a giant roach in your house when it rains, especially if you have any trees near your house. I also think we have the friendliest people. We tell everyone hello. When we travel other places and strike up conversation with strangers, they look at us like we’re crazy. Maybe we are, but that’s just what we do down here.
3. Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…” Do you have a favorite southern saying you can share with our readers?
I have a few– my mawmaw was a French-speaking Cajun from the country, and there were several sayings we were raised with. First, God don’t like ugly. Second, God don’t sleep. Third, when discussing an unattractive woman, she looks like she fell out of the ugly tree and got slapped by every branch. And of course, the famous local expression, Laissez les bon temps rouler, let the good times roll.
4. Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
I was a huge Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden fan as a child, but because they were written by different writers throughout both series I can’t say which one was actually my favorite. Both of these series made me love mysteries, though, and made me want to write mystery novels. Every time I finished reading a Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew I would open my notebook and start penning a new novel. Of course, I didn’t finish any of them way back then, and because I had the entire series of both books, there were a whole lot of first chapters. I think it helped my writing skills to write so much at such a young age, even if I never finished any of them.
5. What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
My major theme is how justice and fairness are not always the same thing. Often, lines have to be crossed or blurred to some extent to get justice, and the system doesn’t always end up with what people think of as a fair result. A common occurrence down here is that witnesses either get scared into not testifying, or get murdered before trial. The charges get dismissed and then the defendant gets released and ends up getting killed by the first victim’s family or friends. Then the whole cycle starts all over again. It was frustrating as a prosecutor, but a lot of people down here see it as poetic justice. That’s one of my prevalent themes. There’s also the issue of whether the ends justify the means.
As far as readers, I haven’t heard a lot from them about themes. The biggest thing I get is readers enjoying the triangle between my lead characters, and choosing a side. Ryan has a detective boyfriend, Shep, who is a complicated character in his own right, but a good guy. But she also has Monte Carlson, an undercover officer from the streets. He’s also a good guy, but a little bit edgier than Shep. He’s also black and not Catholic, which makes him an unacceptable match as far as her police captain father is concerned. The captain isn’t exactly racist, but definitely set in his ways and very old school southern, more bothered by the Catholic thing than the race thing. Shep has to wonder if Monte were white and Catholic, whether Ryan would choose Monte. It’s a dilemma because Shep knows Ryan won’t go against her father.
6. What is your strongest and/or your weakest area in the creative process?
I think my strongest area in the creative process is coming up with characters and scenarios. I am constantly thinking up new series and characters, and new storylines, but don’t have the time to write them. This leads directly to my weakest area in the creative process and in my life in general, which is time management. Sometimes I can sit and write for days, almost in a manic state, annoyed if I have to stop to eat or do something for my kids. Other days, I barely get to open the computer. I am always multi-tasking, but am really poor at it. I also have a sort of addictive personality, so once I get into something, it’s hard to drag myself away from it. Sometimes that can be a good thing, such as when a deadline is approaching. Other times, it can be a bad thing, like when I discover a new book or TV series and have to start from the beginning to see everything that happened up until that point. I did that years ago with John Sandford’s Prey series, and again with the TV show Rookie Blue its first season.
7. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
I have two diametrically opposing viewpoints on this. I am one of those writers who writes what I know. I even double check the things I know to make sure I really do know them. It would be incredibly difficult for me, with the type of person I am, to write about things I don’t personally know about.
But on the other hand, I recently read a post by my friend and writer Marilyn Meredith, who has the viewpoint that you should write what you don’t know, making sure you do the proper research to make it authentic. I think this also makes sense, because you can write about so much more if you write about things you haven’t actually experienced. Writing what you know can be limiting, depending upon your experience.
8. How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
I write fiction, mostly mystery novels. I also write screenplays, so far in the science fiction and drama genres, although I think my dramas tend to blend more into dramadies. I’ve also written some paranormal, although nothing ready to be published. I tend to set everything except the science fiction locally, in part because New Orleans is what I know the most about and also because I think New Orleans is such a great backdrop for mysteries and thrillers. There is also a lot of movie and TV filming done down here, so I guess I am looking at a bigger picture that if someone wants to make one of my works into a movie– all offers considered– the setting is already ripe down here.
9. Beside “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?
My day job is an appellate public defender for the state of Louisiana. I was previously a New Orleans prosecutor, but quit in 2000 to stay home when I had my first daughter. Three months later I was lucky enough to land my current job, which I work from home. I am appointed to represent indigents on the appeal of non-capital felony convictions, which means my job is mostly writing. Although in theory we can get cases from anywhere in the State, I am officially assigned to the circuit in New Orleans, which is where the majority of my cases come from. So even though I don’t get to be involved in prosecutions first hand, I get to read the transcripts so I still have access to the lingo, the procedure, and all that good stuff that I can use in my books.
10. Where do you get your ideas?
I get some of my ideas from my previous cases at the D.A.’s Office and my current appeals, although usually I’ll get just the seed. Real life crime is actually pretty boring and standard, and one murder is hardly distinguishable from another. There is the occasional fed-a-dead-body-to-an-alligator case, or the solved-twenty-years-after-the-fact-by-DNA case, but generally most cases are pretty dry and boring. So I’ll take the root of the idea and try to make it into something unique. I also get some of my ideas from things that happen in real life. I’ll hear something on the news and think of ways the real thing could have been much worse and much more interesting. Some of my ideas also just pop up unexpectedly, either in a dream or when I’m driving. I’ll often get annoyed at people on the road, and wonder why somebody is driving so fast. Then I’ll make up a whole scenario in my head, like he just found out his wife has been held hostage, or the museum where his kids are on a field trip has caught fire, or any number of things like that. I’m sure most of the time the other driver is just an inconsiderate jerk, but it makes me feel better to think of horrific things that could excuse his driving. And then I have the start of a new idea.
11. Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
We always had books in our house. My mom was a big reader, whether mystery novels, True Romance magazines, or the newspaper. She always had tons of books and she always read to me and my sister or listened to us read to her. It’s funny because today my kids have to read so much more in school than we did– my sixth grader has to read the book assigned that the whole class reads, a book from a list that they are tested on, and then a set amount of pages per day in another book for their reading logs. I don’t remember reading whole books until high school. And I loved to read so I would have loved to have been assigned extra reading for a grade. I remember my father would take me and my sister to the mall every Saturday evening–malls were kind of new down here then– and give us $5.00 each to buy books. Not to show my age, but back then we could get an armful of books for that. So every week I had new reading material.
12. Any teachers who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged?
I had one teacher who had a great influence on me as a writer. Bonnie Laigast was one of my high school English teachers and in charge of the school newspaper (I was Fashion and Entertainment editor.) The plan in my head was to become an actress at that time. She told me frequently that I should consider being a writer because my work was good. My fashion and entertainment articles were always humorous and fun to write, and having an adult outside of my family have faith in my writing talent and believe that I could actually make a living doing something I enjoyed so much was tremendous when I was a teen. Her constant encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue writing when I finally felt ready to do it. She is still a teacher and I am friends with her on Facebook. When she congratulated me on getting my first novel published, I was really excited to be able to tell her she had played a role in it.
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Jambalaya Justice www.amazon.com/Jambalaya-Justice-Holli-Castillo/dp/1610090209
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