Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ellen Byron--A Christmas Conundrum

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  Is it that time of the year already??? Yes,  it's  Halloween. So we can start talking about Christmas. But if you need a little help easing into the Christmas spirit, here's a story from author Ellen Byron that will warm up the old skeptical cockles.  And we all need a dose of Cajun, right? Especially at Christmas.


Given my book’s title – A CAJUN CHRISTMAS KILLING – I wanted to share this story.

When I worked as an entertainment journalist, I was a regular contributor to Redbook magazine. My beat was celebrity articles, so I happily tootled along sharing the tragedies and triumphs of film and TV’s famous faces until the magazine asked me to do a holiday roundup featuring famous religious figures.

This was during the heyday of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell. I’ve always believed faith should be a non-profit venture, and some of those guys were living large. Obscenely large in a few cases. I also happen to be a born skeptic and a bit of a religious mutt. My Italian mother’s family is Roman Catholic, my dad was Jewish. In the course of a weekend spent with relatives, I could be at temple on Friday night and Mass Sunday morning, which merely confused me as a kid. But afraid to damage my relationship with the magazine, I shelved my concerns and agreed to do the piece.

My job was to extract “heartwarming little Christmas stories” from these preachers and reverends. (If you’re wondering why there was no heartwarming Hannukah story, it’s because there wasn’t a rabbi who was a household name. Yup, that’s how it worked.) Roundups – stories which include more than one celebrity – can be a bear because no publicist wants their client to share the stage with another star unless they really need the publicity. But my story was innocuous enough to score big gets.

Some of the participants simply faxed me their contribution. A televangelist who’ll remain nameless barked his story at me by rote and then ended the call without even a goodbye. But what I’ve never forgotten is the impact of one preacher – Rex Humbard. 

Even over the phone, Humbard was the definition of charisma. He was warm. He was charming. He was solicitous. As we talked, I could feel his pull, and my skepticism almost melted away. (Note the “almost.”) I got the man’s appeal, which gave me empathy for his followers.

The article was such a success that the next year the magazine asked me to do it again, but with a twist – I had to interview the wives of prominent religious figures. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that piece anymore. But again, one particular memory stands out. While most of the women parroted a story they’d obviously told a hundred times before – which most of their husbands did as well - I had an actual conversation with Robert Schuller’s wife, Arvella. She was open and honest about the ups and downs of her life, even sharing how a bout with breast cancer briefly made her question her faith. My takeaway? Arvella was a human being, not a religious icon.

Why were these revelations important to me? Because they forced me out of my narrow, jaded New Yorker mindset and broadened my world, which made me a better human being and writer. There’s faith in A CAJUN CHRISTMAS KILLING. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And I owe part of that to unexpected lessons learned from Rex Humbard and Arvella Schuller.

DEBS: Now, more than ever, I appreciate having my faith in human nature confirmed. REDs and readers, has you had an encounter that gave you an unexpected affirmation? 

Here's more about A CAJUN CHRISTMAS KILLING: Maggie Crozat is home in Cajun Country during the most magical time of the year. But the Grinch has come to stay at the Crozat Plantation B&B, and he’s flooding travel websites with vicious reviews. Maggie ID’s him as rival businessman Donald Baxter –until Baxter is found stabbed to death. With her detective boyfriend sidelined as a suspect, Maggie must catch the real killer or it will be the opposite of a Joyeux Noel for her.

 And more about Ellen Byron, who is as charming and lovely as her heroine. 

Ellen Byron writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called her new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, “superb.” Body on the Bayou won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. Plantation Shudders, was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards, and made the USA Today Bestseller list. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles; published plays include the award-winning Graceland; TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly Odd Parents, and pilots. Ellen lives in Studio City with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled rescue dogs.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Help Line

DEBORAH CROMBIE: As much as I hate to admit it, I am a dreadful failure at Halloween. Not only can I not sew, but I have absolutely NO CREATIVE IDEAS FOR COSTUMES! Neither did my mom, although she sewed, so I was always the poor kid dressed in some awful store-bought costume. I would begin to think this was genetic, except that my daughter (who also can't sew) is pretty creative with costumes--at least once she got old enough to make her own. When she was little, she was the poor tyke wrapped in the ghost bed sheet...

Of course, now there's Pinterest, and I did find a board called HALLOWEEN IDEAS FOR LAZY GIRLS, so maybe if someone would invite me to a party....

Reds, are you costume whizzes? (I know you New Englanders have done some great things at Crimebake.) If you are, tell us where you get your ideas! And if not, join the Halloween Help Line Crew.

And tell us what you're doing for Halloween!

I think we're going to have a perfect crisp, cool night here in north Texas. I'm planning to sit on my front porch and hope for trick-or-treaters. I know I will have at least one!! Wren will be a little ghost, in tights and silver tutu, with a GHOST t-shirt made by a friend of her mom's. Her mom's t-shirt will say "Mummy" and her dad's "Deady." I can't wait!

And although she's not getting candy, I have a little raven finger puppet I saved for her from Bouchercon:-)

RHYS BOWEN: Debs, my kids WANTED store-bought costumes as soon as they went to school and there was peer pressure! But I remember Clare was once a tree! Now that was a challenge. John and I have been to various Halloween parties over the years. One year he had a dark beard and went as the devil with small red horns protruding from his head and upturned eyebrows. He looked very scary and when we stopped to ask directions of some kids they stared at us with big eyes. I was a fallen angel with black wings. One year I was Lady Georgie and John a 1930s aged seducer!  I'm amused that my sophisticated teenage granddaughters still like to do Halloween, even though they don't even eat candy. I suppose it's the fun of dressing up.

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm no help at all when it comes to Halloween. Our kids had to make their own costumes... which they tell me was traumatic, showing up at pre-K in a homemade Superman when another kid had on the glossy plastic "real" thing. They have grown up to be fabulous Halloween celebrators and costume makers. Last year my younger daughter made a her one-year-old son a spider; and here's my two girls ready to trick or treat a few years ago. When I look at the picture it cracks me up! 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: In the long ago before Youngest was born, I still had my sewing machine set up in our "guest room." I wasn't great - I didn't try complicated princess dresses or stuffed dinosaur tails. But I could competently execute the leopard costume, a witch dress, royal cloaks and tabards, etc. On the grown-up front, I made a spiffy Robin Hood/Maid Marian get-up for me and Ross.

Then things started to slide...the sewing machine got tucked out of the way, I had three kids, and October became a crazy whirl of baking stuff for the class parties, decorating the car for "Trunk or Treat" and dealing with ever-changing and excruciating specific requests from the kids ("I want to be a dinosaur princess!") I started buying good-quality costumes (like Disney princess rigs and dress-ups from the expensive indy toy store) when they were heavily marked down after Christmas. Between those and my collection of old costumes/ old dresses, scarves and hats/ plastic wands and swords I wound up with a couple huge bins the children could plunder at will. I've passed along the child-sized costumes at this point, but the bins are still well-filled with adult outfits and accessories. The Hugo-Vidals stand ready for a Fancy Dress Party at a moment's notice.

INGRID THOFT: Julia, what is trunk or treat?

The only Halloween costume from my youth I can remember is that a Madonna-esque girl during the eighties.  Think a miniskirt with funky tights, loads of black rubber bracelets, and lots of glittery makeup.  A few years ago, we were invited to a Halloween party, and I wracked my brain trying to come up with costumes that would be easy to assemble yet memorable.  I decided on Hugh Hefner and an age-appropriate girlfriend. The hubby wore fancy pajamas with slippers and a pipe.  Glasses, gray hair, a house dress, and support hose transformed me into a woman in her late eighties.  A caricature, yes, since women in their eighties come in all varieties, but the point was made, and the costumes were a hit.

JENN McKINLAY: I sew and yet it never occurred to me to make the Hooligans' costumes because they always wanted to be Buzz Lightyear, Thomas the Tank Engine, Batman, or Spiderman. All way beyond my skill set. The teen years have been a bit more irreverent as they either wear rubber horse head masks or my personal fave was the year they went as Death and the Crash Test Dummy. As for me, I was the youngest of six. It was always a sheet with eye holes or whatever my mom could cobble together twenty minutes (plaid flannel shirt + straw = scarecrow) before it was time to go and a grocery bag for candy.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, as a kid all I wanted to be--depending on the year--was a princess or a cowboy. The princess outfit was a fabulous piece of silver cardboard stapled into a pointy hat  with a pink scarf coming out the top. Which I LOVED. Accessorized by a pink plastic shower curtain cape. Very flowy. I wore it for weeks afterward! Nothing like a pointy hat with a scarf coming out the top to give you confidence, not to mention the cape.

As an adult, I love thinking of costumes. One of my faves was a teabag: In brown leotard and tights,I  just stepped into a clear plastic dry cleaning bag, filled it up with torn brown and orange construction paper, and then tied it at the neck. I'd made a Constant Comment tag to hang from the string.  A few years ago, Jonathan and I were The Arcs: I was Joan, he was Noah. At CrimeBake, we've been Nick and Nora, and Sam Spade & Bridget O'Shaughnessy, and Harriet Vane & Lord Peter Wimsey. One of my faves was a few years ago: as you see in this photo, we were Albus Dumbledore and  Bellatrix Lestrange. 

LUCY BURDETTE: having seen Hank’s costumes at crIme bake, I have to say she is a master! And Hallie is no slouch either. I love Halloween and costumes, which is a good thing in Key West where costumes rule, especially if they involve tutus! (See yesterday's post for photos from this past weekend.) Some of my best costumes appeared during my graduate school days, where I suppose we needed to blow off steam. I sewed a very elaborate Kermit the frog – the problem was no one had any idea who was under the frog head so it wasn’t good at a party! Here was my favorite from those days – Lucy as wonder woman.

DEBS: Oh, my gosh, you are all fabulous!!! Rhys, so elegant!!! Hallie, your girls are adorable, and how cute to dress Jody as a spider! (Wren was a chicken. Here she is wearing last year's costume at her gym class last week.)

Lucy, you are the most adorable Wonder Woman, and Hank!!!! You and Jonathan take the cake. Who would have thought Beatriz Lestrange could look so glamorous? 

READERS, what about you? Are you fancy dress whizzes? And if so, what's your secret??? And how are you spending Halloween?

Oh, and, Julia, do tell. What is "trunk or treat"?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Report from the Florida Keys @LucyBurdette

LUCY BURDETTE: Lots of people have asked me how the Florida Keys and Key West are faring after Hurricane Irma roared through. Friday was the first day we were able to see for ourselves. Honestly, it was a bit of a grim ride south, especially the area stretching from Marathon through Big Pine, where the eye blew across the islands. The road is still lined with piles of trash, boats washed ashore, and mind-boggling deposits of appliances and mattresses. I'll show you a little of what we saw...



We saw many trucks loading up the trash and heading north--but it will be a while before things get back to normal. And quite a few people lost their homes in the middle Keys, and are struggling to figure out where and how to find a new home. This of course will have an effect on businesses attempting to open without their full complement of employees. And there is definitely a push and pull between welcoming tourists, which the Keys economy depends on, and allowing the residents to recover from the storm.

Key West, on the other hand, was lucky to avoid Irma's worst wrath. The town lost big trees and vegetation, so it appears lighter and a little more bare than it did. However, this is Fantasy Fest weekend, one of the biggest parties of the year. And the spirit of the Keys is still strong.  These photos from Friday's locals' parade show that Key West residents will not let a hurricane dampen their imagination and playfulness!

I think this is Elvis

Part of a gaggle of "Chers"

Hula-hoop costumes

Who can resist a guy in polka-dots?

Matt and Leigh blast off

The Wizard of Oz gang
And here are just a few shots from the big Saturday night parade--the hurricane theme was very strong...

We're so grateful that the islands and our friends survived...

There's no place like home