Ellen Crosby’s Wine Country series mixes murder with the merlot in a romp through the affluent horse and hunt country of Northern Virginia. Demand for the books is attested by their prominence – Book # 8 – The Vineyard Victims – is out this week – Book # 9 near completion and Book # 10 scheduled for next year.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The family health challenge that led Ellen to give her heroine Lucie a limp
- How having the CIA in her backyard helps her plotting
- What she loves about having a French husband
- Why she’s fascinated with America’s past
- Why mystery is popular in uncertain times
- And why she’s never been tempted to own a vineyard
Where to find Ellen Crosby:
Jenny: There’s one question I always like to start with and that is – was there a “Once Upon a Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction, and if so, what was the catalyst?
Ellen: The catalyst that got me started was my husband being transferred to Geneva, Switzerland many years ago, in 1984 actually. I was an economist, working on Capitol Hill. I thought I was going to have a very long career in Government in the working world, and then all of sudden he got this invitation to go to Geneva to open the Voice of America office and it sounded idyllic, so I quit my job and we moved to Switzerland.
My oldest son was one, and I had always wanted to write, so I thought, “I know what I’ll write a novel, it can’t be that hard,” and of course it was really really hard, and it took me forever, and fortunately it never saw the light of day.
I lugged it around the world with me for years and finally when we lived in London I gave it a decent burial and I hope its fertilising gardens there somewhere.
Jenny: We’ll to talking about your first book a little later, I wasn’t sure if that manuscript turned into Moscow Nights, but because this the The Joys of Binge Reading we do focus on books in series that people can binge read. So in the Wine Country mystery series Book Eight – The Vineyard Victims coming ou soon – I think it’s this week
Ellen: Yes, tomorrow.
Jenny: Congratulations on that! When you started did you ever dream you’d be getting to Book Eight?
Ellen: My first book (Moscow Nights) was published in London and my literary agent was talking with me about what I was going to do next , and we were living in London and the family had taken a trip back to America for the summer, and a friend had taken us on a tour of the vineyards of Virginia.
My husband is French and we’d been living over the border from France and we’d visited all these gorgeous Virginian vineyards. I was telling my agent about this trip and she said “You know that’s a great idea for a book.”
I said “Yah yah for somebody else” – and she said “No for you.” I said “but I don’t know anything about grapes and wine.” And she said “you’ll figure it out, you’ll learn” so I said OK I will write one. And now Number Eight is coming out and nobody is more surprised than me.
Jenny: Certainly the series very successfully plays on the romance of wine and history. Each book has a playful title around wine – the Merlot Murders, the Sauvignon Secret and so forth – and they are set in north Virginia – affluent horse and hunt country, with a rich history. What attracted you to that region for the setting?
Ellen: The thing we moved back to America and I knew I had to write this book. I thought how am I going to make this realistic? So I got out the road map of northern Virginia where I live, this would be 1998 – 1999. There weren’t nearly as many vineyards in Virginia then as there are now – and I thought I’ve got to find a vineyard close enough to home – by now I had three children – so I can be home in time for the school bus. .
So there was a vineyard in this beautiful little town called Middleburg and I drove out and spoke to the lady who owned it. I told her I wanted to write a book set in a vineyard where somebody died and murders were committed. Luckily she was a great fan of a TV series called Murder She Wrote and she loved the idea and took me in and explained it all to me.
Jenny: You became good friends with her I think – I’ve seen the lovely tribute you wrote to her online.
Ellen: Yes! She became quite famous – her name was Juanita Swedenburg – she passed away in 2009 – we had these laws regarding wines – really arcane rules about shipping wine across state lines. It was left over from the prohibition era, where states were allowed to make the decision on what they would allow across state borders. Some states like New York and California obviously didn’t want other wine coming in. She thought you should be able to ship anything you wanted anywhere you wanted. She raised cattle and she thought “Well I can ship my meat to New York so why can’t I ship my wine?”
So she, along with a lawyer friend of hers, challenged the law and it went back and forth until it was decided at the Supreme Court level as a constitutional issue. The Supreme Court decided that you can ship wine across state borders, so she became quite a celebrity and it was very interesting talking to her while that case was evolving.
Jenny: Events harking back to the Civil War play a role in several of the mysteries – Would you say you have a bit of a fascination for America’s “Founding fathers” – Thomas Jefferson – noted as America’s first wine connoisseur – in particular?
Ellen: Well the thing was, I only thought I was going to write one book, but as the series continued on, Juanita’s vineyard was only small, 15 acres of grapes in two varieties – and she said to me “My goodness you’re going to have to plant more vines or your vineyard has to be bigger.”
But I thought as I was facing writing more books – you know there is only so much you can put in about wine, people don’t care about things like how many times you have to spray for powdery mildew and that kind of thing, so I thought what would hold my interest, what would keep me reading?
I’m a Yankee, I was born in Boston, and I realised there’s a tremendous amount of fascinating American history in Virginia. We have Revolutionary War History, the Civil War history, where I live in Virginia is the Washington DC area, so it sort of it became something I did. To find something in the past and relate it back to the present. It was so easy to do, because so much has happened here. So that was it for me, I had the murder, the mystery, but I also had the history and I really enjoyed that.
Jenny: Yes you were the one who sparked my interest for example in following up on Thomas Jefferson and the slave he took to Paris with him to train as a chef. There are some really fascinating stories there aren’t there?
Ellen: Oh really fascinating stories.
Jenny: You certainly know a lot about wine making that comes through in the stories – have you ever been tempted to invest in a vineyard?
Ellen: Oh well there is a saying . . They say to way to make a small fortune in a vineyard, is to start with a large one. And it’s really true so there is no way. And it’s hard work! If there is one thing Juanita taught me is that they’re farmers. You think you toddle around all day with a glass of champagne in your hand?
Everybody I know in wine works really hard. Another thing Juanita explained – the Virginia wines are more like the European wines because we have the four seasons. California is more like Australia and New Zealand where you have long summer hours. We have winter, snow, frosts, it’s hard work! It freezes, we have hurricanes.
Jenny: What about the drinking side of it? Have your tastes changed as the series has progressed And so you think you drink more wine that you might otherwise have done. . . .?
Ellen: Ah well, you know, my husband is French so we have always drunk wine at dinner. I’m so spoiled, when we lived in France he used to get the Guide Hachette. (Frances’s best selling wine guide, the Guide Hachette des Vins is considered to be France’ most authoritative guide and commonly referred to as the bible of the French wine industry. Editor note) and every summer we’d drive through France and we had family in Austria so we’d drive through Europe and we’d stop at all these wonderful vineyards. Andre always knew the wine that he wanted and he really introduced me to good wines. And so even to this day I always say “Honey you choose the wine for dinner. .”
But when we lived in France one of the the things I just loved was we’d entertain. We’d have a dinner party, and we’d spend a lot of time deciding on the meal, but then we’d go to the little wine shop in the village we’d lived in and you would think we were discussing something incredibly important.
We’d talk about how are we were going to cook the meat and what are we going to do with the vegetables and then the decision about the wine – it was just something that was part of the meal and to realise how much pleasure that can give – that we want this wonderful meal for friends and we want just the right wine to complement the food – I just really loved that. I found a lot of romance and graciousness in that kind of dining.
Jenny: I can really see why you gave Lucie a background in Europe because it obviously means a lot to you.
Ellen: Yes. It’s funny – going all the way back that’s why I said to my agent in London “Well you know, Mary, I really want to do a book in a foreign setting.” And she said “Well Ellen you are living in London so Virginia is a foreign setting.” I saw she had a point, but I gave Lucie one foot in Europe so I made her half French, like my kids.
Jenny: Turning now to the other books you’ve done – the Sophie Medina series. You’ve had a strong journalistic career – you were Moscow correspondent for ABC news, you’ve written features for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – and so you’ve got just the pedigree for the Sophie series, based around a photo journalist . . . Sophie Medina’ s world is one of international espionage. How did you jump from doing your journalism to the Sophie Medina books.
Ellen: Actually it wasn’t that hard – that’s my world. I didn’t want to make her a journalist, I’d had a journalist in Moscow Nights, but I always carry a camera, so I made her a photo journalist. I knew that world .I worked as a foreign correspondent, my husband is a foreign correspondent. The other thing is, where I live in north Virginia, the CIA is in my backyard. There’s the Defence Intelligence Agency there, there are a lot of people involved in intelligence, though they can’t talk about their work.
I have a member of my family who is involved in intelligence, so it wasn’t as hard as you would think to write about Sophie having a husband who worked for the CIA. Juanita’s husband worked for the CIA – that came out after he died, and nobody talks about it, but I know a lot of people in that world.
Jenny: Yes one of the things I enjoyed about it was the feeling of being a little bit of a voyeur – you get an inside look at institutions and places we might never get to see otherwise. . . Is that an intentional part of their appeal?
Ellen: I hope so because one of the things that turned out to be interesting for me was that everybody thinks they know Washington DC. I will probably come back in another life as a tour guide or a history professor or something, but I really liked finding the places that are there in plain sight but that nobody ever sees. There are so many places people walk by every day and they never notice that something was there. There was a lot of appeal in doing that.
Jenny: We had you in Switzerland writing a book that has never seen the light of day . .
Ellen: Thank goodness . .
Jenny: So then did you go to Moscow next on the list and was that where you started to write Moscow Nights?
Ellen: No. Andre went there to open the Moscow bureau – we didn’t know the full extent of it – it was still the Soviet Union, but it was coming to the end of the Gorbachev era and it was a really exciting time.
I got a job freelancing for ABC and it was so very very busy I had no time to take a breath. But my husband got very sick there, he got something called Guillain-Barré syndrome which results in almost instant paralysis. It is a fortunate cousin to MS and you do recover from it but he got a really bad case of it in Russia and we had to come home, I had to bring the children home, and he spent six months in a hospital in Washington and then came home in a wheelchair and it just a really rough time. He finally did get back to work about nine months later, but his overseas career was over as far as we thought.
So I was back caring for him, getting into physical therapy, so I thought I would write a book about Russia, but I thought it would be a non fiction book. I talked to an agent and she said “Ellen we are just inundated with memoirs from Russia, every KGB general is writing, so why don’t you just make up your story?”
And then Andre was offered the post in London, and it was wonderful to go back there. When I was back in London I started writing Moscow Nights.
Jenny: So Andre has made a full recovery?
Ellen: Now actually he hasn’t, so when people ask me about Lucie – why is she disabled – I used to say well I had to have an excuse to bring her back to America from France, so she has this bad car accident, and one day Andre was at a book gathering with me and heard me telling that story and he said to me “Why don’t you tell them the real reason?”
Which is that my husband walks with a cane. He was a sportsman before, he played semi-professional soccer, we skied and played tennis, and I really wanted to explore what it is like for someone who is fit and able bodied and whole and ends up having to learn to live with a disability.
He is hanging in there, he still does physical therapy twenty seven years later.
Jenny: Yes Lucie’s condition does add an extra frisson to the series and in the last one I read she was offered extra therapy and was trying to decide whether to take it or not so that is obviously something close to you.
Ellen: It’s funny because what happened, things got pretty bad. One of his feet didn’t recover and he had to walk with a brace, and then the brace led to problems and his foot got infected and somebody said “do you know what I know a doctor who can fix you.”
We hadn’t known anything about this doctor, and it was a bit like that TV show years ago The Bionic Man “We can do miracles” and he did. He rebuilt his foot, and it’s been a miracle what he’s been able to do, so I just wondered what would Lucie do, and I asked my readers and a lot of people wrote and said “If she has the opportunity you should heal her” but there were a couple of people who said ” you know there aren’t too many books about people who are disabled and Lucie has a great life, she’s in love, she runs a business, she’s tough,so no, don’t heal her.
Jenny: Yes I felt that tension in the book – that she somehow has to have physical treatment to feel whole again when she already really is a whole person who happens to have a limp.
Ellen: I have had letters from readers who don’t like the fact that she is disabled. Even Juanita said “Can’t you just heal her between books?” And I said “No not really . . ” Someone wrote me and said “Whatever you do with her, she’ll always be Lucie even if you do heal her,”and that’s so right, she will always be affected by having that experience.
We also have an autistic son, and it is just life changing really, when someone you live with and love has a disability, whether it’s from birth or through an accident or illness. It’s a really different place and I try to write about it as honestly as I can. I don’t want to be maudlin, but to me it just seems it is part of who she is.
Jenny: Having had this lovely conversation about Lucie the question I sometimes ask takes on a slightly deeper significance and that is what do you hope readers take away from your books, is there a deeper message than sheer entertainment.
Ellen: I think it goes back to the notion of history. I really hope people learn something when they read my books, that they discover something about the Civil War battle I wrote about or just aspect of history – especially Americans – we are just horrible – you know when I was living in London and Ted Kennedy was running for office as Senator for Massachusetts – everyone in London knew where Massachusetts was – in America we had to explain everything in terms of how far it was from London – we just don’t have that same awareness of world history – of our own history – so I hope it’s the sugar on the pill that people learn something.
Jenny: In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Ellen: Well I think there are two things. One of them is that I worked as a journalist and when you work as a journalist you have to get it done. Maybe it could have been done better, but you have to finish it. And that was the thing when people asked me “How did you write your book – what did you do?” I used to say the difference between me and you is that I finished it. The journalistic background really helped a lot.
The other thing I did when I moved to London I took two classes. I don’t know if you have heard of the Arvon Foundation. I spent a weekend in Scotland with tutors and a group of people in a beautiful old croft there, and that was a really good opportunity to concentrate on my craft.
Then I went to a course in London run by a man called Robert McKee called Story Seminar. It was for film makers, but a movie is very similar to a book, basically, it has to be a compelling story, and I learned a tremendous amount on how to translate his advice into a book.
Jenny: Is there a mystery in your own life that could be the plot line for a story?
Ellen: I think it would be the story of Andre’s illness. When Moscow Nights was reprinted recently I ended up putting it in the preface, because I hadn’t talked about it much when the book was first published, and I just had to get Russia out of my system. It wasn’t exactly a secret but I just hadn’t talked about it much.
Jenny: The podcast is called The Joys of Binge Reading, and we are chatting to authors of series books that are most likely to be “binge read” Have you authors that you’ve binge read – either now or in the past If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Ellen: I was thinking about that. I have never really been a binge reader, especially now I’m a writer I have to fight for the time to write and then read for my writing research, and I’ve got friends who are writers, and I want to keep up with their books, or I’m on a panel with someone and I want to be sure I’ve read the books under discussion.
But we have mystery awards in the US, the Edgar Awards, they are probably the premiere mystery awards, and I have been an Edgar Judge and what is cool about that is you read widely across the whole genre. And once I chaired and was on the short story committee and so that was 7 or 800 short stories you read in a year. So many mystery writers also write short stories, it’s a very interesting genre in that respect, I don’t know another one like it. And so I got a chance to sample a lot of people and read things that wouldn’t be my first choice – like noir or science fiction – but it broadens the horizons.
Jenny: That raises the question of why you chose to write mysteries yourself?
Ellen: I did read a lot of mysteries when I was younger – I mean I was a political science major in undergraduate school and I got a degree in international relations so it doesn’t seem like a natural progression to write mysteries, but I did read a lot of mysteries, Nancy Drew and all those kinds of mysteries.
And the other thing is the mystery world is a very satisfying world, especially in our day and age, and especially in our country, where there is so much angst, people are nervous and worried and sometimes it seems as if justice doesn’t always triumph and people can do bad things and get away with it, and in that world you get to “write” and “right” those wrongs and I just think that is just like therapy, it’s really satisfying.
Jenny: Yes it brings to mind a quote I saw from Robert McKee, which really rang with me – that in any story the controlling idea needs to have resonance in the reader’s current lives.
Ellen: Oh yes, I got a very interesting email from a good friend of ours, he was an international correspondent – still is actually. I met him in Moscow, and he is all over the world, I see him on television, he’s reporting on tragedies, he’s in war zones, and he said “you know I am sitting here with my wife and she is reading one of your books and I am reading the other, and I just wanted to say it’s nice to be in a world where you know wrongs are going to be righted. Sometimes you just need that, to be able to step away from too much of it in my face and read something like that.” I was delighted, it was one of the nicest fan letters that I’ve had in a while.
Jenny: Circling around from the beginning to the end, at this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, what, if anything would you change?
Ellen: You know what I wouldn’t change anything. Sometimes I wish I had started younger, and that I’d started as a mature writer, but my first book was published when my oldest was going off to college and my middle son was writing college applications, and I found a quote – I’ve had a quote for you – it’s been on my bulletin board for ages, its yellowing and in danger of falling apart – from the writer Katherine Patterson and her book A Sense of Wonder (On Reading and Writing Books for Children.)
It reads: “Success might have come sooner if I’d had a room of my own and fewer children, but I doubt it, because it seems to me that the persons who took away my time and space are the ones who have given me something to say.”
And I think that is really true. I would not have missed any of my boys growing up, and being there with them and my husband. I dabbled and worked as a journalist, but first and foremost I was a Mum and we have three amazing sons now and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Jenny: That’s wonderful. What is next for Ellen Crosby the writer? What are you currently working on?
Ellen: Well the eighth book is out this week, so I start touring the day after tomorrow and so I am on the road quite a lot, and I am also finishing Book Nine, called Harvest of Sorrows, out in 2018, and then probably after Christmas I start on the tenth book.
Jenny: Coming to the end of our chat- Where can people find you and your books online?
Ellen: I am everywhere. I’m on my website www.ellencrosby.com. I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and you should be able to get them on Amazon, they are all available as E Books and audible books, so I’m pretty findable if you look me up. The one thing that I never realised that is so hard as a writer is carving out the time to write – I have learned to step away from too much social media. I write on a computer that does not have the internet and I’ve learned not to get caught when something “dings” for my attention.
Jenny: Our time is up, Thanks so much for talking and we look forward to the coming books.
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