Saturday, June 25, 2016

Author Interview: Ellie Alexander

Ellie Alexander writes a series of Bakeshop Mysteries set in Ashland, Oregon. The series features Jules Capshaw, who owns a bakery and cafe called Torte and, like beloved amateur sleuths through the ages, seems to stumble across a lot of dead bodies.

Ellie is launching the fourth book in the series, Caught Bread Handed, this coming Tuesday, June 28, in Vancouver, WA. There will be plenty of books and Bakeshop treats! Details here.

Ellie took time from her busy schedule to answer questions about her latest mystery, the writing life, and growing up in a home filled with books and baked goods:

You just released the fourth book in your Bakeshop Mystery Series, Caught Bread Handed. How did you get the idea for such a fun series?

Baking was always a love language in our house. My mom was a home baker who made everything from scratch—cakes, cookies, and fresh pies. My dad was more artistic in his baking. He would spend a Saturday making a dark chocolate cherry torte with whipped cream and chocolate shavings adoring the top.

My parents also loved to host parties. One of my favorite memories is of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Party they held in our backyard complete with Shakespearean food, Elizabethan costumes, and twinkle lights. I thought a little touch of Shakespeare and lots of delicious pastries would make a good pairing for a mystery. And, a small town bakeshop seemed like an ideal place to set the series because all of the locals come to Torte for a warm strawberry scone, a listening ear, and a side of gossip.

Why did you decide to set your series in Ashland, Oregon?

My dad taught honors English when I was growing up and is a huge Shakespeare aficionado. He had me quoting sonnets at a young age, and we went to Ashland many times to see productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I think Ashland is the perfect setting for a culinary cozy because it has touches of an old English village, but with plenty of Northwest culture. It’s such a unique place with a thriving community of artists, outdoor lovers, hikers from the PCT passing through, college students, tourist from all over the world, and retirees. Plus it has a thriving food, craft beer, and wine scene.

Because the focal point in town is the OSF, setting the books in Ashland allows me to add a touch of drama to the series. For example in Caught Bread Handed there is a character who dresses up like a court jester. That totally works in Ashland, but might turn heads somewhere else.

The titles of all your books are hilarious cooking/mystery puns: Meet Your Baker, A Batter of Life and Death, On Thin Icing, and now Caught Bread Handed. How do you come up with these funny titles?

Coming up with titles it one of my favorite things about writing the series. I have so much fun playing around with puns. Usually it ends up being organic. I’ll start with an idea for the book which will lead to the title. It’s a family affair and even my editor and the team at St. Martin’s come up with titles. Readers too! I was giving a library talk a few weeks ago and a reader came up with a brilliant title that I’m saving for a future book.

What do you admire most about your heroine, professional baker and amateur sleuth Jules Capshaw? What is her least endearing trait?

Well first and foremost I admire her talent when it comes to pastry. Baking is her medium and she believes that food should be infused with love. That comes through in everything she does and how she treats each customer who walks through Torte’s front door. I also think she’s a strong heroine. She returned to Ashland to heal her broken heart, but she isn’t broken, which is an important distinction. She’s finding her way home and finding herself, and that’s something I think we can all relate to.

I think her biggest challenge is getting out of her own head (something I struggle with too). She’s a thinker, which can be an asset when piecing together clues, but sometimes she needs to give herself a break when she’s worrying about what’s next. That’s why baking is a great outlet—when she’s kneading bread dough or tempering chocolate she has to be completely in the moment and absorbed in the sensory process.

Do you know right away, or have an idea, how you are going to end your stories? Or do the endings come to you as you are in the process of writing?

I do a ton of work before I actually start writing a first draft. I start by sketching out the actual murder and my list of suspects. Once I’ve figured out potential motives for each suspect and what they’re all lying about or hiding, then I write twenty to thirty page outlines so I have a very clear idea of where I’m going before I start writing. Usually the final book ends up pretty close to my initial outline, however I always give myself permission to see where the story takes me.

When I wrote Meet Your Baker, I thought I had the perfect killer and motive, but when I finished the first draft I realized that I loved the character I had pegged as the killer and I wanted to bring him back in a future book. That doesn’t really work if he’s sitting in jail, so I ended up re-working the entire plot.

What is your work background? How did it lead you to writing a mystery series featuring a professional baker as your sleuth?

Believe it or not my degree is in speech pathology. It seems like a strange mix, but there are many things I use from my work background in my writing. I had to spend a lot of time studying normal speech and language development to understand where it breaks down. I also learned how to be a good listener and take copious notes when I was working in the field. When I’m sketching out a new book, I’ll take a notepad and go sit in the corner of a coffee shop or bakery and watch and listen. How are the baristas talking, what the customers ordering, how are the chefs interacting etc. It really helps lend credibility to my writing and creates rich dialog. Be kind to your barista because you never know who might be listening!

What have you learned from writing your Bakeshop Mysteries – either about the subject of the books or the writing process – that most surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by how incredibly welcoming the baking community has been. I’m not a professionally trained pastry chef, so I’ve spent many hours interviewing and shadowing real chefs. They’ve all been so willing to share tips of the trade and even a few ways to kill someone in a commercial kitchen—yikes!

Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?

Absolutely! My mom loved mysteries and would take me to the library once a week. I’d return home with a stack of books that I would devour. She read aloud to us when we were young and really embedded a love of reading. Thanks to both of my parents I have very eclectic taste when it comes to reading. I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on from the classics to sci-fi.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the books you read?

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Austen, Maude Lovelace, and Willa Cather. They all helped shape my writing style. I think our early reading experience frame our writing and it’s interesting that my four favorite authors all write about family. Even though the Bakeshop Mysteries are whodunits they really center around the idea of family and home.

Do you have favorite mystery series you love to read? Which ones?

I grew up reading mysteries. I started with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, and then one summer when I was about twelve or thirteen I read all of Agatha Christie’s books. I think throughout my teens and twenties I read every mystery on the shelves from Diane Mott Davidson to Sue Grafton.

The only con of writing mysteries that no one ever warned me about is that now it’s really hard for me to read mysteries, especially when I’m working on a new book. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction and historical fiction when I’m writing because I don’t want someone else’s plot or voice to get in my head.

What are you reading now?

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Café by Mary Simes.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

Meet every deadline! I think that those three words have much more meaning. Writing is a profession like anything else. Many aspiring writers assume that because writing is a creative profession that the same standards don’t apply, but they do. It’s the same as a doctor showing up three hours late for an appointment or an accountant missing the deadline to submit tax returns.

The advice that I always give aspiring writers it to take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Meeting and hearing from readers who love my books. It still makes me smile and sometimes I have to pinch myself when I get an email from a reader halfway around the world about Jules and her team at Torte. I can’t believe that these fictional characters I created in my head have a life outside of me.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I write 2,000 words every day. Sometimes that takes me three or four hours and sometimes it takes all day. Once I finish my word count I get outside and go for a walk or hike to clear my head. I often find that the best ideas or breakthroughs happen when I’m not sitting in front of my laptop.

You have a terrific website and are also on facebook and twitter. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?

I think it’s really important to connect online and in the real world. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last decade and social media is essential for promotion and finding an audience for your books. Of course it’s all in balance. My number one priority is writing so my word count comes first, but I try to carve out time each day (even if it’s just a few minutes) to comment and share interesting links and giveaways with readers. It’s amazing to hear from readers in New Zealand or Germany who have discovered my books. My readers have become friends over the years too. I’m always touched by those personal connections. The same goes for doing launch events and book tours. I spend so much time in my own head with my fictional characters that it’s always a great break to meet people face to face or online.

Do you have any events coming up to promote Caught Bread Handed?

Yes! I’m having a launch party on Tuesday, June 28th at 6:00 in Vancouver, WA. We are recreating Torte and bringing the book to life with an artisan bread and pairing market. You can taste breads by local bakers, organic honey, savory sauces and much more. There will be complimentary infused water, swag, tons of baking themed giveaways, books, and wine available for purchase. The event is free. You can find all the details here.

Then I’ll be on tour for most of July with stops throughout Oregon, Northern and Southern California and Seattle.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

The 5th book, Fudge and Jury, will come out at the end of the year. Jules and her team at Torte are going to be a showcase vendor at Ashland’s annual Chocolate Fest. If you’re a chocolate lover this is the book for you! My office looked like it had been hand-dipped in chocolate when I was working on the book.

I’m working on the 6th book as we speak, A Crime of Passionfruit. In this book Jules is heading back to the cruise ship for a short trip! It will be out in June 2017.



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