An Interview with Ellen Crosby

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • August 11, 2015

A murder-mystery sends a Washington photojournalist on a quest for a killer — and the Independent for a conversation with its author.

An Interview with Ellen Crosby

Ghost Image: A Sophie Medina Mystery is the second in a series by Ellen Crosby. In it, Crosby takes readers from the lush grounds of a monastery in Washington, DC, to the beautiful gardens of London and back, all on the hunt for a murderer. Who knew killers could be so well-traveled?   

I’ve always worried about the disappearing rainforests and all the other places where we are clearing generations of plant life. Are seed banks really doing the work of recovery? Is there really an ancient seed repository, and what does it do besides storage? 

The Millennium Seed Bank is part of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is located in West Sussex, England. In partnership with other biodiversity projects around the world, scientists at the Seed Bank are collecting seeds for long-term storage and preservation; their current goal is to collect 25 percent of the world’s plant species, many of which are in danger of becoming extinct. Besides safeguarding these plants from disappearing forever, there is also a lot of research being done on how to germinate old seeds and understand how long they can remain viable. The Seed Bank has a great website (click on “Visit Wakehurst”), and more information about finding and identifying historic plants is available at the website of the Center for Historic Plants at Monticello.

Do you believe there is another penicillin in an undiscovered species of plant? What if the seeds accidentally propagate and form odd hybrids? How would the age of a seed be manifested in a plant?

Question 1: I certainly hope so. Question 2: Some of the best scientific discoveries have been the result of accidents. My daughter-in-law, a scientist, has a sign on the door of her lab quoting Albert Einstein: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research.” Question 3: If a seed sprouts, it’s a new plant — even if the seed is old.

The monastery in Washington, DC, is so underrated. It really is a beautiful place. Now that you’ve written about it, have you upped its tourism?

I agree with you about the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland; it’s gorgeous and one of Washington’s little-known gems. As to whether writing about it has had an impact on tourism, I can only say that I’ve heard from a number of people who told me that, after reading Ghost Image, they’re planning to visit or revisit the monastery — along with some of the other DC locations in the book.

You killed off a character who was so likeable. Which is harder: creating the character or killing him or her off?

As a fan, I think it’s always hard to see a beloved character die (“Downton Abbey,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” to name two recent examples), but I believe the characters serve the story, and sometimes it’s necessary to kill off someone who is likeable. Killing off a bad guy who no one will mourn and is getting his due is easy. And even villains must have some redeeming quality or they are just two-dimensional characters.

At the end of the day, what pleases you most about your story?

When someone tells me they absolutely loved the book. For an author, I think there can be no greater pleasure.

The title — did it come before the story? Please explain “Ghost Image” and how it relates.

I always have to know the title of the book I’m writing, preferably early in the process so it can be woven into the story. "Ghost image" is a photographic term referring to an object that is partially recorded by the camera and therefore has a translucent or ghost-like appearance. A ghost image (or “ghosting”) can also occur with an electronic flash used at a slow shutter speed, when the ambient light captures a second unintended image.

In the book, Sophie Medina spots a ghost-like figure when she processes photos she took at the Washington Tidal Basin during a meeting with Brother Kevin Boyle, a Franciscan friar and controversial environmentalist. While Kevin and Sophie were walking along the promenade, he mentions that someone had been stalking him; after panning the scene with her telephoto [lens], Sophie assures him they are alone. Later that day, Kevin is found dead in the garden of the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland, and Sophie now wonders if the shadowy man in her photo had something to do with Kevin’s death.

What are the constraints that you feel most keenly, tying up loose ends, completing the character arc, or…? 

Honestly, the biggest constraint is my deadline — the date I’m supposed to turn the book in to my editor. I always wish I had more time to write, polish, fiddle.

How has Sophie Medina changed from inception to her second book?

The biggest change is that Sophie has moved back to Washington, DC, after living in London for many years, and she also left her job as an international photojournalist with a news agency. Now she’s working as a freelancer and she can take on whatever assignments she likes and that interest her.

What was the last great book you read? How did you select it?

I re-read The Great Gatsby this spring on the beach in the Dominican Republic and fell madly in love with it; this year marks the 90th anniversary of the book’s publication by Scribner, my publisher for the last 10 years. In honor of the event, Scribner’s editorial staff asked 90 authors to share a favorite line from the story or a memory associated with reading it. If you haven’t read Gatsby since high school, give it another try. (I’m also reading So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan, which is excellent.)

Would you prefer to enlighten or enthrall your readers if you could only do one or the other?

My favorite emails from fans are grumpy letters that say I kept someone up way past their bedtime because they absolutely had to finish the book. So I guess the answer is enthrall.

I don’t see any Cabernet titles in your Virginia wine series. Is there one coming?

In America, wines are named for the grape varietal (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.), and French wines are named for the region where the grapes are grown (Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Champagne, etc.). The third book in the Virginia wine country mystery series, The Bordeaux Betrayal, is the story of a bottle of wine that went missing for 200 years and was believed to be a bottle of Bordeaux — or Cabernet Sauvignon — that Thomas Jefferson sent from France for George Washington. And since you brought up the wine mysteries, I am writing two new books in that series, which will be published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur! Look for the first one sometime in 2016.

[Editor’s note: Click here to read the Independent’s review of Ghost Image. Photo of Ellen Crosby by Jackie Briggs.]

Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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