Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Holli Castillo's Gumbo Justice

Nights in New Orleans can be as dangerous as they are steamy. Especially for a smart-mouthed, competitive Assistant District Attorney like Ryan Murphy. If the criminals she prosecutes aren't trouble enough, she has an overprotective police captain daddy and four cop brothers to contend with, as well as a possible romance with a hot detective-- or two. And then there's the small problem of a psychotic serial killer, who may or may not be trying to help her on her way to the top.

Set against the backdrop of pre-Katrina New Orleans, Gumbo Justice is the first in the Crescent City Mystery Series published by Oak Tree Press. The second, Jambalaya Justice, is scheduled for release summer, 2010.

My guest, Holli Castillo, is a Louisiana appellate public defender and former New Orleans Prosecutor. She received her JD from Loyola University School of Law, where she attended classes at night and worked days as a child support collector at the D.A.’s Office. She earned her Bachelor’s in Drama at the University of New Orleans while working at the Can Can Cabaret on Bourbon Street. The publication of Gumbo Justice was delayed for nearly a year when she was in a near-fatal collision with a drunk driver in 2008. Still recovering, she lives in New Orleans with her husband, two children, and dog.

Welcome, Holli.
When did the writing bug bite, and in what genre(s)?
I have written as far back as I can remember. When I was in kindergarten, I tended to write fantasy type things, animals that could talk, princesses. In junior high I gravitated toward romance, and in high school it was all mystery. As an adult, mystery and thriller has taken over my life, although I have written a sci-fi screenplay.

When you started writing, what goals did you want to accomplish? Is there a message you want readers to grasp?
When I started writing Gumbo Justice, the story was completely different than what it turned in to. The original concept revolved more around ethical issues, i.e. what should a prosecutor do in a particular situation and why she might not do the right thing in a particular instance. It evolved away from that into a faster paced serial killer mystery. There were a lot of things I wanted readers to walk away with, but one of the biggies was that the people protecting you in the criminal justice system are sometimes scarier than the criminals. And that people in general can be flawed in ways that defy explanation and still turn out to be good people, but they can also turn in to psychotic killers, depending upon intervening factors.

Briefly tell us about Gumbo Justice.
Gumbo Justice is the first in the Crescent City Mystery series. It follows female prosecutor Ryan Murphy, a sometimes dysfunctional person but excellent attorney. She smokes, drinks, likes to party, but she's also really vulnerable for a variety of reasons she tries to hide. She has a family of cops that love her, but also tend to suffocate her, and never really quite trusts her instincts when it comes to men, usually for good reason. During the course of prosecuting cases and visiting crime scenes, she discovers a mystery, not realizing that she has already drawn the attention of a serial killer who kills defendants on cases she lost. When her life begins to go downhill because of the killer, she uses her best attribute-her brain- to help her figure out who it is to face off against him.

How do you develop characters? Setting?
Most of the characters were talking to me a while in my head before I started writing. It was hard at first to distinguish them from the other voices, but eventually I did. Ryan was easy, I wanted a strong, smart female protagonist, but one with problems, and not my-husband-cheated-on-me or I'm- too-fat or my-house-is-dirty kind of problems, but huge emotional issues that she has to keep in check just to function. Shep was easy, he's the perfect man and man of my dreams, no offense against my husband. And Monte Carlson physically sprung from an undercover detective who actually had Monte's job and got to have the tattoos and earrings, which gave me the idea. The real guy is nice and sweet and not a player like Monte, and Monte is a big strapping dude compared to the real guy, so that's where the similarity ends. So I would say I base my characters in part on what I think would make interesting people, my idea of ideals, and a little touch of real people.
The setting was easy, as I was born and raised in New Orleans, and New Orleans is the perfect location for a bunch of crime since that's the reality.

How do you determine voice in your writing?
When I was younger I used to like first person, because it's so much more personal to me. But I wanted this particular novel to be told from a few different viewpoints at different times, so I chose third person. There are also some things the protagonist doesn't know that someone else might know, and the only way to do that is with third person.

Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?
I am a big believer in an outline, especially a scene outline with main plot points that need to be hit to stay on course. I do change it up, though, and add and remove scenes, but I start with an outline. When I wrote the first draft of Gumbo Justice, I didn't use any type of outline, I just had an outline of sorts in my head, and I ended up doing so much rewriting because I changed my mind too many times. Now, I always do at least a scene by scene outline.

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
I think leading a fairly normal and boring life made me want to write about people with more exciting lives. Even as a prosecutor, cases were more of the same, and not as interesting as you might think. I try to make my stories as interesting and as dangerous as possible, while keeping them believable.

What are your current projects?
Right now I am working on the follow up to Gumbo Justice, Jambalaya Justice, and the third in the series, tentatively titled Chocolate City Justice. I am also writing my second screenplay.

Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
My website for the novel is, and my personal website is
Also, I am a Facebook addict, when time allows,

Signed copies available at

available at and

Holli, continued success!


Sunny Frazier said...

I think Holli's idea of changing from a book about ethical issues to a mystery was a good choice. It's always possible to get serious messages across and still give the readers a thrilling read. Much more entertaining too!

WS Gager said...

I loved Ryan, the main character. She was so real, warts and all. Ryan was flawed but in a good way and I always loved that she never strayed from her character. I couldn't put the book down and can't wait for a little Jambalaya!
W.S. Sinicki

Susan Vondrak said...

This sounds really interesting. As a public defender, you have insight in the process, the people and the system in a way most people will never see.

Your characters sound very real, which is what I love in books. To know them like people and come back to them in future stories.

Karyne Corum said...

Holli, the book sounds like a must read. I really liked that you let the story evolve from it's original focus. I think keeping a story organic is always a challenge, it certainly sounds like you did a superb job. I can't wait to get a copy of the book to read.

Susan Whitfield said...

Thanks for visiting and leaving comments to Holli. Please visit again.

Holli said...

Sunny, Wendy, Susan and Karyne, thanks so much for stopping by and responding. I get so wrapped up in my characters that I get depressed when I'm finished, as if a friend has moved away, and try to start working on something else right away. I also try to inject a little bit of real life into the stories, whether I pick facts from a real court case or attributes of a real defendant.

Thanks Susan for interviewing me. You made me sound so much more interesting than I actually am, and I will advise any writer who wants to look good in an interview to come to you!

Holli Castillo