Sunday, August 23, 2009

Author Interview with HOLLI CASTILLO

Holli Castillo is an appellate public defender with the state of Louisiana and a former New Orleans prosecutor. Past careers include working as a child support collector for the D.A.'s office in New Orleans and at the now defunct Can-Can Cabaret in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. She lives in metropolitan New Orleans with her family.


How did your background as both a prosecutor and a public defender prepare you to write your book, Gumbo Justice?

Being a former prosecutor and a current public defender, I have a perspective from both sides of the criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to procedural issues for each side. Both of these experiences also give me a unique insight into the minds of my characters, both the good guys and the bad, so I think I was able to portray them realistically. Also, long days in the courtroom provided fodder for the courtroom scenes in my novel.

Tell us how your experience as a Can-Can girl in New Orleans helped you land your job in the D.A.’s office?

I worked my way through undergrad getting a BA in Drama working at the now defunct Can Can Cabaret in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. After graduation, I felt I needed to get a “real” job while I went to law school, so I applied for a clerical position at the District Attorney’s Office. I was fortunate to get a position as a Child Support Enforcement collector, and I worked during the day and went to law school at night. I was told that the only reason I was called in for the interview was because the hiring supervisor, a man, wanted to see what a Can Can girl looked like.

Is Gumbo Justice the first novel you completed? [love the title!] Tell us about your screenplay and what you like writing better, crime fiction or screenplays.

Gumbo Justice is the first novel I’ve completed. My screenplay, Angel Trap, is a science fiction action thriller about a woman being hunted down by a team of assassins. She’s a strong fighter and good with weapons, but she’s also smart. I wrote this when I was immobile from the car wreck mentioned below, so I made my lead character even stronger to compensate for my own weakness at the time.

I like writing both novels and screenplays the same. It really depends on which one turns out to be a better showcase for the story I’m thinking of.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

It seemed as if fate was conspiring against me to thwart the publication of Gumbo Justice. I had an agent reading it when Hurricane Katrina struck and I had to put the novel on the back burner for a while. The agent eventually decided not to take on new clients because of her own health issues, and I was about ready to give up. Then I heard from Billie Johnson at Oak Tree Press. She read the novel and decided to publish it. Before it was scheduled to be published, I was in a near-fatal head-on collision with a drunk driver (June 2008). I had two broken legs, a broken ankle, a shattered elbow, fractured lower lumbar vertebrae, stitches, bruises, burns, several operations, you name it, I had it. I was immobile for about six months and the book release had to be pushed back. I still walk with a cane, have a rod in my left leg, plates in my right ankle, and screws in my elbow, but eventually I should be somewhat back to normal. Except for being bionic. And Gumbo Justice finally did come out, fate or no fate.

Briefly tell us what Gumbo Justice is about and let us know where we can buy it.

Gumbo Justice is the first in the Crescent City Mystery Series, the story of ambitious New Orleans prosecutor Ryan Murphy. She’s vying for a coveted spot on the elite Strike Force, and is pretty close to getting it when the defendants on her old cases start getting murdered. At first, she’s not too worried---karma and street justice have a way of taking care of the bad guys. When the killer turns his attention to her, and threatens her promotion, her friends, and her job, she realizes there may be more at stake than rising to the top.

With a police captain for a daddy, four cop brothers, and the romantic interest of a hot detective or two, she should be the safest person in the world. But the killer is someone she knows and never suspects, and she’ll have to overcome her demons and reveal a few secrets if she wants to make it out alive.

It’s available at and Barnes and Noble online at

What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?

I’m working on the second in the Crescent City Mystery Series, as yet untitled, which is a follow up to Gumbo Justice, again featuring Ryan Murphy as the main character. Since Gumbo Justice was just published in June, I don’t know exactly when the second novel will be available, but I hope by June 2010.

You were born and raised in New Orleans, which is the setting of Gumbo Justice. Share with us your thoughts about what’s easy, and not so easy, about choosing a setting and making it work.

Choosing New Orleans as a setting was the easy part. We have one of the highest crime rates per capita in the United States, making it ripe for a novel featuring a series of murders. (I know, some claim to fame!) It’s also a well-known visual city, and I think people immediately conjure up certain images in their minds when they think of New Orleans.

The hard part about choosing a setting is making sure the setting is appropriate for the theme and plot of the story. For instance, there are so many New Orleans settings, the public would have been way more familiar with than the settings I included—the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, jazz clubs, strip clubs, the GNO/Crescent City Connection bridge that seems to be featured in every New Orleans movie. But none of these settings fit in with this particular group of murders and the plot of the story. (Although the French Quarter and a strip club make a brief appearance in the second novel.)

The other hard part is deciding how much setting to include in each scene. A sunset in New Orleans looks exactly the same as a sunset in any other big, dirty city and probably doesn’t need to take up a lot of words. A sunset in Hawaii, however, might deserve a full description.

I wanted to include only as much as was necessary for the reader to picture the scene and get a feel for the uniqueness of New Orleans. Several of my murders take place in the projects, a setting most readers won’t have first-hand knowledge of. At the D.A.’s Office, I would frequently accompany my investigators on “field trips” to interview victims or witnesses in the projects, so I was able to describe enough that (hopefully) the readers will be able to picture the setting while they read it.

Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?

If you’ve received a lot of rejections, especially form rejections, sit down and have a serious look at your query letter and the folks you’re submitting to. Check that you’re submitting to appropriate agencies, that they handle your type of work and take new writers, check that you’re word count is appropriate for your genre, and make sure your query isn’t full of errors. If an agent or publisher sees spelling errors, typos, grammar problems, or punctuation issues in the query, he or she is going to assume your manuscript is the same. Careful editing of your query is just as important as careful editing of your manuscript.

Case in point: I received a lot of form rejections, so I took an online writer’s course for novel writing. I learned on the first day that my manuscript was twice as long as generally acceptable for a first novel in this genre, and the instructor advised me that no agent or publisher would even bother to finish reading my query when they saw the word count mentioned in the first sentence. I edited the manuscript and discovered she was right.

Do you have a writing schedule? How about daily/weekly goals with respect to page or word count? Any other dos or don’ts you can think of with respect to putting one’s nose to the grindstone (or butt to the chair)?

I am not a schedule kind of girl. My family as a whole hates schedules (which makes the school year really tough for us), and we’re night people.

I tend to become obsessive when I write, and do so until somebody needs to be fed or the phone rings. I don’t have a goal for any particular page or word count, I just write until I feel like I’m finished writing for the day. It’s not much of a plan, but it works for me.

The only do I would offer is to write even when you really don’t feel like it. Sometimes I get stuck and it puts me off, but I’ll skip over what’s giving me the blues and continue writing the next paragraph or the next chapter, or even the ending. I’ll mull over the problem area in my mind for a few nights before I go to sleep, or while I’m sitting in traffic. Eventually the answer just pops in my head and I work it out. In the meantime, I’ve not wasted any valuable writing time because I’ve kept on with a different part of the work.

Here’s your opportunity to tell us anything else you care to share.

My children, ages 7 and 10, also love to write and are quite good at it. I had a boss who used to say, “Every monkey thinks its chimp is cute,” but in my unbiased opinion, my children truly are excellent writers. My 10-year-old won a fiction-writing contest at school this past year in fourth grade, and my 7-year-old has a book planned for me to write with her.

What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):

1 comment:

  1. Excellent tips, thanks. And Gumbo Justice was a great read!