October 11, 2009

Elizabeth Zelvin: Death Will Help You Leave Him Please help us welcome author Elizabeth Zelvin. Our own Sheila Connolly recently had a talk with "Liz" about her series and her writing life. WP: Your first book, Death Will Get You Sober, features a protagonist who is a recovering alcoholic–which probably surprised a lot of readers. Does he return in your new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him? And is the focus alcoholism (apart from the crime, that is), or has wrestling with addiction opened the door for new problems? EZ: Recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler is indeed back, still sober, and grappling with issues that aren’t new but rather have been submerged in booze until now, sort of like that hidden nine-tenths of the iceberg that hit the Titanic. The main theme of Death Will Help You Leave Him is bad relationships. Bruce is torn between his compelling but very damaged ex-wife, who’s hooked on someone else but doesn’t want to let him go, and a growing attraction to the woman who’s prime suspect in the murder of her abusive boyfriend. Recovery from addictions means having to grow up, however belatedly, and Bruce has some hard choices to make by the end of the story. WP: Given how much personal experience you have with providing therapy to troubled individuals, why did you choose to write about it, rather than moving in a completely different direction? Did you follow the conventional wisdom, "write what you know," or did you feel you had a message to convey and that fiction was an appropriate medium? LZ: I definitely write about recovery because I have something to say. I find the courage and honesty of people who not only let go of their addictions, but turn their lives around on every level in the process, both moving and inspiring. I also wanted to convey that people in recovery are neither depressed nor priggish. I think the fun in my books, considering the seriousness of the topics—alcoholism, codependency, domestic violence in the new book—surprises a lot of readers. And I think every novelist, especially a mystery writer, wants to surprise the reader. WP: There are critics and readers who believe that genre fiction should serve as entertainment, not as a bully pulpit for social issues. What's your opinion? EZ: Ah, what a perfect set-up for something I say to clients all the time: There are always a lot more choices than either/or. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is pure fizz and 10 a “bully pulpit,” what would 2 to 9 be? Somewhere along that continuum is what I hope I’ve written: a passionate concern for the issues embodied in characters you care about and written with wit and humor as well as empathy. I’ve been invited several times to take part in panels at mystery conferences on the topic of writing about social issues. Every single writer on those panels has given high priority to “not being preachy.” WP: Your books are set in a big-city environment, but the problems your characters face are universal. Can you see yourself writing about a completely different setting? EZ: The third book in the series will have Bruce and his friends outside the urban setting, in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. And at some point in 2010, a standalone short story will appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It’s about a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage, which could hardly be more different. WP: How do you balance solving a mystery and wrestling with psychological or personality issues in your books? EZ: The short answer is “intuitively.” My novels are character-driven, so whether Bruce is seeking out a suspect or going to an AA meeting—sometimes both—he’s going to behave in character and filter everything through his wry, self-deprecating personal filter. The same is true of Barbara, his codependent sidekick. She drags them into the investigation because she can’t help galloping to the rescue of a friend in trouble, and she contributes to the solution because she can’t help minding everybody’s business. Bruce is struggling with his capacity to feel his emotions and to engage in meaningful relationships (friendship as well as love). He gets involved in the mystery because he cares, but covers it up because he hates being vulnerable. Under that sardonic attitude, he’s got a heart. And the whole story flows out of that continued tension. WP: Do you feel you've boxed yourself in by tackling a "serious" subject in your debut book? Have you ever felt the need to write something completely different? EZ: Somewhere along the way in the process of getting this mystery series published, I discovered that I can also write short stories. They can enhance the series—there are now three published stories featuring Bruce. They can also provide a low-risk way to explore different characters, voices, themes, and settings. I’ve mentioned the historical story that will be in EQMM. So far, I’ve also written a paranormal story and another that’s from the killer’s point of view. That one is a prom revenge fantasy, and I had a lot of fun writing it. WP: Have you found that your maturity has been a help or a hindrance in getting published? (I'm talking about age. If you have a better term, use it.) EZ: I don’t mind using the A word. My first mystery came out on my sixty-fourth birthday, and I used it for all the shock value I could get. So much that’s essential about the process—taking critique, revising and revising and revising again, rolling with all the rejections yet persevering, handling the vulnerability of having your inner self out there at the mercy of readers and reviewers—is so much more possible when you’ve spent decades developing some emotional maturity that you can bring along on the roller coaster. And what I have to say is a lot more interesting coming from all that life experience. It’s not that you use your life directly—on the contrary, it’s young people,...
SO MANY BOOKS Posted by Sarah Atwell (that's who NEIBA thinks I am) I spent a chunk of a recent weekend at NEIBA (the annual trade show for the New England Independent Booksellers Association). It’s a fascinating glimpse into a side of the book business that writers don’t usually see. As you might guess, I’ve loved books since I first met one. Many of the schools I attended had book sales, and I made sure my mother came home with plenty. She hoarded the copy of Little Women that came from one of those sales, and gave it to me when I was home sick with the measles in fourth grade. Does reading something while feverish make a difference? I know I inhaled that book, and read it many times later. I still have that original copy, and in more recent years I’ve paid homage at Louisa May Alcott’s grave in Concord (and thanked her for her inspiration—she was one hard-working writer!). My middle school brought in a bookseller on Fridays at lunch (Scholastic, I think, although I could be wrong). Paperbacks were really cheap in those days, which fit within my three-dollar-a-week budget, and I indulged happily. From that era I still have Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (couldn’t get away with that title these days, could we?), by Cornelius Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, which probably helped to inspire my desire to go to Europe. Did I mention I can’t ever get rid of books? Anyway, NEIBA provides an interface between publishers--large and small, national and local--and regional booksellers. The bookstore people get to browse among the new books and check out advance copies of those that are coming. Much more satisfying that reading a catalog, isn’t it? There has to be a difference between seeing a listing on paper and holding the book in your hands, and I hope that the real thing is more convincing. I was there representing Sisters in Crime/Mystery Writers of America: we have a booth where we provide information about both organizations, as well as promotional materials from our New England writers--a great group! But in between introducing myself and us to booksellers, I had the privilege of strolling and sampling. And drooling. For example, there’s the author signing/cocktail party. There were several authors there I’ve looked forward to meeting, and the fact that they’re happy to actually give you books is icing on the cake. But the real action takes place in the big room. To understand why this matters, you have to know that publishers tell their writers as little as possible. They seem to think that details like the size of a print run or the number of books sold don’t matter to us, and that we’re happy sitting at our keyboard tapping out thousand of words and sending them off with no thought of their future. Don’t ask me why this is the industry model, but it is. (From what I can tell, sometimes Marketing doesn’t even tell our editors how our books are doing.) Another aspect about which we’re kept in the dark is how our books actually get to the people who sell them. And that’s why NEIBA and shows like it are important: they provide that moment when a bookseller looks at a book and says, I want to sell that. Or, I can’t sell that--not in my shop, not to my customers. The majority of people involved with books are really great. They’re in business because they care about reading and writing, not because they’re going to become rich or famous. Okay, there are a few exceptions, but most of them simply like books. And that’s what keeps us writers in business. This is not an easy time to be a bookseller. When times are tough, non-essentials get cut from the budget (I would argue that books are essential, but others may disagree). Too many good small bookstores have closed in the last year or two, because love alone is not enough to pay the bills. We in the writers community grieve for each one we lose. Buy books! Buy lots of books! And read--for yourself, for your children. Your life will be richer for it.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

The Typepad Team

Recent Comments