10 QUESTIONS FOR…mystery series author Elizabeth Zelvin


Author interview with Elizabeth ZelvinLZheadshot FINAL150dpideathwillhelpyou

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose mystery series from Minotaur Books features recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Death Will Get You Sober appeared in 2008. Library Journal called it “a remarkable and strongly recommended first novel.” Death Will Help You Leave Him is just out. One short story was nominated for an Agatha award; another appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; a third is included in the holiday crime anthology The Gift of Murder, to benefit Toys for Tots.

1. Tell us about your latest book.

Death Will Help You Leave Him is the second in my mystery series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, computer genius Jimmy and world-class codependent Barbara. It’s all about bad relationships: domestic violence and being hooked on someone who’s in some way unavailable. When a friend’s abusive boyfriend is murdered in her apartment, she becomes the prime suspect. Bruce has to juggle the investigation, his sobriety, a crush on the bereaved girlfriend, and the lure of his compelling but destructive ex-wife, who’s on a collision course of her own. The sleuthing takes him to a funeral in Brooklyn, an Italian bakery, a lingerie boutique on Madison Avenue, and an art gallery in SoHo. In the end, he has to make some hard choices. And of course he finds the murderer.deathwillgetyousober

2. How did you get started as a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of 7, when I read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon. Like Montgomery’s more famous Anne of Green Gables, Emily was a little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island, but Emily had a burning desire to write and took a lot of flak about it. I worked in publishing back in the days when every woman had to start as a secretary, hoping it would help me get a novel published, but I ended up editing accounting textbooks. Then I started writing poetry. I dreamed of publishing the first novel at 24, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t get published till my late thirties, though I eventually published two books of poetry. I wrote three mysteries that were agented but didn’t sell in the Seventies. My first novel finally came out on my sixty-fourth birthday.

3. What does a typical day look like for you?

I usually spend my whole day at the computer, flipping back and forth between my professional work (more about that below), writing, and the huge amount of networking and promotion that goes with being a writer nowadays. I wish I could say that I start working on the current manuscript without opening my email first, but I can’t. I’ve recently joined Facebook, and it’s already brought me promotion opportunities and maybe some readers, but I keep an eye on the clock and don’t let myself get lost in it. At some point I go out and run for an hour—around the Central Park reservoir when I’m at home in the city, someplace beautiful, preferably near water, anywhere else.

4. Describe your workspace.

I have two: one in Manhattan and the other in my little house on eastern Long Island. I’m in that one right now, and it’s my laptop on a little computer table looking out at my garden and bird feeders. When I look up, I also see a sign that’s my mantra for the first draft: “Just Keep Telling the Story!” That’s to stop me from trying to edit or censor myself before I get to the end. Revision comes later. In the city, it’s a desktop computer and a lot bigger desk, and I have my back to the window. When I look up, I’m looking at a portrait of my mother that an admirer painted in her youth. Family legend claims that his wife was so jealous she insisted on being there during the sittings. My mother was a lawyer and a big role model for me. She died ten years ago at the age of 96. She would have been thrilled about my novels but baffled that I chose to write mysteries. I don’t have the luxury of a room with a door I can close in either place, but I get the alone time I need, and that works for me. I don’t understand people who write their novels in Starbucks.

5. Favorite books (especially for writers)

My very favorite book is Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, which is part of the Miles Vorkosigan science fiction series. It’s a brilliant, laugh-out-loud funny cross between space opera and comedy of manners with some of the most memorable and lovable characters in fiction. The author I’ve discovered recently whose work I’ve enjoyed most is Ariana Franklin, who’s written Mistress of the Art of Death and two sequels about a 12th century woman pathologist in Henry II’s England. Again, it’s the endearing characters that get me every time.

6. Tell us 3 interesting/crazy things about you

1. I’m a shrink. I directed alcohol treatment programs and had a private practice in Manhattan for many years, but now, I do online therapy. I work with clients from all over the world by chat and email on my therapy website at LZcybershrink.com.

2. I’ve been to Timbuctoo. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa in the Sixties and had a short but magical visit to this city that was a cultural and commercial center 500 years ago and now looks (or did when I was there) like a bunch of sandcastles in the desert.

3. I played Nashville this summer. At the mystery conference Killer Nashville back in August, the guest of honor, J.A. Jance, was given a gorgeous black guitar at the awards dinner. I borrowed it and sang “Long Black Veil,” which is probably the best paranormal murder ballad ever written.

7. Favorite quote

E.M. Forster’s tag for Howard’s End: “Only connect.” That’s what it’s all about for me, whether it’s as a writer, a therapist, a performer, or just a person: moving people to tears or laughter, listening—really listening—sharing myself and getting intimate glimpses of others.

8. Best and worst part of being a writer

The best part is those moments when the voice is coming through you from some mysterious place and all you have to do is write it down before it disappears. “The Muse,” or “inspiration” isn’t some abstract concept. Those are names writers in different eras have given to a very particular experience, when the words kind of tug at the inside of your head and you simply must get to pen and paper or a keyboard. For me, they have a maddening way of coming when I’m out running or in the shower. It’s a challenge to get them down when you’re, um, unclothed and dripping wet without frying the keyboard.

The worst part is the first draft—no contest. I’m an into-the-mist writer, not an outliner, and when I write the first draft, I’m driven by fear that I won’t be able to get to the end of the story. Sometimes it’s torture—the exact opposite of that “I am just a channel” state that’s the best part.

9. Advice for other writers

It takes talent, persistence, and luck to get published. To encourage the talent, you have to read, read, read and write, write, write. You can’t do anything about the luck except not quit five minutes before the miracle. Beyond that, it’s persistence, persistence, persistence. And get critique. Be willing to kill your darlings.

10. Tell us a story about your writing experience. Can be funny, embarrassing, inspirational, etc.  

I wrote the first draft of my first mystery years before I finished it in 2002. It wasn’t published till 2008, and by that time it had undergone a lot of revision. In fact, I rewrote the whole thing before St. Martin’s offered me a contract. But the first scene, when Bruce wakes up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day and realizes he needs to change his life, struck me as just right, so I didn’t tinker with it beyond taking out an adverb or two when I realized they’re frowned on by writing mavens who think they weaken one’s prose. A lot of people, including my legendary editor, her assistant, a copy editor, and a proofreader had seen the manuscript before it was finally set in type. When I got the galleys, I knew any changes at that point would be expensive, so it would be better not to make any, except to correct any typos. When I got to page 2, I was horrified to see that the patients in the detox were smoking in bed, and the nun didn’t say a word about it. That was okay when I wrote the scene—as it was when I first worked on the Bowery—but not in 2008. I changed it.

Death Will Help You Leave Him is available in “brick & mortar” mystery, independent, and chain bookstores as well as online bookstores starting October 13. For more information about Liz and her books, check out her author website at www.elizabethzelvin.com. Liz blogs with other mystery authors on Poe’s Deadly Daughters at www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com and can be found on Facebook and MySpace.



3 responses »

  1. Wonderful interview, Wendy! Congratulations, LIz, on the release of DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM. I saw the video of your performance of “Long Black Veil” – I had no idea that you play guitar, too — you’re a woman of many talents.
    I just received my copy of The Gift of Murder, I look forward to reading your story.
    Best wishes!

  2. Thanks, Kathy. It’s dark outside, and I’m off to Bouchercon this morning, driving from New York to Indianapolis. I’ll be playing guitar and singing, this time one of my own songs, at the author talent show on Thursday night (part of the Opening Night Extravaganza).

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