1. Tell us about your latest book and what comes next.
Death Will Help You Leave Him is available for preorder now and will be out from Minotaur on October 13. It’s the second in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, Jimmy the computer genius and Barbara the world-class codependent. This one is about bad relationships. Barbara’s Al-Anon sponsee is the prime suspect when her abusive boyfriend is murdered in her apartment. Bruce has to juggle the investigation, his sobriety, a crush on the bereaved girlfriend, and his addictive relationship with his crazy but compelling ex-wife, who’s always on the brink of self-destructing and is in another abusive relationship.
The next in the series, which is on my editor’s desk but no contract yet, is my Hamptons book. Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy take a share in a lethal clean and sober group house in an imaginary Hampton. And a Bruce Christmas story, “Death Will Trim Your Tree,” will appear in the anthology The Gift of Murder, to benefit Toys for Tots, in time for the holidays.
2. The protagonist of Death Will Help You Leave Him and the first in the series, Death Will Get You Sober, Bruce, is interesting because he’s a recovering alcoholic. Is there any particular reason you chose a recovering alcoholic as the primary character for your series?
I don’t think any writer makes that kind of decision by accident. I worked in the addictions field for many years and have been amazed and inspired by the courage and honesty of alcoholics and other addicts who turn their lives around in recovery. I was directing a treatment program for homeless alcoholics on the Bowery when I started to talk about writing a mystery about people in recovery that I’d call Death Will Get You Sober. That was all I knew about the book before I started to write it. I also have a lot to say about codependency, so Barbara is a very important character for me. Her tendency to help compulsively and control and mind everybody’s business make her a good amateur sleuth and drive her commitment to addictions counseling, but they get her in a lot of hot water.
3. Is this a series that you plan to carry forward or will it be limited?
That will depend entirely on the publisher. In this economy, it’s a struggle for a midlist author to keep going. And whatever happens with the novels, there will surely be more short stories about Bruce and his friends.
4. You have lived such an interesting life and have accomplished so much: as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, as a textbook and reference book editor, then on to a master’s degree in social work and your many years as a psychotherapist and directing alcoholism treatment programs. And now you have an online therapy website, LZcybershrink.com. You’ve also published professional material and and two books of poetry, and you’re a singer/songwriter too. Very impressive! I imagine you enjoyed each, but which do you think you enjoy(ed) the most?
I’m what a friend of mine called a “Renaissance soul” in a book she wrote about people like me, who have many interests and focus first on one and then on another. I’ve reinvented myself several times, though being a writer was the one I’ve wanted my whole life. When the writing is going well and you feel as if you’re just a channel for something that’s coming through you from whatever you call it—inspiration, the Muse, a Higher Power—that’s a great feeling. So is performing for an audience, whether it’s singing and playing the guitar—or even better, singing with real musicians backing me up and doing harmony vocals—or giving a talk or a poetry reading. Getting a laugh from a big audience—it hasn’t happened that many times, but it’s a peak experience. Moving someone to tears, which I know I’ve done with my songs and poems—it’s harder to tell with a novel, because I’m not there when people are reading it. As a therapist too, having a session in which a client reaches a deeper level and experiences insight, or even better, hope—knowing I’ve really helped someone is a terrific experience too. The point of being a Renaissance soul is that I don’t have to choose.
5. Your road to fiction publication is an interesting one that I find quite motivating. Could you share that with our readers?
I’m always afraid everybody in the world—or at least New York and cyberspace—have heard that story till they’re tired of it. The short version is that I queried 125 agents and 35 publishers before I sold Death Will Get You Sober to St. Martin’s. But first I had to rewrite the whole thing for an editor who then quit publishing. The drop of luck in a sea of persistence was his giving the manuscript to the legendary Ruth Cavin before he left. And the fact that she liked it was more than luck, it was a miracle.
6. What inspires you as a writer?
I can think of two ways to answer that question. One, what inspires me as a writer is what inspires me as a person—the transformational quality of recovery, which is what I chose to write my series about, and also, in general, love and honesty about one’s own shortcomings and willingness to change and grow. But the inspiration that sends me to the keyboard with my fingers flying, that knocking on the inside of my head when a character has something to say and wants to get out and say it—that’s a completely intuitive process. I only know I have to get it down before it disappears. Novels are hard because you can’t do the whole thing that way. You get fragments, and then you have to slog. But a poem or a song or even a short story can come to me that way. It’s a gift I’m awed by and grateful for.
7. Do you have a specific writing ritual?
I tend to spend the whole day at the computer whether I’m working on a novel or not. I sit down at the keyboard right after breakfast and fall in. If I am actively working on a manuscript, I try—not always successfully—to get right to it rather than looking at my email first. The email is important—it could be a therapy client, or I could see opportunities for networking and promotion or information I need to know on one of my e-lists—but fiction writing goes better for me if I put it first. I try to get out and run for an hour—around the Central Park reservoir if I’m home in New York—and then I’ll come back, sit down at the computer, and fall right in again.
8. You’ve received many accolades regarding your writing, as well as some pretty amazing letters from readers. Is there any one award or letter that stands out?
Getting an Agatha nomination for my first short story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” was pretty cool, and it inspired me to go on writing short stories. And I love hearing I made a reader chuckle or moved someone to tears. Even better, the emails from readers who have experienced the devastation of alcoholism first-hand or reached a new understanding from reading the book have warmed my heart and made me very proud: the woman with 35 years sobriety who wrote, “You are the first professional that I have come across that really seems to get it;” the reader who said, “I was profoundly moved by the struggle of the recovering addict. I finally got what it means to crave something so bad for you.” I hope the same thing will happen with what I’ve tried to show about relationships and codependency in Death Will Help You Leave Him.
9. What do you find works best for you in promoting?
I’m lucky in that I was born to schmooze. It’s all about connecting with other people on an emotional level—just like writing and doing therapy. Whether I’m at a mystery conference or a signing at a bookstore or library, even if only a few people come, or posting on an e-list like DorothyL or on Poe’s Deadly Daughters, the blog I do with other mystery writers, or at someone’s launch party, I throw myself into it with enthusiasm and a lot of love. You can’t fake it, and I think people appreciate it. I’ve certainly found an enormously supportive community among mystery lovers—writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, and others in the book world.
10. We are interested in learning about other areas of the country. Tell us about where you live.
LOL. I live in New York City—where do I start? Both my mysteries are set in the city, and I had a lot of fun with the location of various scenes for Death Will Help You Leave Him. I took a lot of photos and even shot some video, which you can see on my book trailer by going to my author website at www.elizabethzelvin.com and clicking on the cover of Death Will Help You Leave Him at the bottom of the page. I set scenes in Spanish Harlem, a funeral in Brooklyn, an Italian bakery, a fancy East Side lingerie shop, an art gallery in SoHo, and a traffic jam on Canal Street in Chinatown. Bruce lives on the Upper East Side—which was an old ethnic neighborhood, Yorkville, when he and Jimmy grew up there—and Barbara and Jimmy live on the Upper West Side, more or less where I do, so they’re always walking across Central Park, which I do all the time.
11. What’s your favorite Southern expression or place or food?
I recently visited Nashville, which I loved for the music—and the great people I met at Killer Nashville—and I ate pulled pork more than once. You can get it in New York, but not easily. I can’t deny I’m fond of fried chicken and pecan pie as well, but I think I’d have to go further south for those. I do say “y’all,” at least in email, and I know it’s plural.
12. What’s your favorite animal?
I love giraffes, ever since I was very little and had a couple of cuddly toy ones. I love their long eyelashes and the way they move. No, I didn’t see any when I lived in West Africa for two years–wrong side of the continent. My best encounter with giraffes was at a safari park in New Jersey. You weren’t supposed to feed the animals, but the folks in the pickup right next to our bus had loaded the bed of the truck with Cheerios. We were surrounded–eight giraffes, including a baby. So if you ever need to know, giraffes love Cheerios.
Elizabeth Zelvin, 2007 Agatha nominee
DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM, October 2009
DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, David nominee for Best Mystery Novel of 2008