Thursday, October 08, 2009

Interview with Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin has written Death Will Get You Sober, followed by Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this month (see review below). She talks a bit about her latest book:

Q. First, thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. I want to start off with the protagonist, Bruce Kohler, who narrates the books. Many mystery writers have protagonists who struggle with alcoholism, but you have one who is a recovering alcoholic. Why did you approach the character from this point?

A. Apart from being a writer for my whole life and loving mysteries, my primary reason for writing these books was and is that I have something to say about recovery, which is a remarkable process of transformation that takes great courage and honesty on the part of those who recover. The first book, Death Will Get You Sober, is dedicated to them.

Q. You are a psychotherapist in addition to being a writer. How much do you draw upon your experiences for the books while still maintaining client confidences?

A. Besides being a psychotherapist, I spent fifteen years working in and then directing alcoholism treatment programs. My private practice, both in a conventional therapy office (more than fifteen years) and now as an online therapist (almost ten years), has included many clients who have been affected by addictions, codependency, and compulsive behaviors such as eating disorders and compulsive spending, either in themselves or people they love, as well as adult children of alcoholics, sexual abuse survivors, and survivors of other kinds of family dysfunction. My characters are fictional. I would never write about a real particular client. But a lot of recovering people have written to say how much they appreciate my getting it right. Recovery is my briar patch—if you remember Brer Rabbit, that’s the place where I feel most at home.

Q. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, you also write about co-dependency and bad relationships. Why write about these issues in a mystery book?

A. I have worked with a lot of couples—those who just need a little fine-tuning and those whose marriage or committed relationship is a war zone — as well as people whose capacity for intimacy has been damaged by domestic violence and sexual trauma. And they say that 96 percent of Americans are codependent. It’s not a genuine statistic, but it makes a point about how our culture encourages us to seek our identity and self-worth outside ourselves. Too often, codependents turn to abusive, addicted, or unavailable partners, the very people who can’t meet their needs. In fact, I’m more of an “expert” in codependency than in addictions: I’ve been writing and lecturing about it professionally for more than twenty years. Bad relationships are universal — almost everybody has had at least one, and I hope that draws them to Death Will Help You Leave Him. As for writing about relationships, isn’t that what novels are all about? And therapy, and poetry, and songs, my other creative areas. The mystery is the sturdy coathanger on which I hang my characters and their relationships. I love a character-driven mystery — my own or someone else’s — and to me, relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.

Q. Your books have true laugh-out loud moments. Where does the humor come from, especially when dealing with issues of addiction?

A. The humor is built into recovery. There’s a lot of laughter in AA meetings. It comes from the perspective of people who look honestly and thoroughly at their past behavior and have a sense of humor about how royally they screwed up. I tried to show some of that in the fictional AA meetings in the books. I’m so glad you laughed out loud. I think my books are hilarious, myself. And Bruce’s wisecracking voice is one of those gifts from the Muse or a Higher Power or whatever you want to call it. I have nothing to do with it except to be a channel.

Q. The first things that one notices about your books are the titles, of course. They are longer than the norm and a bit off the wall, with a touch of humor. Can you tell me how you came up with the titles? Was it a marketing idea?

A. On the contrary. When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to write a mystery about recovery, and that the title was Death Will Get You Sober. In fact, I told so many people about it that it’s a miracle I ever wrote the book. Once Bruce gets sober, the first thing he has to deal with is relationships. And I wanted the murder to involve an abusive relationship, so Death Will Help You Leave Him was the right title. I didn’t even know it would be the boyfriend who got killed. I had some cases in mind where the codependent girlfriend minimized the danger and then got killed — but when I sat down to write it, it didn’t come out that way. Until the publisher accepted my title, I was very nervous, because by that time I had come up with a string of Death Will titles, each one with that twist of making what death does sound positive, and each associated with an addictive or compulsive disorder I could write about. I knew publishers often change titles, and I would have been sunk if they hadn’t gone for mine.

Q. It seems you’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction, beginning with your first book. Have you gotten any unexpected or strange reactions from your books?

A. A few people, including agents, editors, and reviewers as well as readers, have found my novels dark and depressing. I’m not exactly surprised, but I suspect they’re missing the humor — and even more important, the hope — because they bring their own experiences with alcoholism or addiction to what they read. For example, someone whose spouse or parent died of alcoholism without ever finding recovery — and who has not sought help for his or her own pain — might have trouble connecting with the tone, which is lighthearted in spite of the serious issues I write about.

Q. How has the experience of writing mysteries been different from your other writing: the nonfiction and the poetry?

A. I’ve written several mystery short stories in addition to the novels, and I’ve found writing novels very different from the shorter forms I’ve done: the stories, poetry, songs (which are quite different from the poems in language, meter, and tone, though they may cover the same subjects), and a variety of nonfiction pieces including my blog posts on Poe’s Deadly Daughters — which make me feel like a journalist and are great fun to do — and professional articles and chapters, which also use a very different language. Writing a novel is the hardest kind of writing for me. For every day when the words flow, there are several when I’m slogging along with grim determination, finding it hard to believe I’ll ever make my way to the end, no less be able to fix the bad parts and make the good parts hang together. Writing itself comes easy to me. Storytelling, especially the complex story a mystery novel tells, is a challenge.

Q. You have two strong books in the series. Can you tell us a bit about your next Kohler book?

A. In the next one, Bruce and his friends Barbara and Jimmy take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. I had a lot of fun doing the research: picking strawberries, fishing for blues from a small boat, and talking with the local cops — who told me group houses are illegal in the Hamptons.

Q. Are you going to continue with the Kohler series, or do you have ideas for other mystery books?

A. I hope I can keep the series going. If I can’t, the idea that’s knocking loudest on the inside of my brain is a young adult novel. The protagonist already exists, in a historical short story that will appear some time in 2010 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. A couple of other characters and a story line are rattling around in my head. My protagonist is a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage. He couldn’t be more different from Bruce, but he has his own distinctive voice. I think a strong voice is one of those gifts you can’t possibly refuse when it comes to you.

Q. Who are your favorite mystery authors, and what book are you reading now?

A. I love character-driven traditional mysteries with depth and complexity. Unlike Bruce, most of their protagonists are cops or PIs, often women, but they are my role models. Among my favorites are Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nevada Barr, Dana Stabenow, Julie Smith, Reginald Hill, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Janet Neel, whose first mystery, Death’s Bright Angel, is one of my all-time favorites. And if I can claim a couple of eminent foremothers, they’d be Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey.

Right now, I’m taking a break from mystery and rereading all of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, in anticipation of reading the new one that’s just come out. What brilliant books, and on so many levels. I’ve read them all several times before, but I’m going slowly this time—and bringing my added experiences as a writer — and I marvel at how she manages a huge canvas of time, place, memorable characters, accurate and minutely observed detail — from battles to sex to domestic concerns — and an immense sweep of satisfying plot, conflict, and action. She’s a great storyteller who’s also a marvelous writer.

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