Today, I'm interviewing author Elizabeth Zelvin. Liz is a New York City psychotherapist and author of a mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Death Will Help You Leave Him, out in October 2009 from Minotaur Books, is a traditional whodunit about addictive relationships and hard choices. Liz's debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, was nominated for a David award for Best Mystery Novel of 2008 and for an Anthony award for cover design. Bruce also appears in three short stories, one in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (August 2009) one nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story, and a third in The Gift of Murder, the 2009 holiday crime anthology to benefit Toys for Tots.
Liz, you have a lot of sheepskin on your walls in the way of degrees. A social worker, an English major, a counselor. You started with poetry and now find yourself with murder. With many illustrious careers under your belt, what made you make the switch to writing mystery fiction? Did you set out to write a mystery?
Writing mystery novels is not a switch for me—it’s a return. I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. And I think that for many of us, the most convincing proof that we are writers is to get a novel published. I was a college English major who couldn’t connect with poetry at all. I didn’t realize there was a good reason I couldn’t come to grips with Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane until I discovered Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in my thirties. It was a revelation of what poets could write about and how accessible poetry could be. By that time, I had discovered mysteries. I wrote three that didn’t sell in the Seventies, took time out for clinical writing when I became a mental health and addictions professional, and went back to write Death Will Get You Sober as soon as I quit my last day job and had the time.
You work as a counselor to alcoholics. In your debut, Death Will Get You Sober, did you call upon your experience in counseling to get into the mindset of your protagonist, Bruce Kohler, an alcoholic? How does creating a fictional "patient" differ from the real thing?
The way you phrase this question is interesting, because it makes so many assumptions that are not quite on target. First, while I held a New York State credential in alcoholism and substance abuse counseling for twenty years, I never worked as a counselor. As soon as I realized a master’s degree in social work would give me not only a more sophisticated knowledge base but also better pay and status, I went for that. I held clinical social work jobs in alcoholism treatment programs for a couple of years and then went on to develop and direct such programs, including a women’s treatment program in Coney Island and a program for homeless men and women on the Bowery. At the same time, I started a psychotherapy practice, worked with all kinds of clients for many years, and then in 2000 started my online therapy practice at LZcybershrink.com, where I work with clients all over the world via chat and email.
Second, I don’t think of Bruce or of any alcoholic in recovery as a “patient.” As a social worker, I treat “clients” professionally, but Death Will Get You Sober is not about how people recover through treatment, although it starts out with Bruce in detox on the Bowery. What I wanted to present was the astonishing process of transformation that recovering alcoholics experience, especially through AA. And the idea for the series has always been not to show my protagonist climbing back on the same old roller coaster with booze, but continuing to grow and grapple with other addictive behaviors and life issues through other 12-step programs and his own unfolding self-awareness. The new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, is about addictive relationships. All my characters are drawn from a huge number of people in recovery whom I’ve known professionally and personally. The only difference between them and the fictional Bruce is that I can guarantee with one hundred percent certainty that Bruce won’t drink again.
Alcoholism is a heavy-duty topic. Other mystery authors who have tackled addiction plotlines usually write darker stuff. How do you go about lightening up the topic while still giving it the respect it deserves?
I didn’t insert the humor into recovery. It’s already there. The world-class mysteries with recovering alcoholic protagonists—Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux—are indeed dark. I wanted to show that sobriety doesn’t mean you never laugh again, and that there’s a very special humor among people who are gradually becoming more and more honest about the appalling mess they’ve made of their lives. AA meetings can be hilarious. As for Bruce’s sardonic voice—and his sidekick Barbara’s very different and I hope equally funny struggles with codependency—they appeared out of that well of creativity that makes writers say we’re just a channel for characters who have a life of their own. When people can laugh at themselves, they become sympathetic as well as funny, and recovering people have that gift in abundance.
Did you find much opposition when you presented your manuscript to editors, given the subject matter?
I found that the topic of alcoholism acted as a kind of litmus test. Everybody has opinions about drinking, and one-third of American families are affected by alcoholism. Those who read it, including agents and editors, brought their own experiences and those of their families to the table, though of course they didn’t say so. There were certain clues. For example, some who found the book depressing rather than hilarious and hopeful may have had an alcoholic parent or spouse or sibling who never stopped drinking. They connected with the negativity and hopelessness at the beginning rather than with the recovery process that pulls Bruce along and gives him back his future by the end of the story.
Is alcoholism the true villain in your series or are you more pragmatic?
Not at all. How can a treatable illness be a villain? I’m writing mysteries, and the villains are the murderers, though even they may end up eliciting our understanding or sympathy. On the other hand, I could make a case for recovery itself—from addictive substances and compulsive behaviors, not only from alcoholism—being the true hero. ~What kind of book do you read to relax? I read what I write: character-driven mystery series and on occasion the same in other genres. When I most desperately need to relax, I’ll reread old favorites.
Death Will Help You Leave Him is the second in your series, releasing soon. What’s next on your plate?
The next in the series is Death Will Extend Your Vacation. Bruce and his friends Barbara and Jimmy find themselves in a lethal group house in the Hamptons.
Do you see a definite end to your series? Do you think at some point you’d like to branch out to writing a standalone? If so, what kind of story might that be?
I come from the generation of readers who expected a beloved series to go on and on. I would be happy to keep Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy going as long as they’re willing to talk to me in my head. But times have changed, and if that’s not possible, I don’t know what will come next. One of the strengths of this series is Bruce’s voice. I don’t know if I could create another series character who’s completely different but just as strong. And I really love whodunits with an endearing series character. Since I’m not crazy about standalones or thrillers—with a few notable exceptions—I’m not eager to write one. But you never know. Sometimes an unexpected theme or story or character takes a writer by the throat and demands to be written. That could happen to me.
Thanks, Liz, for stoppiing by. If you are going to the world mystery convention Bouchercon, you can see Elizabeth Zelvin, me, and award-winning author Louise Penny, on Saturday, October 17 at 2pm in front of the Book Dealer’s Room on the third floor. We willl be holding a cocktail/salon/conversation that we invite any and all to come to. See more about Liz on her website.