Monday, October 26, 2009

Author Interview with ELIZABETH ZELVIN

Liz's published work includes poetry as well as professional and academic writing. After fifteen years as a textbook and reference book editor, she attended Columbia University, earning a master's degree in social work, and also obtained a credential in alcoholism counseling. Liz directed a treatment program on the Bowery for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts for six years and has worked with many couples and individuals with relationship issues in her private practice as a psychotherapist over more than twenty years. She is the author of a mystery series featuring Bruce Kohler, a recovering alcoholic. Death Will Get You Sober, her debut mystery, was nominated for a David Award for Best Mystery Novel of 2008 and its cover design was nominated for an Anthony Award. Liz lives in New York City.

Your first professional writing endeavors included editing textbooks and reference books. How’d you get into that?

I foolishly thought that working as an editor would help me become a writer, and those were the jobs I got—starting as a secretary, of course, as girls had to in those days. I had the skills because I’d learned them at my mother’s knee. She was a lawyer and legal writer/editor who later got a doctorate in political science and became a professor of Constitutional law. She was a great role model, but she couldn’t give me any guidance on how to get a novel published.

You also write poetry and a mystery series. How does writing in two totally different genres work?

For a long time, what I had to say came out in stories of 20 or 30 lines. More recently, it’s been more like 75,000 words. The start of the creative process is the same: a line of dialogue or an image tugging at my mind—or sometimes beating on the inside of my skull—demanding to be let out. Each literary form has its appropriate diction. In fact, my poetry is very accessible. Nobody has ever said, “I didn’t understand your poem,” and I’m proud of that.

You are a psychotherapist, possess a master’s degree in social work, and credentials in alcoholism counseling. I’m thinking your background has a lot to do with the creation of Bruce Kohler, the recovering alcoholic protagonist in your mystery series. Care to share details about your motivation in this regard?

I was directing an alcohol treatment program for homeless men and women on the Bowery when I thought up the title of the first book, Death Will Get You Sober. All I had for a long time was the title, the mystery genre--because I love mysteries, and a burning desire to write about the courage and honesty of people in recovery. Recovery, people going way past not drinking or using their substance or compulsive behavior to make extraordinary changes in their lives, is an amazing process. I wanted to write about that transformation, not only for alcoholics and addicts but also for codependents and people in destructive relationships. The new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, is all about bad relationships.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

It’s an ongoing challenge that every writer in today’s market faces: having the persistence not to “quit five minutes before the miracle” in order to get published and, as I’m learning now, stay published. You have to believe in yourself and your work, and at the same time, you have to have the humility to keep learning your craft, accepting critique, and improving as a writer. You have to have the hide of a rhinoceros to accept the form rejections and the rave rejections, when an agent or editor loves everything you’ve done but says no anyway. You’ve got to write one more query letter, one more blurb request, one more thousand words of the next manuscript.

What is the title of your most recently published book? Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.

Death Will Help You Leave Him is just out from Minotaur. It’s the second mystery in the series featuring Bruce and his friends, and as I said, it’s about bad relationships. When a friend becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her abusive boyfriend, Bruce has to juggle the investigation, his sobriety, a crush on the bereaved girlfriend, and his own addictive relationship with his compelling but destructive ex-wife, who’s in the cycle of abuse with a new boyfriend but doesn’t want to let Bruce go. I had fun with the New York settings, too: a funeral in Brooklyn, an Italian bakery, a lingerie boutique, and an art gallery in SoHo. Death Will Help You Leave Him can be found in both chain and independent bookstores, especially mystery bookstores, and in the online bookstores too.

What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?

The next book in the series, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is in my editor’s hands, and I hope she’ll like it. It’s my Hamptons book—Bruce and his friends take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house—so I hope that it will come out in the spring, not next year but the year after, when everyone is looking for a good beach read.

Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?

Don’t try to do it alone. It is so easy to do everything wrong if you don’t know the realities of today’s market: burning through potential agents with a first draft that needs a lot of editing, writing in outdated conventions. For example, Agatha Christie and Rex Stout wrote dozens of mysteries that are still in print, in which the climax consists of Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe gathering all the suspects together and pointing to the killer. An author trying to break in with a book like that would have a hard time finding an audience, no less a publisher. Both reading and meeting other writers can make a huge difference both before and after publication. Nobody’s going to offer to read your manuscript and introduce you to their agent, but networking can help in dozens of ways. Mystery writers in particular are well known for being generous and helpful to each other.

You are a member of a number of writer’s groups. How has membership helped your career and what advice do you have for writers contemplating membership in writer’s organizations?

If you’re a mystery writer, you can’t do better than to join both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Yes, not-yet-published writers can join MWA, and men as well as women can belong to SinC. I’m especially lucky in that I live in New York City, which boasts strong chapters of both organizations. I get to attend a lot of launch parties too—supporting fellow authors, buying their books, and schmoozing with readers, booksellers, editors, agents, librarians, i.e. all the people who make up the mystery writing world. I have a terrific online network too, through e-lists of mystery lovers (DorothyL), writers sharing ideas about promotion (Murder Must Advertise), and writers trying to break in with the first mystery (Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime). Guppies have supported me through hundreds of rejections, taught me how to write a synopsis and a killer query letter, shared their experiences with dozens of agents and editors, toasted me in virtual champagne when I finally sold a manuscript, bought the book, nominated me for an Agatha award for one of my short stories, housed and fed and drove me around on my first book tour—I can’t say enough about how supportive they’ve been. Many Guppies are now published, by the way, and I think the peer support and sharing of resources and information has a lot to do with our success.

Do you have any upcoming book signings or appearances? If so, give us all the details.

My official New York book launch party will take place tomorrow evening: Tuesday October 27 at 7pm at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village: 44 Greenwich Avenue, to be exact. If you can get to Manhattan, you’re invited! In November, I’ll be touring through North Carolina and on to South Carolina and Atlanta, GA. There’s an events page on my website, and all the details including times appear on Here’s a partial schedule:
Tues, Oct 27 - Partners & Crime, New York, NY BOOK LAUNCH PARTY
Sat, Nov 7 - Borders Northlake Mall, Charlotte, NC
Sun, Nov 8 - Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC
Mon, Nov 9 - Mauney Memorial Library, Kings Mountain, NC
Tues, Nov 10 - Unitarian Universalist Public Forum, Greensboro, NC
Thurs, Nov 12 - High Country Writers, Boone, NC
Sat, Nov 21 - Winston-Salem Writers, Winston-Salem, NC
Sat, Nov 21 - Writers Group of the Triad, Greensboro, NC
Mon, Nov 30 - Eastchester Library, Eastchester, NY
Mon, Dec 7 - Port Chester Library, Port Chester, NY
Wed, Dec 16 - Mid-Manhattan Library, New York, NY

I’m also doing a virtual tour, in which along with guest blogs and interviews like this one, you can chat with me live at from 7 to 9pm Eastern on Sunday November 1.

Here’s your opportunity to tell us anything else you care to share.

I hope that all kinds of readers will find their way to Death Will Help You Leave Him, as they did to Death Will Get You Sober. Recovering alcoholics got a kick out of the first book, but it also appealed to lovers of a traditional mystery (not cozy or hardboiled, but over easy and slightly crispy around the edges), people who had some experience of loved ones who drank too much, and people who knew nothing about the world of recovery and 12-step programs but were fascinated to get an intimate glimpse of that world. For the new book—well, almost everybody has had at least one bad relationship. Real life is not about love at first sight, never having to say you’re sorry, and happily ever after. But people do manage to connect and develop intimate relationships that are both durable and rewarding. I’ve tried to make Bruce’s story both realistic and hopeful.

What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):

My author website is at:
I blog with other mystery writers on Poe’s Deadly Daughters at
And if you’re curious about my “other hat” as an online therapist, my professional website is at:

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