Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview With Mystery Author Elizabeth Zelvin

Interview by Marta Stephens

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose new mystery, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION, will be out next year. Three of her stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The current nominee, THE GREEN CROSS, is available on her website at Liz blogs on Poe's Deadly Daughters. Please join me in welcoming my friend and mystery author Liz Zelvin back to Murder By 4.

1. Liz, please tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.

I’m a lifelong writer whose first novel came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. Before that, I published two books of poetry, a book on gender and addictions, and many professional articles and book chapters. If I’d become a published novelist at age twenty-four the way I planned, I suspect my writing career would be long over. Life experience is both a tremendous teacher and a great source of stories.

2. Please describe the greatest difficulty you have faced in your writing career, why it was difficult, and how you resolved it.

I think it’s more a matter of intermittent discouragement than one crucial difficulty to be overcome. My husband once observed that my creative process always begins with “I can’t,” and I think he was right on target. I have since discovered that many writers go through this, even some with long, successful careers.

3. Your short story, THE GREEN CROSS, which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last August, has been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Please share with our readers a little about the plot, the characters, the setting, of this story.

The protagonist of “The Green Cross” is Diego, a young marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage. The marranos were Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution but continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret. The Jews were expelled from Spain on pain of death on the exact day that the NiƱa, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailed from Spain. In this story, Diego is falsely accused of theft, and Columbus himself turns detective to demonstrate his innocence.

4. What impact would you say completing THE GREEN CROSS and the chance at the Agatha has had on you personally and on your writing?

The character of Diego came to me out of nowhere in the middle of the night and took my writing in a whole new direction. A second story about Diego and Columbus, “Navidad,” also appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I’ve recently completed a Young Adult novel about the second voyage. In the novel, Diego has to get his sister out of Spain one step ahead of the Inquisition. I was able to weave into their adventures the themes of intolerance, being an outsider, and genocide. What Spanish Christianity did to the Jews is paralleled by their treatment of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean whom Columbus encounter, as well as the Moors, the Roma (gypsies), and the Guanche of the Canary Islands. It’s a very different picture of the “discovery” of America that I think young people need to hear.

This is my third nomination for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. It’s a tremendous validation of my work that I’m deeply grateful for. At the same time, winning is not a burning ambition right now—though don’t let it deter you from voting for my story if you’re going to Malice. I’ve come to love the short story form, which allows me to vary the voice and experiment with different subgenres. And “three-time nominee” feels pretty good to me.

5. Liz, you are also a novelist. There are obvious differences in the development of a novel and the development of a short story. Please discuss the steps you take to prepare to go from one to another and any challenges, if any, the transition between the two present.

It’s not quite like that for me—it’s not about planning and preparation or even transition. I start a novel or short story with a germ: with DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, it was the title and wanting to write a mystery about people in recovery. With “The Green Cross,” it was Diego’s voice pounding on the inside of my head, demanding that I tell his story. The decision as to whether it will be a novel or a shorter work is intuitive for me. I have a sense of whether the story I need to tell is compact or complex and discursive. My first few stories, including the other two Agatha-nominated stories, were whodunits about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, the protagonist of my mystery series, and his friends. I remember introducing three suspects and then telling myself, “That’s it.” In a novel, I’d go on creating suspects, throw in a subplot involving personal relationships of the characters, and add a second murder in the middle of the manuscript. That is not to say that I leave anything out in terms of voice or depth of characterization or dialogue, which are my strengths as a writer. I’ve found 3,000 or 4,000 words to be amazingly spacious. With stand-alone short stories, when I arrive at that 4,000 words, or maybe less or a little more, I find I’ve told the story I have to tell and that I’ve said what I had to say about that character.

6. Please give us some insight into your writing process. In other words, did you outline the short story or novel chapters? Did you think about the plot for a while before writing it? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?

I’ve already answered parts of this question. I’m an into-the-mist writer. I don’t outline, but ideas for scenes or passages of dialogue or narrative in my character’s voice may come to me at any time—when I’m running in the park, driving, or in the shower—and I write them down. I end up with a lot of post-it notes starting with “maybe”.

As to plot, it depends. The first time, I knew the ending before I got there because I submitted the first 3,000 words to a competition that asked for a synopsis. With the third novel in the series, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION (coming next year), I already knew my protagonist, Bruce, and his sidekicks, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, well enough for them to start wisecracking in my head. I knew the setting, a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. I started with a victim and then populated the story with suspects, witnesses, and detectives. The backbone of the Columbus novel is the historical timeline, the events that actually happened and the characters known to history. Then I had to weave in the adventures of my fictional characters, making them up as I went along.

My short stories have usually come in two fell swoops. I get the idea, I start to write, I set the whole thing up—and then I realize I have no idea how to resolve it. I let it cook for a while, and the second half will come to me, including that crucial twist at the end.

The main thing about the first sentence is to park my butt on the chair, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write it. I could take notes forever, but the process starts for real as soon as I’m mysteriously willing to begin telling the story in the narrative voice.

7. How much and/or what kind of research do you do prior to writing?

I avoided research until I started writing about Columbus. In fact, I tried to shut Diego up and not tell his story simply because it involved research. But he insisted. I researched “The Green Cross” very lightly. I found parts of Columbus’s actual journal of the first voyage online in English, which was pretty amazing. And I looked at Wikipedia, which everyone says is unreliable, but I had to learn it the hard way. I made at least one mistake in “The Green Cross.” I put horses on the Santa Maria, when in reality, the Spaniards didn’t bring horses until the second voyage. But for the second story and the novel, I did a lot of homework. There are a limited number of primary sources, and I found that the historians whose books I read tended to believe the parts they wanted to believe. This meant they disagreed about almost everything. I ended up finding the historical part and its contradictions fascinating. For material that didn’t relate directly to Columbus and what happened, I found an abundance of material on the Internet, such as detailed descriptions of the Inquisition and Seville in the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as websites not only about but by the Roma and the descendants of the Taino, who are trying to reconstruct their language and culture. Except for reading the major history books that covered the period I write about, I do my research during the writing rather than before. I don’t know what I’m going to need until I reach something I need to describe and know nothing about. Thank heaven for the Internet! I also checked the online dictionary frequently to make sure I didn’t use a word that wasn’t in use by 1492.

8. What do you find the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?

LOL. Doing it! I’m one of these “I love having written” writers. The first draft is the part that’s torture, because I’m making it up as I go. I don’t mind editing, because I learned it at my mother’s knee—and I’ve been developing the skills of editing fiction, which is another matter, over the past few years. On the other hand, when I started with historical events, I found the first draft, especially of the novel when some staggeringly dramatic things really happened, flowed out of me a lot more easily.

I guess I have a few tricks to overcome the desire not to write. I have a few mantras, like “Just keep telling the story” and “I’m going to write for an hour if it takes all day.” I may give myself a goal of 1,000 words. Sometimes I feel stuck at 500 or 700 and push myself through it, just keep writing, and find I’ve written 1,500 or 1,700—or even 2,800 words.

I don’t show anyone the first draft until it’s complete and revised and ready for critique. And I try not to get hung up on editing the first draft as I go along. My goal is to get the whole story out there, to get to the end before I start thinking about what I need to do to make it as good as possible.

9. How do you balance your time to make time for writing?

I’m lucky in that in my “other hat,” I’m a therapist who works with clients online. So I’m at the computer all day, and I can shift back and forth as needed between writing, having a session via chat or email with a client, or doing the endless networking and promoting that are the business side of being a writer today. And I can do all of it in my jammies if I want to, which is a big plus.

10. Who has been the greatest influence on you with respect to encouraging you to write and become a published author?

Going way back to childhood, the books that made me want to be a writer are LITTLE WOMEN, L.M. Montgomery’s EMILY OF NEW MOON, and Anne Frank’s diary. But in this incarnation as a mystery writer, I have to credit Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter, which has been an endless source of information and support.

11. What are you working on now?

With DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION coming out next year and the YA Columbus novel making the rounds, I’m tooling up for promoting the mystery and networking in the children’s literature community, which is new to me. I wrote and published a lot of stories in 2010 (including “The Green Cross”), and I hope more come to me this year. If the Columbus novel sells, I’ll start researching a sequel that I already have a few ideas about. And I’m working on a CD of my own songs, titled OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN.

12. Any words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Don’t try to do it alone! Join MWA and Sisters in Crime. Join Guppies. Get critique, and get used to making revisions. Don’t send your work out in the first flush of completing the first draft. That’s another one I had to learn the hard way. Develop the ability to “kill your darlings.” And remember that breaking in takes talent, persistence, and luck, and your part is persistence, persistence, persistence.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hello, Liz, and welcome to MB4 today. It's a great pleasure to have you here! I totally related to your statement: "I’m an into-the-mist writer." Love that description. And congrats on your awards and accolades - you are amazing. Wish I could be at home in my jammies while I work (once in a while I do that), but mostly in an office during the day in jeans and tee shirt. Not so bad, but nat as good as pajamas! Thanks again for joining us today, and best of luck with your new release.

Kim Smith said...

Awesome interview! I am a pants-er writer too and it is a little scary sometimes but inlove it when my characters take the story and run with it. Great to have you Liz!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Liz,

Like you my day job requires me to be plugged into the computer. I have to make myself take walks outside and move because I've found a Maggie at rest tends to stay at rest.

I admire you for also pursuing music. Good deal.

Wishing you all the best,

Maggie Toussaint

A. F. Stewart said...

An impressive interview.

Anonymous said...

Hello Liz, Like you, I like "having written" rather than the actual process of writing. Turning off that inner critic is hard. Glad to have met you during your North Carolina tour.
Maggie Bishop

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, everyone, and sorry for responding so belatedly.