Author Interview: Elizabeth Zelvin
This is a special day at the old homeblog. We have Elizabeth Zelvin here for an interview. So gather round and make her feel welcome. I’ve known Liz for years and had the good fortune to critique her book, Death Will Get You Sober, when it was still a work in progress. Those days are fast fading to a distant memory as Liz has survived her first book tour and today marks the launch the second book in her series, Death Will Help you Leave Him.
Hi Liz, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I’m sure between promoting your book, and working on your next one, you don’t have a lot of time to spare. I appreciate you spending a little of it here with us at KdBlog.
KdBlog: First tell our readers a little about your background and what drew you to the mystery genre.
Liz: I’ve been a writer my whole life, worked in publishing for many years, went to social work school for an MSW in midlife, and spent another decade or two as a clinician and then director of alcohol treatment programs in New York City with a psychotherapy practice on the side. I’ve been reading mysteries since someone handed me Murder Must Advertise shortly after college graduation, when I worked briefly at the ad agency whose London office was supposed to be the model for the setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’s book.
KdBlog: So you didn’t have single pivotal moment when you said to yourself, “I can do that, I can write a mystery.”
Liz: I’ve never doubted that I can write. I wrote three mysteries in the mid 1970s, now outdated and unsalvageable, that had a good agent but didn’t sell. I’ve also published two books of poetry, a book on gender and addictions, and numerous professional articles and chapters. Nowadays, the self-doubt comes in when I’m starting a new first draft, I don’t know who the victim or the murderer or the suspects are, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it through to the end.
KdBlog: How long did you work on your novel before it was published? How many rejections did you receive before Death Will Get You Sober was sold? Was there ever a time when you just threw up your hands and said that’s enough, I give up?
Liz: I want to say 57 years! I wrote the first 2000 words ten or fifteen years ago, completed the first draft in October 2003, and held the published book in my hands in March 2008. The official publication date was April 15, my 64th birthday. My rejection tally before acceptance was 125 agents and 35 publishers. I kept finding ways to trick myself into not giving up.
KdBlog: 57 years, okay, I’m feeling better about my measly 10 years now. When you did get to that “I give up” stage, what was it that carried you through and made you push on?
Liz: As long as I could think of one more action to take, I wasn’t ready to quit. It was too important, I’d wanted this for too long. So I’d write one more query. And as I said, I’d try to trick myself. For example, I applied for a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, with SJ Rozan as the master artist. I couldn’t quit before finding out if I’d been accepted. When I was, I couldn’t quit before I went. And by the time I got there, St. Martin’s had expressed interest in the book, so I was feeling a lot more hopeful.
KdBlog: Were you always focused on getting published or was there a time when you just wrote for enjoyment?
Liz: I write constantly, but I’d never write a novel for enjoyment. I wrote poetry for thirty years, and there’s an emotional payoff as soon as you finish the poem. But after a great day working on a novel, you have to go to the computer the next day and do it again. And again. And again.
KdBlog: You’ve talked about your background, did your profession give you a platform that helped your agent sell your work?
Liz: I sold the book without an agent, though I always say that I wouldn’t recommend the method, since the manuscript sat on an editor’s desk unread for 2 ½ years. I wouldn’t call my expertise and experience a platform, though they did give me legitimacy as someone who could write with authority about addictions and recovery. A platform is when you’re already Oprah—or a celebrity or a syndicated columnist. Having a platform means that thousands and thousands of people will buy your book because they already know your name.
KdBlog: What piece of advice would you pass on to a writer just starting out on their publishing journey?
Liz: First, finish the book. Second, get critique and do revisions before you send it out. Or second, join Guppies, the online chapter of Sisters in Crime for serious new mystery writers, as you and I did, KD. Then you’ll have all the help you need to get critique, approach agents professionally, have realistic expectations about publishing a mystery today, and a lot more priceless information and support. And remember it takes talent, persistence, and luck. You can’t do anything about the luck, but you sure can keep applying the persistence.
KdBlog: The Guppies and Sisters in Crime are terrific. I think they shortened my publishing industry learning curve by years. The advice and experience we shared there was invaluable. Speaking of advice, what’s the most helpful piece of advice you ever got concerning your writing? And the least?
Liz: Most helpful: “Kill your darlings.” It took me years to become willing to cut bits of my beloved prose in the interests of a tighter and more professional manuscript. But I believe that’s a big reason it finally got published. Least helpful: “Why don’t you go on Oprah?” Believe it or not, I’ve heard that a lot.
KdBlog: You’ve been out on the road doing a book tour and learning the ins and outs of promotion, what’s the most unexpected thing you’ve learned during this phase of your writing life?
Liz: I had a lot of realistic expectations, because I’d heard so much from other writers over a four or five year period about how to promote the book and what it’s like nowadays, especially for a debut author. So the most unexpected thing I learned on tour was that I enjoyed hand selling my book. Since I’m a lifelong shy person who once tried to sell life insurance and would come home and cry for two hours every night, that came as a shock. Yes, I actually enjoyed standing near the door of a Barnes & Noble in front of a display of copies of Death Will Get You Sober with a book in each hand, making eye contact with each customer who walked in, and saying, “Do you read mysteries?”
KdBlog: I can relate to your insurance sales experience, I once tried to be a census taker, but that’s a subject for an entire blog post of it’s own, so let’s get back to our interview. It’s time for my favorite question. What’s the one question you’d really like to answer in an interview that no one has ever asked you?
Liz: “I’m a close friend of Oprah, and she’ll read anything I give her. Would you like me to give her Death Will Help you Leave Him?”
KdBlog: [laughing] I’d like to hear that question myself. And that’s the best answer to that one that I’ve ever gotten. Okay, we’re almost finished, just one more. Tell us what you are working on now?
KdBloggers, if you haven't already read Death Will Get you Sober, run don't walk to your nearest book seller and pick it up. While you're there, grab a copy of, Death Will Help you Leave Him, it's hot off the press and still has that new book smell.
They're great mysteries and Liz is a great lady. You'll find lots more information about her and her mysteries--including a free download of her Agatha-nominated short story, Death Will Clean Your Closet--on her author website www.elizabethzelvin.com. You can also catch up with Liz and some of her writing cohorts at their blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters, https://www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com
If you have any questions of your own for Liz, be sure and post them in the comments.