by Sandra Murphy
& Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we have an interview with mystery author Elizabeth Zelvin, a review of her latest book Death Will Extend Your Vacation & a chance to win a copy of the book–details at the end of this post.
Death Will Extend Your Vacation by Elizabeth Zelvin
Review by Sandra Murphy
Other titles in this series: Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down, Death Will Trim Your Tree, Death Will Help You Leave Him and Death Will Get You Sober.
This book is set in the Hamptons where main character Bruce Kohler, best friend Jimmy and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara have shares in a clean and sober group house for the summer. Addictions abound—alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, eating—and some are more successful than others about sticking with the twelve step program.
On their first day at the beach, Barbara discovers the body of Clea, another housemate, supposedly drowned during an early morning run/swim. While the police finally call cause of death inconclusive and assume drowning, Bruce and friends are not so sure. Clea was beautiful, manipulative and not interested in twelve-stepping her sexual addiction.
Suspects abound but the field is narrowed when a second body is found—also by Barbara. Could it have been a simple fall down the stairs or was it a push? The police are looking hard at Barbara. Is it just a coincidence she’s on hand to find the bodies? And does she have a motive for the second murder?
The characters and dialogue are good—you’ll like Bruce, Jimmy and Barbara. You’ll worry about Cindy—is she good for Bruce or is she a heart-breaker? The Hamptons are shown from the non-rich and non-famous point of view of Bruce and company while showing the best the area has to offer in the way of good people, great beaches and fabulous food—all while staying clean and sober.
Though I guessed the motive for the murders, I didn’t guess the who behind it. A nice read with a little surprise in the form of the very last word.
Interview with Elizabeth Zelvin
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Elizabeth: I’ve been writing since the age of seven, so that would be more than sixty years.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? A little about it?
Elizabeth: My first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, came out on my sixty-fourth birthday—not quite the career path I expected. It starts with my protagonist, Bruce Kohler, waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day and realizing he’s got to change his life. When a detox buddy dies unexpectedly, he finds he cares—after years of drinking to avoid any kind of feelings or relationships—and that starts him sleuthing. It’s about solving that murder and a number of others—the victims range from homeless alcoholics to an arrogant plastic surgeon on Park Avenue—and also about Bruce slowly coming back to life and getting a second chance with two friendships he’s destroyed: Jimmy, a computer genius, and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, a world-class codependent, who become his sidekicks in the series.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Elizabeth: My published fiction consists of three mystery novels and four short stories about Bruce and his friends, along with a number of short stories, all mystery or suspense, including two about a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. But I wrote poetry that appeared in many journals and two books over a period of thirty years. And in my midlife career as a psychotherapist and addiction specialist, I’ve written numerous professional chapters and articles and coedited a book about gender and addictions. In fact, I’m currently revising a chapter on treating the partners of substance abusers for the third edition of a friend’s book.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Elizabeth: The new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is the third book about Bruce, now a recovering alcoholic with a couple of years of sobriety, and his friends, Barbara and Jimmy. Bruce has a smart mouth, a lot of New York attitude, and an ill-concealed heart of gold. Barbara is a nice Jewish girl from Queens who’s addicted to helping and minding everybody’s business, which means she’s always dragging Bruce and Jimmy into investigating sudden death. Jimmy’s been sober a long time, loves going to AA meetings, and freaks out if you separate him from his Manhattan sidewalks or his computers. The other books and the stories were set in New York City. In this one, the three of them take shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. Their first day at the beach, they’ve hardly slathered on the sunblock when they find the body of one of their housemates, a beautiful young reporter who collected boyfriends, including other people’s, and investigated environmental issues.
The Hamptons are a forty-mile stretch of fashionable beach communities at the eastern end of Long Island. They’re known as a playground for the rich and famous, but not everybody lives on a dune next door to Billy Joel or Steven Spielberg. I set my novel in an imaginary Hampton known as Deadhampton (Dedhampton on the tax map). It’s appropriate for a New York series because one of the way New Yorkers cope with the pressure of living in the city is by getting out of town. As for why I chose the series setting, I’m writing what I know. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the Big Apple, and get away to a little house, and I mean little, at the poor end of East Hampton.
Lorie: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Elizabeth: I certainly write to entertain. I want my books to make readers laugh and cry. I confess I think my writing is hilarious at times. But I also have something to say about recovery—from alcoholism and other addictions, codependency, and eating disorders. It means a lot to me when readers who know nothing about addictions tell me that I’ve given them a glimpse what it’s like, that they’ve developed some compassion for the suffering and struggle; when readers who have seen people they love self-destruct and know very little about recovery tell me my work gives them hope; and when people in recovery say that what I’ve written rings true, that it’s authentic.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Elizabeth: I have two careers that I can do at home in my jammies—the other is online therapy, treating clients around the world via chat and email—so I spend most days at the computer whether I’m writing or not. If I’m actively working on a manuscript, that gets my morning energy. I do best if I don’t even open my email before I start to write. But sometimes other things take priority, including therapy clients. I work best without distractions. Do Not Disturb signs are made for someone like me. I’m baffled by writers who prefer to write in Starbucks.
Lorie: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Elizabeth:: I’m an into-the-mist writer in terms of plotting, and my process in general is very intuitive. Since my series characters are well established, what usually happens is they start talking in my head, and I’d better grab a pad and pen or hit the digital recorder feature on my iPhone or get to the keyboard before it goes away. Or an idea for a scene or a plot twist will well up. I have a lot of sticky notes all over my draft manuscript pages and the insides of manila folders and my various desk surfaces. Most of them start, “Maybe….” I don’t use all of them, but they’re there if I need them. And of course, there’s the basic structure of the traditional mystery to light my way: crime > investigation > confrontation between the sleuth and the killer, an essential element in today’s mysteries > resolution. I’m currently shopping a YA novel about Columbus’s second voyage. It’s suspenseful, but it’s not a mystery. The structure of that one is the historical timeline—what actually happened. That’s the framework on which I build up my fictional characters and their adventures and relationships.
Lorie: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Elizabeth: I do my best work in the morning. When I’m really on a roll, especially in the country, when there are no demands on my time, if I start to flag I might take a little nap on the couch after lunch and give myself a second morning so I can keep going.
Lorie: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Elizabeth: Sixty years, remember? They say it takes talent, persistence, and luck, and sometimes it’s more like persistence, persistence, and persistence. It took six years from finishing the first draft of the first novel to seeing it in print. I queried many, many agents and editors and have fat files filled with rejections from “Not for us” to “Love your characters, your story, and your voice. Unfortunately….”
Lorie: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Elizabeth: The best one is still how I sold my first mystery after coming very close to giving up. Everybody had said no except one editor at a well-known publisher’s who’d been given the manuscript by a friend of mine and kept it on his desk, unread, for two and a half years. I finally got a colleague of his to prod him into reading it. He then sent me a letter telling me how much he loved Bruce—and saying he’d consider it if I rewrote the book. After some initial kicking and screaming, I did it, and he was right: the changes he’d suggested made it much stronger. When I emailed him to tell him I was ready to resubmit, he wrote back, “I’m so sorry—I’m leaving publishing to go to law school.” The happy ending is that before he left, he gave it to a fellow editor who offered me a contract.
Lorie: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Elizabeth: My signing at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA, where it turned out I was competing with Salman Rushdie, has got to be in the top three or four. They gave him the big room, where he drew over a hundred people, and put me in the Poet’s Corner. Thanks to the friend I was staying with, I had a respectable audience of nine or ten for my talk. And a few minutes before we were both due to start, Mr. Rushdie was kind enough to seek me out in, literally, my corner—the bookstore is a maze of rooms—to greet me and wish me luck. What a gentleman! You can still see a picture of the two of us in the photo gallery on my author website.
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Elizabeth: Writing goals tend to be affected by circumstances in the publishing industry these days. I’m not sure whether Bruce’s adventures beyond Death Will Extend Your Vacation will take the form of novels or short stories. My next publication will be an e-novella that’s been accepted by Untreed Reads. It’s a paranormal whodunit about a nice Jewish girl who’s a rising country music star and a shapeshifter. I think she’d make a good series protagonist. I might even do a YA prequel. And if I find a publisher for my novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, I might start thinking about a series about “what really happened” during other pivotal moments in history where the myth that’s evolved doesn’t have much to do with the reality.
Lorie: Writing heroes?
Elizabeth: “Heroes” is a tough concept for me, probably because my mother, the larger-than-life figure I grew up with, didn’t believe in heroes. She was a lawyer, a political scientist, a writer, and an editor, but she didn’t write fiction.
There are some novelists whose gifts awe me, whose brilliance I couldn’t approach in a million years. They’re not mystery writers. The names that spring to my mind first are Lois McMaster Bujold and Diana Gabaldon, both of whom write characters who are so real and so endearing that you’d give anything to be part of their circle of friends or family. Even their minor characters are so complex and clearly drawn that you never mix them up. They’re both genre-crossers, too: galactic space opera comedy of manners or mystery, historical time travel romance. Michael Gruber is another: he writes literary thrillers, but what blows me away is how he perfectly he blends character, twisty, clever plotting, and a delicious virtuosity of language, the kind of writing that makes me chuckle aloud and say, “Listen to this!”
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Elizabeth: It depends. I didn’t have to research New York City or the world of recovery. I’ve been working with alcoholics and addicts and the people who love them for more than twenty-five years. For Death Will Extend Your Vacation, I used a lot of stuff I already knew about the beach, environmental issues in the Hamptons, and the challenges of group house living. But for certain scenes, I wanted detail. I researched one scene by spending several hours in a field of pick-your-own strawberries. And I spent a whole day casting for bluefish in Gardiner’s Bay in a neighbor’s small boat to see if I could make a climactic scene work in that setting.
Lorie: What do you read?
Elizabeth: Exclusively fiction, and mostly genre fiction. I read the classics and what we now call literary fiction in college, but someone turned me on to Dorothy L. Sayers shortly after graduation, and I jumped the wall and never looked back. I look for character-driven story, voice, endearing characters, and good writing. Developing my craft has made me a very picky reader. I can hardly wait for Lois McMaster Bujold’s next Vorkosigan book, the Cousin Ivan book, to come out in the fall. I’ll probably reread Diana Gabaldon’s whole Outlander series again before her next book appears. Sharon Shinn is another genre writer I always enjoy: fantasy or science fiction with just the right shade of romance, lovable, distinctive characters, and beautifully constructed plots. As far as bestsellers go, I loved The Help and the Hunger Games trilogy. On my Kindle, I’m going through some old favorites: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series. And I sometimes fall back on utter comfort reads, like Georgette Heyer and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver.
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Elizabeth: I don’t watch much TV. I’m waiting for True Blood to come back—I’m a big Charlaine Harris fan—and hoping the series they’re talking about based on Harris’s Harper Connelly books gets made. The last series I really loved was West Wing. My favorite movie is Enchanted April, and My Cousin Vinnie and Priscilla Queen of the Desert are high on the list. Of recent movies, I thought The King’s Speech was terrific, and I liked Up in the Air and The Help a lot.
I’m looking forward to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. In general, I like the kind of movie they don’t make enough of: not violent, not torrid, and not sophomoric. And special effects can be marvelous, but they’re not enough without good writing. Okay, “Avatar” was the exception. But beyond the visual aspect, what separates good movies from bad movies is the script.
Lorie: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Elizabeth: I always say the same things: Read, read, read; write, write, write. Kill your darlings. Don’t give up the day job. At Malice Domestic recently, I heard someone say: “Finish the book.” That’s a good one. I’d also say: Don’t do it alone. I spent fifty years not learning what I needed to learn because I didn’t have anyone to learn it from. Mystery writers have a fantastically generous and supportive community that beginners can tap into by joining Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Do it.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books? As a reader and as a writer?
Elizabeth: My feelings as a reader and as a writer differ. As a reader, I find them convenient and I can’t help liking the lower prices, though I’m appalled by the shoddy formatting that makes even the most superbly written work look in desperate need of editing. As a writer, I’m concerned not so much about the new form of content delivery as about the devaluing of books, so that only a tiny percentage of fiction writers can make a living, and readers are led through a needle’s eye to a limited selection of print books—or with e-books that cost less than a cup of coffee, a hodgepodge of reads of wildly varying quality and no gatekeeping at all.
Lorie: Do you read e-books yourself?
Elizabeth: Yes, I got a Kindle for Christmas and love never running out of something to read. And as a reader, yes, I’ll go for the $2.99 book because it feels like not spending money at all. But I’ll pay whatever I need to for a new book by one of my favorite authors or beloved old books that I’m glad to have a chance to reread—Josephine Tey’s, for example. I spent $7.99 or $8.99 on a couple of Georgette Heyer’s Regency books because my paperback copies from the Fifties were literally crumbling away as I turned the pages. I wouldn’t have thrown them out till there was nothing left but crumbs if I hadn’t been able to replace them with e-books.
Lorie: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Elizabeth: I surprised a lot of people recently when I recently released Outrageous Older Woman, my album of original songs. The cover shot of me in a big red hat with drop-dead earrings surprised them so much that one friend told me she finally figured out it was a model who looked amazingly like me. But if you go back to my high school and college days and certain other periods in my life, there are large groups of people who never saw me without a guitar. I’d like to add that you can listen to six full songs from Outrageous Older Woman and hear previews of all sixteen on my music website (see below). You can also buy the CD or mp3 downloads on my site or at CDbaby.com, or you can download the songs on iTunes. The genre is urban folk with a dash of country, a little gospel, a little klezmer, and a lot of fun. If you liked the music of the Sixties, you’ll probably like “Outrageous Older Woman.”
Lorie: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Elizabeth: I have three websites. My mystery author website. My music website. And my online therapy website. I’m on Facebook, primarily as a mystery author, although eventually I may set up a music page as well. Twitter is just one thing too many at this point. I do a huge amount of schmoozing and networking online and f2f without struggling to fit it into a 140-character format.
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Elizabeth: I promote and network and schmooze like crazy, besides revising (and revising and revising), accepting critique, and doing all I can to make my work the best that it can be. But what I write is not quite like anything else, which can be an obstacle in today’s market. (An alcoholic who doesn’t relapse and isn’t dark or depressed? AA meetings that are fun? Guys who don’t hit anyone or jump into bed with their women friends? A Jewish sailor in 1492? A Jewish country-singing shapeshifter?) Beyond a certain point, it can’t be about competing in the market. I have to be authentic—my voice, my perceptions, my message. I don’t have a choice about that. I have kind of a maverick voice, and that’s the way it is.
To enter to win a copy of Death Will Extend Your Vacation, simply email KRL at kingsriverlife[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Vacation”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen May 19, 2012. U.S. residents only.