Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the ninth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Elizabeth Zelvin

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.


Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.

03 February 2015

A Quick Visit to the Renaissance

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the many advantages of living in the Big Apple is access to some of the great museums, and thus some of the great art, of the world. One exhibition I’m glad I didn’t miss was the giant show of Renaissance portraits that I saw back in early 2012.

The Met is a ten or fifteen minute jog across the park for me, though I don’t get there as often as I would like. I particularly like portraits, which feed the fascination with people, the curiosity about what they’re really like inside, that led me to my two careers of writer and therapist.

Getting your portrait painted was serious business back in the quattrocento, much like Victorian portrait photography, though more expensive, I imagine. No spontaneous poses, no “Say formaggio!”

In the early portraits, both men and women were invariably shown in profile (“Do you think they were familiar with Egyptian art?” my companion asked), unflattering as that view was to some of the sitters’ aquiline or otherwise generous noses.

Instead of wedding photos, couples of means had their portraits painted together to commemorate a marriage. I can imagine all sorts of stories about them, especially the gentleman in red and what must have been his much younger wife.

If you think 21st century hairstyles are weird, look at what the Florentine gentlemen were doing with their hair. The blurbs at the museum said this fetching style was called a zazzera. The glossary of the website defines zazzera as “a tuft or lock of hair on a man's head, especially in front.” In this case, I think a couple of pictures are worth a lot more than thirteen words of definition. The glossary makes up for its understatement by informing us that “a man with such a notable tuft or front lock” was called a zazzeruto. Notable, yes, that’s more like it. And “a very vain person, especially of his hair,” was called a zazzeatore. The older gentleman’s more conservative haircut makes him look, to my eyes, Roman—or almost modern.

Portraits have survived of some of the celebrities of the day. Here’s Giuliano de’ Medici, one of the family of merchant bankers who ruled Florence for three generations, painted by Botticelli. Considered a playboy compared to his brother Lorenzo, civic leader and patron of the arts, Giuliano was assassinated in the Cathedral (the Duomo) at the age of 25.
And here is Simonetta Vespucci, considered the most beautiful woman of her day and believed to be the model for Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell (no, that’s not what they really called it). Or perhaps it’s Simonetta, but not what she really looked like— the museum’s curators hedge their bets.

One of the most remarkable paintings in the exhibit was this one of an old man and his grandson, almost modern in the way it conveys their affection. While the expression “warts and all” would not be applied to portraiture for another three hundred years or so (it’s attributed to Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century), they’re such a prominent feature that if the artist had left them out, the painting would not have resembled the old man at all. The Met’s blurb kindly explained that he suffered from the disease of rhinophyma.

Wonderful as the paintings are, the portrait that fascinated me most, in a creepy kind of way, was a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, he was the most brilliant and celebrated member of a family that had it all: wealth, power, patronage of the arts. To whom can we compare them? The Kennedys? The Rockefellers? No, there’s no comparison, because the Medici weren’t hampered by electoral politics or income tax or the media. So here’s a man whose name and achievements are still remembered five hundred years after his death, and this is not a painting. It’s Lorenzo himself. It’s what the guy really looked like, stubble on chin and all.

Not only did I find this intimate glimpse of Lorenzo mesmerizing, but it also raised a lot of questions. Have we killed celebrity by glutting the market? Has the flood of new information and constantly emerging personalities made it a lot less likely for people’s reputations to live on? Would you want the world to be interested in what you look like five hundred years after you die? Would you want them to see you dead? How long a shelf life do you think today’s photographs will have? You post them on Facebook as soon as you take them, and then they're gone. For that matter, how long a shelf life does the planet have these days?

04 October 2014

Voyage of Strangers

by John M. Floyd

Writing this week's column was a special treat for me--mostly because it required me to first read the new novel by my friend and former Saturday blog-sister Elizabeth Zelvin. I've read many of Liz's short stories--I even included one of them in a mystery anthology for which I served as the editor several years ago--so I already knew her stories were outstanding. Now, I'm greatly pleased to report that this novel is excellent as well.

The following is a review I plan to post at next week, and I hope it adequately conveys the pleasure I got from the novel and provides an incentive for others to enjoy it also. Well done, Liz!

A journey of discovery

In her latest novel, Voyage of Strangers (Lake Union Publishing, 2014), Elizabeth Zelvin has done the seemingly impossible: she's written an educational and often factual fictional account of early searches for gold and trade routes in uncharted lands while providing nonstop suspense and entertainment throughout. It's sort of a pleasant cross between the textbook-like historical knowledge of a James A. Michener novel and the edge-of-your-seat thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure.

At the start of the book, young Diego Mendoza is one of the members of Christopher Columbus's 1492-1493 expedition to discover and explore the lands across the ocean to the west. He is thrilled to have been included but is also a bit terrified by the perils of this unknown world. (Who wouldn't be?) Soon after Columbus's fleet finds the Indies and begins building settlements there, Diego accompanies Columbus back to Spain, where Diego and his twelve-year-old sister Rachel face dangers as grave as those he saw across the sea: they are both Jewish, and this is the time of the Inquisition. As Columbus prepares for a second voyage, Diego realizes that the only way to protect his impulsive and sometimes reckless sister is to watch over her himself, and when the expedition finally sails Rachel comes along, disguised as a cabin boy called Rafael and serving as a scribe to Admiral Columbus. New threats await them, of course, both at sea and in the jungles and newly-established outposts of what Columbus has named Hispaniola.

One of the best things about this book is that it's not the New World discovery story that we learned about in school. This time the noble Columbus shows a dark side, in that his most important goal is to fill the coffers of his king and queen with the treasures he's certain he will find in these unspoiled and primitive lands. As a result he allows the enslaving and brutalization of the native Taino tribe. Since we readers witness all this through the eyes of Diego and Rachel, we see the cruelty of the Christian invaders and the terrible plight of the conquered as well as the stunning beauty of the area now known as the Caribbean.

What makes this book so outstanding, though, is not its setting or its realism or even the lessons it teaches. Its main strength lies in its wonderfully complex characters. Some of them, like King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, are real historical figures, but the most memorable come from Zelvin's imagination: Diego, Rachel, their aunt Marina, the evil Cabrera, the islander Hutia, and many others among the priests, natives, and seamen. These are people you'll remember long after you finish the novel. My favorite by far is Rachel, the delightful, fiery, compassionate young lady who longs to see the world and then realizes that in order to survive she must change and adapt--and grow up quickly.

I have a theory about why the novels and short stories of Elizabeth Zelvin always include such interesting and believable players. It's because she is herself a psychotherapist, and has probably seen every character quirk possible. She doesn't have to imagine some of these things, as most authors do; she's seen them and knows firsthand what makes people act the way they do and say the things they say. The application of this kind of knowledge and experience has never been more evident than in her new novel. Voyage of Strangers is a winner.

About the author:

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, which started with Death Will Get You Sober and so far includes three novels, a novella, and five short stories. Liz's short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award and for the Derringer Award. They have appeared several times in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (in press), and in a variety of anthologies and e-zines. Voyage of Strangers, her first historical novel, is the sequel to the Agatha-nominated mystery short story "The Green Cross." Liz's only explanation for how she came to write about the aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the genocide of the Taino is that her protagonist, the young marrano sailor Diego, woke her up in the middle of the night, beating on the inside of her head and demanding that she tell his story.

As well as fiction, Liz has written two books of poetry, a professional book about gender and addictions along with numerous professional articles, and an album of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. She works with clients on her online therapy site, Her author website is and her music website is She is currently working on the sequel to Voyage of Strangers, which takes Diego to the Ottoman Empire and to Sao Tome, a remote island off the coast of Africa.

Liz, thanks again for a great read. I can't wait for the sequel!

28 June 2014

What happens next?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

What's the question authors of fiction most want readers to ask? (No, it's not "How much?") I submit it's "What happens next?" Or as we say in New York, "So what happens next?" We're storytellers, and we want to engage our readers so completely that, like Scheherazade's husband, they wouldn't dream of shutting us up, much less killing us, before they find out how the story ends and, even better, how the next one starts.

I'd already thought of writing on this theme before I knew that today's would be my last for SleuthSayers except for an occasional guest slot in the future. Yes, this is my farewell to my delightful SleuthSayers blog buddies and the readers who have been kind enough to keep up with my rants and disquisitions on everything from cellphonismo to the latest crop of clichés, from murder ballads to mayhem in the Hamptons, from stalkers to stuffed animals. After more than two and a half years blogging here every other Saturday (and seven years of weekly posts, until this past January, on another mystery blog), I've decided to take that creative energy and apply it to the writing of my next novel.

That's the barebones version of what happens next in my writing career. There's a lot more to it. Until mid-February 2014, I thought that Voyage of Strangers, my historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America (and sequel to two short stories that appeared in EQMM a couple of years back), was going to be my last novel. After 150 agent and editor rejections, I put the novel up on Facebook as an indie e-book, where my best efforts weren't enough to take it viral and I felt unwilling to pour my heart and a year of my life or more into the same discouraging process all over again.

What happens next? Enter my very own fairy godmother, in the unlikely guise of a senior acquisitions editor at Amazon Publishing. She loved Voyage of Strangers! Amazon's Lake Union imprint (literary and commercial fiction) wanted to give it "the audience it deserves"--magic words if ever I heard them, and they weren't the only ones. They said "advance." They said, "It's your book. You'll get thorough editing, but you're free to reject any and all changes you don't want." Best of all, they said, "Leave the promotion to us." After I'd finished pinching myself and asking if I was dreaming, I found myself more than willing for "next" to be writing another novel: the sequel to Voyage of Strangers, in which readers can find out what happens next to my protagonist, the young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza, and his sister Rachel.

What could not happen next was a continuation of Diego's and Rachel's relationship with Admiral Columbus in the New World. At the end of Voyage, they are heartsick at the genocide of the Taino, which they can do nothing to prevent, and sail back to Europe at the beginning of 1495. Nor can they return to Spain, where the Inquisition is pursuing any Jews who might not have complied with the Expulsion in 1492 or converted to Christianity but whose sincerity might be tested by torture.

Just as the backbone of crime fiction is the progression from crime to investigation to solution, the backbone of historical fiction is what really happened. Here's what really happened to the Jews: many of them fled to Portugal and parts of Italy where Jews were still tolerated, such as Sicily and Firenze (Florence). In Voyage, I sent Diego's parents and older sisters to Firenze, where the Medici were willing to harbor them. Diego and Rachel expect to find them there. Oops. Early in 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, including Florence. The Medici fled, and so did the Jews. Many of them ended up in Turkey, where Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire allowed them to settle.

In Portugal, within eight months, King João decided he didn't want the Jews after all. They were given a choice between leaving, converting, and being killed. Worse, he ordered the abduction and enslavement of two thousand Jewish children, who were forcibly converted, thrown onto ships, and transported to São Tomé, a pestilential island off the west coast of Africa, where those who survived would work the sugar plantations alongside slaves from the Guinea Coast.

So Diego and Rachel will have to cross war-ravaged Europe (where starving, unpaid soldiers would descend on villages like locusts in miles-wide swarms) and then to Istanbul in search of their family. Meanwhile, a young girl is torn from her family on the Lisbon docks and marked for slavery in São Tomé. Don't you want to know what happens next? So do I! And that's why I've got to give up blogging and write Journey of Strangers.

The new edition of Voyage of Strangers--e-book, trade paperback, and audiobook--will be out in September. My Bruce Kohler mystery series--Death Will Get You Sober, two more novels, a novella, and several short stories--is all available on Amazon. You can find me on my website at and on Facebook at Finally, I have new short stories coming out soon, one in AHMM and two in Sisters in Crime anthologies.

Note: As this post appears live, you're seeing my new headshot, taken on my 70th birthday, and getting the first look anywhere ever at Amazon's wonderful new cover for Voyage of Strangers. Highly motivated once more, I'm 35,000 words into the sequel, which tells an even more dramatic story of the Iberian Diaspora. I can hardly wait to share it with you all!

14 June 2014

Evolution of a Reader

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The older I get, the pickier I get as a reader. Life is too short, and I'm too experienced a reader to waste my time on books I'm not enjoying. I admit that as a reader, I take full advantage of the lower prices of e-books. I still buy hardcovers of the few cherished authors I hope will keep their series going forever and the even fewer I trust to write a new series I'll love almost as much as the last. And if I attend a friend's book launch party, I buy the book. Otherwise, if I lose interest or get annoyed, that's it for me. I'll close the book, toss it in a box to be given away, or in rare instances, throw it across the room.

I can remember only one book that I actually chucked into the garbage. It was a battered paperback of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel I'd never read before and picked up for 25 cents at the outdoor bargain table of a library in the Hamptons. I'll spare you the title, because I don't want anybody else to read it if they can possibly help it. It was written in 1982, so there's no excuse for the scene that made me dump it in with the chicken bones and coffee grounds: where the genetically engineered superwoman protagonist runs into one of the guys who gang-raped her earlier in the book, forgives him when he explains he only participated because he found her so sexy, and invites him to be part of her group marriage.

One aspect of my long experience as a mystery writer is that I can now see plot twists coming and unidentified villains lurking a mile away. This doesn't necessarily mean I'd be a good detective in real life. But I know crime fiction conventions, and as they say, there are only seven original plots. The unreliable narrator, the cross-dresser or transsexual, the dissociated identity because the character was molested as a child are all familiar ploys. When the detective, amateur or professional, mulls over the motives of every possible suspect but one, I know that one will turn out to be the killer.

Spotting the solution does not make me stop reading. It just makes me feel kind of clever. However, bad writing, flat characterization, and insipid dialogue do. I've found these in debut novels and highly touted bestsellers alike, just as I've found delightful characters and what a couple of my own reviewers, bless them, have called deft prose, all along the spectrum. I'm also looking for intelligent plotting, whether it's plausible detection in a puzzle or police procedural or actual suspense in a novel of suspense.

Nowadays I still read quite a bit of crime fiction, though a lot less than I used to. I read a little SF and fantasy, a very little literary fiction (I was a college English major and have done my time with those and the classics), and an occasional book that would qualify as romance. More and more of my reading in all these genres is historical fiction, which I've always liked, and which naturally interests me more since I started writing it myself. Whatever I read, the writing has to be top-notch and the stories character driven.

Here's the short list of authors by whom I don't want to miss a single book: At the top, Lois McMaster Bujold, Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Shinn, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Naomi Novik, Laurie R. King, Charlaine Harris, Michael Gruber. The late Reginald Hill was on that list as well. Second tier, Deborah Crombie, William Kent Krueger, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron. For their best-known series characters, I still read Marcia Muller, Dana Stabenow, and Nevada Barr. New to me in 2013, and good enough that I went back and got the earlier books and/or will definitely read the next one: Jane Casey, Linda Lee Peterson, and Anne Cleeland. Oh, and Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling: I can't wait for the sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling.

03 May 2014


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Who hasn’t dreamed of flying? To oversimplify the classic interpretations of flying dreams, Freud saw them as symbolic of sexuality, while for Jung, they signified freedom and transcendence. We live in an era in which sexuality is out in the open, while freedom and transcendence are still hard to come by. Although I’m a shrink as well as a writer, what interests me most about dreams is how they feel: gloriously exhilarating and utterly convincing, so that I wake thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could fly in waking life.

My favorite fictional descriptions of flying appear in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, which appears in the first book to be fantasy but is revealed over the course of the series as science fiction, albeit brilliantly character driven and superbly plotted. The beings who share the planet Samaria with humans are known as angels. They have powerful wings that allow them to fly to great heights from which they use their glorious singing voices to intercede with the god on behalf of the people.

He ascended effortlessly into the opalescent whiteness of the cloudless morning sky. Higher and higher, aiming straight for the zenith of the heavens, so high that even to his superheated blood the air seemed cool; so high that beyond the blank blueness of the sky he could sense an eternal, waiting night….Aloft in the icy air…Gabriel flung his arms wide and began to sing. He could hear every sound, this high up: the rhythmic stroking of his great wings, the brief catch and intake of his own breath, the faint sluicing of blood through the canals of his ears. – Sharon Shinn, Archangel

Because of the rain, she had flown in low, and now she spiraled upward over the broken mountain. The air was treacly, clinging to her wings with actual malice; she had to fight her way higher to get as far above the storm as possible. Even after she cleared the worst of the rain, the air about her felt dense and unforgiving…. Usually, this far above the earth, the air currents felt alive; even before she started singing, she would hear the echoes of her wingbeats batted from star to star. – Sharon Shinn, Jovah’s Angel

She flung herself aloft…and beat her wings against the sullen air….It felt good to fly, to unfurl her clenched wings and feel the thick, viscous ocean air lay its cushions under her feathers. – Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

She…drove her wings in short hard sweeps against the air…She was aware of the steady, rhythmic beating of her wings, the tensing and relaxing of the sinews across her back, but nonetheless she felt like she was floating through the air. She…drifted peacefully across the broken terrain, silent and light as milkweed, circled once over the rocky margin of the shore, and settled easily a few yards from the sea. – Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

I’d be happy to tell you that in my dreams, I soar high into the sky like Samaria’s angels. But I don’t. In my most consistent recurring dream about flying, I hover about three feet from the ground and have to push at the air with my hands in a kind of dog-paddle to stay up. When I try to remember more, the image that springs to my mind is the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house in Queens. My interpretation: I started having this dream when I was so young that I wasn’t allowed to cross the street. But you know what? It still gives me an enormous sense of freedom—the phrase “ability to escape” floats into my mind as I write this, and you’re welcome to interpret that however you like—and I’d be thrilled if I could really do it. I wake from this dream thinking, “How hard could it be? If I just push against the air....”

What are your dreams of flying like?

05 April 2014

My get-up and go is alive and well

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Back in the Fifties, the Weavers used to sing a song:
How do I know my youth is all spent
My get-up and go has got up and went
But in spite of it all, I’m able to grin
When I think of the places my get-up has been.

I’ve been unable to find the songwriter. Most references I googled said “Anonymous,” and the book Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul claims it’s copyrighted material without saying who holds the copyright. I sang that song myself many times long before anybody took chicken soup out of the bowl and put it between book covers. And I had the impression it was written by Lee Hayes, the legendary bass vocalist with the Weavers.

As I get older…and older and older…the song, which I always thought was fun, gets more and more relevant. My father, who lived to 91, used to be the living embodiment of the final stanza:
I wake up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
And if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and roll back in bed.

I reached the mid-sixties, an age at which my contemporaries were just starting to die of what’s sometimes called natural causes, at around the same time as my first novel was finally published. I’ve had interesting friends all my life. Even if I hadn’t seen or been in contact with some of these people for decades, they remained vivid in my mind. I always assumed that one day they’d pick up the phone or I’d shoot them an email, and we’d pick up exactly where we left off. It’s been a shock to realize that with some of them, that isn’t going to happen.

I admit one of my many feelings on learning of the passing of these friends from junior high and high school was disappointment that they’d never know I’d finally achieved this lifelong ambition or get to enjoy the book.

But of course, that wasn't all. I felt cheated of the catching up and schmoozing we could have done. I wanted to know how they were affected by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the Sixties and by the women’s movement later on. I wanted to know if they got to write their books and paint their pictures and play their music and travel all over the world. I wanted to know if they had fun. I wanted to know if they were happy.

Several of the friends I lost at that age were academics. To some extent, they lived the lives that most of our parents back in Queens expected us to. I’m in the other group, those that jumped the rails—and believe me, for this old English major, running off with genre fiction was an act of rebellion—and reinvented ourselves every few years.

On the other hand, academics of our generation could be and often were political firebrands. Having survived all that, they should have gotten to retire—a state that no longer means golf and bridge and Florida as it did in my parents’ day, but a turning of their energies to a new set of dreams and ambitions. One high school buddy, whose career was even more checkered than mine—poet, therapist, and stand-up comic (“I’m not a shrink, I’m an expand!”)—got cancer shortly after finally inheriting enough to relieve his endless scrabbling for a living.

Now I'm staring 70 in the face. I'll have passed that milestone by the time you read my next blog post. I've lost many more friends, and others are dealing with life-threatening and debilitating illnesses as well as losses of their own. I've also published more books and short stories, released an album of original songs, helped a lot more people in my other role as a therapist, and gotten to enjoy my grandchildren as they grow.

Grandkids are the payoff for all that showing up for adult life we have to do and what our kids put their parents through. If I live as long as my mother did (and let the planet please not fall apart by then), I have a good chance of dancing at my granddaughters' weddings, cradling their children, and maybe even holding their first published books in my hands. In the meantime, I've decided that 70 is the new 39. I'm old enough to remember Jack Benny, and his shtick was that no matter how many years went by, his age was always 39. So if I feel like it, I can stay 70 forever.

30 January 2014

Review: Voyage of Strangers by Elizabeth Zelvin

by Janice Law

It’s always nice to see writers try something new and different and out of their comfort zone. Elizabeth Zelvin, our Sleuthsayers colleague, has taken a big step away from her very New York detective Bruce Kohler and his friends in therapy and in recovery to tackle the lethal adventures and messy politics of Columbus’s New World voyages.

Most of us learned about Columbus from the famous rhyme and the annual school holiday. The rest of the curriculum on the Conquistadores focused on the clashes with the Aztecs and Mayans and on the destruction of the Inca Empire. But exploitation, pillage and genocide hit the New World earlier, with what became the disastrous landing of the famous flotilla on the Caribbean islands.

So devastating was the meeting between Europeans and the native Taino and Caribe, that very little of their culture now survives. Ironically, a voyage that set out to find the East Indies for trading purposes degenerated into a scramble for gold, and when that proved thin on the ground, for slaves.

Zelvin’s Voyage of Strangers finds a way into this now obscure episode via a character who is a stranger to both the Spanish crew and the natives they encounter. Diego, a teenaged sailor in the Admiral's fleet, has a big secret: he is an unconverted Jew and as such vulnerable to arrest and death at the hands of the Inquisition.

Zelvin says that Diego “came knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, demanding that I tell his story.” The young sailor showed up originally for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories, but he hung around until she gave him a novel of his own. Voyage of Strangers begins with him covertly saying his prayers up in the crow’s nest of the Santa Maria, then returns him to the scarcely less dangerous Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, where the Moors have recently been defeated and enslaved, and the Jews, the next target, forced to flee, convert or perish at the stake.

Diego is protected by Admiral Columbus, a friend of his father’s, and he hopes to make money in the New World, thus recouping his family’s lost fortune. For the moment, he puts aside some nagging worries about the treatment of Taino friends and focuses on getting his younger sister, Rachel, safely out of Seville and off to their parents living in exile in Florence.

This proves easier said than done. Diego is a paragon of an older brother, but Rachel, though charming in every way, is a handful. She’s sure that she can pass as Christian, having spent some time hiding in a convent; what’s worse is that she’s also sure she can pass as a boy, and she fully intends to accompany Diego on the Admiral’s next voyage.

The novel really is in two parts, the Spanish segment, involved with the preparations for the second and much larger expedition to the New World, the dangers of the Inquisition, and the difficulties of traveling safely with a lively girl of thirteen, and the sea voyage and the delights and terrors of the islands.

The island segment is more gripping and unusual. Zelvin, who has visited in the Caribbean and knows tropical climates well after a time in Côte d’Ivoire as a Peace Corps volunteer, does a good job of imagining the lush island with its spectacular hills and waterfalls, abundant food and generally easy living. Alas, the beauty of the island is soon tarnished by the demands of European military architecture and an obsessive pursuit of gold that eventually corrupts even Diego’s admired Admiral Columbus. For a time, however, the brother and sister enjoy the freedom of the forest and the friendship of the Taino, whose generous and easy going culture will prove no match for rapacious guests operating in a completely different economic system.

Voyage of Strangers is very good on the tragic clash of cultures that ensues. Diego, particularly, is almost preternaturally understanding and broad-minded, although his own experience as a hunted minority does give him an insight into the plight of the Taino.

The story of the young people and their adventures acts somewhat to ameliorate what is otherwise an unrelievedly grim account of the conquest of the Caribbean. Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend Hutia are good company. The island, at least initially, is an adventure playground, and the novel, as well as its quite modern characters, is both suitable and historically enlightening for teen as well as adult readers.

21 September 2013

A motley crew—and proud of it!

by Elizabeth Zelvin

SleuthSayers celebrated its second anniversary this week, and we were all asked to write something appropriate to the occasion. The topic that popped into my mind and wouldn’t go away was what a fascinating and diverse bunch of people my blog brothers and blog sisters are.

Elizabeth, Dale, David, RT
I had already been blogging weekly for five years on a group blog when Leigh Lundin, at the suggestion of editor Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, invited me to join the roster of “crime writers and crime fighters” that was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the popular Criminal Brief blog. My blog sisters over at Poe’s Deadly Daughters are not exactly all of a kind as people or as mystery writers. However, we are all women, all novelists, and all write within a certain range of mystery fiction along the spectrum from cozy to traditional to medieval noir. Our readers, too, as far as we can tell, fall mainly in the category of mystery-reading women of a certain age.

So for me, part of the appeal of SleuthSayers was that it offered collegiality with short story writers, law enforcement and military professionals, and guys. I’d have been even more eager to sign up if I’d known that, like me, several of my new blog buddies were musicians, singers, and songwriters. And it’s not just that the profiles of my fellow bloggers were different from those of my fellow Deadly Daughters and most of the other bloggers I knew. I had no idea how widely the subject matter of the posts themselves would range and how different the whole flavor of SleuthSayers would be from anything I’d read before.

One of the topics I found the most mindblowing and unexpected was Dixon Hill on explosives and how to use them. Dix swears the information he posted is not detailed enough to make your own minefield in your least favorite neighbor’s backyard. But he said enough to make me nervous. Very few folks in my usual circles can say, as Dix did, “Now, I’ve fired all sorts of weapons,” and list a paragraph’s worth from sniper rifles to machine guns (“I can dance with one of these pretty well”) to light anti-tank weapons (“not reloadable, whatever you saw in that Dirty Harry movie”)—and follow it up with “I’ve used them in the desert, the jungle, the African bush, …the ocean, on the beach after swimming…in rain, snow and ice storms, and probably in more places than I care to remember!”

Now, I’ve been in a lot of these places, including the desert—Timbuctoo, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited—and the African bush, when I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Côte d’Ivoire. And I’ve just spent the summer riding the waves on an ocean beach in the Hamptons. But no weapons were involved. There was a period in my youth when I had a certain number of friends who owned copies of The Anarchist Cookbook. But as far as I know, none of them ever tried any of the recipes. It was more a harmless kind of showing off, like getting a tattoo today.

The colleague whose posts probably come the closest to what I’m used to are those by my Saturday blog buddy (we alternate), brilliant and prolific short story writer John Floyd. John’s the only one of the gang I knew before joining SleuthSayers. I had a story in an anthology he edited for Wolfmont Press. He’s a crackerjack editor with a keen ear for language and an eye for what makes a story work. And I’m not just saying that because he accepted “Death Will Trim Your Tree” for The Gift of Murder without changing so much as a comma. (Not that that isn’t one of the reasons I love him, along with his delicious Southern drawl and what a true gentleman he is.) We both post about writing, among other things. We both love movies, but we barely have a favorite in common. (Okay, John, Blazing Saddles and In Bruges are probably on my long list, and I bet you enjoyed Seven Psychopaths, as I did.)

I could go on about every one of my fellow SleuthSayers, but (unlike some of y’all) I like to keep my posts below 800 words. Reading and being one of them/you/us is a helluva ride, and I’m in for another year!

10 August 2013

Going Clamming

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the best kept secrets in the fashionable Hamptons is a beautiful peninsula called Gerard Drive, a narrow road winding its way between the wetlands of Accabonac Harbor and the open expanse of Gardiners Bay. On a clear day, it looks as if you could throw a stone to Gardiners Island, the private domain on which they say the pirate Blackbeard buried his treasure. The Gardiner of the day caught him at it, captured and sent him off to England to be hanged, while the family has been eating off the buccaneer’s gold plates to this day. Or so they say.

If you meet any oldtimers while you’re getting your shellfish permit at the Town Clerk’s office in East Hampton, they won’t tell you where to find the shellfish. But if you run or walk your dog or bike or rollerblade on Gerard Drive, you can’t help seeing clammers, sometimes almost dryshod on the mud flats at low tide and sometimes waist deep and balancing precariously as they reach into the mud under their feet for the makings of a classic chowder. It looks so easy....

I discovered the hard way, ie, by becoming eligible for Medicare one day at a time, that shellfish permits are actually permanent and free to seniors. (You spring chickens will have to get one every year and pay a fee for it.) I kept meaning to go and use it, along with the clam gauge that indicates when a clam is too small to keep legally. But the tide table for Accabonac Harbor is another well kept secret, and since they built dug a channel, letting water from the bay go in and out more easily at a point about a mile from the mouth of the harbor (between the tip of Gerard Drive and the delightfully named Louse Point), the mud flats only get uncovered when low tide is very low indeed.

I run three miles along that drive every day I can when I’m out there. The air is filled with birdsong, wildflowers abound, deer and rabbits dart across the road, and the sparkling air and glinting water demonstrate why artists rave about the East Hampton light. I’m always looking for clues to that extra-low tide, and one day last year, during a three-day stretch of absolutely perfect weather, I found it. Ospreys and herring gulls have no trouble catching seafood, so why should I? I gathered up my gear and permit (couldn’t find the clam gauge) and made ready to hunt the wild clam.

Now came the hard part: getting my hubby to come with me. His idea of paradise is a big chair, an open window with the breeze blowing through it, and a good book. Well, his real idea of paradise is the streets of New York City. But he was there, and I wasn’t letting him off. I had to share the fun, didn’t I? And what are husbands for if not to carry the rake, the bucket, and, one hopes, the clams?

Alas, the clams did not cooperate. We spent a couple of hours stooped over and burrowing in the muck with toes and fingernails. Not a clam. A couple stationed maybe fifty yards from us were literally raking them in. “This is a good spot!” the woman kept exclaiming. Unfortunately, clam etiquette forbids poaching on someone else’s spot. But I kept inching closer. A couple of young women came splashing out, politely avoided the first couple’s spot, and quickly found another that yielded not only clams but a large oyster and a crab or two.

My husband was not a happy clammer. Nor was I—but I didn’t want to go home without clams. It happens that our favorite gourmet farm market, whose clam chowder is a perfect 10, didn’t make it at all last season, and we were both feeling chowder deprived. You need about three dozen good sized clams to make a pot of chowder. That wasn’t happening. Finally, the two young women kindly offered to share their spot. Within minutes, my husband got a clam. One. To make a long story short, we ended up with half a dozen clams, two medium-sized and the other four—well, let’s say it’s just as well we couldn’t find our clam gauge and that the Marine Patrol didn’t happen to come along.

Did I make clam chowder? You betcha. It was kind of like the stone soup of folklore—putting a big nothing in the pot and adding all the other ingredients. But was it good? It was delicious.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog Mystery Lovers Kitchen.

27 July 2013

Swimming in the Ocean

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m reveling in the all-too-brief season when you don’t have to be a polar bear to immerse yourself in the vast, salty playground that covers more than half of our planet and entices folks like me to cavort in the foaming surf around its edges. Yep, I’m talking about going to the beach, which to me is synonymous with swimming in the ocean.

I’ve been an ocean lover since childhood, when we used to visit an aunt and uncle who had a summer house in Hampton Bays, which back in those days was too working class to be considered one of “the Hamptons.” My grandmother, mother, and aunt were all indefatigable swimmers. To this day, I look incredulously at women on the beach who obviously have no desire to wet their hair, their bathingsuits, or even the polish on their toenails. Aren’t they hot? Do they know what they’re missing? How can they stand it?

Adolescent girls, on the other hand, plunge happily into the breaking waves. When I’m swimming alone, without a spotter, I sometimes elect a bunch of them my buddies. I ask them to keep an eye out for me in case I get in trouble. And I tell them to cherish the moment, because when they get to be my age, they may no longer have either the nerve or the companionship they’re enjoying now.

The Atlantic’s face is always changing. Every day is different. (I remember going to the beach in La Jolla, CA and being amazed at the reliability of the Pacific, at least between the frequent jetties: the waves were exactly the same from day to day.) My favorite set of conditions is when the tide is at the right height for me to stand beyond the breakers and sail across high rollers for that heavenly moment of weightlessness, then land on my feet again. To make it perfect, the water has to be warm enough not to shock me but cool enough to be exhilarating, and there can’t be any undertow to taint my mood with fear or make it difficult, when I’m ready, to get back onto the beach on my feet.

How different people like to take their ocean water seems to vary, to some extent, by gender. Most of the body surfers are guys, who catch the breaking wave and ride it toward shore, arms extended like aquatic versions of Superman in the air. Most women, like me, seem to prefer riding the rollers, calling “Under!” and “Over!” as each wave invites them to dive or soar. Lap swimmers seem to be evenly divided. I used to body surf myself—out of sheer competitiveness and a burning desire not to miss anything—but that was thirty-five years ago. I do swim laps in the ocean occasionally—a day when the water is safe and smooth enough for me to do a half-mile of the crawl, with breathing, is even more rare than a day when the waves are perfect for jumping.

The ultimate: clear day, perfect water temperature, waves just high enough to be exciting but without enough power to make getting back to shore difficult—and the company of someone who enjoys both ocean swimming and schmoozing as much as I do.

15 June 2013

Disinhibition and the New Technology

by Elizabeth Zelvin

When I started doing psychotherapy online a dozen years ago, I learned that psychologists and other technicians had already identified what they called the disinhibition factor in the way people communicated on the Internet. In The Psychology of Cyberspace (2001, revised 2002, 2003, & 2004), psychologist John Suler, who became a collegial buddy of mine when I joined the International Society of Mental Health Online, identified various beliefs that contribute to this disinhibition when people are texting (at that time, not yet a verb in common use) online, including:
“You don’t know me.”
“You can’t see me.”
“See you later.”
“It’s all in my head.”
“It’s just a game.”
“We’re equals.”
The truth, even inevitability, of the disinhibition factor quickly became apparent to me when I became an Internet user.

Sometimes the lack of inhibition is benign, as when online therapy clients feel safer and reveal themselves more freely than they might in face-to-face therapy in an office, not to mention their daily lives. What makes these particular clients good candidates for online therapy is that they do feel safer writing and not being seen than they do in person and are at their most candid in cyberspace.

At the Sisters in Crime breakfast at Malice Domestic back in May, the woman who sat down next to me looked familiar. She was new to crime writing, and this was her first mystery convention, but we eventually figured out we knew each other from the neighborhood in New York City and had crossed paths in a non-writing area of our lives. Breakfast was over before we’d had time for much conversation. But within three days of getting home and starting to exchange emails, we had discovered several crucial interests in common, shared a lot of personal information, and were both excited about this new friendship.

Sometimes the disinhibition becomes toxic, as in the flame wars—uninhibited hostility and verbal abuse—that can spring up in online group situations such as chats and e-lists. I’ve seen flaming, on and off, in almost all of the mystery e-lists I’ve participated in for the past decade. I’ve even seen it happen in groups of online mental health professionals. On a rational level, they should know better, right? But the disinhibition isn’t rational: it’s a psychological reflex.

When we text asynchronously, as in email, cell phone texting, and on Facebook, we don’t get the constant feedback of face to face communication, small signals that we can interpret as negative reception. Part of what inhibits us in sharing our thoughts is fear of how the listener will receive them. (When we want feedback, as in a therapist’s active listening, there are text-based techniques to provide it. But that’s another story.) To Suler’s take on invisibility, “You can’t see me,” let’s add, “I can’t see you—so I don’t have to worry about what you think of what I’m saying or censor what I say to please you.”

All of the above applies to text. So how do we account for cell phone users’ habit of blatting private matters wherever they are—on the street, on line in the post office, on a crowded bus? That’s an egregious form of disinhibition. Hardened cellphonistas let it all hang out, whether the “it” is marital conflict, finances, or intimate medical details.

I find it mega-irritating when cellphonistas do it. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In New York, where I live, people have always carried on intimate conversations in restaurants and on the subway. I’ve done it myself. One of the city-dweller’s defenses is to create psychological space. Even if the physical distance between me and the strangers at the next table is only an inch or two, as I get absorbed in conversation, I easily forget they’re there. So maybe it doesn’t have as much to do with technology as we think it does.

20 April 2013

You Can Do Anything

by Elizabeth Zelvin

A few years ago, when I started hanging out with a group of friends from junior high school (Class of ’57), we discovered that one of our most powerful memories as a group was writing what our English teacher called a “cyclical novel,” of which each of us wrote a chapter. Not everybody loved the assignment (I did), but when we pooled our collective memories, it was one of the few things that every single one of us remembered. This started me thinking about why that was so and exactly what kind of impact the experience had on us.

A little backstory first: we grew up in Queens (the second least cool of New York’s outer boroughs) in the Fifties and spent two years together at the ages of eleven to thirteen in a class for kids with high IQs and musical aptitude. None of us became musicians, and I’m the only fiction writer, but we have several accomplished poets, teachers, lawyers, academics, and one near-billionaire who walked away from tenure as a philosophy professor to become a financial wiz (very cool). We all rediscovered each other as a group shortly after the fifty-years-later mark. There’s a great fascination in getting to pool memories of yourselves at eleven. The boys have vivid, detailed memories of playing baseball every day at lunch. The girls remember who got interested in boys first and which teachers were supportive of our preadolescent angst. We all remember playing spin the bottle and the hoopla around invitations to the prom. We even remember some of what we learned in class. We were smart kids, after all. But writing that novel was powerful enough to stick in everybody’s mind.

Interestingly, not everybody liked Mrs. P. She had a strong personality and tended to play favorites. Some remember that they loved her, others hated her and tell stories that provide ample reason. I liked her and did well with her—no more, because my mother was such a powerful role model for me that it never occurred to me to look for any others. This is relevant to my topic, because both these strong women gave the same message: You can do anything. Remember, it was the 1950s, when most girls were being groomed to be perfect housewives and mothers, even if they went to college, as we all expected to do. And even for the boys, I believe there was a glass ceiling, an unstated limit on what a middle-class Jewish boy from Queens could be.

In this context, it meant a lot to us to be told, Yes, you’re eleven years old, and you can write a novel. I certainly believed I could. Maybe it’s thanks to Mrs. P that I had enough persistence to keep trying till I finally had my first novel published at the age of sixty-four. She eventually quit teaching and went to law school, probably when she was in her forties, if not her fifties. My mother used to run into her at Queens College, where she herself got a doctorate in political science at the age of sixty-nine, after having gone to law school in 1921. She too taught me that I could do anything.

It wasn’t a matter of doing what these women did themselves. I never wanted to be a lawyer. But it’s probably thanks to them both that I went into the Peace Corps after college, took flying lessons in my thirties, became a therapist in my forties, and learned to use a computer in my fifties, so I could practice online therapy and write and promote my mysteries while sitting at the keyboard in my sixties.

Also in my sixties, I spent four hundred hours in a recording studio singing, playing, and co-producing the songs I’d written over the years. The producing part took all the training of the ear and music theory skills I’d learned in junior high and stored in the back drawers of my brain for decades. I was relieved and delighted that that knowledge was still there, along with memories of Mr. C., our orchestra teacher, whom we all adored. He’s the one who made sure we participated in the all-city orchestra that performed on the stage at Carnegie Hall. The playing was way beyond our abilities, and most of the other musicians were already in high school. But he wanted us to have the experience—one that, like the cyclical novel, we all remembered half a century later.

So how am I going to reinvent myself in my seventies? My eighties? My nineties? Hey, who knows? When I was eleven, I wrote a novel. At twelve, I played the cello at Carnegie Hall. I can do anything.

09 February 2013

Chipping Away the Stone

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that Michelangelo, widely accepted as the greatest sculptor ever, explained how he created his magnificent marble statues, including the David and the Pietà, by chipping away the stone until only the form imprisoned within remained. Writers, at least those who know that every first draft needs some revision, go through a similar process.
Instead of quarrying the raw material, they create it by putting words together in a form determined by the mysterious process we call creativity. In fact, what writers initially do with words is much like what sculptors in clay do: building up one small bit at a time until a rough form is achieved.

After that, how sculptors revise a clay figure is a combination of of building, removing, and smoothing. We could say that writers do that too. But recently, after many years of writing, I think I’ve reached a new level of ability to critique my own work, and it feels more like chipping away the stone to reveal the story pared down to its essence, containing not one wasted word. At least, that’s the goal. Not being Michelangelo, I never achieve perfection. But the process feels much the same.

When I first joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter with the first draft of my first novel burning a hole in my computer, among the first pieces of advice I heard were these:
  • Don’t query agents or editors with a first draft.
  • Join a critique group.
  • Kill your darlings.
If I had followed all these dicta immediately, I might have sold my first mystery a lot sooner than I did. Or maybe it was meant to take the time it took to learn by my mistakes. I was so excited about my manuscript that I couldn’t wait to send it out, so I experienced many rejections—and got many good suggestions—before it got published in a form far different from that original first draft. I did join a critique group. I understood what “kill your darlings” meant. But for a long time, I couldn’t do it. Every clever phrase and carefully chosen word was so precious to me. How could I take any of them out, even in the interest of a tighter story? And not only my attachment to them, but also the fear that my creative well might run dry at any moment, prevented me from revising as ruthlessly as the material needed.

I know exactly when the shift took place: in 2006, during a three-week writers’ residency with Edgar-winning author SJ Rozan, who builds rather than chips (she used to be an architect) but doesn’t waste a single word. (I’ve said before that her prose is built like a brick you-know-what. Read her novels, and you’ll see.) Some time during the second week, she said, “Liz, you need to give us less, not more. Two clever lines in a paragraph are enough—three or four are too many.” I went back to my room and took another look at the manuscript I was working on. What I needed to cut leaped off the page before my eyes. I could suddenly see the difference between the shape of the story and the bits of literary marble I could chip away.

Writing short stories has accelerated my ability to chip. As a rule, the first draft is the story I need to tell, which I write without thinking about how long it’s going to be or leaving out anything that needs putting in, whether it’s plot, characterization, dialogue, or setting. Sometimes they need a lot of revision, sometimes not so much. And depending on my motivation for writing the story, eg for submission to a particular market, I may need to abbreviate a particular story. Seldom do I have to extend it. The most recent story I’ve written was on the way to becoming a first draft of 2,800 words when I realized I needed between 3,500 and 7,000 words to submit to the anthology I meant it for. But rather than continuing on and then padding, I thought through a structural improvement—three encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist instead of just one, building tension with each one—that made the story organically longer.

So just as I’m an into-the-mist writer (I hate the term “pantser”) rather than an outliner, I’m a chipper rather than a padder. I’m particularly proud of a recently published work that started life as a substandard 70,000-word novel and ended up as a tight, funny 20,000-word novella from which a lot of the adverbs and, I hope, all the preachiness had been purged. If I say so myself, that’s some chippin’!

29 December 2012

Amateur Night

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The winner of last week's drawing for a signed copy of John Floyd's short story collection, Midnight, is Vicki Kennedy. Vicki, please email your mailing address to velma(at)secretary(dot)net so John can send you the book.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have a special name for New Year’s Eve. They call it Amateur Night. It’s the night when everybody else goes out and tries to behave like genuine drunks. Being amateurs, of course they fall short.
They drink ghastly punch with sweet juices and chemical sodas and who knows what ill-conceived combination of hard liquor, cheap champagne, and cloying liqueurs thrown in. They throw up and pass out. No self-respecting alcoholic who values his or her sobriety would be caught dead out on Amateur Night. Who needs New Year’s Eve? As my protagonist Bruce says in Death Will Get You Sober, it’s a holiday with no traditions whatsoever, apart from getting blitzed and counting backwards from ten. Glad to let everybody else make fools of themselves, recovering folks may stay home or drop in on one of the AA meeting marathons that offer round-the-clock support on major holidays to those who have chosen living over drinking.

Most working people get the holidays off, including Christmas and New Year’s. A friend of ours used to count it as the busiest time of his working year. Was he a caterer? A salesman at Walmart? Nope.
He was a blood tech in the emergency room of a hospital. Around midnight, when his shift began, on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve, they would start wheeling in the bodies. Statistics confirm that alcohol-related traffic deaths soar on New Year’s Eve.

Cars are not a big issue in Manhattan, where I live. But the noise on the streets long past midnight and the increased number of passengers being sick on the subway make New Year’s Eve a good time to stay home. Since the kids, now long grown up and moved out, started making their own plans for the evening, we’ve usually made ourselves an elegant dinner to eat by candlelight. Manhattan! you may say. Don’t you ever go to Times Square to watch the ball drop? Nope. Never.

My son went once, I think it was his first year in college. Wisely, he neither asked my permission nor told me he’d gone till New Year’s Day. With typical city-kid aplomb, he reported: “It was one-third tourists, one-third college kids, and one-third muggers—and even the muggers were friendly.”

One reason to go out on New Year’s Eve in the past was that it was a rare opportunity to dress up, whether for a party or dinner in a fancy restaurant, in our increasingly dress-down culture. Since I became a mystery writer, I no longer need that excuse. The holiday parties of the organizations I belong to, MWA and Sisters in Crime, are long past, having taken place early in December out of concern for people’s crowded holiday calendars. At MWA events, they even tell guests to “dress to kill.” And nobody even gets hurt.

So two nights from now my husband and I will finish our delicious home-cooked meal, get into our jammies, and may or may not turn on the TV. And at midnight when the ball drops and all the frostbitten tourists (and college kids and muggers) sing Auld Lang Syne, we will probably be fast asleep.