Today I am pleased to interview one of my personal inspirations, writer Elizabeth Zelvin, fellow member of Sisters in Crime. Please welcome Liz to the blog.
EZ: How much time have you got? The short version: I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old, I didn’t get published till I was over thirty (poetry), and my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. So the road was rocky. My big mistake was to try to do it alone for the first fifty years. I owe a tremendous debt to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies chapter (we were the Great UnPublished when I first joined in 2002), and Mystery Writers of America. My post-publication road has also been rocky, not surprising since both publishing and the whole world in general has gone through a complete paradigm shift in the past five years. I’d still be writing only mysteries if my first publisher, St. Martin’s (Minotaur) hadn’t dropped me because my sales didn’t soar when the economy tanked in 2009.
SAT: How did you come to write Voyage of Strangers?
EZ: Voyage of Strangers is a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the point of view of a young marrano sailor. It’s more about how I came to create Diego, who first appeared in my short story, “The Green Cross,” and who is the protagonist of Voyage of Strangers along with his sister Rachel. I’ve told this one before, and it never changes: I woke up in the middle of the night with Diego beating on the inside of my head, saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” I really didn’t want to get out of bed, and I hate research—make that hated—but he wouldn’t let me go. I found enough material online the next day to write the story, including Columbus’s log of the first voyage, which is fascinating, and Diego and I were on our way. I’m Jewish, I knew the Jews were kicked out of Spain at the same time that Columbus sailed, and I knew what everybody learns in school about Columbus, but nothing more. But once I started doing the research, I knew Diego had a much bigger story to tell, and that it was darker and deeper than the original mystery. Rachel came out of nowhere too. Diego comes back to find she got stuck in Spain when the family fled, and he has to keep her out of the hands of the Inquisition and prevent her—unsuccessfully—from coming along on the second voyage.
EZ: I hope everyone who reads Voyage of Strangers will read “The Green Cross,” but I don’t think it matters whether it’s before or after. Before: readers can see whether they like Diego for only 99 cents. After: you can see not only Diego’s evolution, but that of Columbus, from the kindly detective who solves the mystery in “The Green Cross” to a much more complex and driven, even tragic figure.
SAT: What is different about writing historical fiction? Was the process of writing it different from the way you go about writing the Bruce Kohler mysteries?
EZ: There are two biggest differences. One is that you can’t write historical fiction without reading actual history. You can’t skate by with what you know from historical novels, any more than you can write police procedurals based only on what you’ve seen on TV crime shows—unless you want to be under constant threat of attack from readers. The other is structure. The basic armature of the traditional mystery, like those I write, is that a crime is committed, usually a murder; the protagonist investigates; and there’s some kind of confrontation and a resolution of the mystery. On that, the writer can hang anything she likes: any protagonist (eg my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler), other characters, relationships, and story arc; setting in terms of place (present-day New York City in the Bruce books and stories) and of the protagonist’s work or interests or environment (the 12-step programs in my mysteries); and a theme or themes (for Bruce and me, recovery from addictions and codependency, and a secondary theme, the power of friendship).
In a historical novel, the armature is what actually happened. The historical timeline at the end of Voyage of Strangers goes back to the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, more than twenty years before the period covered by the events in the book, because so many events had an impact on what happened in 1493 to 1495, the time that Diego and Rachel spend in post-Expulsion Spain and on the second voyage. I’m an into-the-mist writer, but instead of starting right in as I do with my mysteries, I have to do a lot of reading before I begin a historical novel. Then I have to make sure that the fictional characters (about half the cast in Voyage of Strangers) fit in with the historical events. All my characters taken from history, including Columbus, are doing exactly what they did in real life at any given moment in the book.
SAT: What do you like and dislike about writing historical fiction compared with works set in today’s world?
EZ: I’ve gone from being someone who hated research to someone who finds it fascinating, especially when what really happened is stuff you couldn’t make up. For example, did you know that the Santa Maria never made it back to Spain? How the ship got wrecked on Christmas Eve is told in the prologue to Voyage, and what happened to the sailors who got left behind because not everybody could fit into the Niña and the Pinta for the return voyage is a key point in the plot of my novel. I’ve now written two historical novels (to anticipate the next question, yes, there is a sequel), and for me, once I’ve done the research, the actual writing of the first draft has so far gone more easily and quickly for me than it did for my mysteries. My guess is that what slows me down is the puzzle aspect of the mystery. I sail through characterization and dialogue, but I really have to think about the puzzle. I know writers who are just the opposite. It’s very individual. With historicals vs novels set in the present, your characters don’t have to assume the attitudes and biases of the twenty-first century, which can be very freeing. Voyage of Strangers is about being an outsider, so Diego’s and Rachel’s views can be different from those of their contemporaries and, at the same time, different in some ways from what would be considered “correct” today.
SAT: I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel to Voyage of Strangers in the works. Please, tell us more! And are you planning on writing other historical novels beyond that?
EZ: I spent the summer writing the sequel, Journey of Strangers, which takes Diego back to Europe, then to the Ottoman Empire, and then to an island off the coast of West Africa because—well, I’ll just say that I found out about an astonishing historical event that very few people know about that gave me a terrific new protagonist and story line. Bad for the Jews, good for the writer. And I’ll write historical novels as long as I have a publisher who wants them. I find the prospect of getting my work published very motivating.
SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the book.
EZ: I started out online. It was fascinating to find some primary source material, such as Columbus’s log of the first voyage in English. Wikipedia is also a helpful starting place—though not a reliable source. You have to check the facts you find on Wikipedia very carefully. The Internet is also great for specific aspects of the setting. For example, I got a lot of detail about late 15th-century Seville from scholarly material I found online and details of the flora and fauna of Hispaniola by looking up plants and animals of the Dominican Republic. Google Images was great for how things looked. And I took much of how I presented the Taino and the Roma (“gypsies”) from websites created by people who self-identify as Taino or Roma. I also went to books. I used two main sources for the historical details of Voyage of Strangers. One was “The” biography of Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Morison actually sailed the routes of all four of Columbus’s voyages in his own sailboat. But his point of view is completely Eurocentric and patriarchal, which is not surprising, given the era in which he was writing. As a foil, I also used radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, written when Americans were finally getting it that the genocide of the Taino people in the Caribbean was, to put it mildly, a terrible thing. Morison and Sale disagree on just about everything, so I got to pick and choose what to believe to suit my story.
SAT: Does your work experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and therapist have any influence on your writing apart from the fact that the Bruce Kohler series is set within the world of a recovering alcoholic who gets by only with the help of AA?
EZ: As a writer who got planted early but bloomed very late in life, I have to say that all my life experience has come in handy in my writing. In writing about the Caribbean in Voyage and the island of São Tomé in the new book, I drew on my memories of tropical sights and sounds and smells. One thing my sources Morison and Sale disagreed about was whether the indigenous Caribe, in particular the Canibale, were actually cannibals. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from.) I chose to agree with Sale, who makes a good case that the evidence isn’t really there in the primary sources, though it’s something that has been repeated as truth by historians for hundreds of years. I have a scene in which Diego’s Taino friend tells him it’s a joking insult people from different tribal groups throw at each other. I got that straight from my Peace Corps experience in West Africa. I had friends who would kid around by telling each other, “Your grandfather ate people!” As for being a therapist, I like to think the feelings, relationships, and emotional growth of my characters is authentic. That authenticity comes from both my professional and personal experience.
EZ: Outrageous Older Woman consists of songs I’ve written over the past thirty years. I sing and play guitar, but the reason the album is a dream come true is that a bunch of superb musicians and backup singers—all much better than me!—played and sang along with me on it. The genre is singer-songwriter urban folk with a dash of country and a pinch of gospel, klezmer, or whatever each individual song required. The songs cover a wide variety of subject matter on themes that aren’t too different from those of my fiction and poetry: love, family, friendship, aging, alcoholism and recovery, abuse and healing, inspiring characters. My song about 911, written in New York over the two days after it happened, is on it, as is a story song that’s based on a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. You can get the CD or MP3 download on CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon (where you have to look up Liz Zelvin rather than Elizabeth Zelvin—it’s not on my author page because it’s not a book). And you can hear samples and a few full songs on my music website at http://lizzelvin.com.
SAT: What’s next for Elizabeth Zelvin?
EZ: If Lake Union, which is the literary and commercial fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional publishing arm), keeps wanting my historical novels, the next one will put either Diego and my other protagonists or possibly their children into some other situation and setting where there was a Jewish historical presence in the right era. My e-publisher, BooksBNimble, would like to see another Bruce mystery, and I’m working on the first draft of that. The theme is compulsive debting (yes, there is a program, Debtors Anonymous), and the working title is Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about a mystery/urban fantasy novel featuring my other strong protagonist, Emerald Love, a rising country music star and shapeshifter who’s also a nice Jewish girl née Amy Greenstein. She’s already appeared in an e-novella, “Shifting Is for the Goyim,” (available on Amazon) and in a short story that will appear in the next Sisters in Crime Guppies anthology.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of Voyage of Strangers, a historical novel about Columbus’s second voyage from the perspective of a young marrano sailor. She is also the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story and once for the Derringer Award. Her publications include two books of poetry and a professional book on gender and addictions. She has also released an album of original songs titled Outrageous Older Woman. Liz currently sees clients around the world on her online therapy website at LZcybershrink.com. Her author website is at http://elizabethzelvin.com. You can friend her on Facebook at http://facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin. Besides being a shrink, a writer, and a singer-songwriter, Liz is the doting grandma of two gorgeous, brilliant, talented, and well-behaved little girls.