My debut mystery has been out for quite a while now, and I have a deal on the second in the series. By any standards, I have fulfilled my lifetime dream of being a novelist. But my book about recovery from alcoholism is not a runaway bestseller. I didn’t think it would be, not only because fame and fortune come to a first-time fiction author who isn’t already a celebrity about as often as someone wins the lottery, but also because I’ve chosen a theme that is not everybody’s cup of tea.
Among my mystery writer friends are those who write about enormously popular topics such as antiques and gardening, and those who provide a peek into such fascinating worlds as dairy farming, the blues, and the Middle Ages. None of these subjects offers any threat to readers. And at least some of these authors are finding their career path a little smoother than mine. Do I get discouraged? Sometimes. Would I trade? No way.
Substance abuse, including alcohol and tobacco abuse and dependence, is considered the top preventable health problem in the United States. At least 100,000 alcohol related deaths occur each year. One study showed that alcohol appeared in 93 percent of the most popular movie rentals, tobacco in 89 percent, and illicit drugs in 22 percent, indicating how pervasive substance use is in our culture.
The thing about alcoholism is that only 3-5 percent of alcoholics are Skid Row derelicts. (In fact, having worked on the Bowery during its final years as a Skid Row, I can say with confidence that there are hardly any chronic “pure alcoholics” left. More and more chemical dependents get high on whatever they can get their hands on.) The rest are your Aunt Fanny, ie people just like the rest of us who have slipped gradually into more and more serious drinking problems and the denial that accompanies them. The good news is more than two million sober alcoholics in AA and many more who have benefited from professional treatment.
I chose to write Death Will Get You Sober rather than a blander mystery on a more palatable topic because I had a fervent desire to write, not about drunks and drinking, but about the transformational process of recovery. In my 25 years working with alcoholics and those who love them, I have seen more than my share of miracles: hopeless cases turning their lives around. Like any writer, I dreamed of having readers and reviewers acknowledge the quality of my writing and my storytelling. I wanted my characters to come to life. I wanted readers to love them. But part of my dream was that readers who had lived through the pain of alcoholism, whether in themselves, a spouse or partner, a parent, or a child would find hope in my story and acknowledge that I’d gotten it right.
That dream has come true. One reader with 35 years sobriety wrote that I was “the first professional who really seems to get it.” Another bought extra copies for family members who are longtime AA members. A judge whose “experience with the addicted is mostly with failure” was “happy at your hopefulness.” Some said they chuckled or, in one case, “spent much of the time I read the book laughing.” Some were “profoundly moved.” I was moved myself when a reader wrote on a mystery lovers’ e-list: “Like many... I've had experience with losing a loved one who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse.... I hesitated in reading Liz's book for fear of what it might force me to face, or remember.... And now I am so happy that I put those fears aside. It’s a lovely book with wonderful, well developed, perfectly defined characters. I found the story to be rich and complex, realistically humorous and uplifting and I loved it.”
I’m only human. I wish the book were coming out in paperback. I’d love to have a place on the New York Times bestseller list, an Edgar or Agatha nomination, a movie or TV option. But I knew going in—not at age seven or in high school, but certainly by 2002 when I started sending the manuscript out—that these were unlikely long shots. Have I already gotten what I came for, the reward I dreamed of when I poured my heart into this book? You bet I have.