Thursday, June 7, 2012

What's a New York series doing in the Hamptons?

Elizabeth Zelvin

In today’s market-driven publishing industry, editors can sometimes get a bit narrow-minded about where a mystery series is set. If it’s a South Florida series, by gum, they want every book to take place in South Florida. If it’s a Las Vegas series...well, what’s set in Las Vegas had darn well better stay in Las Vegas. The Big Six publishers in particular are wary of anything that might be labeled “regional” or as appealing only to a “niche” market, in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary. “No one wants to read about Canada” (cf Louise Penny) or “No one wants to read about Italy” (cf Donna Leon), for example. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a New York series set in the music world being dismissed as “niche” by a prestigious smaller publisher located in another part of the country.

The more popular the author, the more latitude in this regard. For example, Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes get to San Francisco; Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott gets to Manhattan. But midlist writers like me are expected to keep a New York series firmly within New York. I didn’t know this going in. I originally envisioned my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, world-class codependent Barbara and computer genius Jimmy, alternating between books set in the city (as we New Yorkers call it, as if no other existed) and books set “out of town” (as we characterize all other places from Boston to LA and mountains, lakes, and prairies from sea to shining sea). My editor at St. Martin’s, the late Ruth Cavin, nixed that right away.

I didn’t win that battle (or any others) with the legendary Ruth. But I maintain that “out of town” is an essential part of the New York experience. How do you think those of us who live in the Big Apple stand it but by getting out of it once in a while? I adore my city with its rainbow population, 24-hour energy, and kaleidoscopically innumerable, bright, and constantly shifting little worlds. But sometimes I hunger for fresh air, quiet, and more green leaves and blue water than Central Park provides. I leave exhausted, and I come back refreshed and ready to plunge in again.

The Hamptons in particular are to some extent an outpost of New York City. The locals who have been there for generations may resent it, and there are perennial battles between the Bonackers and baymen on one hand and the summer people on the other, some of which provided fodder for my new book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, set in an imaginary Hampton called Deadhampton (Dedhampton on the tax map), where Bruce and his friends take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house that turns out to be brimming with secrets. Unlike such authors as James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Susan Isaacs, whose Hamptons books pit the locals against the celebrities and rich folks south of the highway whose lifestyle you probably picture when you hear the term “the Hamptons,” I focus on the ordinary people who get away to the more modest area north of the highway.

My own country house in Springs is an 800 square foot (yes, that’s two zeroes) cheaply built ranch that a wolf with good lungs could blow down, soil that’s not rich from three hundred years of potato farming but a mix of inorganic sand and rocks (“For this my ancestors left Ireland?” my husband asked when he tried to dig a garden, right after we bought the place twenty years ago), and scraggly oaks rather than the giant elms of the Hamptons that get into the movies. But I love the beach, the birdsong, the flowers, the clean air, and the relative peace and quiet (no murders in my neighborhood so far), and so do Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy.


Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, you'll be happy to hear that in my mind, at least, the Hamptons are firmly connected to New York. But I suspect that a lot of people think of "New York" as Manhattan only and don't even consider Brooklyn and the Bronx to be part of it.

The DC area, where I live, has a somewhat similar identity problem. Most of the people who work in Washington itself -- the federal government, of course, is the main employer -- live in the surrounding suburbs, and all of us suburbanites consider ourselves Washingtonians. Many people elsewhere don't even realize that National Airport, Dulles Airport, the Pentagon, NIH, and other famous places aren't inside the city limits. Somebody once made the statement on an online listserv that "National Airport is in the middle of Washington, DC" and when I corrected her, she argued with me! Hey, I live here. I know where the airport is -- it's in Arlington, a suburb.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, mystery lovers who go to Malice Domestic know that both Virginia and Maryland suburbs are part of the DC area. :) The Hamptons are about the same distance from Times Square as Richmond, VA is from the White House.

lil Gluckstern said...

To me as an ex New yorker, Long Island is an an extension of the city. Although there is nothing like the city, i.e. Manhattan, the Hamptons are firmly anchored in my mind as mostly Manhattanites on vacation. I spent time on Montauk, and the North Shore was a favorite for outings and sight seeing. I found nothing jarring about your book. I was pulled right in and never left.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Lil. :)

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