Thursday, August 16, 2007

Women of Mystery: Peek Under the Writer's Veil

Elizabeth Zelvin

On August 7, I participated in a panel at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library, moderated by Jane Cleland, president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Agatha-nominated author of Consigned to Death. About 75 mystery lovers turned out to hear a lively discussion and ask questions. The other panelists were Robin Hathaway, Mary Jane Clark, and Mary Anne Kelly. I had prepared answers to Jane’s questions, and while what I wrote was not exactly what I said in the give and take of the panel, I thought the dialogue between Jane and me might be of interest.

Cleland: Are you a feminist? What does the term mean to you?
Zelvin: Absolutely. I think women are wonderful. I don’t believe they are inferior to men or incapable of achieving as much, though they’re different in some ways, and I don’t think their main purpose is to serve and support men.

Cleland: Are your characters feminists? How is that relevant to the writing?
Zelvin: Yes, they are, both men and women. Even though gender is a factor in who they are as individuals, the characters and the narrative itself takes different things for granted than you’d find in an old-fashioned nonfeminist book. For example, the male characters don’t comment about the length of the women’s legs or fall in love with them for being able to eat like a truckdriver without gaining a pound. Nobody makes jokes about women drivers or women liking shopping. There are a lot of subtle putdowns in unconsciously sexist books that you won’t find in mine—even though the male characters occasionally say, “Women!” and the female characters occasionally say, “Men!”

Cleland: If we peeked under your veil, what would we find? What's something about you that leads you to write as you do? What does your unique voice derive from?
Zelvin: Age and experience! I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 7, and I expected to publish my first novel about 40 years earlier than I actually will. But I have a number of earlier manuscripts in the drawer, including three mysteries, and in retrospect, there’s no way I could have written Death Will Get You Sober, which I’m very proud of, without every moment of my journey up to this point. I’ve been saying for years that my vision of maturity includes a couple of archetypes that I aspire to: the Wise Woman and the Outrageous Older Woman. I think my voice shows the influence of both of those aspects of who I am today.

Cleland: Do women kill for different motives than men do?
Zelvin: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. While I’m reluctant to generalize, I’d say the type of anger behind some murders is affected by gender. Some women kill out of frustration and feelings of powerlessness—we’ve all seen them in the headlines--while some men kill out of impulsive, aggressive rage.

Cleland: Do women detect using different skill sets or strategies?
Zelvin: The temptation is to say yes, that men use reason and women use intuition, but I think it’s a dangerous generalization, and I haven’t set up that dichotomy with my male and female sleuths. From the perspective of feminist psychology, women’s emotional development does take place through connection and relationships, while men’s is a process of separation, so that women do tend to be more expressive—use relational skills--and men more instrumental—use more cognitive skills. But of course not every individual fits completely into that or any model.

Cleland: Is it hard writing male characters? What about writing strong women?
Zelvin: I ended up with a male protagonist by accident. I started out with two alternating first-person voices. I was very proud of my male protagonist’s voice because he was nothing like me. I think the autobiographical first novel is like the starter marriage—if you reach a certain age without doing it, you can skip right over it. Yet I couldn’t make my female voice too much like me, so I tried to take her over the top, and she turned out funny but a little too preachy, which is why she ended up a sidekick. I think my protagonist Bruce’s voice owes as much to his being a recovering alcoholic in early sobriety as it does to his being a guy, although he’s definitely a guy’s guy in some ways. What he’s not is a superhero or man of action, the way many male characters in crime fiction are. The men I know in real life don't punch anyone in the jaw either.

Cleland: Can you describe your writing process?
Zelvin: I have to be alone—I could never write in Starbucks like some writers I know. It works best when I can get up and go straight to the computer, start writing without talking to my husband or anyone else or even checking my email. I can’t always do this, but that’s when the work gets done. I’ve been out in the country most of the summer working on my new manuscript. Some days I can do it, and other days I have to put something else first—my husband, my granddaughters, my clients, or some other task with a deadline. Or pain in the neck maintenance tasks, like paying bills or straightening out some screwup with the bank or a plumbing or electrical crisis or going to the dentist. I have a few mantras: “I’ll write for an hour if it takes all day” is one of them. SJ Rozan says do two pages a day every day no matter what, so I tell myself I can do two pages. But I don’t really feel as if I’ve had a real writing day unless I hit 1000 words, which is four or five pages since I write a lot of dialogue. Diana Gabaldon writes 1000 words a day, and her historical time-travel series, the Outlander books, are big, fat, wonderful books, much longer than most mysteries.

Cleland: What's the most difficult part of writing? What's the most fun?
Zelvin: Oh, how I hate the first draft. My mantra is “just keep telling the story,” but until I’ve done it, I’m always afraid I won’t be able to make it to the end with everything all wound up. I’ve been very encouraged by hearing some highly successful writers say it’s the same for them, including Carolyn Hart, Nancy Pickard, and Rhys Bowen, all of whom I've interviewed for Poe's Deadly Daughters. The most fun? Having written! And okay, those moments when I’m really cooking, when it’s just coming through me. Writers in past centuries used to call it the Muse, and the spiritual expression for the same thing is “being a channel.” And when I write something clever or funny, that’s fun too.

Cleland: Under that veil--what do you think of promoting your work? Are you good at it? Do you like that responsibility?
Zelvin: I used to be very shy, and I’ve always hated sales. I had a brief but nightmarish career selling life insurance back in 1980. But so far I’m really enjoying promoting my book, because it’s all different kinds of networking. Feminist psychology says women are relational, and I love spinning a web of connections both online and face to face. I have a friend who defines schmoozing as “networking shamelessly,” and I do love to schmooze. It’s in my New York Jewish daughter-of-two-lawyers genes.


Sofie Kelly said...

"Some women kill out of frustration and feelings of powerlessness."

Liz, do you think women ever kill to be powerful? For instance, a woman who kills her abuser?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Interesting question, Darlene. It's always dangerous to generalize, but my sense as a mental health professional is that it's seldom a matter of the woman thinking, "This will put me in the driver's seat!" She is more likely to act out of desperation, fear, and and a belief that there is no way out.