Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Death Will Help You Leave Him

Today Jungle Red welcomes our good friend Liz Zelvin, Agatha-nominated author whose latest release is Death Will Help You Leave Him. Her books feature amateur sleuth Bruce Kohler, who has substance abuse issues.

JR: Welcome, Liz! Someone recently suggested that - to paraphrase - all the best mystery writers were alcoholics. Needless to say, the speaker got an earful from many who strongly disagreed. That said, there is no shortage of hard-drinking cops and p.i.'s in mysteries these days. How hard was it for you to buck the trend and have a recovering alcoholic as your series protagonist?

LZ: Not hard at all, since all I had to start with were a love for the mystery genre, the title Death Will Get You Sober and a burning desire to write about the amazing courage and honesty of recovering alcoholics and the transformational quality of recovery itself. The roster of writers who were fueled by booze includes Hemingway, Poe, O’Neill, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Hammett, and Chandler. Most of those were “literary” writers. Some were Nobel Prize winners. But as an addiction treatment professional, I can say they would have lived longer and might have written even better if they’d found sobriety. In fact, there are some wonderful recovering alcoholic protagonists in mystery fiction, notably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux. The trend I really bucked was the idea that sobriety is no damn fun. I created a world for Bruce and his friends that I tried to make lighthearted and gritty at the same time. And I got wonderful feedback from recovering people that yep, that’s how it really is. JR: The first book, appropriately, was Death Will Get You Sober. But Death WillHelp You Leave Him doesn't have much to do with drinking. What happened? Without giving too much away, is Bruce Kohler on the wagon for good?

LZ: My first job out of graduate school was in the outpatient alcohol program of a city hospital. It was before managed care, and those programs were very long term. When I arrived at work the first day, I found they wanted me to work in the detox unit instead. If they hadn’t switched me back, I would have quit. The first five days of sobriety are boring, at least for those who have to deal with a detoxing drunk. For the patient, they’re scary and pretty wretched. It’s what happens after that—the whole sky’s-the-limit just-stop-drinking-and-change-your-whole-life process—that’s fascinating and often inspiring.
Bruce isn’t “on the wagon”—a term comparable to “on a diet,” and you know how permanent that is (not!). He’s in recovery, and he’s going to stay sober. In real life, even as a professional, I can’t guarantee that any alcoholic won’t drink again. But I do have that power over Bruce, and I refuse to let him relapse. Once the alcohol is out of the way, all the stuff it’s been covering up surfaces, and that includes feelings and relationships, which aren’t boring at all.

JR: Death Will Help You... includes several bad relationships. What would you call them? Abusive? Addictive? Is there such a thing as relationship addiction?

LZ: People can get hooked on partners who are hurtful, unavailable, or inappropriate on a very deep level that does not respond to reason. “Why can’t she just throw the bum out?” is not helpful for some people in bad relationships, in the same way that “Why can’t he just say no?” is not helpful when you’re dealing with, say, drug addiction.
The idea of relationship addiction works pretty well when you know someone is bad for you but you can’t make yourself leave. Maybe you’re scared of being alone. Or you think the problems, even physical abuse, are your fault, and if only you can do everything right, you’ll get the love and approval you want.
Or there’s a terrific high involved in the roller coaster of passion and then rejection and fighting and making up and passion again. The way Bruce is with his crazy ex-wife Laura in Death Will Help You Leave Him is that kind of addictive relationship. Also, because he hasn’t been sober very long, he’s still used to taking the path of least resistance. It doesn’t come easily to him to fight against the way she turns him on—or the way she needs him when she gets suicidal in the middle of the night and calls him.
Laura’s relationship with her current boyfriend, or the relationship between the murder victim, Frankie, and his girlfriend Luz, who becomes the prime suspect—those are abusive relationships. These are men who hit women, who put them down verbally, who try to control them through possessiveness and jealousy or by walking out and waltzing back in again so the women can’t maintain any equilibrium.
The only way people can maintain these destructive relationships is by being in denial. “He really loves me.” “He’s not lying to me.” “She needs me.” “No one else understands her.” “Nobody else could ever love me.” “I’m not worth anybody being nice to me.” “I’m going to leave soon.” “Maybe he’ll change.” “He didn’t mean it.” “She’ll die if I abandon her.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the C word yet: codependency. That’s when your identity and self-worth depend on someone else—usually someone unavailable, which could mean married to someone else or stoned out of their mind all the time, if not abusive. Codependents confuse having no boundaries or sense of self with love and intimacy. And the popular culture supports that, so having a healthy relationship goes against the grain. As you can see, I have a few opinions about this....

JR: It's no secret that it's taken you many years to publish a novel. How is writing about relationships different at 65 than it might have been when you were 25?

LZ: I’ve learned a lot in the past forty years about the difference between sex and love, or let’s say the difference between passion and intimacy. That lovely weak-in-the-knees stuff is only Chapter One. Durable relationships are complex, and I find that a lot more interesting and authentic than “romance,” especially to write about.

JR: Now for some of the fun stuff. John, Paul, George or Ringo?

LZ: You know, what I found endearing was the whole pack, especially in the early days, the adorable boys of A Hard Day’s Night. My heart didn’t actually throb for any one of them. JR: Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (as Sherlock Holmes)?

LZ: Basil Rathbone—no contest. There’s a mystery writer who’s a Rathbone lookalike: Philip Cioffari, whom I met at Killer Nashville this summer. Man, I’d like to see him in a deerstalker hat.

JR: Blackberry or Iphone?

LZ: Sorry, not there yet. I can take movies with my digital camera and find any address with my GPS. Does that count?

JR: Cheetos or creme brulee?
LZ: Crème brûlée—that’s an accent grave, circumflex over the “u,” and then an accent aigu.
JR: And I think I know the answer to this one.Crocs or Jimmy Choos?
LZ: Crocs all the way.
JR: Thanks, Liz and good luck with the new book. Visit Liz at, and be sure to stop by tomorrow for a surprise visit from New York Times best-selling author Lorna Bartlett and on Friday for some words of wisdom from Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Carolyn Hart!


  1. What an enjoyable interview. Fun, interesting questions, and intriguing, insightful responses from Liz.
    Congratulations to Liz on the release of DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM.

  2. Hey Liz! Welcome to JRW...
    You've done so much touring! What's your take on the results and benefits of that?

    xoo Congratulations on the new book!

  3. Congrats on the new release! Hope your tour is going well. I was sorry to miss the release party at Partners and Crime...

  4. I think Liz is in transit even as we, um..key...but I know she'll be checking in later on today so, ask away. I'd like to know how she has so mnay relatives and friends all over the country..and how it was when she stayed with her old grammar school crush!

  5. Welcome Liz. Great interview and congrats on the release of your new books.

  6. Congrats on the new release Liz. I admire how you manage to sandwich a lot of serious issues into your mysteries without becoming heavy-handed. Maybe you could tell us the secret to that:)

  7. Hi Liz,
    Welcome to JR and congrats on the new release. I love characters (and people for that matter) in recovery. They have so much new energy to deploy on the mystery at hand!!

  8. Congratulations, Liz, on the interview and the new book. And thanks--I take it to be a compliment--for the reference about my looking like Basil Rathbone. I'll have a find a way to use that to promote my next novel.

  9. Phillip - Get a shot of you in THE hat for a Twitter avatar. ;)

    Liz - I know this is a day late, but I'm psyched to see you on JRW. I wanted to go to your launch party but just couldn't swing it that day. Good luck to you and Bruce.