Monday, March 03, 2008

Mystery Writer Elizabeth Zelvin on Empathy, Hootennannies and The Renaissance Soul

Though we have never met, Elizabeth Zelvin and I are co-bloggers on Poe's Deadly Daughters. Liz's new mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, comes out next month, and she has begun her promotional blog tour. Liz is also a licensed online therapist, which is one of the things we discussed in the interview below.

Liz, I have shared a blog with you, Poe’s Deadly Daughters, for a year now, but in studying for this interview I’ve learned that you are quite the Renaissance woman! You are a poet, a singer, a former Peace Corps volunteer, a psychotherapist, a mystery writer. How do you make that work? And what matters most to you?
A friend of mine, Margaret Lobenstine, has a book out about what she calls the Renaissance Soul—her gender-free version of the term “Renaissance man.” She says a lot of multi-talented people take flak for not focusing on one thing rather than appreciating and enjoying all their gifts. I’ve reinvented myself every few years, and I find my different areas of creativity shift from the front burner to the back burner and vice versa every so often. I just go with the flow. But the writing is the closest to my heart. I first said, “I want to be a writer” when I was seven years old. So when people ask me how long it took to write Death Will Get You Sober and get it published, I can say it took 57 years.

You just mentioned your mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, which obviously deals with the notion of alcoholism. What prompted you to write about such a serious issue?
Yes, alcoholism is indeed a serious issue. But in fact, my intention was to write about recovery. I wanted to get Death Will Get You Sober out there for the same reason Mr. Obama is running for President: I have a message of hope. Alcoholism is a chronic illness that destroys people in many different ways. Yet millions of people do recover, thanks to the 12-step programs and also professional treatment. Every one is a walking miracle. I wanted to write about that miracle in an authentic way and even make jokes about it—which people in recovery, especially in AA, do all the time.

Had you always imagined yourself as a mystery writer, or was this just a surprising tangent to your other professional work?
As I said, I’ve always been a writer, and writing mysteries came well before my becoming a therapist. I wrote three mysteries that a good agent shopped but failed to sell in the 1970s, and I went back to school for a master’s in social work in the 1980s. That was one of the times I reinvented myself, and going back to mystery writing was another.

How did your knowledge of therapy and substance abuse counseling help you in structuring your novel? Did you have to be careful about the point of view?
One reason I wrote a whodunit is that the basic structure is predetermined: crime, investigation, denouement and solution. My professional experience allowed me to set the story in some interesting places: a detox on the Bowery, the church basements where AA meetings take place. And it certainly determined the characters. I’d say I got to be the opposite of careful in writing from my characters’ point of view. Originally, I had two first-person protagonists: Bruce, my recovering alcoholic, and Barbara, the over-the-top codependent who in the published version has become a sidekick. Bruce sprang to life from somewhere in my psyche and started talking in his own voice immediately, wisecracks and all. I’m very proud of him, because he’s nothing like me, and it feels like I’m not responsible. I certainly didn’t construct him deliberately, and I couldn’t have forced or faked it.

Your list of credentials is long and impressive. One which is particularly moving is that you counseled some New York City police officers after 9/11 regarding post-traumatic stress disorder. How do you, as the therapist, not become bogged down in the sadness of some of the people who seek your help?
To answer the first part of your question, I’d better clarify and explain that it wasn’t counseling. In 2003, about 18 months after 9/11, I was hired by an organization called POPPA, which provides support for police officers who want it through a hotline staffed by volunteer cops trained as peer counselors. POPPA got some funding to send out teams of these counseling cops and “cop-friendly” clinicians like me to do outreach and education about post-traumatic stress to uniformed officers all over the city.

I must have talked to a thousand cops in nine months, and I got to know some of my police teammates well. I developed enormous respect and fondness for NYPD officers. We deliberately didn’t try to get the cops we visited to “open up”—they wouldn’t have, certainly not in a group and often not to anyone who wasn’t on the Job. But they needed to hear our message. After we began the outreach, the POPPA hotline started ringing off the hook. PTSD can set in long after the traumatic event, and some of these men and women were really hurting.

As to not getting bogged down in the sadness of others, when you do clinical work, it’s important to have good boundaries. If I let every client’s pain overwhelm me, I can’t be effective and I will burn out quickly. If I’m centered within myself, I can reach out with empathy and compassion as well as my professional expertise and really help people. In Al-Anon, the 12-step program for friends and family of the alcoholic—which also figures in Death Will Get You Sober—they call it “detachment with love.” It works in coping with a loved one’s alcoholism or addiction, and it’s a great tool for therapists too.

If I’m not mistaken, you’ve lived in New York all your life. What do you love best about New York?
I’d say it’s the coexistence of an infinite number of little worlds. We may not enter or even know of all of them, but they’re there, and in the course of a lifetime in New York, we can visit or even belong to many of them. In Death Will Get You Sober, I shine a spotlight on a number of those little worlds, some of which are vanishing as we speak. When I started writing the book, the old Bowery, the world-famous skid row, still existed, although it was dwindling fast. Now the neighborhood is completely gentrified, although a couple of addiction treatment programs for the homeless are still located there.

Is it helpful to your mystery career to live in a city full of agents?
You’d think it would be! And in fact, between Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, I’ve had many, many opportunities to meet agents. But I had one a few years back who failed to sell the book. I didn’t have one when St. Martin’s took the book, although I’d made many, many queries and submissions in the interim. Then the agent I got to negotiate the contract didn’t fall in love with my material, and we’ve recently parted company. So I’m looking again.

Your mystery website has a photo section that is like a Who’s Who in mystery. Are you a social butterfly in the mystery world? And is photography another of your many talents?
Yes, that’s one of the advantages of living in New York. I didn’t go to a lot of parties—none, in fact—before I became an active mystery writer. Now I get invitations—to the Edgars and MWA’s holiday party, for example—that say, “dress to kill.” And I do love to take pictures, especially since I started using a digital camera. All the photos on both my websites are mine, except for the ones of me.

I was interested to learn you have two websites. What’s the difference?
I launched my author site when I signed the contract for Death Will Get You Sober. It tells about the book and me as a mystery writer. I have a page listing all my events and appearances. I’m doing a book tour all over the country in May and June, and you can go to my site and check exactly where I’ll be. There’s a separate page for my virtual tour, everywhere I’ll appear online in March and April. As you observed, I have a mystery photo gallery that I keep adding to, and there’s a link to our blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters.

I’ve had my online therapy site, since 2001. I see clients via chat and email. I also have pages about my poetry and music on that site. I was doing both actively when I started my online practice, and I found that online clients searched and found my other activities, sometimes before making the first appointment. Clients in a traditional face-to-face practice are incurious in comparison. They may wonder, sometimes intensely, about the therapist’s life, but they usually don’t make any attempt to find out on their own.

After having your own office practice (since 1987), what made you switch to online therapy?
Therapists in private practice all over the country have found it more and more difficult to stay afloat since the advent of managed care. I had a day job as well for many years, directing alcohol treatment programs, but when I left the last one—the one on the Bowery—I was quite burned out. I learned about online therapy almost by accident, and it rekindled an enthusiasm for helping people professionally that I’d been missing for a while. I have clients all over the world, and I can integrate the practice with my writing and the rest of my life, because I do it all on the computer. I love it!

As a therapist, would you say that writing is good therapy?
For those who feel comfortable expressing themselves in writing, it certainly is. In fact, that’s the premise of the online work I do, especially with clients who choose email. Chat is a lot more like traditional therapy, except the client and therapist are keyboarding text instead of talking in an office. It can be very stimulating, intense, and emotional. On the other hand, there’s a big difference between journaling to express feelings and conduct therapeutic self-exploration and writing for publication. To get published, as I know you know, we have to apply structure and face up to critique and revision. Therapeutic journaling can be completely spontaneous. For some people, it taps right into the psyche.

You’ve written many articles for scholarly journals, one of which is entitled “When Is It Time To Worry About Your Drinking?” I don’t drink, but I know people whose drinking seems problematic. What are the main warning signs that someone is not in control?
For the record, that one is more of a pop article that is posted to my LZcybershrink website. You’d be surprised how many people ask that question or its equivalent on search engines. About problem drinking: uncontrollable drinking itself—not being able to stop once you start—is a symptom. It doesn’t even need to happen every time you drink to spell trouble. Unfortunately, another hallmark symptom is denial. Alcoholics rationalize, minimize, and lie not only to others but to themselves more and more as the illness progresses. Increased tolerance is another key symptom. You know how some drinkers boast about their hard head or hollow leg and claim they can “handle it” or “drink anybody under the table”? That’s actually an indicator of alcohol dependence. It takes more and more to get the alcoholic drunk—until the liver starts to go, when decreased tolerance sets in because the body can’t process the alcohol as efficiently any more.

Do you ever sing to your patients? Or are they called clients?
Clients. Doctors have patients. I’m a licensed clinical social worker. And I had a New York State alcoholism and substance abuse counseling credential for 20 years, but I’ve recently retired that, so I’m now a counselor emeritus. (It should be “emerita,” but I wasn’t going to correct the State.) I’ve never sung to a client, but I’ve had clients who sang to me. If they offer—to make a point or express a feeling—I’m happy to listen. I don’t tell them I sing too. We’re not there to talk about me.

Your website says that you “grew up with hootenannies” and sang at Girl Scout camp. What’s a hootenannie? And how is Girl Scout camp different from the Campfire Girls?
Girl Scouts are Hertz. Campfire Girls are Avis. And a hootenanny was a folk song sing-along with an emphasis on “progressive” music. Think Pete Seeger leading a bunch of people in old union songs. I hope people still know who Pete Seeger is.

Of course they do! I hope. As a result of this love of folk music, you learned to play the guitar. What songs do you like to play? When we meet, can we sing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in harmony? How about “Wayfaring Stranger?”
I confess I like to perform my own songs best, although at the moment I’d have to rehearse to remember all the lyrics, it’s been so long. But in high school, we would bring our guitars to parties, and I was much appreciated because I would sing “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “This Land Is Your Land” so people could sing along. The more skilled musicians among us turned up their noses at songs they thought were corny. And hey, if you can sing harmony, you’ve got a date if we ever get to the same mystery conference. I’ll bring my backpacker guitar.

I'm there. When did you start writing poetry? Do you have a favorite poem or poet?
I’m an old English major, but I didn’t connect to poetry until the mid Seventies, when I discovered women poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I don’t think either considered herself a feminist, but I could relate to them in a way I hadn’t to Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane and the other male poets I’d studied in college. I wish both Anne and Sylvia had had access to today’s psychotropic medications. A favorite, no, but I have a lot of admiration for two terrific poets I’ve known personally, Sharon Olds and the late Enid Dame.

On your LZcybershrink website is a link which allows people to hear two of your original songs. This is neat. First of all, what clever lyrics! And your music is very folksy, with a Joan Baez or Arlo Guthrie kind of vibe. Have you gotten a big response to your singing? It’s interesting to hear someone’s voice after you’ve been e-mailing them—a sort of partial reality that your song “Online Loving” deals with. Was it inspired by all of your computer chat?
Some people love my singing, though I’ve always wished it sounded a little less plain and folky. And I’d rather have great backup from talented musicians and harmony vocalists than learn to play the guitar better. I had both for the songs on the site.

“Online Loving” was written for my stepdaughter, who met a Brit on the Internet and went back and forth with him for five years while they tried to figure out how to be together and employed at the same time. They’re now married and living in London. She wouldn’t let me sing it at the wedding, though.

What are you writing now?
Who has time to write? I’ve been in a whirl of preparing for publication and my virtual and geographical book tours since New Year’s. I have three more manuscripts in the series written, so my next task will probably be revising the first of those one more time to submit to St. Martin’s.

How can readers find out more about you and Death Will Get You Sober?
One good place to read about Death Will Get You Sober is my author site at www.elizabethzelvin.com, which I keep up to date with news and listings of my events and appearances. I also have a page on MySpace at www.myspace.com/elizabethzelvin. And throughout March and April, I’m appearing on quite a number of mystery blogs with guest blogs and interviews. I love how different each interviewer’s questions are, because it keeps me from repeating myself. And thank you so much, Julia, for giving me the opportunity to go on and on about myself. I’m realizing it’s one of the perks of being an author—though I’d better remember not to overdo it!

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Liz! Good luck with the book!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Julia,
my normal caseload is coming to an end (am a Psy.D.), and just started blogging 2 weeks ago. You're the first I "meet" who does on-line therapy. Am curious, how you deal with the Fee and issues of Harm to self or others? Have thought on starting myself a "DearAbby column, but dunno yet.Write me a comment on castlestgermain on this site (and read my deep sea mystery)-enjoy, Jeannette

Lee Lofland said...

Hi Liz. What a great interview. I had no idea of your impressive background.

I think it's great how you mentioned police officers and PTSD. Years ago, officers were just supposed to suck up their emotions and troubles after they'd been involved in traumatic situations. Well, we all know that's a recipe for disaster.

When I was in the shootout with the bankrobber (I killed him), I wasn't permitted any de-briefing, counseling, etc. It should be mandatory with all police departments, but in those days it wasn't. And you're right, PTSD can lurk in the corner of the mind until it decides to surface without warning. Not a good thing to happen. So, bravo to you, Liz.

By the way, did you read the article I sent you? I'd love to hear your reaction.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Jeannette, it's me, Liz, not Julia, who's the online therapist. And there is no short answer to your question. :) You can find a lot about how I do it at my online therapy site at www.LZcybershrink.com. And I offer a six-hour online training for clinicians interested in online practice. The next cycle will be in the fall, when I've recovered from the book tour for DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. :)

Lee, I read your article about the felonious pig lovers. Ewwww.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

To Lee, on the serious side: NYPD has several different counseling units, but the cops don't want to use them because of the adverse impact on their careers. The two most important messages of the POPPA teams were, "You'll be talking with another cop" and "POPPA is not part of the department--it really is confidential."