Saturday, 4 June 2011

Writers talk about writing: Dave Zeltserman

(Once you've finished reading what Dave's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

As promised, the first in a set of interviews with writers. First up is Dave Zeltserman, a fine purveyor of noir, crime fiction, horror and mysteries, and other delectable treats for the mind and soul. You can find Dave's blog at Small Crimes. As well as writing all of the books mentioned below, Dave somehow managed to find the time for years to promote and publish short crime fiction through the online anthology Hardluck Stories. He was kind enough to publish a couple of my stories there, and to ask me to be guest editor for one issue, which was a lot of fun. Dave's always been a great friend and support, so I'm delighted to kick off this series with such a wide-ranging interview. Enjoy.

We're in a lift/elevator, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

Julius Katz and Archie is a charming and fun mystery featuring the brilliant and eccentric detective Julius Katz and his very unusual sidekick, Archie. While Archie has the heart and soul of a hardboiled PI, well, he’s not exactly human, and instead is an advanced piece of technology that Julius wears as a tie clip. When a famous writer hires Julius to find out who is planning to kill him, it soon plunges Julius
into his most challenging case yet, while at the same time poking a bit of fun at every aspect of the publishing business, including writers, editors, agents and especially book critics. Julius Katz mysteries that have been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine have so far garnered Shamus, Derringer and Ellery Queen’s Readers Choice Awards.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

I’ve got a bunch of them. My ‘man out of prison’ noir trilogy had two books that made The Washington Post’s best books of the year list, Small Crimes (2008) and Pariah (2009). The third book of this trilogy, Killer (2010), was sadly not reviewed by The Washington Post so couldn’t make this list, but is my and
most readers favorite of the trilogy. My first horror novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field (2010) was well-received, garnering a Dark Scribe nomination for best dark genre book of the year, as well as being short listed by the American Library Association for best horror novel of the year. When the Boston Globe was reviewing Stephen King’s last book, they had the following to say:

"Compared to how artfully Dave Zeltserman handles the similar question of reality or psychosis in his 2010 novel The Caretaker of Lorne Field, King never rises above pulp fiction."

A few more books I’d like to mention. Outsourced (2011) is a fun bank heist novel, Blood Crimes (2011), which is available only as an e-book, is probably the anti-Twilight, a violent thrill ride that places vampires in a noir universe and is getting a terrific reaction from readers, and Dying Memories (2011), also available only as an e-book is a fast-paced very twisty thriller with a very cool plot and which readers are really digging, at least from what I can tell from the emails I’ve been receiving.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a screenplay for The Caretaker of Lorne Field. More about that later. I’m also over 200 pages into a YA noirish horror novel titled ‘The Boy Who Killed Demons’. As the title suggests, it’s about a boy who kills demons, or maybe he’s not killing demons since he’s the only one who sees them that way.

Your books range from gritty crime fiction, to the charming and light crime fiction of the Katz stories, to Bradbury-esque horror in the Caretaker of Lorne Field. How do you decide which to go for next - or is it the story that dictates that?

I write the books I want to write without caring about the genre. So whether it’s crime noir, crime fiction, horror, mystery, thriller or some hybrid of these, it doesn’t matter. I had a book event recently where the bookstore owner is one of my biggest fans, and he was telling the crowd how every book of mine is a different genre or subgenre, and it’s really true—even my ‘man out of prison’ noir novels are all very different types of noir from each other. Even with my two Bill Shannon novels, Bad Thoughts and Bad Karma, they’re two very different types of books, with Bad Thoughts being this very grim and bleak horror and crime hybrid while Bad Karma is more of a hardboiled PI novel with new age sensibilities. I guess I just don’t like writing the same book twice!

Because of the range of your writing, your books might have rather different audiences - some Julius Katz fans might be a little shocked by a novel like Pariah, for example. Is it an issue, and do you try and market them to differentiate them?

If I was thinking ahead I would’ve used a pseudonym for my Julius Katz stories and novels, but I was thinking it would just be one story for Alfred Hitchcock’s Black Orchid contest and that would be it. But then the story got picked up by Ellery Queen, won the Shamus Award, and more stories and the novel have followed. While Julius Katz is maybe 180 degrees opposite of Pariah—really these fun and charming and humor filled mysteries that are geared for any mystery reader, I’m finding that my noir and crime readers are equally enjoying them, but I don’t think the opposite is going to be true. I think many of my Julius Katz readers would be shocked and horrified if they ever picked up Pariah, Blood Crimes or Small Crimes. However, Killer seems to be a book that mystery, crime and literary readers enjoy.

I’m seeing the same with The Caretaker of Lorne Field—the same readers who like my crime fiction are really enjoying this one, and the reciprocal is true—horror readers who never read crime are picking up my crime novels and are enjoying them and thinking that they now also like crime (although they don’t realize yet that my crime novels are quite a bit different than the norm!).

Probably the biggest dichotomy is with Bad Karma, which is my one and only hardboiled PI novel (anyone thinking Fast Lane is a PI novel is in for a shock!). What I’m finding with that one is my crime noir readers are generally disappointed with it, while PI readers unfamiliar with me like it a lot.

Interesting things are happening with your books and the film world. Tell us more.

Even though Outsourced has just been published, it’s been in play for film since 2005. Over the years we’ve had a lot of close calls and at one point we almost had a cable TV deal. A little over two years ago I struck a deal with Constantin Film and Impact Pictures (Impact are the guys who make the Resident Evil movies). It’s been moving slowly, but a couple of months ago they signed up the director they wanted, and it’s now looking very likely this will be going into production, which is when I get paid!

I have a gritty crime novel coming out in the Fall titled A Killer’s Essence, and my publisher showed it to a film company in NY who ended up making me an offer which will include me writing the screenplay. I made my counter offer and we’ll see what happens. So far they’re the only film company who’ve seen the book, and I have to think if things don’t work out with them, I’ll get a deal elsewhere. This book is a natural for film.

Finally, I’m getting interest for The Caretaker of Lorne Field from film companies and producers. Right now this is all speculative where there’s no money yet and these people want to see if they can put a deal together. I decided to go with this producer who has a very hot director attached, and where he’ll be using my screenplay. It’s a long shot, but we’ll see what happens.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

I’m very good at plotting and characters, and especially coming up with fast, twisty stories that get my readers deeply involved, and so far that’s the feedback I’ve been getting from readers and reviewers. My writing also tends to be very spare with not a lot of description, and certainly none of the flowery type. Some readers complain about that, but then again, I don’t want my writing to be that way!

Since I never release a book until I’m fully satisfied with it, there’s really nothing I wish I could do better, since if there was I wouldn’t be releasing my book!

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

This would be Fast Lane, and I had a nearly driving mania to get the story out. Hard to explain really, but it was something I needed to do, and could barely think of anything else while I was writing it.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has.

Pariah has gotten a good amount of attention with making The Washington Post best books of the year list, as well as a number of other year-end best lists, and it has sold decently, especially as a book from an independent publisher, but it’s a book that I think could do much better and could reach a much larger audience. Part of the problem is it’s marketed as crime and mystery fiction, and it’s such a fierce book that almost all mystery readers all appalled by it. While at one level it’s an intensely fierce and brutal crime novel, at another level it’s a satire on the publishing industry (really a FU to the NY publishers) and our celebrity obsessed culture, and it’s a book for crime and literary readers, especially those looking for more subversive novels. For example, I really think fans of Palahniuck’s Fight Club would love this book.

Killer is another book that has gotten great reviews and a terrific reader response but hasn’t gotten the sales I thought it should. This is a much more accessible book than Small Crime sand Pariah, and is really one that mystery, crime and literary have all liked, but a big problem was Pariah, which turned a lot of mystery readers off to me (although it also cemented a lot of crime readers to me). If this book gets more widely discovered it could do very well.

I’ll add Blood Crimes to this mix. It’s sold okay so far as an e-book, about 2500 copies, but it’s such a thrill ride of a book and it’s been getting such an enthusiastic response from readers that it should be doing better if word of mouth really worked with e-books, although I’m sure Twilight fans who pick it up will be absolutely horrified.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

I think we’re in for more dramatic changes. Right now large publishing is mostly retrenching and only buying the safest books, while independent publishers in order to survive are buying what they feel are the best books they can find, and e-books is a free-for-all with over 800,000 books now available for Kindle downloads. I think all three of these trends are going to continue, with the big publishers limiting themselves to the biggest, safest names and bestsellers, while the most worthy and best books will be coming out from the independent publishers, with massive shakeups happening in the e-book area, which in effect are already starting to happen with Amazon creating their own fiction and nonfiction imprints. All I know for sure, though, if that the landscape is going to look vastly different a year from now than it looks now.

You're publishing ebooks now - have you learned anything in that process?

That it’s hard. Reviews and word-of-mouth doesn’t seems to do much for sales, instead it’s really shameless social networking that appears to drive sales, which I don’t think suits many authors. In my own case, I enjoy these interviews and writing articles about my books and crime fiction, but I don’t feel comfortable signing up 5000 strangers on facebook, for example, and constantly flogging my ebooks to them, which seems to be part of the strategy that’s needed these days. Also, Amazon really controls what e-books sell. Amazon has proven very powerful at direct marketing, and when certain e-books hit certain heuristics that Amazon has set, Amazon will then generate an endless stream of sales. It’s not word-of-mouth that’s creating these Kindle bestsellers, but Amazon itself.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I blog, do interviews, write guest articles, maintain a website. I also do events at bookstores. I don’t tweet.

The most effective promotion are external events that you can’t control. For example when NPR selected Small Crimes as one of best crime and mystery novels of 2008, it sold a lot of books. Same when The Washington Post named Pariah. And when Barnes&Noble recommended my e-books, Bad Thoughts and Blood Crimes, it helped sell several thousand copies of each.

For what I can control, the best promotion I’ve found is doing bookstore events. Over the years bookstore owners and employees have become readers of my books, and end up hand selling a lot of them.

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader?

I need two things to keep me reading—top-notch writing and I need to be absorbed deeply into the story. If either of those don’t happen, I quit. And nothing breaks the fictional world as much as something false or gratuitous. So characters doing dumb stuff just to advance the plot will usually get me to stop reading pretty quickly.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t do it! Do anything other than writing if you can help it! It will break your heart and leave you a ruined person, bitter and angrily muttering to yourself. Fuck, I could’ve had such a nice, pleasant life if I had just stayed a software engineer and kept myself from writing.

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).

I’m going with gibbons since I could probably survive a gibbon attack but would have no chance if attacked by a tiger.

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

Exactly! The fictional world you create should feel real, but it doesn’t mean it has to be!!


  1. Great start to the series and some interesting answers (and questions!). Cheers, folks - really enjoyed that.

  2. Smashing. Can't see Dave as a gibbon, mind you.