Made It Moment: Liz Zelvin
This is an unusual Moment by an unusual artist–writer and singer both. Perhaps that’s not so unusual…poetry, prose, and songs are like three rivers that all come together in some artists. (Some. Not me.)
But my hat is off to Liz Zelvin, who tells us about her journey through many moments and many reinvented selves. I couldn’t help noticing while reading her piece that when she talks about the 70s, she refers to the “twilight of the independent bookstore” and now by many accounts, indie bookstores are experiencing a resurgence. Everything old is new again, and perhaps in the end that’s what Liz’s Moment is really all about.
From Mystery to Music: A Writer’s Other Dream Comes True
I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. I did become a lifelong writer, but contrary to how I’d imagined it, my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, wasn’t published until my sixty-fourth birthday. I’ve been singing for even longer, cutting my musical eyeteeth on a weird amalgam of morbid traditional murder ballads (“I held a knife unto her breast/as into my arms she pressed”), political folk songs “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union”), and sentimental but gloriously harmonizable Girl Scout campfire songs (“Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander,” to quote one that I’m sure is in the public domain). I never dreamed of being a singing star. When I was a kid, girls with ethnic noses did not become stars. (Believe me, I was thrilled when Barbra Streisand had her breakthrough.) But I learned to play the guitar, and according to the long memories of classmates I’ve met at various reunions, I spent my whole college career sitting on the grass while I strummed and sang. I had some coffee house fantasies for a while, but then folk met rock and the moment passed.
In the 1970s, I had a period of intensive songwriting that coincided with my first adult efforts to write a novel. In fact, I actually found an agent—much easier in those days—for three standalone whodunits, though they didn’t sell, and in retrospect, it’s probably just as well. I copyrighted a dozen songs and published two books of poetry with a good small press. In the meantime, I went back to school and became a therapist, which made it a lot easier to view being a writer (especially a poet) and a singer-songwriter as arts that I practiced for love, not money. I did poetry readings and the occasional singing gig in modest folk venues. The ability to pour out my heart to a very, very small audience would stand me in good stead later, when I did my first book tours in the twilight of the indie bookstore era.
My guitar gathered dust for quite a while, and then about fifteen years ago, my songwriter persona came back to life. I had the opportunity to attend songwriting and singing workshops with a trio of wonderful mentors: contemporary folk legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, vocal visionary Amy Fradon, and veteran singer/ songwriter Bernice Lewis. Besides writing new songs, I got to hang out with musicians who were far more accomplished than I. As a writer, ie a word person, I had a lot of confidence about my actual songs, especially the lyrics. But rather than trying (or even wishing) to be a better musician, I realized I had a new dream: to play and sing my songs with fabulous backup.
I was just beginning to think that maybe I had enough songs for an album when the unexpected loss of my day job gave me the time to write that mystery about alcoholism and recovery that I’d been talking about for years. I finished the first draft, joined Sisters in Crime (including the amazing Guppies chapter that produced ten of this year’s Agatha nominees, all unpublished when I joined) and Mystery Writers of America, and laid aside my guitar to exercise my “talent, persistence, and luck” in the quest for publication. “If this mystery thing doesn’t work out,” I said, “I can always make my CD.” Did I really believe that could happen? Of course not.
In the past five years, I’ve had elements of everything I wanted as a writer: a mystery series, publication by a major publisher and a prestigious short story magazine, an agent who believed in me, and award nominations, not to mention precious comments from readers letting me know my work inspired and moved them, even made them laugh and cry. I’ve also made terrific friends and learned a huge amount about my craft. But. I lost my publisher around the time my second book was published, and that was when the economy tanked and the publishing industry started falling apart.
Death Will Extend Your Vacation, the third book in the series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, world-class codependent Barbara and computer genius Jimmy, is finally out. But in the two and a half years between the last book and this one, I had time to go into the studio and make that album. It’s called Outrageous Older Woman, and it’s available in both CD and download form. To create it, I drew upon my life experience and creativity in an entirely different way from the mysteries, yet I can also say the process was very similar. Like my writing, it took talent, persistence, and luck, as well as the support of friends and the gifts of fellow artists. Just as I’m not going to make the NY Times bestseller list or win an Edgar, I’m not going to get a record deal or win a Grammy with a debut album at the age of sixty-eight. But that’s okay. That’s not why I did it.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose mysteries feature recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Death Will Extend Your Vacation is the latest in the series, following Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him. Liz is a three-time Agatha Award nominee and a Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Her stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines. Outrageous Older Woman, her CD of original songs, was released in 2012.