The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

May 27, 2009

Pariah, Publishing and Patriots: An Interview With Dave Zeltserman

A whirlwind is about to sweep across the crime fiction landscape, and his name is Dave Zeltserman. Crime fiction fans should be prepared for the gale-force noir blowing out of Massachusetts at the speed of six books over the next two years, beginning with Pariah this October. Hollywood is calling Dave's name as well, what with 28 Minutes, as yet unpublished, having already had the film rights snapped up. And more Hollywood deals may be in the works even as I type this.

Did I say whirlwind? Make that Hurricane Dave. If you aren't familiar with his work yet, start reading it now. You're four books behind already and the deluge is about to begin.

Last January, I was thrilled by the purity of the noir in Zeltserman's Small Crimes, the story of an ex-cop / convicted felon just released from jail. Now Dave has a new book, a noir masterpiece called Pariah, set to hit the US in October, (the UK already has the book available for purchase here) in which Boston mobster Kyle Nevin is out of prison and looking for revenge on the mob boss who set him up. Pariah can be read strictly as noir, but Zeltserman goes one better by incorporating a scathing satire of the publishing industry. Kyle Nevin is a force of nature, he's not about to be stopped or swayed by the big New York publishing houses. That's something he and his author have in common.

I generally (okay, never) do author interviews, but this is one I felt compelled to ask for the privilege of doing. I know, that means nothing to most people, they don't care about me. But - when an author has the likes of Ken Bruen and Charlie Stella in his corner, you know the books are something very special indeed. So go get yourself a brewski, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the kick-ass, take-no-prisoners
candid directness of an immensely talented (and kung fu black belt) author at the top of his game, one who is heading for some well-deserved fame. Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to host Dave Zeltserman:

Q: Dave, Pariah is your second book in what might be called a trilogy, books in which a convicted felon has just been freed from prison. Did you set out to create a trilogy from the start or were you exploring the possible avenues of development for such characters?

Dave: When I was publishing my crime fiction web-zine, Hardluck Stories, we did a lot of themed issues, and I always found the results interesting. When I started Pariah I thought it would be kind of cool to have it open the same as Small Crimes: a very dangerous man getting out of prison, except from there both protagonists end up going down different paths; with Small Crimes it’s a search for redemption, with Pariah, it’s for revenge and to reclaim former stature. When Serpent’s Tail made an offer for Pariah, I threw out a vague idea for Killer based very loosely on another Boston crime figure to make this a “man just out of prison” trilogy. What I really wanted was to have a book sold before writing it as opposed to trying to find a home afterwards. I really had no idea what I was going to do with Killer, but Serpent’s Tail bought it along with Pariah. It has since been written and I’m happy with how it came out, as is my publisher.

Q: You told me that you wrote Pariah before the OJ Simpson book hit the headlines. The irony of that incident must have staggered you because you lay out a scene in Pariah involving a struggling writer, a man who has an MFA and has spent three years writing his book and another 18 months finding an agent only to be told that while his book is good he's not a celebrity, a 'name,' so he won't get his work published. Meanwhile a guy who's never written more than a letter to an editor gets a six-figure, two book deal just because he's made headlines for doing some very bad things. Every unpublished writer must have experienced this kind of slap indirectly, but did you experience it directly?
Dave: The timing of the OJ Simpson story surrounding his “If I Did It” book was pretty bad. I don’t think any NY house would’ve had the balls to publish Pariah even without it, but that just about killed any chance of selling Pariah to NY since none of these houses were going to risk embarrassing the editor behind Simpson’s book, even if the similarities were a bizarre coincidence. Fortunately, Serpent’s Tail has plenty of balls, and I’m grateful to them for publishing Small Crimes and Pariah. About your question whether I’ve ever experienced that kind of slap, well, yeah, I’ve had more than my share of rejections. One of the driving forces pushing me to write Pariah was an anger at the NY publishing houses for just about all of them rejecting Small Crimes and 28 Minutes. What pushed me over the top was seeing books written by scumbag South Boston mobsters being released in early 2006, as well as Little Brown offering a Harvard student a $500K 2-book deal to write chick lit books, only to have her end up plagiarizing other chick lit books — with the offer clearly being made more because of what she had to offer as an attractive package as opposed to her writing abilities.

Q: The characters of Kyle Nevin in Pariah and Joe Denton in Small Crimes share some similar characteristics, yet the the two men are distinctly different. What is it that makes them so?

Dave: Both books and characters came about differently. With Small Crimes, I was inspired by a couple of different newspaper stories. One was about a cop who had committed a crime very similar to Joe Denton, then ended up serving a fairly light sentence in a county jail with a pension waiting for him when he was released. The other story was about this amazingly corrupt sheriff’s office near Denver in the '60s, how this sheriff and his men were robbing the stores blind that they were supposed to protect — in at least one case when they couldn’t pick the lock on the safe, they stole the safe right out of the store and loaded it on a pickup truck only to have it tumble out of the truck later as they’re driving away. From these stories I started playing a bunch of “what-if” games to figure out a scenario to explain how this cop got away with the light treatment that he did while adding into the mix an utterly corrupt sheriff’s office, and from there I saw what to me seemed like an exciting modern noir story involving a desperate search for redemption, and then fleshed out my main protagonist (Joe Denton) so it would all make sense.

Pariah came about completely differently. Like a lot of people in the Boston area, I’d spent years reading and hearing about Whitey Bulger. What made the story so fascinating was that you here you have the most feared mobster in Boston, and his brother is the State Senate President. I knew there was a good crime novel there, and for a long time it was in the back of my mind to base a novel on this. What finally pushed me was being pissed off at the NY publishing industry, and deciding to go at it at a different angle — writing Pariah at two levels; one level being a fierce and uncompromising crime novel, the other being a satirical look at [the] publishing industry and the nature of celebrity in [the] US. I tried to flesh out Kyle Nevin to be an honest portrayal of the kind of guy who used to work for Whitey. He may be a monster, but I think he’s true to form and probably no worse than the actual guys who were killing and extorting for Bulger. Kyle is, though, a completely different character than Joe Denton. Kyle is a force of nature, a man who leaves death and destruction wherever he goes. Joe for all his faults and weaknesses is someone who could’ve led an uneventful and mundane life if circumstances had been different.

Q: I've read only those two books of yours (don't worry, I'll get to Fast Lane and Bad Thoughts soon), but it seems clear you are drawn to the darker side of fiction - or of the human psyche perhaps. Yet your professional background doesn't hint at how deeply you are capable of delving into the flawed personalities of your main characters. How did you get from Point A to Point B? Did you minor in psychology? Were you weaned on noir?
Dave: I was an engineering student in college and most of my courses were either engineering, math and computer science, with very few liberal arts courses, and no psychology. Somehow I have the ability to get in the heads of sociopaths — a skill my wife and family are quite proud of. I can’t explain it other than I’ve always read a lot, and over the years have been around a lot of different people.

Q: You could be called one of those 'overnight sensation' writers due to the publicity you received when NPR touted Small Crimes as one of the best books of 2008. Except it's taken the best part of what - 15 years? - for you to be able to quit your day job. And now your writing career is snowballing. In fact, it's an avalanche, what with six books set to come out in the next two years, beginning with Pariah this fall. And one of those unpublished books, 28 Minutes, has already been optioned for a movie. Tell me how giddy you must be feeling about now.
Dave: It wasn’t really 15 years since there were stretches where I’d quit for 4-5 years out of utter frustration and focus on my day job. Also, I’m not really making money yet with the writing gig - I think I’m close, but not there yet. I’d made some money with a couple of the computer startups I was at, and the writing bug had gotten too deep in me, so once I sold Pariah I decided to take a leap that that book will do well. Of course, it was about the time that I did this that the stock market began to melt down (and the NY publishing industry started to collapse into itself), and I went from around 5 years in reserves to a lot less.

The movie deal for 28 Minutes took so long to come about with so many false starts along the way that it’s hard for me to get too excited about it, especially since even with that deal and Serpent’s Tail acquiring the UK rights, I still can’t get a NY house to acquire the US rights. If I take a step back and look at what I’ve accomplished, I should be happy - I’ve got the movie deal, producers in Hollywood who I can bring other projects and be taken seriously, a good literary agent, a top film rep, a lot of books being published by two very highly respected houses (Serpent’s Tail and Overlook Press), some critical acclaim, a growing readership - but what keeps driving me is a low simmering rage at the large NY houses for rejecting everything I’ve sent them.

Q: Even readers who are not also writers are curious about the writing process. What's your methodology for creating a novel, or is each book a different experience? Do you storyboard, outline, fly by the seat of your pants? Are you righteous about writing every day, set word quotas, etc.?
Dave: I’ll write a detailed outline—usually between 6 to 8 pages. For the most [part] I follow the outline, but at some point the book becomes something organic, something living and breathing. Detours will pop up, new characters will be born, as well as additional plot threads. When I start a book I try to write every day, and I’ll always set up unrealistic daily goals that I usually don’t meet, at least not until I get within the last 50 pages or so. At that point it becomes more like a desperate sprint where I become obsessed with finishing the book, and at times have written those last 50 pages in one sitting.

Q: You've spent most of your life in or around the Boston area. The Southie area is famous for its subculture of crime and violence and unswerving loyalty. How has the area has changed since the flight of Whitey Bulger, or has it? How do you think the people of Southie will react to Kyle Niven's story?
Dave: Boston used to be a much different city than it is now. The combat zone is gone - a new Ritz Carlton is right in the middle of where the old combat zone used to be. A lot of money has poured in over the last two decades, and there’s been a lot of high-end development, especially around the waterfront. I’m sure there’s still some mob activity, as all the corruption around the Big Dig showed, but it seems quieter.

About how the people of Southie will react - well, Pariah’s a Boston-based crime novel, and I think in order to have any sense of realism it had to have its roots in Southie. I don’t think Kyle is an exaggeration of the type of criminal who operated in Whitey’s organization, at least not with what’s come out in the newspapers and books like Brutal by Kevin Weeks. And the book certainly doesn’t try to put down Southie or the people living there, but instead shows a criminal sociopathic personality, so I’m hoping no one in Southie takes offense at this. The goal for the book is really to show in a broader sense how our culture deals with these criminal celebrities, and not with how Southie dealt with them. Now whether the NY publishing houses should take offense at this book is another question.

Q: Some writers of crime fiction deeply feel what they consider to be restrictions of the genre, and some have even sidelined or altogether abandoned the genre as soon as their name became famous enough for the publishers to take a chance on another style of book. Are you bothered by such concerns, and are you writing or wanting to write books outside this genre?
Dave: Okay, here’s where I’m caught being full of shit, at least my railing against the NY publishing houses for not publishing me. The large NY houses want formulaic “relentlessly commercial” books for their mystery and crime lists, while I’ve been writing the types of books I want to write. So I really have no right complaining about them not buying my books. The reality of the situation is I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found strong houses like Serpent’s Tail and Overlook Press to publish me. But the large NY houses are broken, at least when it comes to mystery and crime fiction. Established writers like Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block can break out of this formulaic mold and get their books published (just as the unfortunately recently deceased but great Donald Westlake was able to do), so some really good crime fiction still comes out of NY, but for most writers they insist on formulaic. Interestingly a new form of formulaic hardboiled books seems to be developing—an almost comic book style where you have over-the-top completely unrealistic violence, which I look at as kind of an equivalent to slasher-films. It’s also interesting that publishers have no problem publishing subversive dark books if they’re labeled literary, such as what Chuck Palahniuk’s been writing. It’s only when the books are labeled mystery/crime that they blanch at this and don’t trust their readers with anything other than what they consider safe books.

Q: Some say selling a book is much harder than getting it published. True? Are there aspects to marketing your work that have tried your soul (such as this kind of interview)? And when can readers west of New England expect a signing tour?
Dave: Small Crimes was my first book published by a house [that] reviewers and bookstores pay attention to, so I’m really just starting out and haven’t done much on the marketing side, other than my web-site and blog and a few readings. I enjoy these interviews, though. When I’m writing a book, a lot of what I do is by intuition and feel, and these questions help me to intellectualize the reasons I took the paths I did. Serpent’s Tail is a great house, but there’s no getting around that they’re an independent, and they don’t have the resources that the large NY houses do, so it’s probably doubtful that I’ll be doing much touring outside of New England, although my publisher has mentioned having me do some touring in the UK.

Q: I may be about to set off a roman candle here, but what the hey? I read that you're a Patriots and Red Sox fan. The Patriots are known for their team loyalty and not airing their internal problems publicly. Do they have some of that Southie culture going on? What's your take on the accusations of cheating that recently plagued the Patriots' organization?
Dave: Okay, here’s the deal. There was one villain in all this and that was Eric Ratgini. That fat tub of goo ratted out his mentor, the man who gave him his start, and for that he should’ve been kneecapped, or at least be offered nothing better than a job collecting locker room towels and jockstraps, certainly not the head coaching job for Cleveland (although maybe that’s not much better collecting locker room towels). The reality is Belichick was doing what only every other team was doing, and it had no impact on the games, since teams are constantly changing their signals. If people really want to be outraged, look at some of the calls in the Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl. Tell me there wasn’t a fix there. But the Patriots are a dynasty and have inspired a lot of jealousy, and this gave all the haters a chance to try to tear them down. But with a healthy Brady coming back, I’m looking forward to another Pats Super Bowl.

Q: Your dream of being a successful writer, assuming you did dream that at some point, has come true. What's your new dream?
Dave: To be able to make a living at this. I think I’m close. I know writers should never count on a movie deal, but the people involved in 28 Minutes are pushing hard to get the movie made, and I think it’s going to happen, and a few more movie deals are close to materializing.

I think it's going to happen, too, Dave. I also think the big publishing houses are going to come calling - soon. (Possibly with guns. Possibly with Whitey Bulger. More likely with money and contracts.) My boundless gratitude to you for (1) writing great books and (2) consenting to be questioned by a newbie at the interview game. You made it fun.

Pariah debuts in October in the US, as I mentioned, but Small Crimes is already available through your local indie store or at the usual online suspects.