Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...
What crime novel would you most like to have written?
I’d rather amend the question to name crime novels I admire enormously, knowing I could never have written them. I have plenty of candidates: the Reginald Hill’s UNDERWORLD and ON BEULAH HEIGHT, Laurie King’s THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE, Dorothy L. Sayers’s GAUDY NIGHT, Peter Dickinson’s KING AND JOKER, Janet Neel’s DEATH’S BRIGHT ANGEL, Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR. I’d add a few series by American women: Marcia Muller, Margaret Maron, Dana Stabenow, Nevada Barr.
Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Now, this is embarrassing: Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries. These are cozies in the grand tradition, written after the Golden Age of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Detective Club and before the proliferation of light fare that has made “cozy” a pejorative term in some quarters. Wentworth’s books are perfectly predictable, but they are intelligent and character driven, if you accept that the characters fall into a finite number of types based on now outmoded assumptions about men, women, and society.
Most satisfying writing moment?
That would be the moment when the words tug at my mind, demanding to be released onto the page, and once they’re on the paper, I know I’ve got it. Writers have had different names for it over time: the Muse, inspiration, being a channel, even God or Higher Power. I’ve had it more frequently as a poet than as a novelist. Two of my most powerful poems came to me that way, one the day of my mother’s death and the other the day of my father’s funeral. When it comes during the first draft of a mystery, it feels wonderful, but I still have to sit back down at the computer the next day and keep on slogging.
The best Irish crime novel is …?
Ken Bruen’s PRIEST, which is up for an Edgar for Best Novel and is one helluva book. Or maybe CROSS, his new one: the opening, prologue and first chapter, left me breathless. I’ve been a poet myself for thirty years or so, and you can see the poet on every page of Ken’s work. I shied away from it until recently, not only because I don’t read much noir but also because I’d heard his protagonist Jack Taylor was a heavy-duty alcoholic who hated sobriety—the opposite of my protagonist Bruce, who gets into genuine recovery, however reluctantly, and won’t relapse no matter how long the series runs. But when I finally read Ken’s books, I found he knows his stuff about the disease and is no fan of active alcoholism, so my bias in that area didn’t get triggered and I could relax and appreciate the writing.
What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Oh, Lord, a priest’s head, like the horse’s head in THE GODFATHER? I’m not sure I could handle seeing the movie. I have a horror of beheading that started before it moved from history books about the era of Queen Elizabeth I to the front page of today’s news. Even worse, a crucifixion? Mel Gibson’s already done that one.
Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Apart from the moments I’ve already mentioned, when the words are flowing right through me—and their aftermath, when I can reread what I’ve written over and over without falling out of love with it—I’d say the best thing is being able to wear sweats and bunny slippers (okay, a sleep tee and flip-flops) all day long. The worst thing—if you don’t count repeated rejection and discouragement and not making a living—is when I don’t know what comes next and I’m afraid I won’t be able to summon it up. Unfortunately, my daily process seems to start with “I can’t!” I’ve been reassured by hearing quite a few very successful writers admit the same. And I could avoid the problem altogether by giving up novels and sticking to short stories, poems, songs, and blog posts. But if I did, “I can’t” would turn into “I couldn’t,” and that would never do.
The pitch for your next novel is …?
My debut mystery, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, will be out from St. Martin’s on April 15. When Bruce wakes up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day, he knows it's time to change his life. Afraid he’ll die of boredom without the booze, he finds a formula for staying sober: Don't drink, go to meetings, and investigate a murder. A computer geek who loves AA and New York City and the world's most co-dependent addictions counselLor help Bruce find out who's killing homeless alcoholics – including the one with enemies and a big trust fund. And everyone’s invited to my launch party at the Mysterious Bookshop. It’s my birthday as well as Income Tax Day, and my accountant has made me promise to say something clever about death and taxes.
Who are you reading right now?
I just finished PD James’s THE LIGHTHOUSE. It held my interest, but the way the mystery is constructed would never pass muster in a new author’s manuscript today. All that stately prose, the lengthy descriptions of landscape and interiors, the back-story, the “telling, not showing”—reading it transported me back to the Golden Age of mystery.
The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Edgar winner Julie Smith gave DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER a terrific blurb in which she used the words “snappy dialogue and quirky relationships.” Snappy and quirky work for me—and the third would be “fun.”
Elizabeth Zelvin’s DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER is published on April 15
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.