|Expulsion of the Jews from Spain|
Elizabeth Zelvin is the editor of Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology (crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing); she's also author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga, a series of Jewish historical novels and short mysteries. She's been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha Awards for Best Short Story. Today she joins us to discuss where she gets her ideas. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
On one level, I get my ideas from the same place as every other writer: from what I know, what I Google, and the voices in my head. On another, I'm still astonished that since I've been writing mysteries, I've never heard another author say, “I write because I have something to say.” (I was pleased to hear Bradley Cooper tell Lady Gaga that's why she should be writing songs in the new version of A Star Is Born. Yes!) The first Bruce Kohler novel started with a title. I was running a treatment program for homeless alcoholics on the Bowery, and I kept saying, “Someday I’m going to write a mystery and call it Death Will Get You Sober.” I wanted to write about the transformational power of recovery from alcoholism—not just a drunk getting sober, but deep emotional growth—and make it funny. And I did, though not till I quit my day job.
I come from an intellectual New York Jewish family for whom Judaism was bagels and lox and the occasional Seder, and that was it. I never had the slightest interest in writing about it. So imagine my surprise when a young Jewish sailor, Diego, came knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, saying, “Let me out!” I didn't want to get out of bed, but he insisted I tell his story. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, on the same day Columbus set sail, and Diego sailed with them. That's all I knew, so that's how I learned to do research, a skill set I'd avoided all my life. I also became much more knowledgeable about Judaism, especially its social justice agenda, tikkun olam—repairing the world—and passionate about cultural relativism. I didn't get there by “ripping it from the headlines,” but it sure is relevant.
The first short story was a mystery, with Admiral Columbus as the kindly father figure and detective. But I wanted to write more, so I turned to history for my ideas. And history is dark.
I found myself writing not only about the horrors inflicted on the Jews by both Spain and Portugal, but also about the genocide of the Taino in the Caribbean. Diego's sister Rachel was born to accompany Diego on the second voyage because I needed a female character. Becoming a protagonist, perhaps my most beloved character, was her own idea. She sprang to life and stole the show. These days she's solving mysteries in the Sultan's harem in Istanbul in the 1520s and going home to her delightful family at night. The ideas come from the constraints of history, the setting, and the backstory I've set up for the fictional Mendozas in previous work. The fun comes from not having to stick to the biases of the 21st century.
And so we get to my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories. In thirty-five years in my "other hat" as a therapist, I have heard many, many stories. I used certain things I know to craft a short story, “Never Again”: that parental child molestation may start when the child is a toddler, and that obese women, who may have eating disorders and/or be survivors of sexual trauma, suffer overwhelming shame. As I considered where I might place this story for publication, I realized that not only was it too dark for the traditional mystery markets, including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, but the noir e-zines wouldn't want it because it gave abused children and fat women a voice. Feminist journals? But it was crime fiction. Dark literary looking for something different? That editor doesn't like a happy ending, ie writer can't empower women characters. This story needed a home that didn't exist. I had to create one. And that's my biggest idea so far.
Me Too Short Stories, An Anthology
What do women want? A voice. To be heard. Respect. To be believed. Justice. To be both safe and free. The women in these stories have daughters, sisters, friends. The minister worries about her parishioners. The banshee worries about the Hippocratic Oath. The microbiologist worries about her obligation to the dead. They will use any means to protect themselves and those they love: a childish jingle, a skillet full of cornbread, a candle, their own quick wits. We cannot ignore their voices.
Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Lois. It occurs to me that readers may be afraid the stories in the ME TOO anthology may be too dark to enjoy, so I want to assure readers that one of the bestselling authors who praised it called them "empowering, inspirational, and sometimes wickedly funny." I remember no one thought I could make recovery from alcoholism funny when I wrote the first Bruce Kohler novel, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. The brilliant creators of the TV show "Mom" have done it even better. I wonder what readers think. Do you take in serious ideas better when they come wrapped in a bit of humor?
Happy to have you come visit, Liz! And what a great question! I hope some of our readers respond. Personally, I've always found that a sense of humor helps get through even the most difficult situations.
Most people think they have a sense of humor and say they want one in a partner and in friends, but I'm not sure that trait is as common as it's cracked up to be. The real test is: can you laugh at yourself? And for writers: how do you deal with rejection, rejection, and more rejection and the craziness of the publishing industry if you can't? ;)
"I write because I have something to say."
That really resonates, Liz, and yet how rarely it's said. I can't imagine anyone spending the amount of time it takes to write a novel unless it's about something which really matters. Often what I write turns into something of a romp, but there's always some more serious impulse underneath.
It's not that I think there's anything wrong with reading and writing for entertainment and there's a time for escapism, but I do also like what I write - and read - to grapple with something more deeply, too.
Yes, a sense of humor is an essential tool for everyone, readers and writers.
Great post, and DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER is one of the best mystery novel titles ever.
I'm with you, Liz, in wanting to "say" something with my writing beyond pure plot and entertainment. In fiction, the means of expression can include humor or drama or psychological suspense. The challenge is to say something without preaching, to convey the message through the development and emotional growth of the character. This is the kind of fiction I enjoy reading and strive to write.
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