Interview by Mike MacLean
If you read Dave Zeltserman’s guest spot here at Murderati last week you know all about his trials and tribulations in the publishing world. While many a man would’ve folded under such adversity, Dave kept swinging. And we’re all better off for it.
Not only did Dave pen the critically acclaimed Fast Lane, and the soon to be critically acclaimed Bad Thoughts, but now he has a well-deserved three-book deal with ultra cool Serpent’s Tail publishing. And if that isn’t enough, Mr. Z. runs the HardLuck Stories webzine, providing a place for new noir voices.
Dave’s latest novel, the aforementioned Bad Thoughts, is a hardboiled mix of detectives and supernatural horror. To quote Edgar-winner Steve Hamilton the book is "hypnotic, gripping, even terrifying." High praise indeed.
Dave was kind of enough to chat with me about his book, noir on the web, and writing in the dark.
MM: What inspired Bad Thoughts?
DZ: I was reading a lot about metaphysics and astral projection around that time, doing some experimentation with it, and it had a heavy influence on the book. The PI in the book, "Pig" Dornich, who is one of my favorite characters that I’ve written, was inspired by an ex-Boston cop who was working as a PI and taught a one-day PI course that I took. Mostly, though, Bad Thoughts came about by working out what I thought would be an exciting story, with of course a thematic subtext worked in.
MM: Considering the number of serial killer books out there, did you have any reservations about writing this story?
DZ: I wrote Bad Thoughts over 10 years ago, and I don’t think there were as many serial killer books then, but I also don’t think of Bad Thoughts as a serial killer book. Yeah, there’s a serial killer in it, but it’s more an exploration of evil and rage, and at its heart it’s about survival-about going through tremendous emotional and physical abuse, and somehow surviving it. My dad would always say whenever someone was going through something tough, "ah, jeeze, he went through hell". Well, without any exaggeration, my main character in this one goes through hell.
MM: Writing Bad Thoughts required you to get into the head of a sadistic killer, which you pull off quite effectively. How did you do it?
DZ: It’s a gift. Some people can throw a baseball 95 miles an hour, others can sit down at a piano and play a piece perfectly after hearing it once, while still others can do magic with landscaping. Me, I can get into the heads of losers, psychos and sociopaths. My wife and parents are very proud…
MM: Did you face any personal repercussions delving into such dark material?
DZ: None. In a way it’s therapeutic. I work out a lot of issues in my writing. BUT as dark as my fiction might be, there’s nothing nihilistic about it. Justice is preserved in my fictional worlds. The guilty pay a price for their crimes. Now if evil triumphed in my books, it probably would have some effect on my psyche.
MM: Why are serial killer books so popular with readers? Why are we so fascinated by the twisted and terrifying?
DZ: I don’t know about serial killer books, but with the brilliant psycho noir books that Jim Thompson wrote, it can be an exhilarating experience being suckered into the head of someone you think is maybe a down on his luck loser, but who’s still sane, and turns out to be completely crazy. I don’t know why this is, but few books have given me the ride that Thompson’s "Hell of a Woman", "Pop. 1280", and "Savage Night" have.
MM: One of the most gripping scenes in the novel is the confrontation between the killer and Shannon’s lovely therapist. While you’re in the thick of writing it, how can you tell when a scene like this is working?
DZ: I think I can read my books mostly objectively and can tell when I’ve written something that’s working or just plain sucks, and I keep hammering away at the sucky parts until I’m relatively happy with it. With scenes like the one you mentioned, yeah, I can usually feel a buzz when I’m writing it-I guess it’s the lizard part of my brain taking over, and I just kind of go along for the ride.
MM: What is the advantage to working with a smaller publisher like Five Star?
DZ: To quote the coach of the three-time Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, (I never get tired of saying that) "it is what it is." Five Star sells mostly to libraries, and aren’t really geared for bookstore sales. Their discount policy really only allows bookstores to carry your books if there’s an authors event involved. Practically speaking, with a publisher like Five Star you’re only going to sell 1,000-2,000 copies. I knew this going in, and everyone at Five Star has been great, very professional, but a newer writer is obviously better off if they can get their books into a larger house. BUT-smaller publishers like Five Star are more open to certain books that the larger houses won’t accept.
MM: How do you plan to promote your novel?
DZ: I’m going to order MWA’s library listing and try to contact as many libraries as I can to try to do readings. I’ll also try to organize some bookstore events. Small Crimes is out in March and will be much more widely distributed, and probably much more widely reviewed-and I’m hoping that will get people searching out Bad Thoughts.
MM: In addition to writing, you’re also the editor of the very cool HardLuck Stories webzine. What motivated you to launch HardLuck?
DZ: I had a bunch of reasons initially for starting Hardluck. Early on I justified the time I was spending on it as a way to promote myself as a writer, but I was doing it more as a creative outlet and to publish something that I was proud of–if I wasn’t I would’ve pulled the plug. What’s kept me going, though, is what Hardluck’s been able to do for newer writers. A lot of very generous writers–including Ed Gorman, Vicki Hendricks, Ken Bruen, Jeremiah Healy and Bill Crider to name a few, have been amazingly helpful to me as a newer writer, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to give back a little with Hardluck.
MM: Despite the fact that HardLuck offers zero compensation to its writers, you’ve been able to nab some heavy hitters of the crime fiction world, including Ed Gorman, JA Konrath, and even Murderati’s own Ken Bruen. What drew these guys to HardLuck?
DZ: Generosity of spirit. The writers you listed, plus the other professional writers that I’ve published, can sell everything they write. The reason they’ve provided stories to Hardluck-and in the cases of Ed Gorman, Jeremiah Healy, O’Neil De Noux, Miki Hayden-also acted as guest editors, was to promote a crime fiction magazine that’s helping to draw attention to newer writers. That’s really the reason. These writers can all be described by the Yiddish word "mensch", it’s in their makeup to give of themselves to help us guys coming up, and it’s something that has made a big impression on me.
MM: What future do you see for fiction on the web?
DZ: I think the quality on Hardluck and other sites like Thuglit and PulpPusher is very good-we’re probably publishing some of the best short noir and pulp fiction available anywhere. The problem is 99.9% of the readers for this type of crime fiction have no clue that these web-zines exist. You see stuff about these web-zines being the new pulps. Well, that’s true in the sense that these zines are a breeding ground for some very talented new writers, but there’s no money in it. With the pulps, writers could make a living, plus readers knew about them. It’s going to take a cataclysmic event to change that-something like USA Today, New York Times, or maybe CNN, championing these zines. If that were to happen, it would cause a chain reaction that would change everything. Readership would jump to the point where these zines would be able to charge for advertising and then be able to pay a good rate for stories. This is mostly a pipedream on my part, but I’m giving it a shot with Hardluck’s Stephen Colbert "truthiness" issue. If I’m able to pull it off I’m pretty sure I’d get Colbert mentioning it on their show-they jumped on putting the call for submissions on their web-site. At the moment it’s not looking like it’s going to happen, though-I think the theme ended up being too conceptually difficult. We’ll see, I still have some more submissions to go through. If this doesn’t work out, Todd Robinson at Thuglit will probably be the guy to make something happen. He’s in New York, which is the right place to be, he’s got a ton of energy, and has been doing a great job branding Thuglit. If anyone’s going to do it, I think he’s the guy.
MM: We share an interest in martial arts. What drew you to Kung Fu? Has the study of martial arts had any impact on your writing?
DZ: I knew little about martial arts when I started. I always admired people who had the tenacity to stick with it and get a black belt, and it was something I always wanted to try. When my cousin started working on his black belt in Karate and I saw the physical changes in him, I made up my mind to finally do it. The first guy I talked with had a third degree black belt in Aikido, and he got me psyched to do that, but a little research showed Aikido probably wasn’t a good idea for someone with back problems. There’s a Kung Fu studio a few miles away from me, I liked the head instructor, so I gave it a shot. At first I was pathetic, maybe one of the worst students he ever had, but six years later I’ve gotten pretty good at it and will be testing for my black this October. The first few years we did Northern-style longfist, weapons training, and Southern-style Hung Gar. The last three years the focus has been purely Hung Gar 5-animal form. I enjoy it a lot. It’s a great mix of aerobic, strengthening, self-defense, and meditative movement. The last couple of years I’ve also been doing Tai Chi with a martial arts focus. Love that internal stuff! It’s helped a lot with my Kung fu, especially balancing and rooting.
I don’t know if it’s had any impact on my writing other than I understand fighting much better now and how much damage you can do, and my fight scenes-or more accurately-my beating up scenes, are more realistic.
MM: What will we see next from Dave Zeltserman?
DZ: I have a noir trilogy being published by Serpent’s Tail. The first book, Small Crimes, will be out next March, the second, my South Boston Irish Mob book, Pariah, will be out 1/09, and the third, Killer, sometime after that. I’m very excited about this-Serpent’s Tail is doing great stuff and is a publisher I’ve been wanting to get into for a long time. What’s also pretty cool about this is that all three books start the same way-a dangerous guy being released from prison, and Serpent’s Tail is going to be marketing these as a "Badass out of Prison" series.
Another project that I’m very proud of is a Western Noir anthology that I’m co-editing with Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, and is being published by Cemetary Dance. This is an offshoot of Hardluck’s Western Noir issue. All 14 stories from that issue are being included, as well as 7 other original stories and an introduction by Jim Sallis. All of these stories hit what Ed and I were originally going after-a mix of very noir and western, the type of stuff fans of Deadwood are going to like. There are some great stories in this anthology, and one of the things I like most about this is that for at least one issue of Hardluck, I’m going to be able to pay my writers the going rate for stories. Who knows, maybe we’ll be able to turn more issues into print anthologies. I always thought the Bank Robbery, Horror Noir and Borderland Noir issues were deserving of an anthology.
MM: What’s that you say…a Borderland Noir anthology? Sounds like a great idea. And that’s my totally unbaised opinion.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Dave.
DZ: Mike, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you.