A lesson in perseverance

How did I become a wrDaveZeltsermaniter? Well, I’ve always been an avid reader, especially crime fiction. My favorite crime and mystery writers include Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark. Over the years I’ve devoured any and all books of theirs that I’ve been able to find. Other favorite writers outside of crime fiction include Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, and Robert E. Howard.

How did I go from reader to writer? My interests in school were in math and computer science, and I earned a B.S. in Applied Math and Computer Science from the University of Colorado. After college I earned a Masters in Computer Science at Boston University and worked for over twenty-five years developing software (and wrote two computer technology books), so the idea of ever publishing fiction seemed little more than a lark. Yet I kept finding myself drawn to writing. My early attempts were awful, mostly because I kept aping the styles of my favorite writers. Something happened, though, when I was working on my first novel, Fast Lane. After several failed attempts, I found my own voice, and I started getting more excited about the idea of writing something I could be proud of and even being published one day. This led to selling my first story, A Long Time to Die, to the small crime fiction magazine, New Mystery, for all of $35. Since that first sale, I’ve had a lot of exciting things happen in my writing life, including visiting the set this summer of Small Crimes, but nothing has beaten the excitement of that first sale.

After finishing Fast Lane in 1992, it took me eleven years to sell it—first to an Italian publisher, then to the famed tiny micro press Point Blank Press. By this time I’d sold two short stories and written a second novel, Bad Thoughts, which Five Star would publish in 2007. Sometime around 2003 I wrote Small Crimes, only to see it rejected by every publisher in New York before selling it to the London publisher, Serpent’s Tail. Then, in 2008, the following happened: Small Crimes was published,  NPR had it top their best five crime and mystery novels of that year, and Outsourced (which still hadn’t been published) was optioned for film. By this point, the writing bug had burrowed too deep to ignore, and I quit software development to try writing full time. Since then my books have been published in seven languages, reviewed by major newspapers around the world, and have made best-of-the-year lists for the Washington Post, ALA, Booklist, and WBUR. I’ve also had dozens of short stories published, won a Shamus, Derringer, and two Ellery’s Queen Readers awards. Finally, I’ve had four books optioned for film, with Small Crimes set to hit theaters next year.

Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been a case study in perseverance.

I’d like to hear from you!

Selected Interviews

Crime Culture Interview with Roger Smith

Dave, the first two books in your “bad-ass out of prison trilogy” Small Crimes and Pariah, have attracted a huge amount of attention. I’ve read the upcoming Killer, and in my opinion it’s even better than the others, and is sure to get heaped with praise. Now, you don’t write the kind of formulaic crime fiction – with antiseptic good guys fighting off cardboard baddies, full of cartoonish violence – that seems to find its way onto the bestseller lists: your protagonists are the bad guys, about as mean a trio of bastards as you could wish to meet. Talk about your decision to take the road less traveled.

Well, Leonard March, my protagonist in Killer, might be a former hitman with 28 kills behind him, but I think he still comes across as sympathetic as he’s reduced to little more than a toothless old wolf hollowing futilely at the moon, with all these forces working against him. But yeah, Kyle Nevin, from Pariah, is certainly a bad guy. Really a force of nature, every bit as destructive as a hurricane. And Joe Denton from Small Crimes is certainly a piece of work also.

At one level I’m just trying to write strong stories that will grip the reader, but what I’ve come to realize is at another level I’m also trying to provoke and challenge my readers. By the end of Killer the reader is definitely taken out of their comfort zone, and Pariah, while at one level a fierce crime novel, at another level it’s very subversive, and among other things is an indictment of our celebrity-crazed society and how we’re willing to make some of the worst people into celebrities to sell books, movies and TV shows.

Talking Monster with MyBookishWays

You’re the author of more than 13 novels, most of them of the crime/noir genre, with a dash of horror thrown in here and there. You’re a math and science guy, so what made you sit down and write for the first time? What inspired you?

I’ve always read a lot. As a kid I started with the pulps ; Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft, then moved on to science fiction, and eventually to crime and mystery fiction, while at times reading the classics. At different times in my life I’d be drawn to writing. My early stuff wasn’t very good—a lot of my writing when I got out of college was trying to ape Ross Macdonald, and doing a pretty bad job of it. Then sometime in the early 90s I discovered Jim Thompson and it was like a religious experience. The first book of his I read was Hell of a Woman and I’d never read anything like it before. He broke every rule in that book that I thought I needed to follow, and it gave me a completely different outlook as to how crime fiction could be written. At the time I was struggling with a book that would become my first novel, Fast Lane, and reading Thompson showed me a completely different way to go with it, and helped me find my own voice.

Your newest novel, Monster, is based on the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Has the story always been one of your favorites?

I grew up thinking Frankenstein the novel was like the Boris Karloff movie, and when I was in high school I heard how the novel ends up in the Artic and that the monster is not the lumbering Karloff creature, but instead an intelligent and eloquent being, and I had to read it. The first half of Shelley’s novel has some sections that can be tough to get through, but once the creature and Frankenstein are in the French Alps and the creature is telling Frankenstein his tale, the book becomes absolutely riveting. In a lot of ways it’s a very noirish book with the creature having every right to make the demands that he does on Frankenstein and Frankenstein realizing this but also understanding the potential catastrophe if he does as the creature is asking, with both of them then being doomed. It’s a great book, one that I’ve read several times.

Talking with Overlook Press

What originally drew you to the Frankenstein story?

When I was a kid I grew up thinking that the Frankenstein novel was the same as the Boris Karloff movie. When I was in high school I heard that the novel is very different and ends up in the Artic, and that Frankenstein’s creature instead of being the lumbering Karloff monster is an intelligent being who speaks eloquently, and that got me interested in reading the book. About halfway through it when the creature is telling his story to Victor Frankenstein it becomes absolutely riveting. In its own way, the story is also very noirish. The creature has every right to make the demands he does on Frankenstein. Frankenstein recognizes that these demands are reasonable, but he also rightfully fears the consequences if he does as the creature is asking. And from there both characters are doomed without any hope.

Did you do much research on Shelley’s 1818 novel, or the many adaptations in film, television, and theater?

I spent nine months of research before writing Monster. Some of it was on Shelley, but most was on 18th and 19th century European history, the Marquis de Sade and his works, Samuel Hahnemann, E.T.A Hoffmann (which is who I named my creature after), witch trials in Europe, and London hellfire sex clubs.

After a series of critically acclaimed crime-fiction novels you began to include supernatural elements and even horror themes in The Caretaker of Lorne Field. Now comes Monster, something altogether different. How did that come to happen?

I’ve always been focused more on the story I want to tell than the genre. My second book, Bad Thoughts, is actually a mix of crime and horror. With The Caretaker of Lorne Field I didn’t set out to write horror. I knew the book would be taken as horror by most readers, but I was really writing an allegorical fable.