The Sober Mystery Tour

By Rachel Kramer Bussel 06/24/12
Writer Elizabeth Zelvin brings addiction, recovery and the 12 steps to the mystery world.
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In three novels and four short stories, mystery author and psychotherapist Elizabeth Zelvin has enlightened the masses about AA, recovery and codependency without many of them even realizing it. In Death Will Get You Sober, protagonist Bruce wakes up in detox and—along with fellow recovering alcoholic Jimmy and his codependent girlfriend Barbara—investigates the death of a fellow patient. Zelvin's latest, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, finds her protagonists in a sober group house in the Hamptons, ready to enjoy the beach until a fellow resident turns up dead. Zelvin—who chooses not to say if she's sober herself—talked to The Fix about how mysteries allow her to show the humor and hope of recovery.

Your first novel was published on your 64th birthday. How did you get into writing mysteries and what was your path to publication?

My path to publication was very long and winding. I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of seven and publishing the first novel took a whole lot longer than I expected. I wrote three mysteries in the 1970s that found an agent but never got published. It’s just as well since I know a lot more about both life and writing now. When I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober, I joined Sisters in Crime and, later, Mystery Writers of America. After that, it was a matter of doing a lot of revision, sending out hundreds of queries over several years, and applying “talent, persistence, and luck"—sometimes known as “persistence, persistence, persistence.”

You wrote in a blog post that you were "passionately committed" to writing a book about recovery from alcoholism. Why was this important to you?

I have both been a psychotherapist and worked in the alcoholism treatment field for many years and recovery in the 12-step programs is still the most effective set of tools I know, not just for healing from addictions but for emotional health. The transformation, the way people turn their lives around, is literally awesome. There are some wonderful mysteries about recovering alcoholics—Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux are the best known examples. Those books are brilliant but they’re dark. They don’t get at the humor—even exuberance—that you sometimes find in meetings or the challenge of working the steps and the honesty and courage it takes to stay in recovery. I wanted to write about that in an authentic way and also make it fun.

I didn’t invent the humor in recovery. It’s already there. There’s a tremendous amount of laughter at a good AA meeting.

Death Will Get You Sober opens with the line "I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth." It's a dramatic start, yet the books are also humorous. How do you balance humor with serious subjects?

My goal as a writer is to move people, to make them laugh and cry, and I’m gratified when I succeed. But I didn’t invent the humor in recovery. It’s already there. There’s a tremendous amount of laughter at a good AA meeting. As I’ve said, that’s the part I wanted to convey that had not yet found its way into mysteries with recovering alcoholic protagonists. 

Barbara sees sleuthing as a way to keep Bruce occupied while he gets sober. What do you see as the connection between solving mysteries and sobriety in the series?

On a superficial level, Barbara gets Bruce into sleuthing to keep him amused because at the beginning, like many alcoholics, he finds sobriety boring. Whatever your “high” of choice is, no matter how destructive it is, it’s also intense, and giving it up can make life seem dull. But what really happens is that Bruce, after running from his feelings and destroying his relationships for years, discovers that he cares when his detox buddy, the victim in the first book, dies. He’s also deeply ashamed about how badly he’s let down his best friends, Jimmy and Barbara. Sleuthing gives the friendship a second chance.

You've written, "When characters struggle hopelessly with alcohol, I long to get them into treatment and/or to an AA meeting." Do you feel a responsibility to present your protagonists making healthy decisions? 

Not at all, if you’re asking if my characters always choose the best interests of their recovery. It wouldn’t be realistic and worse, it would be preachy. One of the things that makes Bruce interesting is that he goes into recovery kicking and screaming—and gradually discovers, with extreme reluctance, that he likes himself a lot better sober. Most recovering alcoholics in early sobriety have trouble believing they’ll ever have fun again but if they hang in there, it’s amazing how good life can become. And speaking of codependency, what makes Barbara so much fun—and such a good, nosy amateur sleuth—is that she’s always backsliding and minding other people’s business. 

You have a background as a psychotherapist and have worked with alcohol treatment programs; how much of what you've experienced and seen do you bring into your series? Do you feel that fiction gives you the freedom to tell certain truths about addiction in a way you couldn't do with nonfiction?

I can and do write about addiction as a treatment professional but fiction allows me to write it in a more accessible way that I hope will move the reader. What I know about addiction, codependency and recovery is not academic or theoretical. I’ve seen it in real life, one way or another. I wanted to convey how that feels—the pain, the humor, the tremendous depth of emotion. I also wanted to give a message of hope. The recovery process really does transform people. In AA, they say, “All you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.” It’s true.

Who do you see as your target audience? Are you trying to educate people about alcoholism, and/or give people in recovery something to read set in their world?

All of the above. I’ve been very gratified to hear from readers with long-term recovery that for them, my story and characters rang true. At this point, I feel confident saying anyone in a 12-step program will definitely get a kick out of my books. Adult children of alcoholics and people who have loved someone with an addiction can relate, too. I took a bigger risk in Extend by tackling eating disorders—which there’s even more denial in our society about than alcoholism. I’m also targeting readers for whom my stories provide enough of a glimpse of the addict’s struggle to make them feel compassion and respect for the recovery process. The only folks I don’t expect to like my books are active alcoholics and addicts. 

Do you have any advice for fiction writers whose stories include alcohol and drug addiction or other social issues?

Go to any lengths to avoid preachiness! If you have to choose between the message and the story, always choose the story.

Rachel Kramer Bussel has edited over 40 anthologies, including Women in Lust, Obsessed, Fast Girls, The Mile High Club, Gotta Have It and Best Sex Writing 2012. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture, and blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake. She's also written for The Fix about how she envies alcoholics.

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