From software engineer to award winning crime, horror and mystery writer
By Mary Yuhas
David Zeltserman lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, and is an award winning crime, horror and mystery writer. His crime novels have been named by both The Washington Post and NPR as best books of the year, and his mystery short fiction has won the Shamus, Derringer and Ellery Queen’s Readers Choice award (twice). Zeltserman’s first published horror novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, was a Black Quill nominee for Best Dark Genre Novel of the Year, was short listed by the American Library Association for Best Horror Novel of 2010, and was recently named by Library Journal as one of their horror gems. His most recent horror novel, Monster, was named on Booklist Magazine’s 2013 list of top ten horror novels. Zeltserman has an upcoming horror novel, The Boy Who Killed Demons, out later this year, and his novel, Outsourced, is currently in development with Impact Pictures and Constantin Film. It is scheduled for production later this year.
LitVote: You are a prolific writer and have won numerous awards for crime, horror and mystery novels and short stories. How did you choose this genre?
Dave: I always read a lot as a kid, and I went through different phases with my reading. At one point I was reading a lot of pulp fantasy and horror fiction from Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, and then later I moved onto science fiction with Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison being my favorites in the genre. But it was when I picked up a dog-eared copy of Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, the Jury’ at my uncle’s house one summer in Maine that I became forever hooked on crime fiction. From there I discovered Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and many other great mystery and crime writers. There’s a power and intimacy in great crime fiction that I didn’t find in the other genres I was reading. Morality is often shown in shades of gray and the world is a dangerous place. And there’s nothing quite as thrilling as reading a great noir novel, like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or Jim Thompson’s Savage Night, where you’re fooled into thinking that redemption and hope is possible for the protagonist only to discover over the course of the book how broken the guy is as you watch him being dragged into the abyss. Since these are the types of books I love reading, these are the types of books I was initially drawn to write.
LitVote: Your latest novel, The Boy Who Killed Demons, a horror story, debuts in October. Where do you get your inspiration for the stories you write?
Dave: I get my ideas from all over the place. With The Caretaker of Lorne Field, my wife and I had a Black Locust tree that had developed a root system all under our front yard, and this was causing hundreds of little Black Locust weeds to constantly pop up through the grass. After spending a summer pulling out thousands of these, I told my wife I was going to write a book about it. She told me I was crazy, so I had to write Caretaker!
With Small Crimes, I read two crime stories in the paper that triggered the idea for the book. One story was similar to how Small Crimes starts—a corrupt cop discovers the DA is building a case against him, sneaks into the DA’s office late at night to destroy evidence, is confronted by the DA, and brutally stabs the guy dozens of times in the face. He leaves the DA for dead, but the DA is still alive and pulls a silent fire alarm, and the cop walks out still holding the bloody knife with a dozen or so cops and firemen waiting for him. The second story was about a corrupt sheriff’s office in Denver in the 60s where the cops broke into stores and robbed these stores blind. The kicker for the first story was how lightly the offending cop was treated—he got to spend his time in County Jail as opposed to prison, got paroled after something like seven years, and had a pension waiting for him. This got me to mix both stories and play a What-If game to explain how a cop committing such a heinous crime could be treated as lightly as he was, and so Small Crimes was born.
Pariah was a book written out of rage. Being from Boston, I’d been thinking for a while that I should write a crime novel inspired by Whitey Bulger, and what pushed me into doing it was seeing the large houses offering publishing contracts to these murderous scumbags to write their tell-all books. What looks ostensibly like a brutal crime novel morphs into an angry satirical look at the publishing industry and our celebrity-obsessed culture.
Finally, I’ll end this question with the inspiration for The Boy Who Killed Demons. I was thinking it would be interesting to write a horror novel as a series of journal entries, and I liked the idea of making it more intimate by having it take place where I grew up, and from there Demons took birth. The idea behinds is that you have a fifteen year-old high school kid who is seeing some people as full-fledged demons, and discovers what he believes is a plot by these demons to open up the gates of Hell. So here you’ve got this smart, resourceful kid who might be sane, might be crazy, and he can’t tell his parents or anyone else about his plight or he could find himself loaded up with antipsychotic drugs, and it’s all up to him to save the world—or at least that’s what he believes. It was a very fun book to write, lots of humor, a very flippant voice from the fifteen year-old narrator, and some extreme horror where I got to work in some H.P. Lovecraft-type themes.
LitVote: What are some common mistakes first time authors make and how can they avoid them?
Dave: The biggest mistake first-time authors make is selling the wrong book as their first book. You can only get the splash of being a first-time author once, and it should be for a book that is giving you the best chance for success. In my own case, my first book Fast Lane was part psycho noir/part hardboiled PI deconstruction. I heard from a bunch of editors who liked the book, but they all told me the same thing—that it was too dark and too different to be published. I didn’t believe them—in my heart I knew noir readers would love the book. So I persisted and did find a small publisher who wanted to publish it, and it turned out we were both right—the book has developed a loyal following among noir lovers, but noir (real noir, where the anti-hero is riding a one-way ticket to hell) doesn’t sell well anymore. So I threw away all the extra attention first-time writers get on a book few people noticed. So my advice is to listen to what publishing people are telling you, and keep writing books until you have the right one to make your first book. Publishing isn’t a sprint, but a lifetime of grueling marathons.
LitVote: Your book, Outsourced, a crime story about workers whose jobs have been outsourced and they are discarded was optioned to be made into a film. It is currently under development. Can you tell us a little about you experience?
Dave: Outsourced has had a long journey—both to publication and to film. I had worked over twenty years as a software engineer—and was working as one when I wrote Outsourced back in 2004 so the themes and characters in the book were close to my heart. To boil Outsourced down to its basics—a group of software engineers are seeing themselves being made obsolete due to outsourcing and technology passing them by, and their middleclass lives are slipping away from them. Out of desperation they come up with what should be a brilliant plan to rob a bank, but things of course blow up disastrously. When my agent sent it out in 2005, we had editors at the large NY houses wanting to buy it, but in each case the editors were blocked over the fear that outsourcing wouldn’t be an issue anyone cared about by the time the book would be published in 2006 (not the most forward thinking folks, huh?). So while Outsourced was limping along in trying to find a publisher, my agent had sent it to one of the top film agents in the business. He loved the book and decided to take it on. Over the next few years we had a lot of different permutations of different Hollywood folks interested in the book, but nothing quite stuck until we sold the option in 2009 to Impact Pictures and Constantin Pictures, and that’s when I sold the book to the London publisher Serpent’s Tail, who by this point had already published Small Crimes and Pariah, and had also bought Killer. It’s been a slow ride since then, but Constantin and the producers involved have shown that they’re very serious about getting this made, and all the pieces seem in place for this to get filmed this year.
The film interest in Outsourced back in 2005 was probably what kept me from quitting writing. Before then I was frustrated that Small Crimes and Outsourced hadn’t sold, and the possibility of Outsourced being made as a film is what kept me going, at least until I sold Small Crimes in 2006.
LitVote: Do you ever have difficulty making yourself sit down and write? If so, how do you overcome that?
Dave: For me the toughest part is starting a new project, even when I have something I badly want to write. I’m somebody who needs a detailed outline before I can start writing—I need to know exactly where the book is going, even though I always end up making detours once I start. So sometimes I get lazy and put off working on the outline for several weeks, but once I get started on it I can usually get the outline done in a week, and once that’s done, I’ll write a 1,000 words each day whether I feel like it or not! Some days it’s like pulling teeth, and it will take me all day to hit those 1,000 words, some days I lose myself easily in the writing and might get 2,000 or more words done before I stop. The closer I get to the end of the book, the more obsessed I get, and I usually write the last 10,000 words over two or three days.
LitVote: Have you attended any writer’s workshops and do you recommend them?
Dave: I did a two-week workshop at Pine Manor College in 2005. It was a great experience. At that point I had written Small Crimes, but I only had noir reader’s look at it. My first draft was very hardcore noir, and so these readers loved it, but it helped a lot having non noir readers take a look at the first twenty pages, and I realized from their reaction that I needed to tone it down. I think my editor at Serpent’s Tail would’ve bought the book regardless, but when I later talked to him about softening the book a bit—at least as the beginning—he liked that idea. Spending two-weeks work-shopping other writers’ sample chapters helped me see some of the mistakes I was making and what I needed to be looking for. The instructor leading the work-shopping, Sterling Watson, was great, and meeting with him early one morning also helped me a lot. I highly recommend writers taking one of these workshops.
LitVote: Topsuspense.com is a website you started to collaborate with other award-winning suspense writers to primarily market their backlist books (older books originally published as print books) as eBooks. How does that work?
Dave: The idea for Top Suspense came from talks I was having with Ed Gorman and Harry Shannon on how writers like us could survive the eBook revolution. Our thoughts were to build a group of professional, talented crime, mystery and thriller writers for joint marketing and to create a way for readers to find high quality genre books amidst a sea of self-published books. From those humble beginnings we added Max Allan Collins, Bill Crider, Vicki Hendricks, Lee Goldberg, Joel Goldman, Paul Levine, Naomi Hirahara, Libby Fischer Hellmann and Stephen Gallagher.
LitVote: What is the best way to market an eBook?
Dave: Here’s what I’ve learned since then: two things sell eBooks (1) advertising (2) Amazon. Word of mouth is mostly a myth as far as selling eBooks—in some cases it works, such as with Fifty Shades of Gray and Gone Girl, but this is mostly when people want to join in on the conversation. In most cases word of mouth has little impact, and social media has even less. But when Amazon pushes an eBook, they can sell thousands of copies very quickly, and advertising in the right place—which right now seems to be BookBub—can also sell thousands. I’m not sure whether those eBooks are being read, but they’re certainly being bought.
LitVote: What pushes a traditionally published book?
A review on NPR sells books. Newspaper reviews have less impact than they used to. TV appearances are good. Book placement at book stores is another way. It is called co-op and publishers pay for location in book stores. In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, celebrity authors can sell a lot of books – and an author can becomes a celebrity by having a movie or TV series made, or a significant endorsement, such as from Oprah. It used to be with print that you did a lot of book events, but there are fewer opportunities for that, and that paradigm has shifted. It’s a different world today than from five or six years ago, or even from a year ago ─ and what works is constantly changing. A piece of advice I’d like to give is for first time authors to try to get published traditionally. The whole eBook thing is a lot tougher than it looks.
LitVote: How do you come up with a good title?
Dave: Titles can be difficult for me. With some titles I’m hit with inspiration, and others I struggle over. The Caretaker of Lorne Field and Small Crimes were easy. Outsourced may not have been a great title, but the film people wanted to use it so we kept it for the book. I think The Boy Who Killed Demons is a great title, but sometimes you’re never quite happy with the title you end up using.
LitVote: What’s next?
Dave: The Boy Who Killed Demons is a fun book, and will be out this October. My film agent is working to get a TV series developed based on my book Killer. I think that could be a really good HBO series, and I hope that makes some progress. Outsourced is in development and they’re now casting for it. They should start filming in October. That will make a huge difference for me and be very exciting to see.
More on Dave’s stories . . .
Author Mary Yuhas, has 80,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.