Intervista a Dave Zeltserman

foto di Dave Zeltserman

Dave Zeltserman lives in Boston with his wife Judy. He gave up his software programming in order to devote himself to the writing of crime fiction and to the study of kung fu. His writings are influenced by Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald and Dashiell Hammett. “L’occhio privato di Denver”, his first novel, has drawn the attention of several masters of the contemporary thriller. 
1. Welcome Dave, I know that everyone asks you the way you succeeded in staking your career, after more than twenty years as a computer scientist, to plunge into a literary adventure…. In which way would you like to introduce yourself to the Italian readers to let them know you in the best possible way? 
D.: Cecilia, thanks for interviewing me. I write crime, mystery and horror fiction, and my fiction tends toward darker themes. So far only some of my crime fiction has been translated to Italian, and each of these books have brutal main characters, but that’s not true with all my books. With some luck, there will be some movie versions of my books soon. 
2. An American writer I interviewed –Kent Harrington- confided me that “nowadays American thriller writers aim to be very provincial and they usually focus on the U.S.A.” What do you think about this trend? Which side of your novels do you like to point out? 
D.: Writers tend to write what we know, so we tend to place our books in locations we’re familiar with. Because of that I tend to place most of my books in the Boston area. But given that the translated versions of my books are doing well, I think my characters and themes and stories have a more universal quality to them even if they’re set mostly in Boston and New England. That said, my latest book, ‘Monster: A Novel of Frankenstein’ is set throughout early 19th century Europe. 
3. What was the beginning of your career? Did you attend a writer school? Or since you had read several books you thought you could face up the world of publishing? 
D.: I’m mostly a self-taught writer. I read 1000s of book when I was younger, and was always drawn to writing. Even though my college degrees were in Math and Computer Science and took very few courses that weren’t math, computer science or engineering, at different times in my life I’d be trying to write short stories. When I was trying to write my first novel, which became Fast Lane (and translated to Italian by Meridiano Zero), I started taking it much more seriously and studied Jim Thompson’s writing style and the way he structured his novels, and read several books on writing. The only sort of formal training I’ve had was a 2-week workshop at Pine Manor College which was led by Dennis Lehane and his mentor, Sterling Watson. 
4. Did you run into difficulties to contact the publishers when you began? Do you think they are open-minded? 
D.: The very first short story I submitted was bought, but I didn’t have such good luck selling my novels. I was too idealistic—I had the mistaken belief that US publishers cared about buying good books. They don’t. What matters with US publishers is how commercial they feel a book is. So while every US publisher rejected Small Crimes, the London-based publisher, Serpent’s Tail, bought it. The difference between Serpent’s Tail and the US publishers is that Serpent’s Tail buys only the books they love without worrying about how commercial they are, and because of that they’re one of the most respected publishers in the world, and have published 2 Nobel prize winners in literature. And when Small Crimes was published in 2008, it topped National Public Radio’s best list of crime and mystery novels. 
5. Have you ever thought you could become so successful? 
D.: When I first started out, my only goal was to get Fast Lane published. I was a computer science guy, and I didn’t really feel as if I belonged in the club. But when I was writing Small Crimes, I believed I had something very good, and that I had a chance of having a writing career. Since then my books have gotten a good amount of critical acclaim and a strong reader support, so I’m beginning to believe I can be successful at this. 
6. I know very well the books translated by Luca Conti and so I ask you, in your opinion, does the translation affect the success of a book? 
D.: Very much so. Translations can create a different style for the book, and at least translations of books I read when I was in high school were translated to sound like popular writers at the time when the translation was done. When I was in college I took Russian language courses, and the Chekhov and Tolstoy I read in the original Russian was very different than the translated works I also read. 
7. The name of my blog is “Contorni di noir” and so I’d be very grateful to you if you could give me your definition of the thriller genre? 
D.: Here in the US thrillers are considered a different genre than crime fiction. They tend to be more commercial and for a mass market, with their definition being simply books that thrill. My crime fiction tends towards noir, which is darker, and where the characters tend to be doomed. There are no happy endings is noir. 
8. You self-published your first novel, “Fast Lane” (the original title was “In his shadow” and it was translated in Italy with the title “L’occhio privato di Denver”) describing the main character – Johnny Lane- as –A man who needs to hide his real nature to the others and besides of this to be considered a hero. In “Piccoli crimini” published by Fanucci in Italy, you speak about Joe Denton, pursued by his past of a corrupt policeman who has to fight against the evil hidden in him. What do you think about him? Do you really think that everyone aims to hide his real nature? Are we two-faced people? 
D.: I self-published ‘In His Shadow’, which was later published by a small US publisher, Point Blank Press, as ‘Fast Lane’. Joe Denton, as with Johnny Lane, is deeply self-delusional as to what he is. This is a theme in several of my books, and probably no more so than in KILLER, which is included in Fanucci Editore’s La Trilogia Nera. In these novels, it would be too devastating for these characters to come to grips with what’s really inside them, and their struggles to hide from these basic truths end up causing tremendous damage to those around them. But I also have plenty of novels where there is little or no self-deception. 
9. I’ve read you’ve been influenced by famous writers such as Ross Macdonald and Jim Thompson, but do you think they have read Dave Zeltserman’s works? Have they ever written to you? 
D.: MacDonald and Thompson had both passed away before I’d ever written anything. But I have heard from well-known writers and other famous people who are fans of my works. 
10. How much weight has the characterization of the characters and their psychological profile compared with the real story? 
D.: The psychology and characterizations are deeply integrated with my stories, where you wouldn’t be able to have one without the other. 
11. Has your previous job ever influenced in any way the plot of the novels you’ve written? 
D.: Definitely with Outsourced. In that novel a group of software engineers who’ve been made obsolete due to the industry’s trend to outsourcing work attempt to rob a bank. This was a very personal novel for me, and is one that I think every software engineer would enjoy, or really any worker who feels they could be obsoleted. The book has been optioned by Impact Pictures and Constantin Film, who make the Resident Evil movies. 
12. Which of the novels you published cost you a great deal of trouble as regard to the draft, to the information, to….? 
D.: None of my novels have given me any trouble with the writing. The fastest I’ve written any of them was Pariah, which I wrote in 6 weeks in a blaze of rage at the publishing industry. Of all my crime novel, Killer, which is one of my shortest, took the longest to write at 6 months. The only book which intimidated me was Monster, which I spent 9 months researching before starting the writing. But once I started writing it, it went fast. The first drafts of all my books except Fast Lane, are very close to the published versions. 
13. You like writing in the first person, you wrote in the first person in “Piccoli Crimini”, or on the contrary do you change your method of writing according to your idea? In which way do you organize yourself? 
D.: All 4 of books translated to Italian are written in the first person, but in actuality, half of my books are written than way, the other half in the 3rd person. What style and person I write in depends solely on the story I’m telling. Noir tends to lend itself to 1st person because of the intimacy of getting into the head of your doomed character. 
14. Do you think that writing about violence is the way of exorcizing it? What induces you to write such violent stories? 
D.: While many of my novels have some very violent scenes in them, the violence tends to horrify the reader as opposed to being gratuitous, so in many ways my books are very anti-violence. I can’t imagine anyone reading any of my books and being thrilled or excited by the violence in them. 
15. Fee-paying publishing houses for writers who hope to become successful are arising in Italy. Are they arising in the U.S.A. too? If there are any , in which way do they work? 
D.: This became very popular about 10 years, and was really a way to separate hopeful writers from their money. Very few writers who used these companies ever recovered the money they spent as most bookstores wouldn’t sell self-published books, and reviewers wouldn’t review them. The last few years this has all changed dramatically with Amazon opening up their Kindle bookstore to any author. Now 10000s of self-published authors are adding their books directly to Amazon’s Kindle store, but the vast majority will still never recover the money they’re spending on producing cover art, having their books edited (although many self-published authors are putting out their books without any editing), formatting, etc. For the vast majority of authors, if you want a career you need to be published by real publishers. 
16. Who are your readers? In Italy the publishing is deeply in crisis, is it in crisis in your country too? What might be its causes and remedies? 
D.: My publishers are medium-sized, and don’t have a lot of money for promotion or advertising, but my books have gotten a lot of critical acclaim—they get reviewed by important newspapers, have been recommended as best books of the year by American Library Association, National Public Radio, Washington Post, and others, and I think that has helped get readers interested in my books. Also, workers at independent bookstores tend to recommend my books, and readers tend to recommend them to friends, so I’ve been building up a readership that way. I’ve got film deals for 2 of my works, and I have people in Hollywood trying to get deals for others, so my hope is that when one or more films get made, I’ll develop a much larger readership. 
We’re in crisis mode also. A lot of independent bookstores have closed in this country, and those are the people who love books and help recommend new authors to readers. Partly because of that the large publishers are now taking a blockbuster-only mentality, and we’re seeing more and more readers being led to an increasingly smaller group of books, which is causing less ‘midlist’ writers to be published. It’s not good. I think part of the solution is for sites like “Contorni di noir” to continue to give exposure to lesser known, but worthy books and authors.
Thank you very much, Dave, and good luck for your books!