Posts Tagged thrillers

How I made my writing career – novelist, playwright, photographer, actor Steve Zettler @szettlerauthor

How do you become a fiction writer? For some people, it’s almost by accident. That’s how it was for Steve Zettler, but after a series of cosy mysteries, another series of thrillers and a play, he seems to have found a good groove. His latest title, Careless Love, puts romance and thriller together, and is released today.  

Roz Steve, you’re a photographer, actor and author. And according to your website you have an even wider CV. In the great tradition of adventurous arty folk, you’ve done an encyclopaedia of jobs. To pick a few: bricklayer, bartender. And that’s just the Bs.

Steve Ha! I read this as BS.

Roz I had a feeling you would.

Let’s continue being predictable. Those jobs must have given you great material.

Steve It’s been an interesting ride, which has left me penniless on more than one occasion. I’ve always travelled in whatever direction the wind is blowing, even from an early age. There’s never been anything that vaguely resembled a master plan; I’ve never once considered where I might be, what I might be doing, at age 40 or 50. Thus the endless list of assorted occupations – I get bored easily and don’t like going in reverse, so it’s always been something different, a new way to pay the bills. It’s put me in close proximity with a whole gaggle of very interesting people.

In the early 70s no one had come up with the term PTSD (they were still calling it shell-shock), but if they had labelled it PTSD I could have been one of their poster-boys. Seventeen months’ combat duty in Vietnam had left my brains resembling scrambled eggs and I found photography to be the perfect escape. I was a freelancer in NYC and it allowed me to live a life where I spoke to almost no one. It took me about seven years to become a socially acceptable animal.

The downside of freelancing; I was broke most of the time and needed to tend bar, drive a taxi etc to pay the bills. But photography forced me to become a consummate observer, which I’ve been to this day. So with all of the twists and turns my life has taken I’ve been able to study a very divergent assortment of people and landscapes. And I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what I see and hear.

I ended up doing a lot of photography for theatre companies and taking headshots for actors. One theatre company was doing a children’s show and an actor injured himself. They were in need of a warm body and asked me to take his place. They neglected to tell me that the Handsome Prince was blind as a bat and we would have a sword fight, but I lived through it and this kicked off my acting career.

So I was now a new person with a new title; the wind had taken me elsewhere. I threw all my black and white negatives in the trash and sold my cameras.

And by the way, acting is a fabulous training ground for writers. I’ve often suggested just that to fellow writers; take an acting class, get to know your characters from the inside out, live their lives.

Roz Yes! I’ve often thought this while polishing dialogue. You have to know what it’s like to be the character. Also, know why it’s good to be them, especially if their actions aren’t nice. But I’ve never had the chance to discuss this with an actor. Glad you raised this.

Steve Anyway, I worked as an actor for a number of years in NYC and Los Angeles. My wife was an actor as well but when we moved to LA she began to write. Her first novel was published by Simon and Schuster, and her agent was the infamous Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We moved to an island off the coast of Connecticut. The wind just blew us back east. But there wasn’t a lot there, acting-wise, so I started to write. And this will annoy the hell out of every writer who reads this: I simply gave my first novel to my wife’s agent and he got me a two-book deal. I remember thinking, holy crap, I’m going to have to write another book.

Roz Holy crap, indeed. So that’s how writing became ‘the thing’?

Steve I never did give up acting and photography altogether; I bought another camera when things went digital. I now live in Philadelphia. My passion for stage acting has left me but I work with young filmmakers getting their careers off the ground and the occasional independent film shooting in the area. It’s more of a desire to mix it up with the younger generation than anything else. Their energy is contagious, even though the money’s short.

Photography-wise, I generally do stuff for free, unless it’s a commercial entity. Since everything is now digital it’s easy enough for me to help an organization, or author, or actor, with photos and send jpegs. There’s no longer the cost of film or the annoyance of darkroom work, so why not help people?

Roz Were your family artistic in any way?

Steve Not remotely. My dad owned a bar/restaurant and we lived above it. It was in the county north of Philadelphia and was basically a country inn. It was a very rural and very charming place along the Delaware River and essentially a shack-up spot for New York writers, actors, directors and producers. Some crazy people drifted through when I was a kid. I would never mention who spent the night there, but I still have the guest registry from 1936 through 1965. Regular customers at the restaurant included Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein and the like. I was much too young to know who they were, let alone converse with them, but they attracted quite a bit of attention when they walked in for dinner. It seemed like the life I wanted to live.

Roz What would you tell your 16-year-old self?

Steve I’m afraid the 16-year-old Stevie never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He’d look at me and say. ‘What the hell do you know?’

I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life and had to live with them. In a strange way that has become a blessing. I don’t lie to myself. I guess if I told Stevie anything it would be to slow down a little. There’s a wonderful Billy Joel song called ‘Vienna’. I’d tell him to listen to it over and over. Unfortunately it wasn’t around when Stevie was 16.

Roz Your novels are mainly suspense thrillers – the Joe Bradlee series (Double Identity and The Second Man), also Ronin, a standalone thriller. Why that genre?

Steve I really enjoy the format, both in reading and writing. You know from the beginning who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and most likely, by the end, the good guy is going to crush the bad guy.

I love the ride of a thriller. You can go wherever you want. People walk into the story out of nowhere and you have to deal with them; give them a life and a purpose for being there. You can’t disregard them. You can’t tell them to get the hell out of your book because they won’t. They stay there and pester you until you give them that purpose. I think writing thrillers is as much of a joy ride for the writer as it is (hopefully) for the reader.

Roz What’s the characteristic flavour of a Zettler thriller?

Steve I take nothing too seriously. My protagonists are always self-deprecating and I can’t seem to prevent myself from pointing out some of the lunacy that exists in the world. Hypocrites are often my favourite target.

Roz What’s the Steve writing method?

Steve I have to admit, I’m not a consummate writer. I can go a long time without writing a thing and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have that burning desire to write. My wife does; I don’t. At some point I seem to get visited by a spirit that tells me to write and if that spirit is off fishing in Alaska I’m not going to write a damn thing. But then the spirit shows up and gives me the first sentence of a novel and informs me where the novel’s going to end and tells me to fill in the middle. If I don’t have that first sentence, I’m not going anywhere.

And interestingly the first sentence never remains anchored as the first sentence, but it always shows up in the novel somewhere; it becomes the driving metaphor.

Roz You also write crossword mysteries under the name Nero Blanc, with your wife, Cordelia Frances Biddle.

Steve There are 12 Nero Blanc titles. Each book contains a series of crossword puzzles – solve the puzzle, solve the crime. Crossword puzzles are black and white, thus the pen name; nero is black in Italian, blanc is white in French.

The mysteries fall into the ‘cosy’ category, meaning no swear words, no sexual situations. There’s a cute couple who solve the crimes, with sort of a Nick and Nora relationship. They have a lot of fun with one another, which is pretty much how Cordelia and I travel through life. More often than not at book signings people would say they didn’t bother with the puzzles; they only read the books as romance novels.

Roz Doh. Why didn’t I spot that?

Steve Cordelia and I had, for quite a while, been scouting for something we could write together; anything, travel books, cookbooks, whatever. Remember we were on this island with a lot of time. We were having lunch one day, sharing the crossword puzzle, when she got so frustrated she threw down the pen and said ‘Someone should just kill this guy’, referring to the person who had edited the puzzle. We were off and running.

Roz So it’s good, working with your spouse?

Steve Cordelia and I worked together as actors; that’s how we met. I’ve always maintained that acting teachers should understand that if they assign students a scene from La Ronde, those students are going to end up sleeping with one another to properly research their characters.

But once again, this acting background was invaluable when it came to collaborating as writers. As actors we had become very comfortable with taking direction. Directors can be very blunt. Actors need to listen and make it work, no matter how biting the criticism might be. Often Cordelia and I would act out dialogue scenes and write them as we had improved them. And the main characters were simply a reflection of our own relationship. We had a great time writing Nero Blanc together, but eventually wanted to get back to the swear words and sexual situations.

Roz Your latest novel, Careless Love, is published by Vine Leaves Press. How did you end up there?

Steve My thrillers and mysteries were published by big houses, and quite often, as I’m sure you know, literary fiction and poetry get the short end of the stick from the big boys. And their editors can be somewhat, shall we say, mercenary? They want you to stay on the horse you rode in on.

But it seemed with each book the editors became more and more hands off. I wanted a smaller, more personal, literary publisher, so that’s the direction I went. Vine Leaves Press was the first to respond to my query. They did so very quickly, which was tremendously encouraging. They were very positive, and I have to say they’ve proven to be far more supportive than my previous editors and publishers. Other publishers have since contacted me about Careless Love. There is something wonderful about being able to say, ‘Sorry,  that ship has sailed’.

Roz What inspired Careless Love?

Steve It came from my soul. It’s been bouncing around in there for decades. The spirit finally visited me, gave me the first sentence, and told me how the novel was going to end.

Roz What would readers of your previous work recognise in Careless Love?

Steve Oddly, it does almost have that thriller format, and I think readers of my previous work would enjoy it for that reason. But I would call it literary romantic suspense – is that a category? It is inspired by true events. Every incident in Careless Love has happened to me or someone I’ve been very close to.

Roz Why that title?

Steve It was inspired by a blues song written in 1921 by WC Handy. It’s been recorded by almost every blues singer since, but Madeleine Peyroux’s cover just brought it all home for me. There are some blues songs that really must be sung by a woman to hit the mark, and this one of them. It’s just two words, but they can be interpreted so many ways. My novel is very much a woman’s story. Like the song, I’ve interpreted careless love to mean that love is careless, it will grab your heart, rip it out and stomp on it if you’re not careful. But when you’re deeply in love it’s not so easy being careful.

Roz What’s coming next?

Steve I’m halfway through a memoir focused on the year I was eight years old, discovering my great aunt dead in her bedroom, living above my dad’s restaurant and rubbing elbows with the celebs out front and the down-and-outers who worked in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

Roz Rich material indeed. Give me some unzettling final words.

Steve A seminal moment was the day I returned to the US after my months of combat duty in Vietnam. As the other Marines filed into the terminal I dropped onto my knees and kissed the tarmac. This brought on a fair amount of laughter from the others, but I stayed there, on my knees, for some time. Eventually a lieutenant joined me and did the same thing.

He then said, ‘You know we’re a couple of lucky bastards, you and me’.

I said, ‘I’d guess we all are, sir’.

He responded by saying, ‘No, you and I are luckier that the rest’.

‘How’s that, sir?’

‘Because we know how lucky we are. They don’t.’

Find Steve on his website, on Facebook, on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/stevezettlerauthor/

And tweet him on @sZettlerAuthor

Find Careless Love here

If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘Music is as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andrew Lowe

My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘A language to explain feeling and atmosphere’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Libby O’Loghlin

My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. They’re on the Red Blog with their Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Even the bed is forgetting you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, AJ Waines

for logoMy guest this week is the author of Girl on a Train. No, another girl, another train. I first came across her work when she wrote very entertainingly about how her psychological thriller had been mistaken by readers for the much-hyped title by Paula Hawkins. And they were happy to have found her, for she gained many new fans. I then discovered she used to be a musician, and has played in all the major London concert halls, so I had to enquire whether music played a role in her writing. It certainly does – she has written a haunting, thoughtful post about the music that helped her layer her work with complexity, loss and betrayal, especially movie soundtracks like Blue Velvet and Let The Right One In. She is AJ Waines and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Plundered people and rotten exploitation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Sean Grieve

for logoMy guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman

for logoMy guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Penny

for logoMy guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell

for logoMy guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘The thoughts start flowing again’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Will Overby

for logoI’m finding it so curious to see how many novelists in this series are inspired by Bruce Springsteen. He’s probably not the kind of artiste people would imagine if you mentioned using music as a muse to write, but he’s behind so many characters and character dilemmas. My guest this week has compiled writing soundtracks ever since he was at school, and still keeps mixtapes from that time. He revisits them occasionally out of amused curiosity, and says that Springsteen gave his characters a gritty humanity he couldn’t otherwise have found. Decades on, he’s using soundtracks just as much as ever – sometimes not to write, but to fill himself with the book’s mood before he sits down at the keyboard. He is Will Overby and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Through the cold, lonely streets of NYC’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Terrence McCauley

for logoMy guest this week says his friends assume his crime novels are inspired by other noir thrillers, but they’d be wrong. His novels have all come from songs. An opening scene sprang from Springsteen; the relentless grind of a fight from House of Pain; a tender moment from the soundtrack to Gladiator. He is Terrence McCauley and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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