Thursday, March 8, 2012

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose third mystery about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, will be out next month. Outrageous Older Woman, an album of her original songs, has just been released. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and her story, “Death Will Tank Your Fish,” in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, is a current nominee for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story.

Crimewriters: Your friends and colleagues are excited about your debut on the new CD. Tell us a little about your evolution as a vocal performer.

Liz: Outrageous Older Woman is my first professional-quality recording, but I’ve been singing my whole life, starting with morbid traditional ballads (very appropriate for a mystery writer), the spirited music of the Left, and gloriously sentimental Girl Scout campfire songs. My mother never quite got it. She was always asking why I didn’t sing something more cheerful. She’d probably have said the same thing if she hadn’t been gone by the time my first mystery came out.

Nonetheless, I always loved singing and performing, and I always knew that harmony singers and better musicians than I could make me sound better. I learned to play guitar when I was thirteen, and it was a great asset in high school and college, where I would have remained a shy kid if I hadn’t had so many opportunities to sit on the floor (or the grass, depending) playing my guitar while everybody sang along. I never thought of doing it professionally. For one thing, the kind of folk music I sang gave way to rock in the mid-Sixties, while I was in the Peace Corps. For another, I’m severely allergic to smoke, which was endemic and the kind of coffee houses where singers performed in those days. So I let it go for a few years.

In the late Nineties, I picked up the guitar again and started to go to songwriting workshops, and being around other musicians rekindled my creativity in this area. I owe a lot to a trio of musical mentors: veteran singer/songwriter Bernice Lewis, in whose workshop I wrote my first new songs in twenty years; genre-bending musical legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who liked to throw strangers together and make them write a song in four days, since he believes the collaborative process is exactly like the internal creative process; and vocal visionary Amy Fradon, who sings harmony vocals on my album and is responsible for the surprising fact that I’m a better singer at 68 than I was at 28. I put the songs aside again when I got involved in mystery writing. But as we know, today’s writers tend not to have a straightforward career path, and I’m delighted that I’ve had the time to turn my body of work as a songwriter into an album I’m truly proud of.

Note that I say “album” rather than CD, because while I hope many people will buy the CD, younger listeners are far more likely to download the music — either the whole album or individual tracks — into their iPods or cell phones.

Crimewriters: The photo of you in the red hat is stunning!!! Why the red hat??? Are you a member of the Red Hat Society???

Liz: I don’t belong to the Red Hat Society, but the organization is well known enough that wearing a big red hat suggests the spirit of fun, audaciousness, and celebration of women’s experience that I wanted to express. I deliberately don’t wear a purple dress with the red hat, so it’s just me doing my own thing.

Crimewriters: Do you have any plans to get a gig at the restaurant in Irvington, NY — called Red Hat on the River? They do a lot of evening entertainment!!

Liz: No, but I’ll be performing with some of my band from the album at the People’s Voice Café on Saturday, May 19 at 8 pm. It’s at the Community Church at 40 East 35th Street in Manhattan.

Crimewriters: Most females prefer to be called "younger." Why the tag "older woman"?

I’m not sure that’s true of my generation, just pre-baby boomer. Most of us are pretty frank about our age. I think the older a woman is when she accomplishes something of note, the more inspiring she is to other women. In a song called “The House That I Called Home,” I tell the story of my parents’ romance: both immigrant children, they met in law school in 1921. My mother, who was a tremendous role model, went back to school in her sixties, before anyone was doing that, got a doctorate, and taught Constitutional law well into her seventies. She was no slouch in her eighties or nineties either. Her younger sister, my Aunt Hilda, turns 100 in April, and she’s still playing tennis and going dancing with her boyfriend. That’s the tradition I feel called to maintain, so the older the better.

Crimewriters: What do you want to convey by calling yourself "outrageous"?

Liz: The way I remember it, I was sitting in a hot tub in Berkeley California with two women friends in the 1970s and one of them asked what was our vision for ourselves—what did we aspire to be, beyond career goals (like “published novelist”). My intuitive answer at that time was: Wisewoman (which I think I’ve made a good start on, partly but not entirely by becoming a psychotherapist) and Outrageous Older Woman. The older I get, the less inhibited I am by what other people may think of me. I don’t think I took enough risks as a kid — I don’t mean hitchhiking (which I did) or skydiving (no, thank you!), but, say, taking a course in something interesting that I knew nothing about and might not get an A in; or speaking up to communicate the hard, simple stuff, like “No” and “I love you.” I didn’t invent the phrase “outrageous older woman.” First I got the T shirt. Then I wrote the song, which is about my journey through experience to a sense of empowerment. When I decided to make the album, I knew right away that that would be the title.

Crimewriters: You call your work "The Songs of a Lifetime".  Are you the composer? Did you write the lyrics? What topics do you address in this collection?

Liz: I wrote the words and music of all the songs on the album. It’s all about love, really, but there are only three love songs: one written thirty years ago for my husband and still true; one I wrote as an engagement present for my son and his fiancée and sang at their wedding (in fact, two weddings); and the story of my stepdaughter’s Internet romance, which also ended in a wedding (long after I wrote the song). Some of them are story songs. One is about a legendary and beloved New York character, the Mayor of Central Park; another was inspired by one of the many homeless alcoholics I’ve worked with in my professional life. Two are about abuse and healing. One is about what I call “creeping age,” an update on a song I wrote decades ago about middle age. Another is an embellished retelling of a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. And as a bonus track, I’ve included a live performance in Woodstock early in 2002 of a song I wrote about 9/11 in the first couple of days after it happened. Writing the song and singing it was my way of coming to terms with the tragedy.

Crimewriters: Do you plan to have a series of CDs? Do you have plans for TV, radio, film, clubs, etc? Are you for hire? How should a future employer for such contact you?

Liz: Since I’m not a professional musician, and I don’t have or expect a record deal, a series of CDs would land me in the poorhouse. This is a labor of love, not a commercial project, and this is it. Getting a self-produced CD distributed widely takes the same kind of energy that would go into a self-published novel. That said, I am open to invitations to perform, which is both fun and an opportunity to sell CDs—very much as it is for writers. The best way to sell music nowadays, as many musicians have told me in the course of doing this project, is on the Internet. My songs are available through my music website at and on, through which most independent recordings are distributed. They’re also on iTunes and Amazon and will eventually be on other music download sites as well.

Crimewriters: If you'd gone a different route in your career path, what would you be doing now?

Liz: That’s not a good question for me, since there’s nothing I haven’t done that I always wanted to do (except riding an elephant, which is still on my list), but the outcomes haven’t been anything like what I expected. If I’d gotten my first novel published at 24 instead of 64, my writing career might have been over for decades by now. If I’d been able to carry a tune in smoke-filled dives, I might have kept bad company and be long dead. If I hadn’t married my first husband, I wouldn’t have my gorgeous granddaughters. As for getting rich, which is not in the cards for me, I tried: many years ago, I sold life insurance for a couple of years, and it was a nightmare. I wrote a song about it, but it didn’t make it into this album.

Crimewriters: What is your advice to new writers... musicians...?

Liz: I say what everybody else says to new writers: read read read, and write write write. Network with other writers, join MWA and Sisters in Crime, and don’t quit your day job. It’s kind of the same with musicians: listen listen listen, practice practice practice. Hang out with other musicians, learn the realities of the industry, and don’t quit your day job.

You can learn more about Liz's mysteries at
Thank you, Liz, for sharing these priceless gems with us!
— T.J. Straw

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman


  1. Thanks to Crimewriters for letting me talk about the music instead of the mysteries and especially to Thelma and Kate. :) Liz

  2. LIz, this is a most inspiring interview. I love the
    album--and the red hat!

  3. What a great and inspiring read!!! The interviewer is fantastic and the interviewee is totally outrageous!!!

  4. Love this!!!!!
    Thank you, Liz & Thelma.
    Liz, you are a great role model.
    There are so many points you made here that resonate with me. If I responded to each that struck a chord with me, my comment would be as long as your piece.
    Suffice to say - I am having the time of my life since I retired. I'm finding a whole new "me." I'm doing more for myself than I ever did - including writing my first novel, which I'm this close to finishing.
    I am SO proud of you and I can't wait to hear your CD, and oh honey - I love the photo you chose for the cover. Perfect!
    See you at Malice!

  5. Thanks, everyone. :) Maybe I'd better bring my red hat to Malice. The drawback is that when I wear it, I can't see where I'm going. ;)Thrilled to hear about your novel, Kaye. We knew you when!

  6. Liz, please bring your red hat to the Dorothy L lunch! We are all in your corner and would love to see the hat!!! tjs