Sunday, April 20, 2014

Angela Zeman — One of MWA's New York Treasures!

Angela, charming, talented, gifted mystery writer, is also one of the pillars of the illustrious New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Widely known for her popular Mrs. Risk (the witch) stories, Zeman's series, "The First Tale of Roxanne", debuted in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, as the May 2013 issue's cover story. Her book, The Witch and the Borscht Pearl, is now a collector's item.

A former gemologist and Scuba Divemaster, Zeman has worn many hats at MWA: Editor of the Edgar Awards Annual, Chair of Best Short Story Committee, Chair of the Edgars Symposium, NY Regional Board of Directors, to name a few.

She is also a member of Private Eye Writers of America, International Association of Crime Writers, International Thriller Writers and the New York Friars Club.

Her favorite current crime writers include Robert Crais, Val McDermid, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connolly, Lee Child, Carol O'Connell, Daniel Silva. She likes series authors, dark suspense thrillers, Golden Age, Pulps, Noir, Harry Potter, Tolkien, graphic novels and comics!

Living in New York City is her idea of a dream life!

"What is your strongest talent as a writer?" I asked her recently.

"Story, Although some say character, which to me is story."

"What is your worst feature?"

"Rabid perfectionism — which means I'm a slow writer. Frustration — at time stolen from writing."

Please welcome Angela Zeman and her intriguing replies and leave your question or comment at the end.

T. J. Straw

Thelma: You have served MWA in so many important ways… Editor of the Edgar Awards Annual for the 2001 Banquet; Chair of Best Short Story Committee; twice as Chair of the Edgars Symposium; National Board of Directors; NY Regional Board of Directors; co-author with Barry on award-winning non-fiction articles about the mystery field, to name a few.

You were also one of the founders of MWA-NY. We'd love to hear more about this… MWA-NY has become a rock to so many of us… we'd love to know how you put it together…

Angela: Well said! NY and all the chapters consistently outdo themselves, continually evolving to fill authors’ ever-changing needs in the publishing landscape. MWA always was, and is now even more so, a formidable Professional Organization. I’m proud to be a member. I joined in 1985.

Still, this may be the hardest question you could have asked me. Growing pains are never easy. Newer members may not be aware that for decades, pre-NY Chapter, no regional chapters had automatic representation on the National Board. All MWA business was conducted at the monthly National meetings, followed by a dinner meeting that any MWA member could attend if they wished to pay the fee. All MWA Board Directors were chosen from a nationwide slate of Active status candidates, but a majority had to come from the NY region—which included NY, NJ, CT, the Mid-Atlantic states and DC—so that each meeting would have a quorum in order to properly conduct MWA business, mostly by snail mail. Can you imagine? In later years, when somebody invented Teleconferencing, we leaped for it!

The work load was immense. To be a National Director then was to agree to work hard and man committees—plural—no excuses. The Edgar Awards were, and still are, awarded in NYC. The Symposium at that time ended with a free (very nice!) cocktail party, and MWA often offered extra events for socializing.

The regions, however, came to view the situation as if NY had some kind of special advantage. I personally don’t understand where that idea originated, but nothing about it was true. Still, letters began arriving voicing concerns that they weren’t being fully represented. This occurred around ’89 or ’90. After a period of time it was decided that a NY regional chapter should be established and more representation on the Board should come from each regional chapter. With great results.

Alice Orr volunteered to head the committee to create the NY Region Chapter. She drafted my husband, Barry, and me to help, among a handful of others. Somehow I became Treasurer. You can see how it operated! Alice has a forceful personality. Fortunately, she and the rest of us operated from a place of good humor about it all. I wish I could name all the other initial Directors. I don’t remember. I believe Bill Chambers was one. Annette and Marty Meyers for sure. Maybe Al Ashforth, I’m not sure. (I welcome corrections!)

It was a great move. Look at all the new, wonderful functions that have grown in every region! Sleuthfest, NE Clambake, mentoring programs, newsletters expanded (although I miss Annette and Marty’s column, “All the Noose”). MWA has continued to grow as the Professional Organization I believe the founders had in mind since its birth in 1945. Which inspires me to announce that I should post Barry’s and my award winning account of the birth of MWA. Look for it in my website blog ( “Murphy’s Blog”). Soon.

Back to the NY Chapter: after two years of being Treasurer (and serving on a multitude of committees) I begged to be replaced. Jim Weikart, a professional accountant, stepped in. Poor guy, he worked for years at that job. Then he went on to do the same for National. He was so good nobody wanted him to stop!

Thelma: PW has called your work "magical". Tell us about the origin of your famous character, Mrs. Risk, well-known to readers of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the MWA Anthology, The Night Awakens, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

Angela: Mrs. Risk is still with me, which feels as odd to me as it probably sounds to you. One day, I entered my home office and even before I sat, ‘Poof!’ She appeared in my head, fully fleshed out in every aspect of personality, appearance, some of her cohorts, and location. I froze in amazement. I have no explanation for it. At the time, we lived on Long Island in a village much like Wyndham-By-The-Sea. And the stories began. Alfred Hitchcock published the first one in 1993. My FIRST sale! Editor Cathleen Jordan even phoned me to buy it! Can you imagine? A phone call! (I had sold another story, in 85, which qualified me for Active status, but that magazine folded. Eight years is a heart-rending gap between sales.)

Cathleen then added, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make her a witch?” I answered, “Um…sure!” (Flummoxed. But who’s going to argue with Cathleen?) I had no idea of the difficulties of making her a believable witch, a subject about which I was completely blank. I read book after book. I did my best. Then one day, after a nice AHMM series run, in her column at the beginning of the magazine, Ms. Jordan revealed her suspicions that maybe Mrs. Risk wasn’t a witch after all. And after that, I had to sell Mrs. Risk elsewhere. My agent, Don Maass then told me it was time I wrote a novel about her. So I did. The reason I picked the subject of stand-up Borscht Belt comedians is written about in several places, so I won’t repeat it here.

Thelma: As a fan of your charming book, The Borscht Pearl, I'd like to know more about how you weave the Jewish Borscht Belt background into your stories.

Angela: I guess I will repeat it here! Ok. The personality of Mrs. Risk, witchy or no, was difficult. She had firm opinions, shall we say? So she had few friends as a result. However, to be her friend was to possess her unswerving devotion. And her friend, ‘Pearl’ (Velma) Schrafft, a formerly world-renowned comedienne who desperately needed to stage a come-back or go bankrupt, landed in enormous trouble. Her beloved husband had died, plus she’d suffered a serious heart attack. Her stage name, the ‘Borscht Pearl’ came from her early years doing the rounds in the Catskills, the Borscht Belt comedy circuit. She decided to stage her return as a televised Thanksgiving Evening at the most beloved of venues, Kutsher’s Country Club, which is a genuine resort in Monticello, NY. Every detail in that book is genuine, folks. I can even name who each character is in reality, but I won’t. Mrs. Kutsher, the owner and a woman legendary for her kindness, allowed me to interview her at length. She gave me (and my family) the run of her resort over the weekend. My daughter, around ten at the time, was agog at all the amenities. While I was poking behind doors and backstage, she tried to do it all, which is impossible. It’s still one of her favorite memories.

Ironically, late Saturday night, the booked show suddenly backed out. So she phoned Alan King, who was in the middle of a golf game, to help. He ditched his clubs and came. The first thing he said was… ”What am I doing here? I’m RETIRED.” And then he explained how much he owed to Mrs. Kutsher—a launch into his entire career. A formidable lineup of performers owed much to Mrs. Kutsher. He held up his hands and said, “How could I say no?”

And how could I not write about it?

Freddie Roman, the Dean of the East Coast Friar’s Club, allowed me to interview him, leading to my admission to the Friar’s Club. A genuine ‘booker’ of talent for the Catskills talked to me, as did others in the field. A great experience that will never leave me. So… in the book… Pearl’s only asset, a magnificent gift of love from her husband: a South Sea (Borscht colored) pearl necklace. (Mikimoto helped me ‘design’ it! It was real!) Her manager, who had literally created her vocation of comedian, is murdered. The cops (another great experience with the Suffolk County Homicide Department) consider Pearl their main suspect. There’s more. All was at stake. Mrs. Risk, as was her method, bullied her way into the situation and… but I won’t spoil the story for you. Mysterious Press has re-issued the book. And also a companion book of Mrs. Risk’s stories in a first ever collection.

She was a great success. I have reams of new plots about her, and another finished novel I never tried to sell. I suffered burnout. I rebelled. I wanted to write other things. Frankly, I wanted to write everything mystery, not just Mrs. Risk. Even within her stories I experimented with voices, and POVs. Writing is difficult, but a joyland! How could I not explore?

Thelma: How does your writing fit into your activities as a member of the famous Friar's Club?

Angela: My activities? They consist of me sitting around schmoozing with whoever shows up. It’s a Club of extroverts who treat the club as a second home. A warm place, welcoming people, a staff who behaves like extended family. Pretty good food, too. I’ve taken many people there as my guest. The Club occupies a fabulous well-maintained brownstone so I include a tour when I bring visitors. Yeah, I work hard there ☺

Thelma: What inspired you to place Long Island into your writing?

Angela: Because my village was cute. Port Jefferson as it was then, was pretty much as described in the book, with some liberties taken. As my stories appeared, my friends clamored to be included. So I put them in. I used real names and occupations, even descriptions. They loved it! When my then-agent Don Maass found out he was horrified. Another agent got a tv producer interested in her IF I moved her to Charleston, SC. No problem! I worked like a maniac to put together a package for him. Tom Sawyer, a famous former show-runner and MWA buddy, helped me do it in professional style, because I knew nothing about tv series! The producer kept it for about two years before rejecting it. I came up with a plot for the series pilot, and then about twenty additional plot ideas for more shows. Later, I took her deeper into the Charleston idea, making her very dark. The same agent said, “Whoa, back up.” So I crafted the idea for a graphic novel, which, without an artist, still resides in my computer. No, joke, I want to try everything!

Which, by the way, all shows MWA in action. Mystery writers, I’ve discovered early, are notorious for lifting each other up. We succeed by way of each other’s helping hands. A feature not known in other genres, I’ve heard. I have a list of ‘heroes.’ People who willingly and generously gave me help. Here’s an example: I first joined MWA’s Midwest Chapter when I lived in Indianapolis, in the 80’s. Scared to death, unpublished, shy, I arrived at my first Dark and Stormy weekend in Chicago. Early, nobody else there yet, except the janitor. He was busy setting up chairs and tables, but kind and easy to talk to, relieving some of my nerves. Then the meeting started. The janitor went to the podium up front and introduced himself to newcomers as the Chapter President, Stuart Kaminsky. He stayed my good friend and mentor ever since, and I miss him terribly. This is not a rare occurrence in MWA.

Thelma: Have you written suspense novels?

Angela: I’m writing one now. It incorporates a bit of horror, also, which is fairly new for me. I’ve written suspense stories which sold and reviewed well. That encouraged me to try this novel.

Thelma: What led you into writing mystery stories?

Angela: My mother was a war widow, a working single mother. So on Sunday, we’d go to church, then pick up a Whataburger (heard of those? I’m from Texas.) Then we’d hit the library and split up at the door. I’d read all afternoon upstairs in the children’s section—the red, green, yellow, etc, ‘fairy books.’ The Grimm brothers’ work. Serious horror, believe me! And then at home I read whatever books my mother had around—always mysteries. Thrillers, suspense, noir, the classic Golden Age mysteries, she had them all. So, it was no doubt her influence. Plus, think about it—a story has to contain conflict (aka ‘mystery’) or there’s no story, no matter the genre.

Thelma: What in your background prepared you as a suspense writer?

Angela: No idea. Well, except I possess what my husband considers a highly irritating trait: I want to know WHY about everything. I analyze. I want explanations.

Thelma: When you begin a story, do you map out things in advance? What comes first—character? plot? Other?

Angela: I plot every story in stream of consciousness style, but it closely resembles a movie treatment more than a synopsis. And I must know the end before I start. What comes first? Maybe something I read—I read everything. Sometimes a name I feel drawn to, like Roxanne, a series I just started in AHMM. And in her case, since it drives me NUTS not to find the order/pub date of authors’ works in Amazon, I titled Roxanne’s story, “The First Tale of Roxanne.” Nobody will have any questions about the order of her stories.

Thelma: What is your ultimate goal as a writer?

Angela: I just hope to live a long long life. I have so much to write. Piles of ideas, plots, characters.

If someone comes to me aspiring to write, but they don’t sit down and actually write anything? They’re not writers. Then there’s the ones whose goals are quick fame and riches, well, good luck. It’s rare, but it happens. However, if you MUST write, if you just have to! You are a writer. I’m a writer.

Thelma: In this iffy climate, what advice do you have for both new and experienced writers?

Angela: This climate get iffier all the time, so nothing is for sure. The main rule, to me, is: Keep your rights. NEVER sell ‘all’ rights to anything. EVER! Plus, right now? Market like a maniac, and explore every venue to find your place. Self-publishing is no longer maligned as in the past. Although, do your homework to guard yourself from cheats. I’m lucky, I came from art AND advertising backgrounds. Although I wish I didn’t have to market so much. Time consuming. However, I’ve worked many jobs. Every job has something in it that you don’t like. It is what it is.


  1. Delighted you stopped by today. Your advice to writers is excellent - and I look forward to your new suspense novel! Thelma Straw

  2. Thelma, as always wonderful questions and a good interview. Angela I enjoyed reading about your work with MWA and your career. Well done.

    Barbara Bent

  3. Thanks, Thelma, for inviting me to 'talk' to you and this terrific blog's readers and writers. I'm honored to be included in such illustrious company! It was fun!

    Angela Zeman

  4. It was our pleasure! tjs