Sunday, June 14, 2009

Photography and the Mystery Writer by Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist. Her mysteries, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER (2008) and DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM (October 2009), feature recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, Jimmy the computer genius and Barbara the world-class codependent. A related short story was nominated for an Agatha for Best Short Story, and another appears in the August 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

has been nominated for a Deadly Ink's David Award for Best Mystery or Thriller of 2008. The winner will be announced at the Deadly Ink conference in Parsippany, NJ on June 27. Liz will be on three panels at the conference.

Photography and the Mystery Writer
Elizabeth Zelvin

When Kaye Barley invited me to write a guest blog, she said that pictures would be welcome. That got me thinking about the ways in which photography is important to a 21st century mystery writer like me.

First, the all-important headshot: this appears on the book jacket, the website, the MySpace or other social network page, the blog, the bookmarks, the signs announcing signings and events—in short, everywhere. This is the face I present to the world, so it had better be a good picture. Some people are naturally photogenic. The camera loves them, and they can’t take a bad picture. My father was one, my two-year-old granddaughter is another. I’m not. I was lucky to have a professional photographer (and fellow resident at an arts program) offer to do my headshot on his Nikon before my first book came out. He snapped a hundred photos. The one I fell in love with was the only one in which my head was backlit: my face in shadow, and the sun shining through my fluffy hair like a halo. With a little editing to lighten up the face, it looked great online.

The trouble began when I had prints made. With higher resolution and sharper focus, the halo around my head turned into what looked like clumps of cotton balls perched on top of my head. The custom lab my local photo store sent it to tried and failed three times to get Photoshop to turn the white clumps to brown like the rest of my hair. Take another picture? Forget it! This was the only photo of myself in twenty years that I really liked, and in the next twenty years, I’d only be getting older. Months and much agita later, I finally found someone online who did custom restoration and was able to give me the headshot I had dreamed of.

Next, the equally important cover art: Authors don’t get much say about the covers of their books with big publishers like mine (Minotaur). And I have heard horror stories about some authors getting stuck with covers that downright embarrassed them. But I was lucky. The covers of my debut mystery, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, and the sequel due out in October, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM,
were designed by a genius, David Rotstein, who’s been nominated for an Anthony for best cover design not only for mine but for a total of three of the five short-listed contenders. I’m not the only one who wondered how he got that glass of whiskey to look as if it had just been shot. David just told me he had the glass shot, yep, with a gun, and had a photographer shoot it with a high-speed camera. I haven’t asked yet, but now I wouldn’t be surprised if he got someone to paint DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM in huge letters in the middle of Park Avenue.

Then there’s the photo gallery on my website. Savvy publicist PJ Nunn of BreakThrough Promotions told me to get plenty of pictures of me with other authors and put them up where surfers searching for these authors can find them. I’ve had a great time doing just that with my little digital camera. I’m lucky to live in New York, where I get to go to all the parties. I also get around to bookstores, conferences, and libraries. It’s hard to choose just a few, but here I am with SJ Rozan (who also goes to all the parties), Mary Higgins Clark, Ken Bruen, and Linda Fairstein. You’ll find these and many more on my website at in the Mystery World Photo Gallery.

Finally, there’s the book trailer video. I did all the photography myself for a one-minute trailer for DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM. I even figured out the video setting on my little digital—well, sort of; I had to cut several minutes of feet and blurry pavement. I won’t release it until closer to the publication date, but here’s a sneak preview of the settings of some of the New York scenes in the book: a body in East Harlem,

a funeral in Brooklyn,

a lingerie boutique,

an Italian bakery,

and a chase in Chinatown.


Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Liz! Nice post! You get your picture made with famous authors -- I post pictures of my garden and my chickens. I guess that's one difference between NYC and Madison County, NC!

I'll try to follow your example though when I get to Bouchercon -- will you join me in a photo?

Aubrey Hamilton said...

Great photos! Understand all too well about the photogenic issues. Cameras love some people more than others.

Neil Plakcy said...

Mmm... that Italian bakery looks good!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Vicki, I'd be honored to pose with you at Bouchercon. I have a group shot of us with the other authors at Murder in the Magic City back in February on my site, but none of you and me. Sometimes I'm having too much fun to remember to take out the camera. :) Neil, the Italian pastry shop is Rocco's on Bleecker Street--a legendary institution and well worth a visit.

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Liz!

It only took you 100 photos to find one that you liked for your book jacket? Hrumph. Took me closer to 200. I'm not photogenic, either.

When I'm at conferences and workshops, I'm so doggone busy that I almost never remember to have those important photos taken of me with other authors. I'm sure you're busy, too. How do you make time for the photo ops?

Suzanne (

Jenny Milchman said...

I think the best author photos don't look staged--I never would've guessed this was one of a hundred. It just looks like the camera kind of caught you in a smiley moment.

The NYC shots are great...worth a 1000 words (although as a writer I seldom endorse that ;)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Jenny. In fact, that head shot was #2 in the series of 100 the photographer shot. :) Suzanne, I don't always remember, but I have been known to whip out my little digital and say, "Ooh, ooh, can I have a photo op?"