I am an attorney-author who lives in Pittsburgh. Death Sentences is set here and the city also serves as a backdrop for my play, Negative Velocity, which was a finalist for the 2013 Hidden River Playwriting Award. I’ve also published a novella, The History of My Final Illness, about the last five days in the life of Joseph Stalin. My novel, The Migration of Birds, about a soldier lost overseas, was a finalist in the 2017 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Contest sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. My nonfiction work has appeared in The National Law Journal, Harper’s Magazine, Pittsburgh City Paper, and College English, among other publications.
SR: What’s your new book about?
MZ: The novel’s protagonist, Peter “Pop” Popovich, is a 24-year-old unemployed glazier, anti-Semite and white supremacist who believes that liberals want to take away his guns. When police arrive at his door in response to a 911 call from his mother, who wants him removed from her house after his dog craps on her carpet, Pop explodes, and a bloody melee results. While in jail waiting to be executed for his crimes, Pop writes a novel about what it’s like on Death Row while also reprising the life that landed him there.
SR: Was there a specific issue or incident that really motivated you to write this particular story? What was the prompt?
MZ: Death Sentences is based on a 2009 shootout between a gunman and police in the Stanton Heights section of Pittsburgh. Local media dismissed the gunman as mentally ill. I saw him as a member of the lunatic fringe of the reactionary right, and wanted to understand the mind set that brought him to the edge of the cliff and sent him over, as it were. I wrote the novel in the waning days of the Obama administration, and, I have to tell you, it looks as if the whole country has gone over the cliff since the 2016 election, what with Trump in the White House and white nationalism on the rise.
SR: How do you think your protagonist would respond if aliens landed in the center of town on page 57?
MZ: My protagonist would respond by calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He’d also blame the aliens for his being out of work.
SR: Your protagonist has to flee the country. Where are they headed to and why that location?
MZ: Brazil, with a brief stopover at Branau am Inn.
SR: What conspiracy theory is your protagonist most likely to believe in? Roswell? JFK? Princess Diana? What about you? Any conspiracy theories that you think might have some truth to them?
MZ: My protagonist believed that Barack Obama was going to take away his guns. He believed a lot of other shit that people like Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity have been peddling for years, that FEMA concentration camps exist, that Sandy Hook was a hoax, that the shootings in Parkland, Florida were some kind of deep-state false flag operation, that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party had a DNC staffer killed, and that Donald Trump is some kind of savior.
As for me, I’m not much of a conspiracy buff; for example, I think Oswald acted alone, and so did James Earl Ray.
SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?
MZ: When last seen ** spoiler alert ** he was bleeding to death in a prison cell.
SR: What’s your protagonist’s greatest fear? Why?
MZ: Love and truth, in that order. Pop Popovich can’t love anyone else because he doesn’t love himself, doesn’t even like himself really. He’s afraid of the truth because truth requires an inquiring mind, which means looking past your own nose rather than down it at someone else.
SR: Is there something you hope the reader carries away with them after they’re done reading? An insight or philosophy that you wanted to come through in your work?
MZ: There are a lot of people out there like Peter “Pop” Popovich. Last week, it was “sovereign citizen” Travis Reinking, accused of murdering four people at a Tennessee Waffle Hut. Next week, who knows? I think it’s important to realize that these people aren’t simply unhinged. They’re politically motivated, maybe not in a completely coherent ideological sense, but there are a lot of forces acting upon them to make them behave as they do, and those forces include Svengalis in the media, in Congress, and, yes, even in the White House. The shootings aren’t going to stop until we learn to tone down the rhetoric and start believing in facts again, empirical facts, the real ones, not the kind that people dream up for political advantage, or because they can make a buck off them.
SR: If you were in an arm wrestle with your protagonist who would win? What is your protagonist better at than you? What are you better than your protagonist at?
MZ: I’d win the wrestling match, and then he’d shoot me in the head.
SR: If hell was watching one movie over and over and over again, or listening to one song over and over again, what would the movie or song be for you? For your protagonist?
MZ: For me, the movie would be “My Dinner with Andre,” which I was required to watch for a civil procedure class in law school (don’t know why) by a professor who was a former minister, loved continental philosophy and led a lunch-time reading group on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The movie was the most deadly dull film I have ever seen and about as impenetrable as Wittgenstein.
MZ: For my protagonist, it would be “A Patch of Blue,” about a romance between a blind young white woman and a black office worker. “Black like Me” would be a close second and “A Gentlemen’s Agreement” a close third.
For me, the song would be “The End” by the Doors, the unedited studio version featuring Jim Morrison’s Oedipal rant about his mother and father. For my protagonist, the song would be “We Shall Overcome.”
SR: Carpool karaoke. What would be your protagonist’s song? Yours?
MZ: Protagonist: “The Horst Wessel Song.” Me: “Bye Bye Blackbird” sung by Peggy Lee.
SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
MZ: As a child, I was delighted by Edward Eager’s tales of magic. I think there were seven books in his series, and I read all of them. As an adult, I’m not particularly drawn to fantasy as a genre. I think Eager was able to enter the minds of his characters, and that’s what attracted me to his books. The first book that I remember having a huge impact on me was W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It’s about a man who wants to become an artist, realizes that he can’t succeed as one, and becomes a medical doctor instead. Along the way, he suffers the death of his parents, poverty, unrequited
love, learns the meaning of life, and finally finds some peace and contentment. In many ways, the book celebrates ordinary, non-eccentric people living extraordinary lives. Beyond the theme, the major effect it had on me was on my spelling. For months after reading it, I spelled everything like a Brit would, putting -ise at the end of words instead of -ize, writing honor as honour, and so forth.
SR: What’s the best thing about writing?
MZ: Creating characters and watching them live, without having to pay for child care or their college educations.
SR: What’s the worst thing about writing?
MZ: Being unread, which, sadly, is the fate of too many writers. The New York Review of Books did a piece recently on the fiction writer, Joan Silber, who published two novels, one of which won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway award, and then was unable to get another book published for thirteen years. The problem? Her early books failed to sell, while big books, many of them written by celebrities, sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Silber’s back with her new novel, Improvement, but the stratification and market concentration of the publishing industry continues to be a problem for most writers.
SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?
MZ: Research. I recently submitted a play to a local festival that pairs white playwrights with black directors, and vice versa. To write it, I drove 600 miles to the Birmingham, Alabama Public Library to access archival materials on Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, who was convicted of bombing a church. Chambliss was put in a prison cell adjoining the real subject of my play, a character based on a young mentally retarded African-American man who was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in Decatur, Alabama forty years ago. I was living in the region then, interviewed the young man’s lawyer, and was appalled by what I saw as a miscarriage of justice when the young man was convicted. As it turned out, the notoriously racist Chambliss gave the young black man a reading lesson, not exactly a meeting of minds, but an intersection of opposing lives in a way one wouldn’t expect. I don’t know how successful my play will turn out to be, but I couldn’t have written it without doing the work.
SR: Are you drawn to things that are really popular or wary of them? Do you find it helps you to market your work if you’re familiar with what’s currently selling or do you ignore all of that and focus on what you’re interested in?
MZ: I served on the reading committee responsible for short-listing books for the 2016 Hammett Award for the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers and reviewed close to 200 submissions. That gave me a pretty good idea of what people are writing. That being said, I’m focused on what interests me, not on what’s popular, not on what sells. Much of what’s selling right now benefits from the support of a highly integrated publishing/entertainment industry that generates sales and cultivates tastes. I can’t comment on the quality of the book, but look at the pre-publication push for The Mars Room, a women’s prison novel in the mold of “Orange is the New Black” that features a love affair between its 29-year old white female protagonist and her trans cellmate. The book has been reviewed virtually everywhere and was anointed by the literati before its release date. The New York Times Magazine even published an advance excerpt from the book. Most writers can’t get that kind of marketing help.
SR: Do you relate more to Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty? Why?
MZ: Holmes. I minored in philosophy as an undergrad and was drawn to symbolic logic. I can’t explain why Conan Doyle believed in spiritualism and fairies.
SR: What’s your personal life motto?
MZ: We’re lost, but we’re making good time.
SR: Is there something you’ve experienced that’s affected your view of life? Tell us about it and how it changed you.
MZ: The death of my first wife at an early age. Loss teaches you how precious life really is.
SR: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen or Arya Stark? If you could be any fictional character for a day who would it be and why?
MZ: I don’t want to be anyone but myself.
SR: If you had to describe your protagonist as a weather system, what would he be?
MZ: An atmospheric disturbance, a description borrowed from perhaps the best meteorology novel of all time, Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. (“Forget about forecasting,” one of her characters says,“Nowcasting is near impossible.”)
SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?
MZ: I run. I’m no Haruki Murakami, who runs everyday, without fail, but I’ve run two marathons, the first when I turned 60. My times weren’t great, but I finished both of them, and it was a real kick running the last one, the Marine Marathon, in D.C., and getting high-fived by Marines at the finish line. I don’t run everyday, but I keep at it. I also golf. Poorly.
SR: What factors influence you when you’re choosing a book to read?
MZ: News of the death of the late Philip Kerr turned my attention to his Berlin crime trilogy, March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem. My interest in Kerr has also spawned an interest in similar books, e.g., Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon and
Marek Krajewski’s so-called “Polish Corridor” novels featuring Detective Eberhard Mock. All of these novels are about small crimes that take place within the context of larger crimes and a corrupt socio-political culture, which is what interests me now.
SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?
MZ: I have a short story, “Why People Crash,” in the current issue (#5) of Cold Creek Review, and my Golden Fedora Prize-winning crime poetry will appear in an upcoming issue of Noir Nation. People can find me wherever the sun is shining and music is playing. Look for the man in the hat.