Steve Zettler, the author of the recently published novel Careless Love, is a professional writer, actor, and photogapher. His earlier works include the international thrillers The Second Man, Double Identity, and Ronin, as well as the Nero Blanc Mystery Series, which he co-authored. Steve has also had a long career as an actor on the stage of both New York and regional theaters, as well as appearances on countless television shows and feature films.
I had the privilege of interviewing Steve Recently about Careless Love¸ which was praised by Kirkus Reviews as “powerful tale of the many ways love can go wrong.” Here’s what he had to say.
TZ: Careless Love has been characterized both as “literary fiction” and as “romantic suspense.” This contrasts with your earlier novels, which Amazon calls “espionage thrillers.” Do you think those assessments are accurate? Do you think Careless Love differs fundamentally from your earlier works?
SZ: There’s something about the “thriller” structure that has always appealed to me, and my early books were just that; straight out thrillers. However I’ve always managed to weave in a love story and place them in romantic locales; Paris and Venice. I have been called a “fool for love” more than once.
I’ve been wrestling with Careless Love for years but only put it to paper about three years ago, and of course, it’s been through many edits since that first draft. At its core it has always been a love story, drawn from events that I’ve lived through, but in the end I couldn’t escape the desire to thriller it up. So in the end I approached it from a kind of reverse angle. Whereas my first books were thrillers with a love story, Careless Love is a love story (in a romantic setting, Honolulu) with a thriller tempo.
TZ: Careless Love is about a search for, and questions about, a character’s biological father. This theme resonates with me because it figures prominently in several of my own novels. Why do you think questions about paternity are so compelling, even to many who have no particular reason to doubt their parentage?
SZ: I suppose all of us have looked at our siblings and said, “There’s no way in hell I’m related to these people. I must have been adopted.” Physically I look nothing like my siblings (nor my parents) and my siblings constantly teased me about this when I was a kid, so quite naturally my boyhood imagination speculated on a huge variety of ultra-romantic possibilities from an early age. It’s a topic I never specifically discussed with my parents, but my mother guaranteed me (on more than one occasion) that I was not adopted.
One probably needs a doctorate in psychology to answer why these questions are so compelling. Maybe we are all trying to envision our existence as more romantic or intriguing than it might be? That we have a fascinating backstory of which we know nothing? I grew up above my father’s bar/restaurant/ country inn. All sorts of shenanigans went on until all hours of the night, so who know? Anything’s possible. Customers included people like John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oleg Cassini, Oscar Hammerstein, and the like. Everyone was more glamorous than my family.
However there are some kernels of family truth sprinkled throughout Careless Love. Certainly my restaurant upbringing colored the lives of a few of my characters.
TZ: I couldn’t resist reading your acting resume, which was a riot. It also made me wonder if the facility with dialogue so evident in that novel might reflect both your playwriting and acting background. Can you talk a little about how your experiences on stage and screen shaped your writing and/or writing career?
SZ: I honestly believe there is no better training ground for a writer (of fiction) than the theatre. My list of reasons is endless; exposure to the greatest of plot lines, constant character analysis, character motivation and development, setting, relationships, etc., and certainly endless contact with compelling dialogue.
An actor must live in the moment, be real, study every word that’s spoken, every step that’s taken. I learned from Uta Hagen that perhaps the most important consideration an actor must examine is – “How do I get what I want?” This plays out with every move an actor takes and every word a character utters. It comes from the inside, and if a writer believes in their characters, believes in their strong and unique personalities, it will all bubble out in different actions and different speech patterns.
Dialogue isn’t only words spoken: it’s listening and responding in a logical manner (assuming the character isn’t completely nutso). But the operative word is listening. The great playwright, August Wilson, spent his life hanging out in bars and just listening to real life. I had the wonderful opportunity to work on a film with another great playwright, Sam Shepard. We had hours of conversations about writing; particularly dialogue. He was a master. I learned so much from that experience.
TZ: Speaking of your diverse life experiences, how do you think your experiences as a U.S. Marine contributed to the development of the narrator’s biological father, who was shaped and scarred by his service in Vietnam?
SZ: One minor motivating factor in writing Careless Love was a desire to highlight the ”stolen valor” issue and the cardboard heroes. The novel doesn’t focus on Vietnam; it’s set in 1979, Hawaii. But the war is still fresh in the minds of my characters.
I was a radio operator in Vietnam, it was not my job to play John Wayne; my job was to keep lines of communication open. Chico, the radio operator in Careless Love, never fires a shot in the one flashback to a Vietnam firefight, but as an old man he’s become the poster-boy for PTSD.
Too many people died in Vietnam (on both sides) for anyone to claim hero status. Lee, in Careless Love, who was far more valiant than I could ever hope to have been, refuses to talk about his experience, while Ray, who did nothing but sell pot and get busted for doing so, struts about claiming to have done it all. Careless Love gave me the opportunity to paint that picture. I could go on forever about “stolen valor” and those who wallow in it, clearly it’s a sore spot with me, but I’ll just leave it at that.
TZ: Many of your characters are vividly developed, with the exception of the narrator. Did you ever consider letting the reader know a bit more about the narrator? Or do you think that would have detracted from the ability of that voice in framing the essential story?
SZ: Wow, you sound like my editor. She was brilliant, and pushed hard for me to beef up the narrator, which I did considerably from the very first draft.
The narrator is based on two women, my step-daughter (whom the book is dedicated to), and my cousin who is a documentary filmmaker. They are both very strong women and I could easily see them going after the facts as aggressively as the Careless Love narrator does. But at the same time I’ve never warmed up to men writing women in the first person – I had boxed myself into a not so roomy corner.
My decision was to not name the narrator nor divulge whether it is a son or a daughter. And in the end I didn’t see it as all that important, and in one early draft I played around with naming the narrator but I found it too distracting from the story I wanted to tell. I think in a frame-narrative the voice of the narrator is sometimes better off taking a back seat.
I couldn’t go the “Call me Ishmael” route because the narrator wasn’t present, or even alive, for the meat of the story. I do hint in a few spots that the narrator might a woman through some dialogue choices, but it’s most likely too subtle for anyone to notice.
TZ: Your decision to publish your novel with a “hybrid publishing company” seems to be a growing trend. In fact, you’re the second author I’ve interviewed recently who has decided to publish this way. How does hybrid publishing work, how does it differ from traditional publishing, and why did you choose to go this route?
SZ: My previous work had all been published by big houses; Penguin-Putnam and Hachette. In reality, I had a hard time getting my former editors to read the manuscript because it was such a departure from my thrillers and mysteries. I have a literary agent in New York and another in L.A. and they showed little interest as well; they saw no dollar signs. I don’t blame them, they’re in business and they were looking at the bottom line.
Careless Love was something new, and they didn’t know what to do with it, so I started to look for a smaller literary publisher on my own. The first publisher to contact me was Vine Leaves Press, and I went with them. I have to say it’s been the best publishing experience of my life. They are a very hands-on, exceptionally talented and supportive group of people.
I eventually did get other offers but I’m glad Careless Love ended up where it did. The only real drawback in going with a P.O.D. [print-on-demand] house is that bookstores are reluctant to stock your book because unsold copies cannot be returned. Of course, Careless Love can be ordered from any bookstore in the world and on-line, but I always encourage readers to get their books from independent booksellers.
TZ: Although I suspect you’re busy right now launching Careless Love, it sounds like you also have a role in a new film (Agoraphobia). Can you share a few details about that?
SZ: Agoraphobia is an independent film being shot in Philadelphia, which is where I now live. The COVID pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt, and they’re just now starting to get rolling again. I don’t have the lead, but it’s a good part. If you look at my acting demo reel on my website you’ll notice that I tend to play not very likable characters and my Agoraphobia role is no different; he’s a remarkably evil person.
I don’t do stage work anymore, and most of the film work I do is with directors I’ve worked with in the past; it’s my forth film with the Agoraphobia director. I really love the work, and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great actors and directors in New York and Los Angeles, but I fear it’s beginning to become a very enjoyable, but not very profitable, hobby.