One Man’s Manic High Helped Him Write A Novel

Poison Pen is an offbeat look at American popular culture in a tale of redemption. The plot surrounds Jerry Most, the suicidal, acidic host of a death-defying game show. The book explores themes of life, death, and the deeper meaning of ’60s television shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Bill Zaferos has a book signing at Boswell Books Company on July 2, at 7pm. For more information, visit

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Lake Effect Podcast

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Our Project Milwaukee series wraps up with how a region-wide water management plan could have significant impacts on the area’s clean water supply. Later, we learn about the positive gardening spin that comes from our anemic Spring weather.Bubbler Talk unearths the truth behind the smell that wafts over the Hoan Bridge, plus we learn how a period of bipolar mania fueled a new novel by Bill Zaferos.


  • Jenny Kehl, UWM School of Freshwater Sciences associate professor & Global Water Security Scholar
  • Melinda Myers, gardening contributor
  • Bubbler Talk (series)
  • Bill Zaferos, author, Poison Pen

Milwaukee’s ‘Poison Pen’ Novelist at the Marcus Center

BY DAVID LUHRSSEN | MAY 07, 2019 | 11:25 A.M. | View on website

Bill Zaferos’ novel Poison Pen is funny—outrageously so, as its misanthropic protagonist from small-town Wisconsin stumbles from disaster into catastrophe after encountering the host of a TV game show whose maniacal premise involves daring its participants to risk their lives for cash and prizes.

One good thing about the protagonist: like his author, he loves Kurt Vonnegut. “That influence came through as a characteristic of Poison Pen’s protagonist. It’s so much a part of me that I decided to make it part of the character as a kind of homage to Vonnegut’s oeuvre,” says Zaferos, a Milwaukee writer who spent most of his career in journalism.

Not unlike Vonnegut’s novels, Poison Pen is written in short bursts of humor and runs on a spectrum from puckish to vitriolic. “The relationship between me and the protagonist is complicated,” Zaferos says. He is its author on a really bad day, fused with “people I’ve known who have a rather dour view of the human condition. I made his gripes about life as kind of an over-sized version of a person who’s had enough—who just wants to be left alone to watch ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ drink beer and eat cheese sticks.”

Poison Pen paints a venomous panorama of a dead-to-the-world Wisconsin burg, the fictional Hammertown, whose reason for existence all but ended circa 1980 when the hammer industry moved offshore. Little wonder the game show hosted by Jerry Most is so popular among the town’s inhabitants, who find little reason to live. “It wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with that character,” Zaferos says, explaining that he’s a composite. “Game show hosts always seemed to hold more esteem, given their somewhat more limited contributions to society than, say, an ER nurse or a teacher.”

Bill Zaferos will discuss Poison Pen at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Rehearsal Hall A, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $29 with proceeds going to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Stingl: Milwaukee novelist who wrote on a manic high is putting the focus on mental illness

Jim Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 11:44 a.m. CT April 23, 2019

The stunningly honest author biography of Bill Zaferos’ new novel begins this way:
“Bill Zaferos is a first-time author and writer who managed to channel his mental illness into creativity by writing ‘Poison Pen’ during a manic high.”

The words flowed out of him for three months as he huddled over a vintage Mac computer in his basement, often well into the night while self-medicating with wine and grooving to Bruce Springsteen and The Who.

Out poured the wild story of a rich and caustic game show host who hits the road to find himself and winds up in a miserable northern Wisconsin town populated by weird characters.

Did all that feverish late-night key pounding lead to a story that makes sense?

“What’s remarkable to me is that it holds together. There are parts of this that I don’t remember writing. I was a man on a mission,” said Zaferos, 60, a former newspaper reporter and public relations man who lives in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

HenschelHaus Publishing in Milwaukee agreed with his assessment and took on the book. It will launch May 15 as a fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Milwaukee at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. It starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a VIP reception at 5:30. Tickets are $30.

Zaferos will read from “Poison Pen” and take questions from Marcus Center President Paul Mathews and the audience. Everyone present will receive a copy of the book, which also becomes available that day on Amazon.

Zaferos is going public with his personal pain to help lift the stigma and stereotypes of mental illness, in his case bipolar disorder. Bringing it up can make people uncomfortable and eager to change the subject. 

“I made a conscious decision that I need to tell my story because there are people out there like me who don’t know what to do. They know something is wrong, but they don’t seek help because they don’t know if that would do any good,” he told me.

A 2017 article on the NAMI website cites the work of neurologist Alice W. Flaherty that found heightened dopamine during mania stimulates creativity. This is believed to have fueled the work of many artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher and Kurt Cobain. 

“I’m living proof that there is an aspect of it. It’s how it manifested itself in me,” Zaferos said.

He first noticed the swings from low to high during his days studying journalism and political science at UW-Madison. He traces the first time to a rejection letter he received from the Grand Rapids newspaper during a job search.

“I just sunk into this incredible depression. This went on for years. I would sink into these horrible depressions, but I would also go through these highs where I’d just be a good time Charlie. I just figured that was me, that’s how I was,” he said.

This is what his longtime friend, Jerry Stockfisch, thought, too. “Looking back, there were a lot of hints and indications that things might not have been right with Bill. It was just Bill being Bill, but he needed help,” he said.

During one manic period in 2002, Zaferos overheated his credit card by following Springsteen to 17 shows all across the U.S. Stockfisch darkly called it the Bill Zaferos bankruptcy tour.

By then, Zaferos had already written “Poison Pen.” That happened in 2000, but he put the book on a shelf for 16 years before mustering the courage to show it to friends and fellow writers. The reaction was positive enough to send him in search of a publisher.

Zaferos saw a psychiatrist and therapists for years, but he didn’t admit to his bipolar diagnosis until sinking frighteningly low about six years ago. He found the right mix of prescription drugs to achieve the balance he craved.

“I don’t miss the highs, and I don’t miss the lows,” he said.

And he has learned that he can write without the help of manic energy. Zaferos is working full time on his second novel.

Contact Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or Follow him at Facebook or on Twitter @columnboy.

“Night for NAMI” Poison Ben Book Launch

Welcome to the Poison Pen website!

Prepare to meet a suicidal game show host, a dour television junkie and poison pen letter writer who loves beer, cheese sticks, and Pinky Lee, the muse and bane of every man she encounters.

Along the way you’ll meet some drunken baboons, Billie the Kangaroo, and a few mangy stray dogs named Buster and Peewee as the author entertains questions of life, death and the deeper meaning of The Beverly Hillbillies.

The book was written in about three months while author Bill Zaferos, who is bipolar, was on a manic high. Wheee!

Please join us on Wednesday, May 15 to meet the author, hear him read from the book and answer questions during an interview and audience Q&A. All proceeds for the event, “A Night for NAMI: Poison Pen Book Launch,” will go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Milwaukee.

The event will be held at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

A 5:30 p.m. VIP reception with signed books, drinks, food and, of course, the author will be $125. The interview and audience Q&A section will begin at 7 p.m. and cost is $30. Both events include a signed copy of the book.

Tickets are available beginning April 2 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts website:

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                          CONTACT
BILL ZAFEROS, AUTHOR, (414) 737-9103


Bipolar Author Bill Zaferos Channeled Mental Illness Into Creativity By Writing About A Suicidal Game Show Host Seeking Redemption on a Cross-Country Odyssey

(Milwaukee, WI) – Author Bill Zaferos did not know he was suffering from bipolar disorder when he wrote his first novel, Poison Pen, in 2000. All he knew was that the title popped into his head and he became driven to write day and night until the novel was completed.

The plot of Poison Pen centers on Jerry Most, the acerbic host of the game show Die Trying, in which contestants perform death-defying acts to win fabulous prizes. The dangerous stunts never really work but the highly popular show gives Most riches beyond his belief. Still, his wealth isn’t enough to keep him happy and he sinks into a dangerous depression. Seeking solace on a cross-country trip during the show’s summer hiatus, he winds up in Hammertown, a miserable Wisconsin burg, where he decides to end it all while getting drunk in a local bar.

It is in the Hammertown jail that he meets the protagonist, a beer-drinking, cheese-stick eating misanthrope who makes a subsistence living writing poison pen letters for hire. Along the way Most also meets a cast of characters that includes a kangaroo, drunken baboons and Pinky Lee, the muse and bane of every man she meets.

Called a “brilliant tour de force” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Peele, Poison Pen is a tale of redemption that offers an off-beat look at American culture as well as life, death and the deeper meaning of ‘60s television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies.

About the Author

Bill Zaferos is a first-time author and writer who managed to channel his mental illness into creativity by writing Poison Pen during a manic high. He wrote the novel in a few months and then left it on a closet shelf for 15 years before allowing friends and family to read it. With their encouragement, Zaferos finally sought publication of the novel and, well, here it is.

Zaferos is a former newspaper political reporter, political consultant and public relations and advertising executive. He grew up an asthmatic kid who watched a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s television, and he especially loved the original “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone” and the Watergate hearings.

Zaferos is a journalism and political science graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he received his M.A. at Marquette University. He lives in downtown Milwaukee – not the suburbs – with his wife, Tracey Carson.