James Ziskin is the author of the Anthony-, Barry-, and Lefty-nominated Ellie Stone Mysteries. A linguist by training, James studied Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his graduate degree, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as Director of NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. He has since spent fifteen years in the Hollywood post production industry, running large international operations in the subtitling/localization and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French.
Reading Room: The 1960s setting of the Ellie Stone books is so seamlessly entwined in the stories, never appearing forced or gratuitous. I was amazed at the inclusion of so many 60s connections, both large and small, such as the building of the Berlin Wall; the John Bircher; types of clothing, like blue seersucker dress. How do you go about deciding what to include and achieving this natural flow of authenticity? What forms of research help you become ensconced in this time period?
JWZ: Everything in good measure. I think the key to setting the scene properly is to do huge amounts of research, then use only a tiny fraction in the actual story. The effort that goes into research should be felt by the author, never by the reader. As a writer, I have to know which details to use in the book. It's tempting to add every historical nugget you unearth, but the danger is that you'll create a book that stinks of research.
When I'm preparing a new Ellie Stone novel, I study old newspapers, television shows, movies, and popular music. I also find great details in period advertising. Some of the clothing I describe comes from the 1959 Sears Catalog or print ads from women's magazines. But the best way to create that nostalgic impression is to sprinkle the story lightly with normal, everyday objects that communicate the time period succinctly and believably. For example, in STONE COLD DEAD, there's a scene where Ellie is forced to wait to make phone call until the woman hogging the party line hangs up. Maybe I'll put a skate key in some future book. And who remembers pipe cleaners, Vitalis, telegrams, horizontal hold, and shortwave radios? Today, most people don't even know what those things are, but they were in wide use in 1960 when the Ellie Stone books take place. Recreating people's attitudes and mores is a little trickier, of course. But it comes from copious preparation and judicious use of what you find.
Reading Room: Of course, the elephant in the room has to be that you are a male writing from a female perspective. How do you pull that off so brilliantly?
JWZ: First of all, thank you. It's hard work. From the time I first started planning this series, I've tried to imagine a fully developed character in Ellie. I've asked myself what does she think, what are her aspirations, loves, hates. What brings her joy? What breaks her heart? I imagine how she would feel and react in certain situations. And I challenge my ideas over and over. Would she keep her mouth shut, offer a witty retort, or feel defeated? What would she say to a man dismissing her as "just a girl"? What if he pinched her rear end? What does she like to do in her spare time? If you're truly going to write three-dimensional characters, you need more than just a dress size and some idiosyncrasies. I believe it's about true empathy. You've got to want to understand your characters, or they won't ring true.
Reading Room: Speaking of your female protagonist, how did you decide on this particular character as the focus of a mystery series? Is there anything about Ellie is drawn from your own life? What do you like most about her?
JWZ: I set out to create a likable, "modern" woman who wants a turn at the table at a time when women weren't usually welcome at the table. I envisioned Ellie as the smartest person in any room, but the one who gets the least respect due to her gender. That situation fuels drama and conflict at every turn. And that makes for interesting stories.
On the surface, it wouldn't seem that Ellie shares a lot of traits with me. She's in her midtwenties, I'm... well, I'm a little older. She's a woman, and I'm a man. But I believe we share what's most important in a person: values. We're both idealists and cynics at the same time. We both care for those less fortunate than ourselves. And we both love Dewar's Scotch whiskey.
What I like most about Ellie is her moral fortitude. Despite her "modern" behavior, Ellie is an uncompromisingly moral person. She's good. I'm fond of saying that she's a nice person; she's just not a "nice girl."
Reading Room: Something that comes up about Ellie’s character is her often heavy drinking and her sexual freedom. Unlike some readers, I don’t find the drinking aspect of her life that unusual for the times. Many women of the fifties and sixties were drinkers, as were the men, as aptly portrayed in the TV series Mad Men. Ellie’s enjoyment of sex is also in character with her being in the forefront of the sixties’ women’s freedom revolution. How important was it to you to include these parts of Ellie’s character that seem to be potential trouble for her?
JWZ: If readers are looking for Miss Goody-two-shoes, they won't like Ellie. But if you want multifaceted, imperfect characters who sometimes are brilliant, sometimes maddeningly intemperate, then Ellie's for you. I wanted to create a character whom readers would care about. That doesn't mean they always have to approve. Think of friends and family. We love them for their good qualities, but we don't disown them for falling short of an ideal. At least we shouldn't. People get up to all kinds of naughtiness behind closed doors, Ellie included. She's normal that way. I hope readers will cut her some slack and wish the best for her even when she misbehaves.
Reading Room: One of these books’ outstanding attributes is the beautiful flow of language, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering your background. However, you are especially adept at describing without belaboring and making the reader identify with a feeling. I thought that nowhere has anyone ever captured more perfectly the ambivalent feelings of both serenity and terror of the woods than you did in HEART OF STONE. The opening page of this book had me completely hooked. Did you already have a familiarity with the woods or should I imagine you taking hikes through the Adirondacks for this book? Also, I’m curious if you write descriptions as you go, or if you perhaps write descriptions separate to be used in certain areas of the books?
JWZ: Wow. Thank you, Kathy. It's interesting that you cite that passage at the opening of HEART OF STONE. My editor told me that he loved it but didn't know where to put it. Should it be a prologue? Should it open chapter one? Should we kill it despite our affection for it? I'm not generally partial to prologues, though I'm not rabidly opposed to them either. But I thought that bit about the woods was short enough to stand on its own with no heading just before chapter one. I'm fortunate that my editor, the incomparable Dan Mayer, ultimately left the decision to me. That is he didn't overrule me. That kind of trust is comforting to a writer. And I think it might be rare.
I grew up just south of the Adirondack park in upstate New York, and I vacationed there several summers. So I know and love the north woods, even if I'm not very outdoorsy. Today I refer myself as a "great indoorsman." I relied on my memories of the Adirondacks for the descriptions in HEART OF STONE.
As for the descriptive passages, I write linearly, from the beginning of the story to the end. So I create these passages in the normal course of the writing.
Reading Room: The titles of the books in this series are all so cleverly related to Ellie’s Stone last name. Can you tell us what the next one is and what others you have names for so far? Do you ever envision a book in this series without Stone in the title?
JWZ: Next up for Ellie in summer of 2017 is CAST THE FIRST STONE. It will be set in February 1962. Ellie is dispatched to Los Angeles to write a feature on local boy Tony Eberle who's landed a role in a Hollywood movie. But when she arrives on set the first day of shooting to meet him, he's nowhere to be found. The film's director is furious, Tony's agent is speechless, and the producer is dead...
After CAST THE FIRST STONE, I've got A STONE'S THROW, set in the thoroughbred racing world of Saratoga in August. Then BLOOD FROM A STONE, ETCHED IN STONE, SINK LIKE A STONE, and perhaps TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE. The titles get a little thin after that. So if readers still want more of Ellie, I may need to try a different tack for the titles.
Reading Room: James, you have some impressive credentials in the linguistic world, as outlined in the bio above. You seem like the perfect Renaissance man, and yet, you chose a genre of mystery and crime in which to write your stories, not poetry or tomes on histories of language. What got you interested in this wonderful world of mystery, which does seem to draw so many intellectuals to it.
JWZ: I'm no Renaissance man, though I do speak Italian. I suppose what drew me to mysteries is that I find them entertaining. There's no excuse for books to be boring. They can be intelligent, dense, and beautifully written, all the while entertaining their audience. Graham Greene, one of my all-time favorite writers, used to call his thrillers "entertainments," as opposed to his more "serious" works. I see no shame in describing a book as entertainment. Those are amazing books he wrote. I'm proud to write mysteries, crime fiction, thrillers, whatever you want to call them. But I strive to make them intelligent and interesting to read at the same time.
Reading Room: The particular setting in HEART OF STONE in which there is a large Jewish community presence reminded me of a question I had in the beginning of the series. There isn’t often an emphasis on a character’s religion in the mystery/crime genre, although there does seem to be more atheists, if anything, mentioned, and there is atheism in Heart of Stone. Not that Ellie is deeply religious or observant of her Jewish faith or heritage, but why did you choose this particular characteristic to assign to her? It hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem for her, not like being a woman reporter has, but it can’t have been easy for a Jewish woman either in the early sixties.
JWZ: Ellie comes from a very humanistic, cultured Jewish family with a long history of secularism. I thought it would be normal or logical that she would be raised "godless" by her parents. But she definitely identifies as Jewish culturally, which makes her more of an outsider. Not a member of the majority.
Despite her own atheism, Ellie leaves God and religion to others to decide for themselves. There's a great argument about God and religion in HEART OF STONE among the residents of the Jewish community you mention. And Ellie very determinedly stays out of it.
I would add that Ellie occasionally encounters anti-Semitism in these books. It's a fairly strong theme in STYX & STONE and rears its head in some of the local populace of New Holland, New York, in NO STONE UNTURNED and STONE COLD DEAD. And then there's Chief "Tiny" Terwillger's less-than-enlightened views on Jews in HEART OF STONE. But you're right, Ellie doesn't spend much time dwelling on this prejudice. I believe she feels the bigotry is more a problem for the bigot than for her, at least in 1960s America. She would have felt otherwise had she lived in Europe in 1930s and '40s.
Reading Room: I’ve already read that the reason you chose to take Ellie on the road somewhere is that you didn’t think the small town of New Holland, New York, where she is a newspaper reporter would sustain murder after murder. Does this move indicate that Ellie will be travelling to other locations as well?
JWZ: Yes and no. As I mentioned, CAST THE FIRST STONE will take place in Los Angeles. But others can be nearby. Saratoga, Albany, or Schenectady are all close enough to supply some opportunities for murder. I just can't picture New Holland as Murder Capital USA.
Reading Room: With #4, HEART OF STONE, coming out on June 7th, and your previous books in this series having been nominated (and still being nominated) for awards, can you breathe a sigh of relief that your series is a success? At what point did you feel like Ellie Stone had a substantial fan base, which, of course, it does?
JWZ: I can confidently say that I have not yet reached the point where I consider myself a successful writer. It's a lifelong journey. The best career I can imagine, but I know that it's an ever-evolving process. Yes, I do believe I'm improving as a writer with each book, but that doesn't mean any of the recognition is expected. The nominations are amazing! There are so many wonderful, deserving writers and books in our field. It's so hard to get noticed, so I know I've been lucky. Each one of my four nominations has sent me over the moon. But I still have self-doubt and sometimes wonder what the hell people are thinking when they vote for my books.
Reading Room: And, there are the fantastic covers for the Ellie Stone series, with my favorite being this last one for HEART OF STONE. Not every author has input concerning this aspect of their books, but you do. Can you tell us a bit about how that works?
JWZ: My publisher, Prometheus/Seventh Street Books, doesn't exactly let us choose our covers, but they do consult us. They ask if we have ideas for the cover, then they show us some options that they've come up with. The decision is ultimately theirs (by contract.) But at least we get to give some input.
The case of the HEART OF STONE cover was different. For some reason, the publisher just wasn't finding that perfect image for the cover. They tried several ideas that didn't quite work. Then we found an image of a dock on a mountain lake. There was an empty woman's bathing suit discarded on the planks and a splash in the water at the end of the dock. All of that fit the storyline of HEART OF STONE, including the nude bathing. With a few tweaks in Photoshop (quite a lot of work, actually) by the art department, we had a beautiful cover.
Reading Room: I always like to know what my favorite authors are reading, besides their own manuscripts. So, what’s on your nightstand for pleasure reading these days, James?
JWZ: My TBR pile is huge. It's hard to find the time to read when you're on deadline. And it seems you're either on deadline for the next book or promoting the last one. I recently finished GUILTY MINDS by Joseph Finder, whose Nick Heller is a great character. I'm also reading DECANTING A MURDER by Nadine Nettmann. Wine and murder. What could be a better pairing? And THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney. He's a brilliant writer. Did I mention that he's been nominated in the same category with me for the Anthony, Barry, and Lefty awards this year? Why am I plugging his book???
Reading Room: And now, for one of my favorite questions I ask authors. What would you like your readers to know about you that isn’t in your bio information? Besides your obvious writing talent, any special interests or talents, quirky or not, you’d like to share?
JWZ: I'd rather remain an enigma... But, okay. I was recruited to play football at the University of Pennsylvania, but I quit the team after one week because "I wanted to have fun in college."