James W. Ziskin has created an engaging character with Sixties-era “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. The series takes a subtle look at its historical period; in particular, Ziskin uses Ellie Stone’s character to expose sexism in the male dominated town she works in. Before James joins us for the Seventh Street panel on Saturday, June 20th, he was kind enough to take a pre-grilling about his latest book, Stone Cold Dead, and what it’s like to deal with a Sixties setting.
MysteryPeople: You have Ellie looking into the disappearance of a teenage girl and she interviews many of her peers. What did you want to explore about that age?
James W. Ziskin: Teenage passions, angst, love, rebellion. The whole gamut of intense adolescent emotions. These feelings are real and extremely potent, but teens are usually not prepared to deal with them. It’s hard enough for adults. But when you’re little more than a child, it’s a melee going on inside your head and a jamboree in your body. Conflicts with parents, pressure from peers, hormones, budding sexuality. A very vulnerable time of life. And, of course, there are those who would exploit that vulnerability. For some kids, it’s a dangerous time as well.
MP: What does a writer have to keep in mind about dealing with that age?
JWZ: I think we should remember what we were like at that age. How headstrong and insecure at the same time. We were certain of our convictions, and there was no room for compromise. And our first love. How powerful and crazy and undisciplined it was. We spend most of our lives trying to control our emotions, learning how to be a proper, well behaved person. Maybe adolescence is the last stand of purity of heart and innocence. I tried to keep all of that in mind when writing Stone Cold Dead.
MP:It seems that next to the Civil War, or World War II, the sixties are the other period our culture always wants to experience. What do you think draws us to that period?
JWZ:That’s a good question, but I’m not sure I know why. I can’t speak for the Civil War buffs, but for the sixties, it may be that as the huge generation of baby boomers age, they look back with nostalgia at the years of their youth. That’s more than 70 million Americans who were born or grew up in the early sixties. It might also be because the sixties were such a period of change. You had everything necessary for a good story: sex, the Cold War, great music, and tail fins on cars. What’s not to love?
And the early sixties bridged the old and the new. The conservative, prosperous fifties of Eisenhower and the raucous, modern world of the late sixties and seventies. Jet travel was new and exciting. Modern superhighways and electric appliances made life easier in quaint, naive ways when considered next to today’s mad, connected world.
MP:What is the biggest misconception of the time?
JWZ:That the world was innocent and safe. A nice place, a better time. That nice girls didn’t have sex. In 1961, the sexual revolution was still a few years away, but we shouldn’t forget either that Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and The Single Girl came out in 1962. It’s a safe bet that there were many “modern girls” like Ellie Stone at that time. I think the mystery writer Cathy Ace said it best about Stone Cold Dead: “Revel in the early ’60s nostalgia, but throw away the rose-tinted specs.
MP:You’re one of the few authors who has, at least on the surface, little in common with your protagonist. How do you approach this challenge?
JWZ: With great caution. My protagonist is a mid-twenties woman of liberal — some might say libertine — sensibilities. I, on the other hand, am a man of a certain age. But Ellie and I share what’s important at the core of a character: values, sense of humor, honesty, and morality. And a fondness for Dewar’s Scotch. She’s smarter than I am by half, better organized, and better looking. I’m taller.
I approach the writing of Ellie from the perspective of an admirer and a co-conspirator. She’s endowed with the best qualities I’ve observed in the women I admire. Intelligence, determination, a wicked wit, and a playfulness that has survived the tragedies of her life. I’ve learned a lot about empathy writing a female narrator, and I hope I’ve achieved some measure of success in painting her complex character.
MP:You set a lot of challenges for Ellie, not only with the plots, but in the place and time she exists. Have you ever had trouble working her way out of a situation?
JWZ: Ellie bumps her head against male condescension, bias, and boorishness every single day of her career. I’m amazed when people tell me that things weren’t that hard for a working woman in 1960. It was a constant struggle. Ellie is underestimated and under-appreciated at every turn. And that’s just in the office. She’s also feisty and occasionally reckless in her pursuit of a story. That sometimes lands her in trouble with the wrong people. Ellie’s not going to punch her way out of a jam; she’s rather small and physically unimposing. She doesn’t carry a gun and wouldn’t know how to use one if she did. So she must get by on her wits and her charm. Ellie may not be able to beat up the men who threaten her, but she’ll fight like a hellcat to protect herself.
You can find copies of Stone Cold Dead on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. James Ziskin joins us this Saturday, June 20th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. He will be speaking and signing with two other authors from Seventh Street Books, Mark Pryor and Terry Shames.