MysteryPeople Q&A with James W. Ziskin

Heart Of Stone is the latest in James Ziskin’s series featuring early 1960s “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. James will be joining his fellow Seventh Street author Mark Pryor at a BookPeople signing this Saturday, August 20th at 6PM. Our Meike Alana got some early questions in.

 

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: The Ellie Stone novels are written in the first person, and you write a very convincing female in her early 20’s. How did you develop that voice?

James W. Ziskin: I try to imagine a fully developed character in Ellie. Her thoughts, aspirations, loves, hates. Her joys and pains. Simply describing what she’s doing from chapter to chapter doesn’t cut it, even if her behavior happens to be believable to the reader. That makes for a cardboard-thin character, flat and, ultimately, uninteresting. Instead, I want to climb inside Ellie’s head and create a fully formed character and, by extension, a voice. So how do I get inside Ellie? I mine those emotions I mentioned above. I imagine how she would feel and react in certain situations. Would she keep quiet, mouth off, or feel defeated? What would she say to a man dismissing her as “just a girl”? What would she do if he patted her rear end? What kind of man would she find attractive? Irresistible? Contemptible? It’s hard to do, of course. If you’re truly going to hang flesh on the bones of your character, be she a woman or a man, you need more than just a physical description and a couple of quirks or mannerisms. You need to empathize with your characters. Understand them, think them through. Make them complex, multidimensional, dense, and deep. Give them weight. And once you’ve done that, the voice will come.

“If you’re truly going to hang flesh on the bones of your character, be she a woman or a man, you need more than just a physical description and a couple of quirks or mannerisms. You need to empathize with your characters. Understand them, think them through. Make them complex, multidimensional, dense, and deep. Give them weight. And once you’ve done that, the voice will come.”

 

MA: Ellie is a really complex character – her maturity belies her youth; she’s smart yet impulsive; liberated yet romantic. What’s your favorite aspect of the character?

JWZ: I love just about everything about Ellie, even her missteps. And she certainly makes her fair share of missteps. Ellie is clearly a very intelligent woman. A hard-working, ambitious woman. And dangerously witty. But the trait I admire most about her – the thing that best defines her character – is her morality. You could call it her honesty, too. Everything she does in life is governed by her moral compass, even when her compass points her toward danger.

MA:  Fadge is one of my favorite characters – he’s a great foil for Ellie. Will he perhaps start playing a more significant role in future outings?

JWZ: Fadge is, in my mind, Watson to Ellie’s Holmes. She bounces ideas off him, confides in him, relies on him. He was a rock for her when she needed him most, prompting her to proclaim, “I’ve loved that fat guy ever since.” (See Styx & Stone.) And, yes, he’s quite a large rock: 6’2″ and tipping the scales at about 300 pounds. His size serves him well for his role as Ellie’s sometime protector. Remember that she’s prone to getting herself into scrapes, she’s rather small, and not about to beat up anyone. But most significant, of course, is that Fadge is in love with Ellie, his curly-haired neighbor from across the street. For all of these reasons, Fadge will continue to be a force in the Ellie Stone books going forward. Some of her cases, though, will take her away from New Holland, and Fadge may not follow every time. But you’ll be glad to know that in Heart of Stone he makes an appearance during Ellie’s Adirondack vacation, and together they rattle some cages. That part was lots of fun to write.

MA: You do a great job of capturing the attitude and setting of the ’60’s. How did you research that?

JWZ: There’s lots of research that goes into these books. Sometimes, in fact, the research can bog me down. I have to resist the temptation of falling down a rabbit hole and wasting hours trying to find out exactly what a roll of black-and-white film cost in 1961. That particular search led me to old issues of Popular Science and even more time-suck reading the fascinating articles.

Generally, my research involves reading lots of old newspapers, exploring the ads, watching period television show and movies, and listening to music from the era. I also have some memories from a time not too distant from the one in these books. I remember bench seats in cars, the taste of Creamsicles, Keds, the Northeast Blackout of 1965… I use subtle little references – sparingly – to evoke the period. Things of a bygone era such as pipe cleaners, party-lines, iceboxes, crackling AM radio, and useless vertical hold buttons on television sets. These details can be powerful talismans of nostalgia when placed strategically in the story.

But capturing the attitudes and spirit of the times is a little trickier. People viewed the world differently back then for a multitude of reasons. Maybe they were less spoiled or more conservative or desperate to keep up with the Joneses. They’d experienced the collective trauma of World War II. They’d only just embraced television and frozen dinners and washing machines. Colonialism was ending, new nations were born, and revolutions were yet to come. It wasn’t the world we know today. And of course there was plenty of sexism and prejudice. Let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everybody. Women had their place. Minorities had their place. And white men had theirs. Have you noticed how many ads in the 1950s portrayed men spanking their wives? Sure, it’s all good fun until she burns dinner, then look out. So, yes, I do make liberal use of less-enlightened attitudes to set the scene in my books. That gives Ellie plenty of conflict to deal with every day at work and at play. And that makes for interesting stories.

“But capturing the attitudes and spirit of the times is a little trickier. People viewed the world differently back then for a multitude of reasons. Maybe they were less spoiled or more conservative or desperate to keep up with the Joneses. They’d experienced the collective trauma of World War II. They’d only just embraced television and frozen dinners and washing machines. Colonialism was ending, new nations were born, and revolutions were yet to come. It wasn’t the world we know today. And of course there was plenty of sexism and prejudice. Let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everybody.”

MA:  Your background is in linguistics – how has that influenced your writing style?

JWZ: I studied Romance languages and literature in college and graduate school. And there was a lot of linguistics mixed in. Those disciplines influenced my writing style mainly by exposing me to so many centuries of great literature in their original languages. French, Italian, and Spanish. The linguistics helped me to think more about language in general. I love parsing sentences and digging deep into the meaning of words. I love grammar, both the everyday, internal grammar we all share (more or less), as well as the schoolmarm variety. Syntax, morphology, philology, it all fascinates me. I wish I knew more. And I learned so much about English by studying and teaching foreign languages. So I would say that my studies have had a great effect on my writing and have enhanced my love of words and stories.

You can find copies of Ziskin’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, August 20th, at 6 PM for a panel discussion with Mark Pryor and James Ziskin, speaking and signing The Paris Librarian and Heart of Stone, respectively. 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s