MysteryPeople Q&A with James Ziskin

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana 

James Ziskin’s latest Ellie Stone novel, Cast The First Stone, has the 1960s reporter traveling to Hollywood to interview a hometown boy done good by getting a part in the latest beach picture. When he goes missing and the producer ends up murdered, Eliie realizes she has a different story all together involving black mail, power, and the city’s underground gay community. Our Meike Alana got in touch with James to talk about the book and its subject matter.

Meike Alana: Cast the First Stone finds Ellie traveling to Los Angeles, but it’s not the sunny place she has always heard about–her visit coincides with an unusually dismal period of daily heavy rainfall. This is a vastly different setting than the last Ellie Stone book, which was set in an idyllic Adirondack lake-side resort during the dog days of summer.  What inspired the dramatic shift?

JWZ: I’ve always wanted to write a story about a failed actor from a small town. The expectations of the home town weigh heavily on his shoulders, and he is devastated by his failure. That’s the idea that sent Ellie Stone to Hollywood in February 1962. The dismal weather came about as I researched the book. I always look into the news stories of the day, and, by chance, I came across the heavy rains of February 1962. It rained for two weeks straight that month, including one day when 3.91 inches fell, and all Los Angeles public schools were closed. For rain. I incorporated the weather into the plot, which I think gives it some noirish atmosphere.

Another reason for the drastic shift in settings is that I like to make the Ellie Stone mysteries as different from one another as I realistically can. I don’t want them all to be structured the same way, either thematically or narratively. I like different settings, different places, different times of the year. And I like the crimes Ellie investigates to be different each time as well. Maybe someday I’ll write a mystery where no crime at all was actually committed.

MA: Ellie is one of my favorite fictional characters and I’m continually amazed and surprised by her many layers.  There’s a certain loneliness about her–she has no close family and really only one close friend–yet she doesn’t give into self-pity; she’s brave in spite of a certain level of insecurity typical of any young person; she chafes at the sexism she encounters on a daily basis but is smart enough not to allow that to hold her back in any way.  What was your inspiration for Ellie and how do you continue to develop and uncover new layers of her persona?

JWZ: I based Ellie on the best traits I admire in many women. And a couple of the worst traits as well. How dull a characters would be if they were perfect. Who doesn’t think Scarlett O’Hara is ultimately more interesting than Melanie Wilkes? So when I set out to create Ellie, I wanted to make her damaged by some personal tragedies, but never defeated. She is brave, as you say. On so many occasions, especially when confronted by angry, dangerous men, she is literally trembling in her boots. But nevertheless she perseveres. She never backs down, even if she is physically unimposing. Yes, Ellie has her foibles, which she readily acknowledges, but cowardice isn’t one of them. As for her development, we’re on a journey together, she and I. From book to book, she grows in ways that inspire and energize me as a writer. I see my better instincts in her character, and I try my best to follow them.

MA: What challenges do you face in writing in the first person as a young woman living in the 1960’s?

JWZ: There are many, of course. First, writing a first-person female narrator presents challenges at every turn. Have I struck the right tone? Are Ellie’s thoughts and actions believable? Have I unwittingly tripped over my own gender biases? And most important, have I dressed her properly? Just kidding.

Another obvious challenge is the historical perspective. Not only do I have to depict a believable and compelling time period, without anachronisms and present-day sensibilities, I must also tap into the spirit of those times. Attitudes, prejudices, and world views.

“I like to make the Ellie Stone mysteries as different from one another as I realistically can. I don’t want them all to be structured the same way, either thematically or narratively. I like different settings, different places, different times of the year. And I like the crimes Ellie investigates to be different each time as well. Maybe someday I’ll write a mystery where no crime at all was actually committed.”

MA: Each of the novels in your series is both an intricately plotted mystery and an analysis of an important social issue of the time. Your last book, Heart of Stone, placed Ellie among a group of Jewish intellectuals and features some great arguments about God and religion.  In Cast the First Stone, Ellie faces the homophobia of 1960’s Los Angeles and is forced to examine her own views on homosexuality–an issue that is still so important today.  Can you talk a little bit about your decision to make this a focus of this book?

JWZ: I do strive to include important social issues of the day in these books, and not for nothing. The 1960s were a period of intense social and political change. Everything from the Civil Rights Movement to feminism to the sexual revolution. In Cast the First Stone, I chose to deal with the heartbreaking tragedies of closeted gays in a time when discovery could spell ruin for a career, violence, ostracism, abandonment, and shame. Even jail. The daily struggle to hide one’s true self from the world just screamed for a part in this book. And it compounds the difficult of Ellie’s investigation. Everyone in the closeted gay Hollywood community is lying to her to protect their secrets. Even those who consider themselves her friends. It actually makes unreliable witnesses of virtually every character. And that makes for a tough mystery.

As for Ellie’s conflicted feelings in this book, I struggled mightily to strike an appropriate balance between the depiction of believable attitudes toward gays in the early 1960s and the needs of maintaining the likability of Ellie as a character. I couldn’t in good conscience give her an enlightened twenty-first-century mindset when it came to a lesbian making a pass at her. But at the same time, I wanted desperately to protect her as a character. Not give readers reason to hate her for her backward views, no matter how progressive she is for the early sixties. I did a lot a rewriting and soul-searching on that score, and I believe Ellie comes out of her fifth adventure better than ever for it.

MA: Your books are deeply evocative of the 1960’s.  Can you tell us a a little bit about your how you research the time period and the topics you address?

JWZ: I’ve spoken quite a bit in the past about getting the historical details right. And trying to replicate something of the Zeitgeist. Those are important to creating a believable sense of a different time. But I believe the most effective tools for conjuring the past are what I call my madeleines, the little cakes that Proust wrote about. The ones that unleashed a flood of remembrances of things past. In my stories, I pepper the narrative with everyday items that evoke the past by their very mention. Fiddling with the vertical and horizontal hold buttons on old televisions; sitting down to type on one of the first IBM Selectrics; dictating concise telegrams; pulling the choke knob when starting the car on a cold winter’s morning. These work like charms to transport readers to another time.

MA: You are a linguist by training, and that’s apparent in your lyrical writing style.  One can easily imagine that you would be a writer of poetry or linguistic history, but your chosen genre is mystery.  How did you hit upon that as your literary playground?

JWZ: Crime fiction, mysteries especially, are my favorite place to be. The variety of styles and sub-genres are enough to keep any reader entertained for a lifetime. The themes and puzzles provide both emotional and intellectual satisfaction. And I have no patience for people who dismiss this genre—or any other for matter. Why rain on someone else’s parade? Read and let read.

MA: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?  Plotter or pantser?  Home office or coffee shop/library?  Silence or background noise?

JWZ: I plot. I outline. Then I write. My outlines are not super detailed. I’m no Jeffery Deaver. But a good five pages’ worth of “this happens, then this, then that” keeps me on target during the writing stage. I never change the ending. At least I haven’t so far. I like to think that knowing the ending in advance helps focus every word along the way on reaching that ending honestly and without forcing. Every red herring, every clue leads to the resolution or to the putting off of the resolution. I believe that writing a novel of any kind is an exercise in delaying the ending for as long as possible in an entertaining manner.

I do all my writing on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard. That means I can write anywhere anytime. I write at home, in coffee shops, even with the cat on my lap. And while I write very easily to music, I need silence when editing.

MA: You’ve been nominated for a slew of awards including the Edgar, the Lefty, the Anthony, and the Barry.  Have the nominations led to feelings of increased pressure in your approach to writing?  Or does the critical acclaim lead to a more relaxed approach?

JWZ: I always feel pressure to write the best thing I can. Every time I sit down to work, so I wouldn’t say the mentions have increased the pressure. At the same time, the nominations certainly don’t relax me. I’m thrilled that my books have been recognized, but that also scares me a little. What if they find out I’m a fraud? What if this is all a dream? What if it goes to my head? Never mind. I’m doing what I love, what I’ve always wanted to do. And some people have felt my books were not bad. I’ll take that.

MA: What’s next for Ellie?  And will we see more of her best friend Fadge? (I’ve missed him!)

JWZ: Then you’re in for a treat. Ellie Stone six, A Stone’s Throw, out in June 2018, is Fadge’s book. He and Ellie team up to get to the bottom how a man and a woman came to die in barn fire on a derelict horse farm near Saratoga Springs. Fadge is, of course, an inveterate horseman, notorious plunger, and gambling addict. That makes him the perfect partner for Ellie as she navigates the (mineral) waters of Saratoga during the August 1962 thoroughbred meet.

MA: I always like to ask my favorite writers for reading recommendations.  Read anything great lately?

JWZ: Right now I’m reading Shannon Baker, Jess Lourey, and Jennifer Kincheloe. Each one unique and so talented. Three marvelous writers. And notice that they’re all crime writers.

You can find copies of Cast the First Stone on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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