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

MysteryPeople Review: CAST THE FIRST STONE by James W. Ziskin

  • Review by MysteryPeople Contributor and Mystery Maven Meike Alana

9781633882812Cast the First Stone is the latest installment in James Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series featuring newspaper reporter Ellie Stone.  Ziskin joins us here at the store to speak and sign his new installment in the series on August 26th, when he’ll be appearing with another favorite from Seventh Street Books, Mark Pryor. 

Ellie’s bosses may sometimes assign her the fluff pieces, but as Ziskin’s latest begins, Ellie lands an assignment sure to be interesting throughout. For once the paper’s publisher has a meaty story for her to cover—the New Holland Republic is going to send her to Los Angeles to profile local hero Tony Eberle; the actor has just landed his first starring movie role in the latest beach-themed Hollywood blockbuster.  But when Ellie arrives on the studio set to interview her subject, he doesn’t show up for filming and is promptly fired from the production.   

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Congrats to the Edgar Award Nominees!!!

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We were happy to see many of our favorite books and authors nominated for this years MWA Edgar Awards. Many of the books that made it into our Top  10 lists of the year, like Reed Farrel Coleman’s lyrical noir Where It Hurts and Alison Gaylin’s tale of celebricide What Remains Of Me, made the cut. Two of our favorite debuts of the year, Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow (a tale of sisterly revenge) and Joe Ide’s IQ (an imaginative take on Sherlock Holmes, set in South Central LA), made the list for best first novel.

This may be the first year of mother-daughter nominees, with Patricia Abbott up for Best Paperback Original for Shot in Detroit and Megan Abbott up for Best Short Story for her contribution to Mississippi Noir. Some of out favorite anthologies, including Mississippi Noir, St. Louis Noir, and In Sunlight Or In Shadow: Stories Inspired By The Painting Of Edward Hopper had at least one story nominated for Best Short Story.

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Researching the Not-Too-Distant Past: Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

James W. Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mysteries have become one of our favorite series here at the store, and we’re pleased to say that James will be joining us in person on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his latest, Heart of Stone. He’ll be joined by Terry Shames and Melissa Lenhardt for a panel discussion on small town mysteries. 

Researching The Not-Too-Distant Past

  • Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

I write the Ellie Stone Mysteries, a series of traditional whodunnits with hints of noir set in the early 1960s. Readers often ask me about the research necessary when writing stories that take place in the past. I always say the research is one of the most rewarding and frightening aspects of writing historicals, especially ones set in the not-too-distant past. Rewarding why? Because it’s fun to immerse yourself in another era, to reflect on what people did, how they did it, and what they were wearing when they did it. But for me, the rewards of recreating a believable past come with the fear of getting some historical detail wrong. And having some gleeful know-it-all point out the error for all to see. That’s enough to keep me on my toes.

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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.”

 

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MysteryPeople Review: HEART OF STONE by James Ziskin

Review by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

9781633881839In James W. Ziskin’s latest Ellie Stone mystery, Heart of Stone, our heroine is enjoying a lazy August holiday in an Adirondack cabin belonging to her aunt. One morning, two men are found dead just a few feet away from a tranquil lake—they appear to have fallen from a treacherous cliff. The police treat the deaths as an unfortunate accident, but for Ellie things don’t quite add up—the two men apparently didn’t know one another, and a station wagon belonging to neither was found a few feet from where the men must have fallen. So why did they die together?

In true Ellie fashion, she sticks her nose where it isn’t wanted—encountering a colorful cast of characters with loose morals, zealous political views, and secret romances. She’s tough, smart, and sassy—and can hold her Scotch with the best of them—but her heart may be at risk when she becomes involved with a fellow vacationer. And as she delves deeper into the mysterious deaths, more than her heart may be in peril. The plot has plenty of convolutions with a supremely satisfying ending.

Ellie is one of my favorite characters in the genre. Her intelligence and fearlessness belie her youth. She’s at once vulnerable yet self-assured, intelligent yet impulsive, liberated yet yearning for a romantic connection. But what really sets Ziskin’s books apart is the poetry of his writing—a linguist by training, he excels at poetic and evocative descriptions of the fascinating characters and the nostalgic 1960’s upstate New York setting. Previous installments in the Ellie Stone series are: Styx & Stone; No Stone Unturned (an Anthony Award nominee for Best Paperback Original); and Stone Cold Dead (a 2016 Left Coast Crime “Lefty” Award nominee for Best World Mystery Novel).

Heart of Stone comes out today! You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Mark Pryor

The Reluctant Matador, Mark Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, has our head of security at the US embassy in Paris on an Iberian adventure as he heads to Spain to track down a friend’s missing daughter.  In the process, he makes adversaries of some unsavory folks in the sex trafficking industry, as well as gaining aid from his usual colorful cast of underworld characters. Mark will be joining two of his fellow authors from Seventh Street Books, James W. Ziskin and Terry Shames, this Saturday at 7PM. Mark was kind enough to take an initial interrogation from us via e-mail.

MysteryPeople: It’s been awhile since Hugo was involved in a adventure that was personal from the outset. What do you have to keep in mind when he knows the victim?

Mark Pryor: Yes, throughout the series I’ve tried to test Hugo in different ways, put him in new situations and only with The Bookseller was his quest personal. This time, I think you’re right, it’s even more so. The obvious concern is him losing perspective, that Hugo will go charging ahead and risk alienating people who could help him, and maybe risk putting himself (and therefore the girl he’s trying to find) in danger. The thing I like about Hugo and his cohort Tom is that Tom is the fired-up engine, the hot-head who wants to go in with guns blazing. Putting Hugo into more of that role was fun but, interestingly, he pushed back a little. That sounds silly, maybe, but in writing the book it was clear to me that Hugo taking this personally didn’t result in him acting recklessly, but rather verbalizing his frustrations. And here’s how he handled it: Hugo usually rescues Tom from himself, holds him back with calm, reason, and logic. This time Hugo rather let Tom off the leash, because he knew it might be the most effective way to find Amy. This wasn’t a case of solving a crime, where time and measured deduction are luxuries. No, a friend was missing and time was against them every step of the way so he let Tom do the things he himself wasn’t prepared to do. Perhaps he used Tom a little, just for a change. All for the greater good, of course.

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