MysteryPeople Q&A with James Ziskin

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 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. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Terry Shames

In A Deadly Affair At Bobtail Ridge, Terry Shames latest novel to feature Central Texas police chief Samuel Craddock, Samuel must step in to protect the secrets of his good friend and neighbor, Jenny Sandstone, after she is threatened. The book shows another side to Shame’s lead, the community she writes about, and her talent. We caught up with Terry before she joins us this Saturday, June 20th, at 7PM for a discussion and signing with fellow Seventh Street authors James W. Ziskin and Mark Pryor, to talk about the book and writing about a small town.

MysteryPeople: Much of A Deadly Affair At Bobtail Ridge deals with Samuel’s good friend and neighbor, Jenny Sandstone. What did you want to explore with that character?

Terry Shames: Jenny has intrigued me ever since she showed up in the first book. She had a droll sense of humor, a kick-ass attitude, and what looked like the potential to be a good friend to Samuel—and possibly more. Notice that I said she “showed up.” I didn’t set out to write someone like Jenny, she came to the pages of A Killing at Cotton Hill fully formed and established herself right away as a main character. She participated in the next few books, but remained enigmatic. In the first book she said she wasn’t looking for a man, and I wondered why. Was she gay? Not interested in someone older? Or was there something deeper lurking in her past? Finally in book four, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, Jenny stepped front and center. She had always been close to her mother, and in the first page we find out that her mother is in the hospital close to death. Samuel goes to the hospital to provide comfort and support to Jenny and in the process hears a plea from her mother to keep Jenny safe.

The answer to your question is that like several of the characters in the Samuel Craddock series, including Samuel himself, the characters reveal themselves to me not just as characters but as people. I am introduced to them in the same way they are introduced to my readers. I’d love to say there is intention involved, but it feels more like accident, or even magic.

MP: On the lighter side, you also look at the town’s politics and preparations for the high school prom. What drew you to that activity?

TS: Jarrett Creek works like every small town—or every small community within a city. Normal celebrations can take on monumental proportions. The book took place at the time of year when prom happens. Only as I finished my first draft did I realize that in some ways the giddy, girly preparations for the prom provided a counterpart to Jenny Sandstone’s high school experience. After that, it became poignant to me. When Samuel asks Loretta if there are girls who are not included in the prom, it’s an odd question. It’s funny scene because Loretta is dumbfounded that he would ask such a non-male question. I worked on that scene because I wanted it to be light-hearted while at the same time illuminating the private pain that young people can experience. I wanted the scene to resonate with the rest of the novel.

MP: How is being Chief now different from before he retired?

In the next Craddock novel I’m doing a prequel from when Craddock was chief earlier. I’m not sure how it will be different but I suspect with age comes wisdom. I have a sense that when Samuel Craddock was younger, he might have been a bit of a hothead. He had a tough upbringing and he was more sharp-edged when he was a new cop. I think his wife was a factor in teaching him patience and I think that might
be part of the story. Stay tuned.

MP: You do a wonderful job balancing the light and dark sides of this book and they brush up against each other many times. Do you have a conscious plan when dealing with these aspects or does it just simply flow from the characters and story?

Thank you for saying that. I try to balance light and dark sides. I don’t set out with a conscious plan. I have a loose idea of the motivating actions, including the identity of the killer, but I don’t always know exactly how Samuel will figure out what happens. Everything comes from character. Finding out more about them is essential to me for finding out what happens in a book. People have light and dark sides and I try to let both have their say.

I think that Loretta is a much more important part of the books than people might realize. I tried writing book five without Loretta and it came unhinged. The lightness was missing. One of the things that comes out in A Deadly Affair is Loretta’s essential kindness. She is a gossip and something of a busybody, but if someone is really in trouble, her better nature shines through.

MP: What does writing a mystery set in a small town as opposed to a big city provide?

There’s really no difference in my mind. In a big city, people form small towns. They tend to see the same people, go to the same restaurants, get their hair cut at the same place. Read the great noir novels set in LA and you’ll find the protagonist goes to the same bar and the same restaurant, runs into the same cops, and generally works in a small town within the larger environment. Even in the small town of Jarrett Creek, in every book Samuel Craddock runs into people he doesn’t know, just as people do in a city. I write a character-driven novel, so it’s important that people know each other and interact with familiarity. Their trust and intimacy gets challenged by a violent criminal act.

MP: What do authors need to be aware of when writing about small towns?

For the answer to this, I think we can cycle back to the second question above. You need to be aware that in a small town what can seem like insignificant activities—the goat rodeo, the prom, the church bazaar, take on the same buzz that a huge event does in a larger place. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or Houston you have gala openings of movies, plays, athletic events, etc. To residents used to a quiet life, the goat rodeo in Jarrett Creek is as thrilling as those events.

Whether you’re planning a prom in Dallas or in a small town in Texas, girls still buy dresses and fight with parents, and boys still feel paralyzed by doubt, and get rowdy and create problems.

One thing I’d have to say is if you’re writing about a small town, don’t ever condescend to the residents. Their concerns may not be on the grand scale of something with the glitterati, but it’s still important on a personal level and should be respected. Even when I poke fun, I have an essential understanding that these events matter on a human scale.

You can find copies of  A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge on our shelves and via Terry Shames joins us this Saturday, June 20th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. She will be speaking and signing with two other authors from Seventh Street Books, Mark Pryor and James W. Ziskin.