Authors like James W. Ziskin know how to create a unique human being that breathes on the page.
Swingin’ ‘60s journalist/investigator Ellie Stone on the surface resembles (at least in my retrograde mind) Honey West, played by Anne Francis is a short-lived but memorable TV series from that era. But Ellie is far more complex and compelling than your average female (or male) street level crimefighter. In fact, readers of either sex, of any mature vintage, can relate to her in some way on a personal level. If nothing else, she's a blast to hang out with.
This is due to the poetically correct construction of her character by best-selling author James W. Ziskin, who has featured Ellie in six eponymous, award-winning mysteries so far: Styx and Stone, No Stone Unturned, Stone Cold Dead, Heart of Stone, Cast the First Stone, and the most recent, A Stone’s Throw. As Ellie progresses through the decade, one assumes she may eventually get totally Stoned, though not in the Biblical sense.
In person, James is a very friendly, humble, dapper, witty and amiable guy. He is also incredibly intelligent, talented, well-educated, and an experienced world traveler. That all comes across in this brief interview, too.
You are best known for the award-winning Ellie Stone series of mysteries, which are written from the point of view of a young woman in the 1960s. You know the turf well enough, but how do you manage to write credibly from such a different perspective, which obviously resonates with a female as well as a male audience?
I try to write Ellie Stone as a character both men and women will appreciate. For different reasons, I’m sure. She’s tough, smart, and relentless. But she’s also attractive and (often enough) willing. I strive to make Ellie funny but also empathetic. I hope those characteristics inspire readers to like her.
As for how I might manage that? I feel writers should have various tools in their toolboxes. One of the most important is to know your character inside and out. That’s essential if you hope to create believable, compelling characters. My books are set in the 1960s. That’s distant enough from today’s world to provide me with some cover when creating a voice that comes across as believable to readers. I may not be a woman living in the 1960s, but neither is anyone else today! We are all looking backward to that period through the ever-thickening lens of time. I use movies, television shows, newspapers, and books from that period to hone the voice of my narrator. A good example was, while writing CAST THE FIRST STONE—set in 1962 Hollywood—I watched a ton of Perry Mason episodes from 1960-1963 to get the clothes, cars, and Los Angeles landscapes right. The show was filmed right there in Hollywood at that time, after all.
Your background includes higher education as a linguist, a photo-news producer-writer, Director of Italian Studies at NYU, and years in Hollywood’s post production industry, not to mention extensive world travel. How do these various true world experiences factor into your fiction?
Everything helps. In these books, I pull ideas from my educational and work experience. Italian studies, for example, are front and center in the first book of the series, STYX & STONE. Ellie’s father is a world-renowned Dante scholar. And my years in India have provided a couple of strong subplots in two other books. Readers enjoy discovering far-off places and different experiences. And I love writing about them.
You relocated to Seattle from your longtime home of Southern California a year ago. How has this rather drastic change in environment and ambience impacted your creative mindset, if at all?
Seattle’s moody weather and the palette of greens and blues are quite a change from Los Angeles, where the weather is pretty much perfect ninety percent of the time. I enjoy the rain. It inspires good storytelling. And my friendly local cafe is my office. I’ve written two novels and a few short stories there.
What are you influences, literary or otherwise?
In the crime fiction genre, the Golden Age writers, of course. And then more recent authors like Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, and Dick Francis have been big influences on me for the past twenty years. Then there’s Graham Greene and P. G. Wodehouse. How’s that for a combination? One for the themes, the other for the humor. Both for the stellar writing.
What’s next for you?
A STONE’S THROW just came out last month, and Ellie Stone 7, TURN TO STONE, is due in the summer of 2019. That one will be set in Italy in 1963. I’m also working on a couple of thrillers, quite different one from the other. One is a stranger-in-a-strange-land international romp, and the other is a psychological thriller.
Looking forward to all that, thanks and cheers!
Winner of the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel (Sue Feder Memorial), James W. Ziskin is the author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries. His books have also been finalists for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards.