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James Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series gives us genre fiction that’s intelligent and entertaining – in spades – and he’s got a slew of awards to prove it.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Jim talks about his heroine Ellie, a hard drinking, free wheeling “girl reporter” turned investigator, who carves out the life she wants for herself in up state New York in the 60s, regardless of the obstacles. Think Helen Gurley Brown meets Murder She Wrote.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How “Bad” writing may be a necessary prelude to “good” work
- Waiting till age 53 to publish his first book
- What it’s like having a ‘high functioning alcoholic’ as a heroine
- Why James no longer bothers to defend ‘genre’ fiction
- The two new writers he admires most
- And the two things he did for writing success
Where to find James Ziskin:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of the conversation in full with links to many of the key books and events discussed.
Jenny: And now, here’s Jim Hello there Jim, and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Jim: Hello, Jenny I’m very happy to be here
Jenny: You had a very interesting career before you became a full time writer, so was there a particular catalyst that made you think I want to sit down and write a book – and if so what was it?.
Jim: Well I think that goes back to my personal history. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I published my first book, Styx and Stones, at the age of 53, which seems to be quite late, but I wrote my first novel when I was twelve and then I wrote another one a few years later, and another one in grad school.
But then what happens is that life takes over, you get a job, you have your studies and you put things off. So the catalyst goes back to my tender youth and it took a long time. I needed to learn things and stop being lazy, and so what prompted me to finally say I want to attack this writing thing, I was approaching 50 and I thought “well if I don’t do this now when will I do it?”
So I got on my horse and finished finished Ellie Stone and submitted it to agents. I managed to snag an agent and although he never sold that first book, he’s sold seven books since, all in the Ellie Stone mystery series,
Jenny: Those first trial books – you didn’t attempt to get those published?
Jim: The first book when I was twelve – it was a terrible, awful book, the kind of thing that a 12 year old writes, but it was long enough to be a book, it just wasn’t very good, and the second one the same.
These were all historicals – I’ve always been deeply interested in history. The third one was a big historical set in Paris during World War II and it was better, but still not good enough. But by then I was in my mid- 20s and embarking on a career, so the writing did take a back seat for many years.
Maybe ten years after that I started getting interested in writing mysteries and I worked on a couple of those – that were good enough to get an agent but they never sold – that was in the nineties – They were OK. But you get married, you move to a new city, and things get in the way. And that’s when I wrote the first Ellie Stone, Styx and Stone.
Jenny: And that book – how long did that take you to do?
Jim: Oh I say about three years – and I’d been thinking about it for many years and even starting – in fits and starts to write it, but now I don’t have that luxury Many writers have that experience especially, if it’s a series and I am on a pace of about one book a year.
Jenny: Talking about Ellie, the sixth is coming out this year I think . . .. Ellie is in her early twenties, referred to often by others in the books as a “girl reporter” on a local newspaper in upstate New York. It’s the very early 60’s, and she drinks lots of whisky, she’s sexually liberated even in those pre-pill times, she’s smart and sassy. What attracted you to this time period and lead character?
Jim: I am always interested in transporting readers to another time period and place because that’s what I like. I always liked historicals – I settled on that period because for that book I needed a period that was 15 years after the end of World War II because of one of the sub plots in the book.
It’s funny you mentioned “historical” because many of the awards here in the US deem ‘”historical” to finish before 1960 but I think that moves every ten years so in two years it will move to 1970. But I was fortunate enough – not all of these awards adhere to that – because this year I was fortunate enough to win the Macavity award for the best historical and that was for Heart of Stone.
When I hit on the idea of writing this character I wanted her to face challenges that say, a male reporter wouldn’t and she faces these every day. And the challenges when she goes to work shes the girl give her the story for the social pages, the wedding and birth announcement,s the social pages and she wants to do the murders even though there aren’t that many of them – that’s what she wants to do.
This is before the feminist movement and the civil rights movement got going, and before the sexual revolution although I always point out Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, so Ellie is not that much of an outlier. It’s just that we tend to regard that era as a very chaste time and women did not end up in bed with a man and saved themselves for marriage, but I think that was a myth, there were plenty of as witnessed by the Gurley Brown book there were plenty of “modern” girls as Ellie describes herself.
Jenny: She is not campaigning for women’s rights but as the series continues she is not going to be unaware of the movement as the 60’s progress so that’s going to be an interesting development for you.
Jim: Absolutely. It’s just right now she wants an interesting job she is not consciously blazing trails and I think if we are fair about it we shouldn’t put too much pressure on this character to put her at the vanguard and have her saying I’m going to fight for something that nobody else is really fighting for yet. People grow up in their own worlds and she has ambition and she grew up in a very cultured and educated family but even there there’s plenty of misogyny, all sides of te political spectrum, its still going on, its going on in Hollywood as there is in academia, its still going on, Its driven by her own desire without seeing it yet as a larger movement or struggle.
Jenny: Sure the vocabulary has hardly been invented yet. The Betty Friedan book didn’t come out till 1963.
Jim: The Betty Friedan – yes I was referring to the Helen Gurley Brown
Jenny: Oh yes I know that one too – that one was very much more a gal making her way in the big smoke
Jim: Yes it was, but Ellie is from New York remember, not from a small town.
Jenny: I gather some of your readers have objected to her sexual freedom? Even more than her alcohol consumption.
Jim: That’s true and I am perplexed I don’t believe there is any one type of woman in time and history I do understand readers might be concerned for her drinking too much or falling into bed for the wrong man. . . it seems to have calmed down after the first book.. I often think about it with a new TV show you may not do such a good job of introducing a character, but it seems to have more or less gone away and as a matter of fact for the first time in Cast The First Stone the fifth book – in Hollywood – she doesn’t sleep with anyone She has plenty of offers from both women and men there were women – you can look at Mad Men too – not that it wasn’t fiction but there were certainly “liberated” women at that time… Maybe people have gotten to know the character…..
Jenny: I wondered if you have ever talked with women of your mother’s generation – and maybe even your own mother – about being a young woman at the same time as Ellie – and whether such a conversation yielded any insights for you?
Jim: A lot of the ideas for Ellie were shaped in my mind by experience observing my mother – not that she behaved the way Ellie does in her private life, but my mother was a medical doctor.
She was born in 1929, so she’s be about 8 years older than Ellie, she earned her medical degree at a time when it was certainly done, but it wasn’t a common thing.
I’ve always admired strong women – and strong doesn’t necessarily mean violent… God knows Ellie is not the most physically dominant of detectives out there, she doesn’t win because she beats up the guy, she doesn’t carry a gun or know how to use a gun, she gets by on her wits and her charm.
But over the years I have had women as bosses, as friends, so what I was trying to do is take an amalgam of qualities of women I have known and put them into this package of Ellie Stone and also I wanted to obviously pepper it with some flaws as well, because nobody is interested in a perfect character, they become boring. I like it when people say they worry about Ellie, and I have had people say they worry about Ellie because that means they care about her and like her, and that’s a good thing.
Jenny: Absolutely. I am a little worried about her tendency to use alcohol to self-medicate. I hope by the time she’s 30 she’s starting to think ‘Maybe I need to cut back on this a little’ because you are invested in the character.
Jim: I certainly understand that feeling – and some people have wondered and said – “Oh well, its a common place, or a cliche to have the detective a drinking problem. But I think its just that we’re used to seeing heavy drinking generally.
Make no mistake, Ellie is an alcoholic. She is what we now call a high functioning alcoholic and really that is part of the problem – she holds her liquor really well, but that doesn’t mean its good for her.
I agree no one can continue at that pace for too long. So there it is – unfortunately I can’t go to the little Stone Cold Sober title – because I’ve already done Stone Cold Dead.
I have also started to tone down her smoking- she still smokes and most people did at that time, because she is starting to say – in this latest book I have just finished, someone offers her a cigarette when they are walking and she refuses it and says “No I get out of breath if I smoke and walk at the same time.” So we’re cleaning up some of her bad habits. she getting older – she’s 25 or 26 in this latest book, and she’s definitely more confident in her detecting or investigating skills as well.
Jenny: The thing I like best about her is her incorrigible curiosity . .. She’s always digging for the answers
Jim: Yes and one of her common plot lines is that someone will try and deflect her by losing their temper and she always just let’s them go and then immediately comes back to the question again when things settle down. She recognises the ploy and thinks “If you think that’s going to put me off. . . ”
Jenny: Did you plan always it as a series?
Jim: Yes. I’m not sure quite how much detail I had in mind, because it depended on sales, but even the choosing of the name – Stone – that was so I could have some thematic continuity and link through all the titles, so in the case of these books its a common expression and hopefully it can have a double or triple meaning… Styx and Stone is the only one where I changed the expression from Sticks to Styx.
But the others are all common word phrases.. and not things like Stoned People have said write one called Stoned and set it at Woodstock – but that’s not the same – they are all well know expressions. The next book Book Six is A Stone’s Throw and Book Seven is Turned to Stone or Etched in Stone. I haven’t totally decided on the title of that one yet.
Jenny: It’s interesting to me – you’ve had a strong academic career in linguistics and fiction but you have chosen genre fiction as your area and you’ve talked about this about believing books can be intelligent and entertaining at the same time. And certainly Ellie Stone must be one of the most literate genre series there has ever been. . . Do you still feel you need to be defend the state of genre fiction?
Jim: I don’t. If people have a problem with genre fiction be it romance, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries or thrillers, that’s their problem. I love it. I just think they are great books great stories and great writers.
I think I mentioned Graham Greene. He called his more popular books “entertainments” – the ones that were a little more popular although I love all of his work. Take Joyce Carol Oates – she basically writes mystery today and Umberto Eco, the Name of the Rose. It’s a mystery and it’s a fantastic mystery and its very intelligent – something I could only dream of aspire to. I make no excuses for the popularity of genre fiction – there is good and bad writing in it – but I’ve not problem with bragging that I write mysteries.
Jenny: Sure and there’s good and bad writing in literary fiction as well. Some of it is plain pretentious so its good to keep your feet on the ground.
Jim: You mention my academic background I studied a lot of so-called great books, and some of them were fascinating and some of them frankly were boring. And some of them were mysteries. It’s a genre that a lot of literary writers like to explore at some point in their careers.
In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Jim: I would have to say The one thing I did was not give up and the second thing is really try to get better. You know people used to say oh you have to live a certain amount before you write because you have to experience things. Some people do seem to be able to avoid that, but I was not one of them. I needed time to mature and I hope I am getting better every year still, but that was important to me. I was not a good enough writer. There might have been little flashes but the entirety of these books the quality wasn’t there I have a theory that for some writers there are a number of “poor words” that you have to write out of your system before you start writing better prose. And that number is obviously different for everyone Someone said a million words but anyway I think maybe four of five hundred thousand words is a pretty good sample to kind of rid yourself of the bad writing and really improve.
Jenny: Oh that’s terrific I haven’t heard that one before, but it does give some of us hope!
Jim: there are some writers who hit it out of the park in the first book and we hate those people.
Jenny: If you were going to suggest a magical mystery literary tour for Ellie Stone where would you send people? She mainly been in upstate New York but you did take her to Hollywood recently . . .
Jim: She was temporarily in Hollywood for the last story and she is now back in upstate NY – and I am going to answer your questions – I am very conscious of Jessica Fletcher and that little town of Cabot Cove Maine in Murder She Wrote, where a murder apparently turns up every week.
It’s a problem every mystery writer faces – and we can just suspend our disbelief, but I wanted to try and avoid that and have a sense of realism – although I appreciate none of these stories are particularly realistic. Even in police fiction – in ninety per cent of the cases the police know right at the beginning who did it – and very few police detectives get a whole run of “hard to solve cases” over their career – so we do suspend our disbelief.
But for Ellie’s mystery tour – she was born in Lower Manhattan just off Washington Square that’s a great place to visit, Washington Square, just off Lower Fifth Avenue. I would not necessarily suggest visiting New Holland – it’s a fictionalised version of my home town which is Amsterdam NY What was funny I remember my first contract for the Stone series I believe there was something about “We should retain the theme park rights” What sort of a theme park would you find in New Holland, with 30,000 people, a very industrial gritty town they made carpets – it was a big mill town.
As you mentioned, a Hollywood tour would be a good one, and then the one coming out in June is set near to New Holland in Saratoga Springs NY which has a magnificent horse racing season in August every year, and it’s a beautiful track and one of the nicest thoroughbred venues in America – It is an old spa town where people would go to take the waters – not any more but you can still get a glass of smelly water out of a spring somewhere. so that’s a great place to visit.
Then Book Seven is scheduled to be Florence Italy. Ellie’s father was a famous Professor of Italian and literature and I have contrived to have Ellie go there to accept a post humus award for him.
Jenny: Oh that sounds fun . . .I suspect there a possibility you could advance her career to metropolitan NY sometime?
Jim: Absolutely. I’ve been discussing that with my agent and some of my closest readers, including my father who still lives in that town and he says “Get her to hell out of that town!” And so I was thinking very much of having her return to Manhattan. And I was thinking – you have this experience of working in magazines – I thought I might have her work in that kind of writing – with her camera she might do something more interesting than potholes and town hall meetings.
Jenny: An early photo journalist?
Turning to Jim as reader
Jenny: We are starting to run out of time The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” and that’s really to acknowledge since the advent of digital reading. People can approach it like the “Netflix” of reading – if they discover an author they like they can get everything they’ve written of their’s if they want on line when they want.. .. . Have you ever in the past been a “binge reader” in the past perhaps writing now you don’t have so much time, but who have been your favorites in the past.
Jim: I certainly have in the past, and it’s been all the golden age in our genre . . .from Chandler to Agatha Christie to Dorothy L Sayers I devoured all of those Grahame Green I’ve read everything he wrote and Frederick Forsythe and George Macdonald Frasier. . . When I finally read one I have to read them all.
Today I’ve just finished Book Seven, A Stone’s Throw and when I am in that mode it is several months of laser focus where I can’t read anything much. But I do like to read friends and colleagues books – and recently I read a historical mystery – it can’t be quite called a series because its only two books at present, but it’s by Jennifer Kincheloe – a series set in LA in 1907 /1908 and it is just so charming and so well done Her latest is the Woman in the Camphor Trunk set in Chinatown.
Another series I have read recently a beautiful series by Christine Carbo set in Glacier National Park in Montana. I like reading a little all over the map, and the national park becomes a major character. The Weight of Night is the latest. Beautiful writing, great books.
Circling back to the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Jim: I mentioned earlier it look me a long time – I wish I could have found the discipline to write something good ten years earlier but there have been advances which help – and its got more competitive too – you can query an agent and submit to a publisher in a moment those things help me a lot and research certainly with the internet it is so much easier to find information rather than wait for the library to be open so in many ways ten years earlier it still may not have worked for me, so really we just take it as it comes. I’ve got the best job in the world.
Jenny: So what is next for Jim the writer ? You’ve got a number of Ellie Stone books ahead of you.
Jim: Yes I think I still have five good titles left – not that the series has to stop – but I might have to scrimp on the quality of the title – like A Rolling Stone – popular connotation Sink Like a Stone, – there are a few left so I have a little bit of wriggle room. But I am working on a couple of thriller type ideas – not the high tech adrenaline thrillers. Rather a thriller set in India in the 1970’s – a Stranger in a Strange Land kind of story … I want to do that as soon as possible after I’ve completed the contract for Book Seven.
Jenny: Any interest in Ellie from TV or movies?
Jim: You always hope . . I have an agent in Hollywood who is trying to shop it around – hopeful because it would give me more freedom to write more. Sue Grafton who just passed away was adamant she never wanted her Alphabet series done as movies. I don’t think novels need to be validated by being made into a TV or movie but I would love it for the financial benefits and I could write with more freedom and it would be cool to see…
Jenny: We are coming to a close, it’s been marvellous talking to. Where can readers find you on line?
Jim: My website is www.jameswziskin.com You can find it at Barnes and Noble and Amazon In North America they are most book stores . . . and I’m on Twitter @Jameswziskin
Jenny: Lovely to talk to Jim and all the best with your future writing . . . We look forward to coming instalments. . . .
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