I love James W. Ziskin. Well, actually, he’s great—but it’s Ellie Stone I truly adore. The young heroine of Ziskin’s mysteries set in 1960s upstate New York is smart, adventurous, and “modern” (more about that later). Ziskin’s “Ellie Stone” books have been nominated for a slew of mystery writing awards, including the Anthony, the Lefty, and the Barry.
In the latest book in the series out June 7, Heart of Stone, Ellie takes us on her summer vacation to the lake where she spent her summers as a child. Things, as you might imagine will happen in a murder mystery, go awry. At the end of the story, you will be a satisfied reader—and will probably need to plan a lake vacation. Better yet, plan the vacation now and take Ellie and Heart of Stone to read at the shore.
Heart of Stone is a big-hearted crush of a novel, brimming with rekindled kinship, forgiveness, love, and characters who will make readers feel true heartbreak. I spoke with Ziskin about creating Ellie Stone, evoking the right period details, and how he approaches writing a female character.
I have a crush on Ellie Stone, “girl” reporter. Tell us a little bit about her?
Ellie Stone was born in 1937 in Manhattan. Her father was a world-renowned professor of literature, and her mother was a respected art dealer. In 1960-61, Ellie is in her mid-twenties, working as a reporter for a small upstate daily. She wants a career that doesn’t involve having her behind patted by some boorish boss. After graduating from Barnard College, she lands a job as a junior reporter in the gray mill town of New Holland, New York. The provincial New Holland is not everything Ellie would have wished for, but she enjoys her job at the newspaper, even while struggling to prove her worth to her male colleagues.
Ellie describes herself as a “modern girl,” meaning exactly what you think that means. She’s a liberated spirit when it comes to sex. But that doesn’t mean she’s an amoral person. Far from it. Ellie’s morality is consistent and it’s fierce. She is a deeply empathetic soul, but at the same time she’s cynical and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Or at all. She is blessed with wit and humor, which she wields to savage effect on those who have earned her scorn. Let’s see, what else? She loves classical music and can identify virtually any piece at the drop of a needle. A rather useless talent that Ellie describes as a parlor trick.
You write a pretty convincing 20-something-year-old, Jewish woman reporter in the 1960s. What attribute is harder for you to do—visiting your 20s again? Writing as a woman character? A Jewish one? Writing about a reporter in the 1960s when you were never a reporter in the 1960s?
Revisiting my twenties was probably the easiest of these. At least I was in my twenties once. I’ve never been a woman or a reporter. And while I come from a Jewish background, I—like Ellie—was raised a heathen.
Obviously writing a first-person female narrator is challenging. It helps somewhat that the Ellie Stone books are set in the 1960s. Writing in the past gives us some distance, some separation. We can all look back at how people used to be and work from there, even if the results are approximations that we share in our collective memory. I can relate to old films and books, try to replicate the language and the mores of the times, all the while breaking some rules here and there to make the stories compelling, more fun even. That’s one reason I wanted to make Ellie a “modern girl.” She’s a something of an outlier. An anomaly. I wanted to bend the rules just a bit. Some readers tell me they wish she weren’t quite so promiscuous or that she didn’t drink so much. I think that’s great. It means they care about her reputation and her health.
But I work hard to give Ellie believable feminine behavior and voice. I try to listen to what women say, what they care about, what frightens them and excites them. I want to make Ellie real-ish, even if she’s sometimes unpredictable. Okay, I’ll admit that it’s hard. But I love every minute of writing this character.
Many writers mine their lives to benefit their characters, but Ellie seems very different from you. What do you and Ellie Stone have in common?
I think we have a lot in common, Ellie and I. Not gender or age, of course, but we do share many things, including a moral compass, honesty, a sense of justice, and love of classical music. And then there’s our cynicism and idealism, which may seem contradictory, but actually they go together hand in glove. Oh, yes, we both love crossword puzzles and Dewar’s Scotch whiskey. The most important traits.
But the gender difference is important. I can’t dismiss it even if my brother Joe says that after three books he’s finally figured out that Ellie is me. We are different in that very fundamental way—gender—which means I look at her from a different perspective. That’s not necessarily a negative thing. Who says writers must share their character’s sex? I believe the difference can result in interesting observations. It’s certainly not the safe choice. And it’s something I’d like to see more of from writers.
What advice do you have for a writer who wants to write cross-gender, cross-culturally, cross-anything at all? What are the risks, and how do you get it right?
Study people. Learn empathy. Think twice, thrice, four times before you decide what your character is doing. But that said, I don’t believe that there is behavior that is exclusive to men and other behavior that is exclusive to women. I’ll leave discussions of cross-cultural characters to writers who do that. But all writers invent characters. They can’t all be us, so there’s plenty of this kind of invention in all fiction.
Specifically, I would advise writers to avoid clichés. Men and women cross the lines of masculine and feminine behavior every day. And I would gently suggest that readers not get too caught up on the gender of the writer and her characters. It all comes down to the story, after all.
Finally, though, I would caution writers who want to do this to be ready for some static. Some readers just don’t buy into the idea of writing across gender, especially in a first-person narrative. It’s a shame, really, but it’s true.
What drew you to the mystery genre? Did you ever consider writing another genre before you set Ellie on the trail of killers?
I’ve always loved mysteries from a young age. I remember reading Murder on the Orient Express when I was thirteen and loving it. Later, I discovered more greats from the Golden Age, including Dorothy L. Sayers, whose books I admire and re-read to this day. But I actually started out writing historical novels. When I was about twelve, I wrote my first book, set during World War I. Terrible, by the way. A few years later I wrote one about World War II. You could say that I was progressing as a writer. But then I ran out of world wars. I began reading Dick Francis, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Then came Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Parker. I wanted to write books like theirs. So I gave it a shot. But life got in the way, and a lot of time went by. I wrote, then I stopped. Then I started again. After fifteen years of no writing, I realized I needed to get moving if ever wanted to be a writer. Time and tide… So I recommitted myself to it and five long years later I finally sold Styx & Stone. Then No Stone Unturned, Stone Cold Dead, Heart of Stone, and Cast the First Stone (forthcoming 2017) in quick succession after that. I love writing mysteries. I can’t think of a genre I’d rather read or write.
When and how did you become a writer? What part of your training or self-education would you recommend to others wanting to write?
When I first started writing mysteries in the ’90s, I thought I was a writer. I had an agent and a naive belief that I’d be making loads of money very soon. That didn’t work out. Now, so many years later, with a new agent and four published novels under my belt, I realize that I’m still becoming a writer. It’s a lifelong process. Each book accomplishes something different for me, satisfies me in a new way. I hope that someday I’ll manage to combine all the elements that I’m striving for in one glorious book. Maybe then I’ll consider myself truly a writer. But then what? Do it again? I think I’d rather continue to reach than attain. It’s really the best job in the world.
Some advice I would offer to aspiring writers:
- Write the second book. Then the third, fourth, and fifth. Don’t get stuck on the first.
- Revise a lot. Then do it again. And again.
- Read a lot. Read and pay attention to what you’re reading. Learn from others. Then write. And revise. And revise again.
- Know that your first book will likely never sell.
- Know that your second book will likely never sell.
- And know that your third book MIGHT sell. Or maybe your fourth or fifth. Don’t quit. The next book may well be the one.
It is only by getting the rotten writing out of your system that you learn to write better. And you will improve with each book you write, but only if you actually write it.
For your new novel, Heart of Stone, Ellie risks getting close to someone for the first time since some tragic family losses. Why was it important to you to have her risk vulnerability, four books in?
You’d be surprised at how many readers ask me when Ellie is going to settle down with a nice guy. I won’t say if or when that might happen—you’ve got to read the books—but I’ll bet no one asks Lee Child when Jack Reacher is going to settle down.
In Heart of Stone, I wanted to explore a deeper romantic angle than Ellie had experienced through the first three books. Sure, she had the hots for Gigi Lucchesi in Styx & Stone, but that was a passing fancy, probably due to his Italian accent and strong resemblance to a Botticelli angel. In Heart of Stone, Ellie is seduced in part by the nostalgia she feels when she reconnects with a man she knew when they were both children. She aches to belong again to a community, the community she lost with the successive deaths of her brother, mother, and father. It’s true she rediscovers her aunt Lena and elderly cousin Max in Heart of Stone, which I hope will please readers who would like to see Ellie truly loved. But her heart is in play with Isaac, a man whose relationship with Ellie’s late brother provides a powerful emotional draw for her. He’s a man who, at first glance, ticks all the boxes. Brilliant, talented, irresistible, loving. But there is the risk you mention. Ellie has been alone in the world, unwilling or unable to share her grief. She’s especially vulnerable to the rush of nostalgia and complex history of her family and the lake where she meets Issac again after so many years. Ellie is usually quite clear-headed about affairs of the heart, rarely showing vulnerability. But with Isaac, she dives in headfirst and falls hard. And isn’t that the only way one should fall in love? Risks and all?
Did you do any special research for Heart of Stone? How do you work to get the period details right in the series?
I did some extra research on the political and cultural movements my characters would have been involved or familiar with. There are the leftists, communists, Jewish artists, John Birchers, and evangelicals. And music is so important in this story. From Fauré to Bartók to Puccini to Chubby Checker and Paul Anka. For the chamber music, I had to be sure to pick pieces that my amateur musicians would have been able to play. And Chubby Checker? Well, “The Twist” plants a dagger in Ellie’s heart at one point in the story.
Other than that, I didn’t do anything that I don’t normally do in the way of research. I start by choosing the dates of the book. For Heart of Stone, I knew it had to be late August, since that’s when vacations draw to a close. Then I researched the news of that time. World news, local news. I read old newspapers from the period and the area in question. So there was Roger Maris’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the Berlin Wall had just been thrown up the week before Heart of Stone takes place. That was fortuitous. A wonderful backdrop for the Cold War politics and tensions I wanted to weave into the plot. Then I discovered that there was a total lunar eclipse right in the middle of my timeline. I got to write that into the story.
As for getting the general period details right, it’s important to know what you don’t know. That’s easy to say, harder to do, of course. But you have to challenge yourself at every turn when writing a historical period. For example, in Heart of Stone I wrote a flashback scene to 1942 in which Ellie’s aunt Lena mentions that Ronald Reagan smoked Chesterfield cigarettes. You can Google this and find many advertisements showing the Gipper smiling, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he wraps cartons of Chesterfields as Christmas gifts. In 1961, the year in which Heart of Stone is set, it makes sense that Aunt Lena would have known that Ronald Reagan had once hawked Chesterfields. But in my 1942 flashback, no way. The ads didn’t appear until much later. So I looked for another famous actor who’d endorsed Chesterfields during the war and found Joan Bennett.
One last note. It’s tempting sometimes to put too much of your research into the story. You have to be vigilant and disciplined not to overdo it.
What’s the rest of your writing and revision process like? What’s the most frustrating part of your process for you?
I know many authors who write by the seat of their pants, but I’m not one of those. I am a plotter not a “pantser.” I outline the entire book before I start the actual writing. That helps keep me focused on balancing the real clues for the murderer and the red herrings for the other suspects. Once I start the actual writing of the book, I make sure to write an average of about a thousand words per day. I track my progress in a spreadsheet, which incentivizes me. And that’s how a book gets written. One word after the other for a lot of days in a row. In four months, if I’m disciplined, I can have 110,000 words or more. That’s a book.
Once I’ve finished the writing, I revise over and over again. That’s when you find the plot holes, the missing words, the parts to delete. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to revise your work. Do it until you can’t stand to read it anymore.
For me, waiting is the most frustrating part of writing. You work alone and so hard for so long and have to wait about two years to find out if anyone thinks it’s any good.
What’s next for you and Ellie?
Next up is Cast the First Stone, coming in summer 2017. Ellie travels to Los Angeles to write a feature on a local boy who’s landed a role in a real Hollywood movie. But when she gets there, the young actor is nowhere to be found. Ellie finds herself unwelcome in the treacherous demimonde of Hollywood wannabes: beautiful young men, desperately ambitious ingénues, panderers, hustlers, and pornography hobbyists. And there are some real movie stars with reputations to protect, too. And they’ve got the cops and scandal sheets in their pockets. And speaking of pockets, a bad-boy director is found murdered in a ravine below his Hollywood Hills mansion, and Ellie’s young actor’s phone number is in his pocket.