James W. Ziskin’s debut novel, STYX & STONE, came out today, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new book, and more!!
You’re a linguist, and have a news background as well! What inspired you to write your first novel? Have you always wanted to be a novelist?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first novel when I was twelve years old, It was awful. Then there were three other novels over the years, each one a little better than the last. I wrote the first draft of Styx & Stone twenty years ago, then put it aside. I needed time and experience. I’m a late bloomer.
My background in foreign languages has had a great influence on my writing. Learning and teaching foreign languages instilled in me a love for English grammar and words as well.
Will you tell us a little about your new book, Styx & Stone?
Styx & Stone, set in 1960, is a blend of traditional mystery and modern noir. My detective is Eleonora “Ellie” Stone, a fledgling reporter for a small, upstate daily. She’s struggling to establish a career for herself in the male-dominated world of mid-twentieth century America. When she receives news that her estranged father, famed Dante scholar and university professor, is near death after a savage attack in his home, Ellie returns to Manhattan to be by his side. Inexorably, she is drawn into the investigation, which becomes more complex and sinister when a colleague of her father’s turns up electrocuted in his bath. Styx & Stone explores themes of damaged love, professional ambition and jealousy, women and sexual boundaries, and, of course, Dante.
Why do you think readers will connect with Ellie Stone? Why should we root for her?
I hope readers will connect with Ellie on a variety of emotional and intellectual planes. She displays a remarkably independent streak for her time, but she’s also emotionally vulnerable. Ellie is a complex young woman, magnetic and brilliant, yet a slave to obsessive behavior usually associated with the men of her day. But forget all that; I hope readers will like Ellie because she’s a truly nice person. She’s just not a “nice girl.”
What made you decide to set the book in the 1960s? What do you find most fascinating about that time period?
1960 was a time when the world was changing fast. Jet planes, modern appliances, the end of colonial empires, and the birth of new nations. And sex was about to change too. But 1960 also fits the historical timeline I had in mind for this story. It’s just fifteen years after the close of World War II, whose clouded memories and fading horrors return in this story in the most unlikely and unexpected ways.
What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
For the mystery genre, probably Dorothy Sayers. The Harriet Vane books. She, like Ellie Stone, was something of a “modern girl.” And I’ve always admired Sayers’s painstaking reconstruction of timelines, and how chance can both confuse and illuminate the investigation. I’m a fan of Dick Francis’s, and Raymond Chandler was the master. And while not a mystery writer, Graham Greene is probably my favorite author. I wish I’d written everything he ever signed his name to.
What is your writing process like?
I’m not a meticulous planner. I start with an idea, a situation, or a mood, let it ferment, then draw up a basic outline. When I sit down to write, the story tends to go where it will, and I often end up with better ideas than I’d put down in the outline. When I’m in the thick of a project, I write and revise as I go, cleaning up the previous day’s work. At the end, I re-edit over and over again. And then I edit it again. And again. And it’s never done.
What are you reading now?
I’ve got several books on my bedside table, trying to find time to get to them. But I’m currently reading Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In. I admire her greatly. She’s a wonderful writer.
You’ve traveled extensively to places like France, Italy, and even India! What are a few highlights of your travels?
I’ve always had a fascination for foreign cultures and languages, starting with France, where I worked and studied for two years. I’ve spent so much time in Italy over the past thirty-plus years, especially Tuscany, that it feels like a second home. And Italian language and culture are front and center in Styx & Stone.
India, on the other hand, is not always comfortable for the outsider, but it’s my favorite place on earth. I’ve lived and worked in India more than three years, and I love it for all its beauty and its warts.
When you’re not busy with your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I love sports: football, basketball, baseball. Watching mostly, nowadays. I play golf, poorly. I love to swing hard. Classical music is a great passion for me, and I enjoy wine and whiskey and cats. The cats I enjoy as pets, not as food.
What’s next for you (and Ellie)?
The second Ellie Stone mystery, No Stone Unturned, is launching June 10, 2014. I’m working on the third installment, Stone Cold Dead.
No Stone Unturned is quite different from Styx & Stone. Ellie is back in her adopted upstate town of New Holland, New York, where a society girl is found dead in a local wood. Ellie finds herself caught in the middle of a twisted, voyeuristic tangle of small-town jealousies and big-city grudges. When she steps on the wrong toes, she winds up in the bad graces of some desperate people who want her off the story. Dead if necessary.
About STYX & STONE:
Ellie Stone is a professed modern girl in 1960s’ New York City, playing by her own rules and breaking boundaries while searching for a killer among the renowned scholars in Columbia University’s Italian Department.
“If you were a man, you’d make a good detective.”
Ellie Stone is sure that Sgt. McKeever meant that as a compliment, but that identity-a girl wanting to do a man’s job-has throttled her for too long. It’s 1960, and Ellie doesn’t want to blaze any trails for women; she just wants to be a reporter, one who doesn’t need to swat hands off her behind at every turn.
Adrift in her career, Ellie is back in New York City after receiving news that her estranged father, a renowned Dante scholar and distinguished professor, is near death after a savage bludgeoning in his home. The police suspect a routine burglary, but Ellie has her doubts. When a second attempt is made on her father’s life, in the form of an “accident” in the hospital’s ICU, Ellie’s suspicions are confirmed.
Then another professor turns up dead, and Ellie’s investigation turns to her father’s university colleagues, their ambitions, jealousies, and secret lives. Ellie embarks on a thorny journey of discovery and reconciliation, as she pursues an investigation that offers her both a chance at redemption in her father’s eyes, and the risk of losing him forever.
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