Up Close: James W. Ziskin

Betrayal, Forgiveness, and Redemption

By R. G. Belsky

Ellie Stone hears John, Paul, George, and Ringo for the first time in TURN TO STONE, the new thriller from James W. Ziskin. It’s September 1963, and a teenage girl from England plays her the new records Please Please Me and She Loves You. “They’re the coolest band in England,” the excited teenager says. “What I’d like for you to do is make sure America discovers the Beatles.” Ellie thinks the Beatles and all that “yeah, yeah, yeah” stuff sound pretty great.

That’s just one of the delightful moments in TURN TO STONE, the seventh in Ziskin’s award-winning series—which is dramatically and excitingly different in many ways from his earlier books.

“Girl reporter” Ellie is in Italy for this one, far from her hometown newspaper in upstate New York. She becomes immersed in the Italian culture and language, which Ziskin describes in masterful detail. And—most important of all—she has to solve an old-fashioned “closed room” murder mystery when the professor who invited her to Italy (to accept a posthumous award for her late father’s academic work) is found dead just as she arrives.

There, in a bucolic villa setting, a suspected rubella outbreak leaves 10 people quarantined in the town of Fiesole with little to do but gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine and tell stories to entertain themselves. As long-buried secrets rise to the surface—stretching all the way back to the Nazis and the horrors of World War II—Ellie must figure out if one or more of her newfound friends is capable of murder.

“Yes, this book is different,” Ziskin said. “Not only is Ellie traveling abroad, dealing with an entirely new cast of secondary characters, she’s very much out of her element. But not for long. She’s quite good at adapting to new surroundings, even when a second language and persistent Italian men are involved.

“It’s also true that Ellie is not investigating the mysterious death as a reporter. She’s merely curious about what happened to a man she never met but with whom she’d corresponded by mail. And, of course, there are other plot details that make TURN TO STONE completely different from Ellie’s previous investigations. I wanted to write a book about the complexities of betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption. The ghosts of Italy’s fascist past and World War II come into focus as Ellie searches for answers to a terrible mystery.”

James W. Ziskin

I’ve been a big fan of Ziskin’s work ever since we met on a ThrillerFest panel some years ago. Since I started my own Clare Carlson series, we’ve talked a lot about the challenges—and potential pitfalls—of a man writing about a female protagonist. So how did he come up with the idea for Ellie, an outspoken young woman reporter who seems way ahead of her time in the early ’60s?

“I wanted to create a character who faced all the challenges other detectives face, and then pile on one more. So I settled on the idea of a young woman reporter in a provincial town in the early 1960s, at a time when women weren’t expected or wanted in a man’s workplace. Unless it was to sharpen pencils and fetch coffee.

“So while Ellie must navigate the mystery like so many other detectives and reporters, she also has to do it in a skirt. That means she has to work twice as hard as her male colleagues and be twice as smart, all the while getting half the credit. Ellie is working before the feminist movement, of course, but I’m sure there were women like her. There have always been trailblazers.”

The Italian language (and Italian culture back in the early ’60s) is clearly a big part of this book, and Ziskin says he really enjoyed being able to incorporate it into the Ellie series.

“From a young age, I was always fascinated by other languages. I truly love grammar, vocabulary, etymology, accents, and philology. So I majored in Romance languages and literature in college and grad school—Italian and French mostly. Later, I worked for a French photo-news agency, an Italian cultural center in New York, and a major subtitling company in Hollywood. I was lucky to find gainful employment that allowed me to travel and use those languages every day in my work. And now, with TURN TO STONE, I get to do it again. It’s fantastic.

“There’s a huge difference between speaking a second language well and speaking it like an educated native speaker. So I made sure to consult with several educated native speakers of Italian—Florentines at that—for those bits of Italian dialogue in the book, to make sure everything was right. Of course, another challenge was to resist using too much Italian. Just enough to give some flavor and satisfaction to the reader. But not so much that you lose readers who don’t know the language. I tried to walk that line. Hopefully I managed it.”

The other thing Ziskin has a lot of fun doing in all his Ellie novels is including fascinating historical references—like the Beatles—to the early ’60s time period where the books are set.

“TURN TO STONE takes place a few months before the Beatles hit it big in the US with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ They were already hugely popular in the UK, but Ellie has never heard of them in September of ’63. The Beatles are so famous, so well-known now, that it’s hard to think of them as virtually unknown. Yet they were, at least in the US at that time.”

Ellie and the daughter of the dead professor, a 14-year-old girl named Mariangela who has been attending boarding school in England, forge a strong bond with each other at the villa in Fiesole. “The girl has a mad crush on Paul McCartney. It was fun to write about a teen’s earnest and unfettered passion for a rock band. Especially when that passion gives her a small measure of comfort after the sudden death of her father.”

The book ends in the fall of ’63, just a few weeks before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I asked Ziskin about that.

“You noticed that, did you? Yes, Ellie has been marching steadily toward that rendezvous with history since the start of the series, which was January 1960. I can’t exactly ignore the JFK assassination; it’s too big, too important. But I intend to deal with it in a very different way. I just don’t have the stomach to write a book about national tragedy and grief. So I’ve decided to handle that awful event with a couple of years’ distance, via a cold case that got lost in the confusion and shock of the days after the assassination. I think it will make for a different take on the subject.”

In many ways, this is a real old-fashioned “locked room” mystery—with the rubella epidemic preventing anyone from leaving until the mystery is solved.

“I have the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio to thank for the inspiration. In fact, his greatest work, the Decameron, is lurking everywhere in TURN TO STONE. In the Decameron, 10 friends flee the Black Plague as it rages in 1348 Florence, intending to escape its horrors in a villa in Fiesole, high above the city. And, like the young people in the Decameron, my characters tell stories to help pass the time.”

How much overall research did Ziskin have to do for this book (besides the language) on Italian culture?

“Let’s see…four years of undergraduate study, six years of graduate work, countless hours reading and re-reading the Decameron and other Italian literature, not to mention the history of the Italian fascist period, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. Oh, how to start a Vespa. And, of course, the food and wine. I based the lavish meals served at the villa in TURN TO STONE on actual menus from restaurants of the period in Florence.

“I was interested to find that some of the common food vocabulary has changed since the early 1960s. Like what the courses were called, for instance. And popular pasta types. Pairings, desserts, everything. It was also a challenge to avoid using the word ‘pasta’ in the book when English is the language being spoken. ‘Spaghetti,’ ‘noodles,’ and ‘macaroni’ were in use in the early 60s in the US. Not ‘pasta.’ That didn’t really come into American usage until the 1980s. Still, ‘macaroni’ may sound odd to our 21st-century ears.”

So what’s next for Ellie? “A brief vacation. I’m taking a little time to write something else before getting back to her. A standalone throwback thriller set in India in 1975 during the ‘Emergency.’ An American journalist arrives in India just as the Emergency is declared and Indira Gandhi suspends civil liberties, jails her political opponents, and censors the press. ‘Gatsby meets Graham Greene on the Subcontinent’ is my elevator pitch.”

About the Author

James W. Ziskin, Jim to his friends, is the author of the seven Ellie Stone mysteries. His books have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His fourth book, Heart of Stone, won the 2017 Anthony for Best Paperback Original and the 2017 Macavity (Sue Feder Memorial) award for Best Historical Mystery. He’s published short stories in various anthologies and in The Strand Magazine. Before he turned to writing, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana. He spent 15 years in the Hollywood postproduction industry, running large international operations in the subtitling and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website or on Twitter (@jameswziskin).

 

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