Styx & Stone by James W. Ziskin
By Lee Lindauer
Ellie Stone is a “modern girl” at the beginnings of the 60’s, caught up in a classic whodunit after her scholarly father is found nearly beaten to death. With a plot that meticulously ties together her father’s missing manuscript and the death of another professor with the tension and distrust of fellow colleagues and acquaintances, she is thrust into a whirlwind of classical music, linguistics, and stolen identities, Holocaust horrors and of course, the brilliance of Dante. As a journalist and a “goodtime girl,” Ms. Stone has a take-no-prisoner approach. She overwhelms the investigative nature of the police in lining up the clues that bring the story to its conclusion.
To get a sense of this fast-paced mystery, I took the liberty to learn a little bit more about STYX & STONE and the author, James Ziskin.
It is an interesting twist to set the novel at the beginning of 1960. Other than this being the appropriate time frame due to the historical circumstances of WWII and the Holocaust, did you find it intriguing to write about this period? (You were born in 1960, any coincidence?)
I like books that transport you to another time or place. I’ve always thought of 1960 as a very modern year. We were on the brink of the jet age and a world of modern conveniences, but that era also seems quaint and old fashioned to us today. And as you say, 1960 worked with my timeline, just fifteen years after the war. Long enough to cloud memories, but not enough time to forget. And, yes, I have a soft spot for the year I was born.
The first person POV is unique, kind of a Sam Spade approach to a mystery. Did you find it easy to place yourself in a woman’s (Ellie Stone) head?
I don’t find anything about writing easy. But writing Ellie was no more difficult than any other character in the story. Writers dream up all manner of characters. Some are men, some are women, children, murderers… I try to imagine a person and go from there, worrying more about the whole than gender specifically. And the Sam Spade comparison is an interesting one. Generically, STYX & STONE falls somewhere between traditional mystery and noir. And Ellie’s better looking than Sam Spade.
Did you develop Ellie Stone from someone in your past (old girlfriend, maybe)?
Ellie is not based on anyone in particular. She’s an amalgam of some traits I admire greatly and some others I do not. She may share some personal philosophies, opinions, and morality with me and people I’ve known, but that’s to be expected. We tend to like like-minded people, after all. And I do love the character of Ellie, her intelligence, weaknesses, and wayward behavior. I like to say that she’s a very nice person. She’s just not a “nice girl.”
There is a good amount of Italian academia associated with this novel. With your background in linguistics and Romance Languages, did you find it easy or difficult to convey that knowledge smoothly for the normal reader?
I wanted the literary and musical references to be illuminating but still accessible to readers, even if they don’t speak Italian or know Dante. I tried to keep it lively. Ellie is in the same position as the reader in many ways. She too is on a journey of learning and discovery.
Dante’s Divine comedy is the underlying theme to STYX & STONE. Can you elaborate on that and how it links with the novel?
The Divine Comedy serves as a thematic thread that pulls Ellie deeper into the story. It is her father’s life work, yet she knows so little about it. And of course Professor Saettano acts as Ellie’s guide, Virgil to her Dante, if you will. Crime and punishment are at the heart of any murder story, and Dante folds in with that theme perfectly.
There are references to the Holocaust in the novel. Did you find this difficult to write about?
It was indeed emotional to write. I wanted to put forward something powerful and unusual, create sympathy and true conflict in the characters’ sensibilities as well as in the readers’ hearts. That was the hardest part.
What are you doing to market the book, and how much involvement does Seventh Street Books have in the promotion?
I’m trying to use social media to get the word out, but it’s tough to do on one’s own. That’s where Seventh Street Books have been so great. They’ve provided tremendous support in publicity, marketing, and editorial services. They send out ARCs and final copies to reviewers and media outlets, print promotional materials, and organize signings and readings. They get your book into the hands of reviewers. That’s something that’s very difficult for indie writers without a publicist to do.
Your website discusses the next Ellie Stone novel, NO STONE UNTURNED, due out in 2014. Can you clue us on as to what the future holds for Ellie Stone?
Ellie will spend some time in New Holland, her adopted upstate town, and we’ll get to watch her investigate a baffling case for the local paper. Fighting stereotypes at work and play, Ellie will find herself in the crosshairs as she searches for a killer. NO STONE UNTURNED has a very different feel from STYX & STONE. Small town, very provincial. But, for balance, there is a big-city university angle again, this time with a jaunt to Boston.
A linguist by training, James Ziskin studied Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught elementary/intermediate French and Italian. He also spent a year teaching English at the University of Paris X, Nanterre. After completing his graduate degree, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as Director of NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. He has since spent fifteen years in the Hollywood post production industry, running large international operations in the subtitling/localization and visual effects fields. He speaks Italian and French fluently. Habla español. Aur wo thoda Hindi bhi bolta hai.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.
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