Every once in a while, I get embarrassed. Like recently, when I got the opportunity to score an ARC of James Ziskin’s latest Ellie Stone book. Now, I’ve been wanting to get to these for a while (yeah, yeah, you probably beat me to the punch). So my first reaction to the ARC was “hell to the yeah,” but then I thought, “Wait, don’t I have to start at the beginning?”
Screw it, I decided. This might be the kick in the pants I need.
Which it was.
I’m happy to report that the book is phenomenal – and if you are already an Ellie Stone fan, you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh, Liz.” And if you’re like me, and have inexplicably not read these books yet, I’m happy to report that the book is very readable — and you can gobble up this one, then go back to the beginning.
I’m equally happy (how many times can I use that phrase?) to say I immediately emailed to ask if James would answer a few questions and he was more than pleased to.
Without further ado…
LM: I loved Ellie’s voice. You probably get this a lot, but…I know authors who have a real challenge writing authentically from the viewpoint of the opposite gender. But Ellie never sounds anything but like a woman of her time period. Does this come naturally to you or do you have “experts” to keep you on track?
JWZ: I get that question a lot. Serves me right. I’ve asked myself the same thing for years. And I’ve come to realize that, besides listening better and striving to be empathetic toward a gender that is not my own, I’m more or less successful at creating a believable female voice thanks in part to the fifty-five years of distance between today and the early sixties. None of us is living in that time period. We’re all looking back through the lens of time. There are old movies, television shows, books, and newspapers, of course, and I use those resources and many more to hone Ellie’s voice. I can paint a character who is still surrounded and swamped by the expectations and prejudices and mindset of that period. I can even permit Ellie to be a little—just a touch—sexist herself, since everyone was back then.
As for experts to keep me on track, I have several trusted beta readers who fit the bill. My sister recently reminded me that good girls in the sixties were taught to keep their knees together. I just had to put that in the book.
LM: Betrayal and hypocrisy, and the results, struck me as big themes in A Stone’s Throw. Do you write with theme in mind or does it come out as you develop the story?
JWZ: Yes. I begin each book with the themes decided, at least in broad strokes. Of course better ideas come to me as I write, even though I outline and plot in advance. But the overarching themes don’t change. In A Stone’s Throw, I wanted to explore long-festering, cruel betrayal and its destructive effects on the people involved. Another theme that obsessed me in this book was the slow, slippery progression from good to bad. When do people cross the line?
LM: I’m so jealous. I can never identify “theme” until I’m at least done with the first draft, and I usually need people to bash me over the head with it even then.
I am ashamed to admit this was my first Ellie Stone book. What was gratifying was how I didn’t feel “lost” knowing this was not the first book in the series. I think it’s something every series author has to think about. Do you have particular tricks for making new readers like me feel “at home” in the series (and whet their appetites to go back)?
JWZ: I try to make each book stand on its own. One trick I use is to make sure I provide a brief recap of certain characters. It doesn’t have to be long. For instance, Ellie has to explain who Fadge is at the beginning of each book. And her nemesis at the newspaper, George “Georgie Porgie” Walsh. I usually have Ellie fire off a humorous insult at his expense or recall a memorable gaffe that he’s made in the past. In A Stone’s Throw, Ellie observes that sharpening pencils is the only skill George has that’s even remotely related to writing. This provides quick and painless insight into the character, as well as the contentious history he shares with Ellie.
Another thing I do with each book is a separate editing pass where I read exclusively looking for mentions of people or events from previous books. I believe I’ve explained how Ellie’s company car was driven into the lake by a drunken colleague—before it was fobbed off on her—in four books now. The key is not to be long-winded about it. One of my mantras for description is, “If it can’t be memorable, make it economical.”
LM: I love that; I’ll have to remember it for book 2.
Fadge speaks very knowledgeably about the race track and betting. Be honest: was this research or do you have some personal experience (and if so, what are your best tips – the only two times I attempted to bet on horse races I lost everything)?
JWZ: Most of my knowledge of the horse racing and betting comes from my teenage years when I used to go the races at Saratoga every August. I was a terrible gambler. No aptitude and no patience to pore over the Racing Form and handicap the horses. But knowing the results of the races in my book, I can tailor the fictional betting to make sense. And pay off. Or not. Growing up, I had a friend, Robert, who was the inspiration for Fadge’s character in these books. Robert was a scary bettor. A true plunger. He won big and lost big as well. And he lived life as if the clock was running out. Good thing, since he died of brain tumor at the age of thirty-five. A Stone’s Throw is dedicated to his memory.
LM: Maybe I should have gone over to the Erie County racetrack more growing up.
Ellie is an interesting character for me. She lives at a pivotal time in social history, and she definitely has opinions, but she doesn’t seem to wear them on her sleeve. For example, she’s very sensitive to people who make jokes or are critical of Jews, but she isn’t overtly Jewish. Was this something you set out to do or did you learn it about her personality as the character developed?
JWZ: As you see in A Stone’s Throw, an elderly bank executive’s attempts to lure Ellie back to the faith fail. But she cannot and, indeed, does not want to escape her Jewishness. She remains culturally Jewish even if she was raised by atheist parents. I definitely set out to paint her as an enlightened humanist, so, yes, it was part of her character from the start.
I would say that Ellie has a thicker skin about anti-Semitism than you might think, with the following proviso. She won’t lose sleep over a stale Jewish joke. Or even when her dear friend Fadge thoughtlessly uses the term “Jewish lightning” to describe arson. She gives him a sharp poke in the ribs for his trouble, by the way. But when people she likes and admires reject her for her Jewishness, it can knock the wind out of her. It’s a maddening prejudice that she can do nothing to change.
LM: James, thanks so much for answering the questions!
Readers, James graciously agreed to stop and answer questions throughout the day, so feel free to post your own!