So declares Ellie Stone in Styx & Stone, the first book in James Ziskin’s series about a young newspaper reporter in the early 1960s. By Heart of Stone, the fourth in the series, readers know that she isn’t giving lip service when she makes this statement. In this outing, the voraciously curious Ellie becomes suspicious about a pair of deaths while visiting her aunt in the Adirondacks. Two seemingly unrelated men are believed to have fallen off a cliff at the same time, and Ellie’s investigation takes her to Arcadia, a utopian summer commune for free-thinking intellectuals, where she has a love affair, asks hard questions, and drinks Dewar’s with the best of them.
As I finished Heart of Stone, I considered why it’s so satisfying to read female characters in historical mysteries. These liberated fictional women can fight the good fight for the many real-life women who felt powerless to oppose the overt, mainstream sexism of the times.
They get to spar with the Don Drapers of the world — or in Ellie’s case, the leering, small-town chief of police, Tiny Terwilliger — and they get to win not only arguments, but respect. When done well, as Ellie is, they resurrect the trailblazing women who pushed boundaries and paved the path toward equality.
The Ellie Stone books have been finalists for the Anthony, Lefty, and Barry Awards. One of the reasons the series is so well-received is that Ziskin seems more than comfortable writing in a first-person female voice. From describing what it’s like for a woman to swim in a dress or drink alone in a bar, he gets it. But in doing so, he has also been confronted by some unexpected gender politics that have helped him relate to Ellie in a deeper way.
I interviewed Ziskin by email about human behavior, liberal elites, and writing in drag.
KIM FAY: You’re a man writing from a first-person woman’s point of view. In the world of mystery fiction, this is not common. Why did you choose to write from a female perspective, and in particular, why a twentysomething in the 1960s?
JAMES ZISKIN: There are a few reasons I wanted to write from a woman’s point of view. First, I didn’t feel comfortable writing a hard-boiled male detective. I’m just not that type. Second, I wanted to write about a realistic character who faced daily challenges in the workplace. Solving crimes is hard enough, yes, but I wanted to upend some chairs, make things harder and, as a consequence, more interesting for my character. And third, I like stories about people who persevere against the odds and swim against the current. One bright day I got the idea of writing about a young woman who’s trying to make a career for herself in 1960. And so Ellie Stone was born. Several times a day a man — or woman for that matter — will challenge Ellie, underestimate her, dismiss her, or try to pat her behind. The time period works because women are starting to enter the workforce, but we are still several years away from the sexual revolution and feminism. Ellie is a feminist avant la lettre. She’s not consciously trying to blaze trails for women. She just wants a fulfilling career for herself.
Ellie Stone is hardly one of the girls in, well, Girls, and I have a feeling she’d be shocked by Sex and the City. But you’ve mentioned to me before that some readers find her too hard-drinking and too promiscuous. Could you talk a little about that and why you think some readers, even in this day and age, wish she was more demure?
Readers sometimes tell me that they wish Ellie didn’t drink so much or end up in bed with men. I get the distinct feeling that they care for her, though, and want the best for her. Maybe someone will organize an intervention one day. I like to answer that Ellie is a good person. She’s just not a “good girl.” Lots of people we know and love get up to all kinds of naughtiness behind closed doors; we just might not know about it. Nor should we.
I agree that Ellie would be shocked by Girls and Sex and the City. She’s a little shocked by her aunt Lena’s skinny-dipping in Heart of Stone. For that reason, she gives her readers few details about her sexual encounters. And what she does divulge is often humorous and self-deprecating.
I mentioned her morality a moment ago, and that bears repeating. I hope readers won’t be fooled by her promiscuity. Ellie is a fiercely moral person. Not that her behavior conforms to traditional ideas on sex out of wedlock, especially in the early 1960s. But Ellie has laid claim to her own morality, even if readers don’t always approve. It’s one of the things I like most about her.
Have you ever been called onto the carpet for something you’ve written about Ellie, with the comment, “Only a man would write that”?
There was some pushback in that direction on Styx & Stone, the first Ellie Stone novel, but not since. Maybe it was the novelty of the character. I like to think that readers are getting used to Ellie.
I take a longer view of gender identity and behavior. Assigning specific traits such as toughness, tenderness, or sensitivity to one sex only is wrongheaded. It’s a short leap from there to saying that girls can’t and shouldn’t do math and men are incapable of monogamy. Human behavior can be plotted on a very long continuum. There are tough women and sensitive men and every combination in between. Ellie falls somewhere between the extremes of pat stereotype and perfect realism.
Sexism plays a significant role in the Ellie books. She is often dismissed because she is a woman. Over the course of writing these books, do you feel that you’ve gained a new understanding of the systemic underpinnings of sexism, and if so, how?
In the interests of time, let’s put aside the more “benign” examples of sexism that women face every day of their lives and discuss matters of safety, career, and personal freedom instead. I can try to imagine what it feels like to plan your life around the perils of being female, but it’s only an approximation. I can’t know what it’s like to worry about finding myself alone in the wrong part of the city at the wrong time. I don’t know the humiliation and frustration of being drowned out in meetings by male colleagues. And while we’re at it, why are my male colleagues paid more than I am? As for my private life, I’ve never worried that my date will assume I’m tacitly agreeing to sex just because my shirt is too tight. And I don’t live in fear of physical abuse from a spouse who’s larger and stronger than I am. No politicians try to tell me, a man, what I can do with my own reproductive organs. I can’t say I’ve had to worry about these things for myself, but I have tried to listen carefully when women discuss them. We should all listen, of course. And writers doubly so. It all comes down to empathy.
Ellie is always confronting bias. It’s the nature of the times and can’t be avoided. But in Heart of Stone, you address the issue of sexism from a unique angle. In this book, Ellie spends time with a progressive group of left-wing radicals, communists, and intellectuals. The men are forward-thinking. At the same time, they have traditional views about the role of women — views, at times, that are as offensive as those of the bigoted, chauvinistic police chief Ellie has to deal with. Can you discuss why you chose to go down this road?
For one thing, I’m committed to depicting 1960 without deceptive and clichéd rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Things weren’t better for everyone in the good old days. Just ask women and minorities. And for another, I wanted to show that misogyny and sexism are equal-opportunity scourges. You find them across the political spectrum, left, right, and center. And while things have certainly improved since 1961, let’s not be naïve. Left-wing progressives were and can still be blind to these failings. Look at Hollywood and its diversity problems, not to mention equal pay. This is the liberal Hollywood elite that conservatives have railed against for years. The same liberal Hollywood elite that pats itself on the back for its progressive politics. So in Heart of Stone I created a character, not altogether unlikable by the way, who is a product of his times when it comes to respecting the potential of women. He’s a communist, an idealist, an intellectual. And still he thinks of women as having their traditional roles with very few exceptions.
A few years ago you were invited to participate in an event called Men of Mystery at Bouchercon, the country’s biggest mystery writers’ convention. The event showcased male writers. You chose not to participate. Why?
Ouch. Tough question. First, let me say that I have nothing negative to say about Men of Mystery or the Bouchercon conference. It was a perfect storm of best intentions that just didn’t work out. For me, it was a painful moment. I had accepted an invitation to participate in the Men of Mystery event without even stopping to consider that there was nothing analogous planned for women authors at the conference. When my dear friend and writer, Lynne Raimondo, pointed out quite cogently the inherent if unintended unfairness of the situation, I did some soul searching. I asked myself how I — a writer whose main character is a woman fighting against the biases and sexism of her day — could in good conscience participate in an event that was limited to male authors. I don’t fault anyone who participated, but given my situation, I knew I would have felt like a fraud. I listened to my conscience and politely withdrew. Later, the conference organizers worked out a compromise that made the best of an unfortunate situation. I remain comfortable with the decision I made.
How do you relate to Ellie and is there anything about her that you would say serves as your alter ego?
People who know me well say that Ellie is, in essence, me. And if you strip away gender and age, that’s true. We share the same morality, sense of justice, sympathies, and ideals. We’re both unapologetic lefties, despite what I just said about the liberal Hollywood elite. We are cynics and idealists at the same time. We laugh at hypocrisy and absurdity, as well as anyone who clings stubbornly to such tenets. And we both love books, classical music, and crossword puzzles. All the most important things.
How far would you like to take Ellie, and by that I mean, how far into her future? I won’t ask if she’s going to settle down, but I will ask: Are you and she in it for the long haul, and do you already have an idea where the two of you will be going together?
Thank you for not asking about her settling down. Does anyone ever wonder when Jack Reacher is going to retire and take a wife?
As for Ellie, I love writing these books, thinking of new and better ways for Ellie to defy the odds and solve crimes. I want to explore many more social issues of the period, all the while trying not to inject modern-day sensibilities into Ellie’s head.
There are still several “Stone” titles left for me to use before I have to fold tents. I already have plans for A Stone’s Throw, Blood from a Stone, Etched in Stone, and Sink like a Stone. I’ve recently signed a contract for the fifth installment, Cast the First Stone, which will be out in summer 2017.
Kim Fay is the author of the historical novel The Map of Lost Memories, an Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel, and the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.