I am happy to have Award-winning author James Ziskin join us this week. James is the author of the popular Ellie Stone mystery series, and his newest book “Bombay Monsoon” will be available at all leading book sellers on December 6.
Let me first say thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us here at ViewsonBooks.com. Between the holidays and promoting your newest book, I am sure that your schedule is filled.
To begin with, you have had a very varied career, so could you please tell us a bit about yourself in terms of education, background and what made you want to become a writer?
JWZ: Thanks for having me, Blaine. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was twelve, when I wrote my first book. It was a historical novel set in World War I, and it was terrible. About what you’d expect from a twelve-year-old boy who couldn’t spell. I still have a copy squirreled away in storage, but I won’t show it to anyone. So I think I’ve always wanted to write. I loved stories and poems as a child. And since language is my other great passion, writing was a natural outlet for me.
As for my education, I studied Romance languages and literature in college and grad school. Specifically French, Italian, and Spanish. Later, I did a little German and elementary Hindi. As an undergrad and grad student, I had the chance to read a lot of great literature in the original language. And some works that aren’t normally read outside of France or Italy. The variety of themes and ideas in my reading, along with the pure joy language brought me, certainly helped prepare me for my writing career. Despite my early start, I didn’t find a publisher for my work until rather late. It took me forty years after that first horrible book to sell my first mystery novel, Styx & Stone.
Your first book “Styx & Stone” became the initial book in the Ellie Stone mystery series, did you intend for this to become a series of books when you first started writing?
JWZ: Yes. From the start I knew I wanted to follow my protagonist, Ellie Stone, through a long narrative arc. I think it was partially because the conventional wisdom at the time was that series built your brand and earned you a group of faithful readers. Not sure if that’s always the case, but it seemed to make sense to me. And Ellie has grown as a character in wonderful ways. She was quite young in January 1960, when Styx & Stone is set. She reached late 1963 in the seventh book in the series, Turn to Stone.
Was the character Ellie Stone based on anyone in particular?
JWZ: As a matter of fact, no. I set out to write her as an answer to the hard-drinking, womanizing detectives that used to dominate crime fiction. I wondered why a woman couldn’t do the same: investigate crime, drink and smoke, and occasionally fall into bed with the wrong person—with no intention of getting married. I’m fond of posing the rhetorical question, “Does anyone ask Lee Child when Jack Reacher is going to settle down and get married?” So I knew from the start that Ellie Stone wasn’t looking for a husband. She was looking for a career that didn’t involve fetching coffee for a slimy boss who patted her rear end as if it was his right as a man.
No, Ellie is based on no one in particular. But she has many qualities—empathy, compassion, a strong sense of morality, brains, and persistence—which I admire in women and men.
By 2016 you were winning major writing awards, which has to be extremely gratifying. Were you surprised when all those awards kept coming your way? And did it put extra pressure on you for those sequels?
JWZ: Oh, yes. To both questions. Every time the major award short lists came out, I was surprised if my name was there. You do the math in your head. How many books are published in our genre each year? How many great books—better than your own, you’re sure—don’t get recognized? The odds are long to be nominated, so you start to worry that you’ll be struck by lightning, if only to even out your good and bad luck. But it’s such a thrill when you make the list. I always celebrate with a bottle of champagne, write the date and details on the cork, and save it. I’ve got twenty-one nomination corks. And four wins, which means four more corks. And sometimes I celebrate Thursdays or Tuesdays in the same manner, but without saving the corks.
Did the awards put more pressure on me for subsequent books? For sure when I didn’t win the award! Just kidding. I’m driven to write better each time I begin a new book or story, not because I want to win an award, but because I want to improve and be the best writer I can be. Yes, an award is always an exciting bonus, but if I wrote for prizes, I would be a very shallow man.
Why did you decide to go from a successful book series, to writing this novel set in India?
JWZ: I thought it was time to take a break from my Ellie Stone books and try something new. I’ve got a long history with India and, for many years, I’ve wanted to write a book set there. It was a nice change, too, to write from a male narrator’s perspective. Bombay Monsoon is also my first thriller.
Is your lead character, Dan Jacobs, based on anyone in particular or is he a composite from your people who have met in India?
JWZ: No. Just a nice, normal guy who—perhaps foolishly—allows himself to get caught up in events larger than himself. I think those make the most interesting protagonists in thrillers: regular people in way over their heads. Readers can relate to them.
I found it fascinating that you set this book back In 1975 and tied a lot of the issues in the book to The Emergency as declared by Indira Gandhi at that time. Could you give us a brief overview of The Emergency, since many may be unfamiliar with it or are like me and just forgot about it!
JWZ: Article 352 of the Indian Constitution allows for the government to declare a domestic emergency in case of internal threats to the nation. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used the declaration to suspend many civil liberties, censor the press, and throw thousands of her political opponents in jail. For twenty-one months, Gandhi and her majority Congress Party ruled the country with complete power.
The origins of the Emergency went back to Mrs. Gandhi’s 1971 election to parliament. Her defeated opponent claimed she’d violated election laws by using government resources in her campaign. Four years later, in June of 1975, Mrs. Gandhi was found guilty of the charges and her victory was nullified. The infractions were minor, but you can’t be the prime minister if you’re not a member of parliament. The Supreme Court, however, granted her twenty days to prepare an appeal. It was during that twenty-day period that, using civil unrest and protests as justification, she declared the Emergency. Indian democracy was suspended through this virtual coup. Mrs. Gandhi remained in power until 1977 when she lifted the declaration. She was immediately voted out of office, though she did return to power a couple of years later. She remained prime minister until her assassination by her own security guards in 1984.
You have very substantial ties to India, how did that come about, and are you currently a citizen of India?
JWZ: No, I’m not eligible to be a full citizen. But thanks to my marital status, I held a PIO card (person of Indian origin) for many years until that program was discontinued, replaced by the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. I’m waiting for my OCI card to arrive now.
My history with India dates back more than twenty-five years, when I first visited the country for my wedding. Since then, I’ve made fifty-six separate trips to India and have spent nearly four years there working and traveling. Most of my time has been in Bangalore, Poona (Pune), and—of course—Bombay (Mumbai).
Despite being a good journalist Dan Jacobs seems to not really be working on a lot of stories and lets his budding romance with Sushmita sometimes cloud his judgement. Was that intentional or am I reading too much into this?
JWZ: Danny has only recently arrived in India when the book begins. He’s still finding his way when the Emergency is declared. That, of course, limits greatly what he can report, thanks to the censorship of the press. So, yes, he has some time to follow his heart.
When I read this book I begin to understand why the British considered India their jewel in the crown. How would you describe the India today with regard to their feelings about the British, because in 1975 they still seem extremely deferential?
JWZ: I think that might depend on which Indians you ask. It’s true that many still admire the British despite their troubled history together. But just as many resent the exploitation and oppression of the Raj. Some Indians were treated better than others, of course. The Parsees, for example. During the colonial era, Parsees enjoyed a privileged relationship with their colonial overlords. I even included a little joke in the book about this.
“Everyone in the place suddenly looked suspect to me. The two university students gazing into each other’s eyes opposite me. The old Parsee lady guarding her tea until it turned cold, evaporated, or the British returned, whichever came first.”
But there’s a tremendous British legacy in India. Everything from the educational and justice systems, to the railroads, language, and cricket. Cricket is a national mania on the Subcontinent. If nothing else, they’ll always have that in common.
I found Dan Jacobs and India to be extremely compelling in terms of subject matter. Do you envision a series of books based on Dan’s experiences in India?
JWZ: Yes. I’m planning two more Emergency books in India. I’m working on the second one now. We need to know what happens between Danny and Sushmita, after all.
Do you intend to revisit the Ellie Stone series?
JWZ: Yes, I want to follow her through the turbulent sixties in a few more books. At least until I run out of good “stone” expressions to use as titles. I’ve still got Sink like a Stone, Blood from a Stone, Set/Etched in Stone, and Two Birds with One Stone. Maybe your readers will have other suggestions.
You have resided in many different countries, do you envision using any of these locales for either Dan Jacobs books or other novels you want to write?
JWZ: Surely, yes. I’ve lived in France and would love to write some novels set there. I’ve worked and spent many wonderful months in Italy, where my last Ellie Stone book, Turn to Stone, takes place. That was my quarantine book, by the way. Ten people trapped in a Tuscan villa by a rubella outbreak in 1963. It came out the day after the very first US Covid case was diagnosed, but that was pure coincidence.
How did Covid affect you In terms of health, writing or even new book ideas?
JWZ: I spent the first year of Covid inside, never venturing out except to open-air places. I used the time to write Bombay Monsoon. After Covid, I have no desire to write or read about pandemics and quarantines.
Finally, do you have a set writing schedule or do you write as the spirit moves you?
JWZ: It depends on the phase of the book I’m in. When I’m outlining and planning, there’s no set schedule. Once I have my idea set and I’m ready to write, it’s a sprint. I write at any time of day, anywhere. I work exclusively on my iPad, which I take everywhere. Typically, I write about 1,000 words a day over a three-month period, though at the end I’m churning out 2,000-3,000 words a day. As you near the end, your options narrow, so your focus is sharper. You see the ending and the words come more easily.
That said, I believe writers should never wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration comes after twenty minutes of staring at a blank page. Trust me. It always comes when you park your ass in the seat.
James, thanks so very much for taking time for this interview. I really enjoyed Bombay Monsoon and so many of the characters in the book. I look forward to your next book!!!