Thursday, May 14, 2020

Ten Characters in Search of an Exit by James W. Ziskin

We're in the strangest time many of us have ever known right now. How do you decide how much of the outside world to include in your work?

From Jim

In other words, have I included anything about the pandemic or quarantining in my writing? Not in the two months since the shutdown began, however...

I sure did write a lot about quarantine when I was working on my latest Ellie Stone book, TURN TO STONE. It’s a coincidence that TURN TO STONE was released on January 21, 2020, one day after the first U.S. Covid-19 case was diagnosed. At the time, I doubt many people expected shelter-at-home orders or the closure of restaurants, beaches, and hair salons. But that’s where we are now, three-and-a-half months later. 

TURN TO STONE is, as you may already know, a book about a quarantine. I used the threat of German measles, or rubella, in 1963 Italy to trap my characters in a villa in Fiesole. I chose rubella because I wanted a disease whose symptoms were sometimes mild or non-existent for my story. Rubella, while extremely dangerous to unborn children, was not so for healthy adults. And, of course, there was no vaccine at the time. 

The bucolic setting, high above Florence, struck me as a fine way to create my own locked-room mystery. Locked-room mysteries normally confine the cast of characters to a house together with the eventual victim or victims. These houses are usually in the countryside, on a mountaintop, or on a rain-swept island cut off from the mainland. For TURN TO STONE, I decided to do a variation on a theme and quarantine my characters after the victim has already died.

That artifice allowed me to explore the effects—social, psychological, and sometimes humorous—of forced confinement on my ten characters. They eat, drink, and spin tales for entertainment during their quarantine. And, in the interest of building conflict, they disagree and argue about politics, religion, morality, and what kind of person Alberto Bondinelli—the dead man—really was. Through their recollections of a remarkably complex man, they provide Ellie with clues to what really happened to him.

Another important detail—and coincidence—about the book is that it pays homage to the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century collection of stories. He framed his 100 tales against the backdrop of the Black Death that devastated Europe in 1348, with ten young people quarantining themselves for safety in Fiesole for ten days. And they tell stories to pass the time. 

In these modern times, we binge watch TV instead.

But I suspect people aren’t really interested in reading about quarantines. At least not now. I had no way of knowing we’d be in the spot we’re in today when I set out to write my book. TURN TO STONE does offer its characters—and readers—a brief respite from the bustle of the world. There are worse ways to spend a week than sheltering in a beautiful villa in Fiesole, after all. And there is plenty of fine Tuscan cuisine, wines, and other tempting alcoholic beverages to enjoy along with the mystery. My characters—like many of us—will leave their quarantine fatter and drunker for their trouble. 

No, I didn’t see the Covid-19 pandemic in a crystal ball. I only wanted to trap ten characters in an idyllic spot in order to tell my story. And that turned out to be one heck of a coincidence.

Stay safe. Read more.


Brenda Chapman said...

I'm so eager to read your book - Ted and I spent a week in Florence and an entire day in Fiesole a couple of years ago! What a terrific setting for a mystery. Congrats again on its release.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Brenda! Hope you enjoy!


Frank Zafiro said...

So looking forward to this book, Jim. Not only to "see" Ellie again, but to experience Italy again.