What Scares You, James Ziskin?

I’m thrilled to welcome James Ziskin to my blog this week. A fine writer and all-around good person, James has won or been nominated for nearly every major mystery fiction award. My husband Art Taylor recently read aloud James’ story “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” featuring Sherlock Holmes, and I honestly forgot that it wasn’t a Conan Doyle original as we were reading.
But today we are here to discover what terrifies James to his bones. Let’s get to it!


What is your greatest fear?

Heights. They paralyze me and turn my stomach upside down. In my upcoming book, Bombay Monsoon (December 2022, Oceanside), I explore this fear in some detail. Many years ago, I visited the World Trade Center and went up to the roof where there was an observation deck. It must have been a hundred feet or more from the edge, and there was a fence around it. Nevertheless, I had the crippling fear that if I took even so much as a step, I would trip and, with great lunging strides to avoid falling, I would career all the way to the edge and plunge—tumbling and grasping at the air—into the void to my certain death.

I had the same feeling a few years ago when I allowed myself—foolishly—to be talked into visiting the roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. I flattened myself against the wall until the tiny elevator returned to take me back down to terra firma.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

The Northeast Blackout of 1965. I was only five years old, but I remember it distinctly. I was carrying a candle in the dark, and some wax dripped down on my hand. I seriously thought I was on fire and was going to die, burnt to a crisp. A second or two later, I realized that I would live. Not even a scar from the molten wax. But that memory is a strong one.

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

Fear of flying. Not related to my fear of heights, though. A totally different sensation. Maybe because the altitude seems unreal, not at all like the feeling I get when imagining those crazy people walking on i-beams as they build skyscrapers. But, yes, I used to be terrified of flying, convinced that every bump of turbulence was going to break off the wings or an engine and take the plane down. The fear didn’t stop me from flying when I had to, but I worried a lot every time I boarded a plane.

About twenty years ago, however, I started doing a lot of travel for business. Dozens of trips to Montreal, Italy, and India. Fifty-seven visits to India alone, and each of those involved about twenty hours in the air. After a while, the flights stopped bothering me. I suppose I couldn’t maintain the fear for so many hours and so many trips. With time, I even grew to love the long flights, especially when the company was footing the bill for a business class seat. Now I look at flying as ridiculously safe, especially compared to driving. The statistics are remarkable.

What is your weirdest fear?

Trypophobia. Look it up if you think you’re brave enough.

 What are your phobias?

The aforementioned trypophobia. And spiders’ eyes. Almost the same phobia. Makes my skin crawl. I’m also afraid of teenagers. Half-joking, but there’s something about their self-confidence, particularly when there’s a group of them. See my response to the recurring nightmare question.

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

For some reason, I’ve long had nightmares where I’m a teacher who loses control of the class. Weird. The scene gets ugly, with kids practically rioting and me with no idea how to right the ship. Terrifying, especially now that I’ve actually become a teacher. I teach middle school French, and I love it. The waking hours at least…

What scares you most about the writing process?

The beginning. Starting a new book is a daunting proposition. There’s nothing but endless possibilities ahead, and, behind, no foundation of story to support and guide me. As a result, progress is slow and marred by pivots, reversals of course, and lots of corrections and reworking as the characters and story take shape. I think of it as a flat horizon. Three hundred and sixty degrees of nothing. I can go anywhere I want, yes, but where? Once the story gets going, though, the 360 degrees decrease, along with the infinite options. In a sense, the developing story sets a course that becomes narrower and narrower as you proceed. By the time I’m two thirds into a book, my daily writing production soars, and it becomes a sprint to the end. That’s because the endless possibilities have been whittled down to only a few.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?

Like I said above, Chapter One. But if I had to point to a scene in my books, I would probably say the climax of Bombay Monsoon. I can’t describe it here, however, without giving away the ending. Let’s just say it involves my greatest fear. Another example is the climactic scene in the fourth Ellie Stone mystery, Heart of Stone. Again, though, I can’t really go into it without ruining the ending.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

That I stink. I’m a fraud. People are just being nice and don’t tell me the truth. I get this feeling when I look back at something I wrote in the past. I see how I’ve developed/improved as a writer, and I wish I could take back or correct some of the mistakes I now recognize in my books and stories. I’m probably overreacting—these are surely minor things—but I find myself feeling like an imposter. I think most writers will understand this feeling.


James W. Ziskin is the author of the Anthony and Macavity Award-winning Ellie Stone Mysteries. His books have been finalists multiple times for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His short story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” is a finalist for the 2021 Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for Best Short Story. His latest novel, Turn to Stone, is a finalist for the 2021 Sue Grafton Memorial Award, the Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery, the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original, and the Macavity for Best Historical Mystery.

A linguist by training, he studied Romance languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. 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. He spent fifteen years in the Hollywood post production industry, managing large international operations in the subtitling and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and nearly four years in India. He speaks Italian and French.

James lives near Boston. He is represented by Kimberley Cameron of Kimberley Cameron and Associates.