Friday, February 15, 2019

"Why This? Why Now?" A Guest Post by Frank Zafiro

If only I could tell you how many women have said those exact words to me. Fortunately the rest of you are in luck, as today we have what’s called in the publishing industry “a treat.” Frank Zafiro has stopped by to talk about writing, collaboration, his Ania series, as well as his newest and most precedent-setting series The Grifter’s Song. I could go on a while here, but Frank will tell all of it better than I could.

Why This? Why Now?

So far, I’ve written more than two dozen books. Most are crime fiction. Roughly half have been collaborations. And like probably every other writer I know, these books represent about one percent of the ideas I’d like to turn into books and get out into the world.
That being the case, it might seem a little surprising to some that I chose in 2018 to re-visit the seemingly completed Ania trilogy that I co-authored with Jim Wilsky. Starting with Blood on Blood, this hard boiled series was written in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. I wrote one character (Mick) while Jim wrote the other (Jerzy). These two half-brothers find themselves walking a tightrope between cooperating and competing with each other while in pursuit of the diamonds their father hid after his last heist. When Ania, a siren grifter, enters the scene, things get even dicier.
Ania is the thread that links the books of the series, as it continues in Queen of Diamonds, where Jim and I wrote the characters of Cord and Casey, respectively, as they face off in a high stakes poker match where Ania seems to be the prize. The series ends in Closing the Circle, as both John and Andros pursue the wily grifter from Chicago to Vegas and out to northern California. The trilogy most definitely gets wrapped up, and that was 2013, so why revisit it in 2018?
Well, there’s three reasons, really. There’s a business reason, there’s an artistic reason, and there’s an inspiration reason.
The business reason is simple. The fine folks at Down and Out Books decided to re-issue the series under their banner, complete with new covers. That alone got Jim and I talking about the stories again, and the possibility of maybe writing another one. After all, having a new book to add to the re-released trilogy makes some marketing sense, right?
But it was the artistic reason that really took hold. Both Jim and I had long wondered about our mysterious antagonist. After spending time with her for three books, we still didn’t know as much about her as we’d like. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did Ania…become Ania?
That led to some discussions and some exploration, and that led to a new book – a prequel aptly titled Harbinger (you can thank Jim for three out of four titles for this series. My lone contribution was the first book). In it, we discover at least part of the Ania origin story, through the eyes of Boyd and Hicks, presented in the same dual first person narrative of the previous books. Boyd, the pragmatist, and Hicks, the beach bum, both find out who Ania is, and how she became the sensual con artist that she is. Along the way, we discovered a twist neither of us saw coming.
So that’s the second reason to come back to a series that has been completed – that artistic need to ferret out answers to questions that were still interesting to me. Luckily, Jim had some of the same questions, and found them just as worthwhile to answer.
But a third reason emerged, and one that I was completely unaware when my conversations with Jim started. You see, spending time with Ania was inspirational in the sense that it got me excited about another pair of grifters whose story I wanted to get out into the world – Sam and Rachel.
Called A Grifter’s Song, the tale of Sam and Rachel is one of two grifters, deeply in love, and deeply in trouble. Having tried to rip off the mob and failing, they are on the run. Each episode takes place in a different locale, involves a different con, and is a complete story unto itself. But in addition to whatever perils they might face from their current job, the specter of the pursuing mob is always there as well.
As I initially envisioned it, I’d write all of the novella-length episodes and release them about once a quarter. Once the saga was complete, I figured I’d collect them into a compendium of some kind. Writing Harbinger moved the project of A Grifter’s Song up my queue significantly. The first episode, The Concrete Smile, started knocking, and then pounding, on my door.
Working on Harbinger with Jim was a reminder of how much I enjoy collaborating with another author, and how satisfying it can be. The entire process feels akin to how attending a mystery conference or just having coffee with another writer drives up the motivation and excitement about your own work. With that in mind, I took a look at the format of a proposal Gary Phillips had made, to which I had submitted a story idea. The format was also novella-length, with multiple episodes, but….every episode had a different author.
I realized that would be a much more satisfying way to go with A Grifter’s Song. It would keep the stories fresh and different. Best of all, it would be collaborative. So I did what all smart artists do, and promptly appropriated the idea for the format. Instead of me writing each novella, I’ll write the first and last of the series, and ten other authors will write the rest.
I pitched the idea to Down and Out Books, who jumped on it. Eric Campbell and I worked out that the series would take place over two “seasons” of six episodes each. He created a subscription model that included a discount for anyone who subscribed to the whole season. I agreed to write an additional story that only subscribers would get, and set about recruiting writers.
Gary Phillips, of course, was the first email I sent. That only seemed fair, right? And Jim Wilsky had to be included, too, since it was our work on Harbinger that got this project going for me. Add in two other authors I’ve collaborated with successfully (Colin Conway and Lawrence Kelter) and the always edgy J.D. Rhoades, and the first season was set. The second season took a little longer, mostly because of how selective I was, but finally rounded out as well. Season two will include Eryk Pruitt, Scott Eubanks, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, and Eric Beetner.
True to form, Eric Campbell commissioned some beautiful covers for the series. The tattered paperback novel look that Zach McCain put together really captures the feel of the stories, and ought to at least engender a second look from any crime fiction fan.
The idea of A Grifter’s Song isn’t new. Cons and heists are as old as the noir sub-genre itself. A man/woman team is classic noir. My intention wasn’t to create something completely new. If anything, my hope is that the series will be a modern homage to some of the great works of Richard Stark (maybe not the Parker novels, but the Alan Grofield ones like Lemons Never Lie) and Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart (and you owe it to yourself to listen to the Alan Sklar narration).
What is new, though, is the subscription model. The collaboration aspect isn’t common, either. I’ll be interested to see how both fare in what is a capricious marketplace, but I’m proud of the fact that Down and Out Books and all of these authors are taking a stab at something a little bit different.
And really, when it comes down to it, that’s why I’m doing this, and that’s why now.    

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