Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Conversation with Frank Zafiro

Frank Zafiro is a name I’ve been familiar with for a while, tied into the crime fiction community as I am, but I’d never met him until this year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. Raconteur, bon vivant, man about town, former military and retired cop, Frank’s the good when looking for an authentic voice in crime. Unlike many with that pedigree, Frank’s writing is highly entertaining and reads like butter.

Frank has written at least half of 26 novels and contributed to many short story collections. For a complete listing, head on over to his web site, which also contains lots of other educational and entertaining stuff. Bonus info: “Zafiro” is a pen name. I’m not going to tell what his real name is, but “Azfori” is an anagram. Draw your own conclusions.

One Bite at a Time: First off, it was a real treat, one of my personal Bouchercon highlights in St. Petersburg, to get to meet and spend some time with you. I write police procedurals and have received comments about how I get most things right, but you write police procedurals drawing on your history as a cop. Fill us in on your law enforcement background.
Frank Zafiro: It was a definite highlight of Bouchercon to meet you and get to hang out. It was a blog post that you wrote that really made me feel more comfortable about going to the conference in the first place, and then as serendipity would have it, you were one of the first people I met, so that was cool.

I spent twenty years and a day as a cop in Spokane, Washington (River City is a thinly veiled version of this burg), retiring in 2013 as a captain. I was fortunate enough in my career to do a lot of different jobs and see many different aspects of the department, whether as an officer or detective, or later as a leader. As a result, I experienced Patrol, Investigations, K-9, SWAT, Hostage, volunteers, Dispatch…pretty much every part of the agency. In my leadership role, I got to see beyond even the PD, interacting with other agencies, other departments within the city, and various elements within the community. I had good experiences and bad ones, and (although I didn’t look at this way at the time) all of those were valuable to me as a writer.

OBAAT: I was familiar with your name more than your work when we met and my ears perked right up when I learned you write a series of police procedurals set in River City, as one might expect for an author who writes a series of police procedurals set in a town called Penns River. What’s the scoop on River City?
FZ: Well, as I mentioned, it’s a thinly veiled Spokane. In fact, the more I write in River City, the less I change about geography or other aspects from the real city it is based upon. The series itself is a police procedural with an ensemble cast. The first book, Under a Raging Moon, was purely patrol level (which is fairly uncommon in the genre), but the net has since widened as the series has progressed, first to include detectives and some mid-level brass, and now the entire breadth and width of the agency from the chief’s office on down.

That said, there are a few characters that have primacy, and the core character of the series for me has become Officer Katie MacLeod. She definitely has a supporting cast who play large secondary roles, but since book #3 she’s definitely who I’d say is the main character. Other big players include the veteran patrol officer Thomas Chisolm, Detective John Tower, and Lieutenant (spoiler alert:  he is promoted in book #5) Robert Saylor, among a host of others.

Since these are written in third person with multiple viewpoints, the reader gets to see what is happening from a variety of perspectives. As the series progresses, the reader also gets to see the development and changes these characters go through, and to share their history.

Essentially, I want the reader to feel like s/he has had a career at RCPD, and has seen all that has happened around them.

OBAAT: There definitely ain’t no flies on you. Your web site lists 26 novels and 18 anthologies contributed to. In the past three weeks alone, Book 5 of the River City series (The Menace of the Years) dropped, Book 3 of your Ania series was re-released (Closing the Circle) and a new series of novella was announced. Plus you do monthly podcasts. How do you balance all of this?
FZ: Meth.

No, not really. Coffee, though.

After I retired from law enforcement, I spent about four years teaching leadership in a national program that took me all over the US and Canada (including your old stomping grounds). This was great for both personal and professional reasons, but it did take its toll on my productivity. I hung up my PowerPoint clicker for good back in December of 2017, which allowed me to write full time. With that being my primary focus, I’ve been able to get a lot more work done.

Also, my first novel was published in 2006, so some of those numbers have been accomplished more though longevity than rapid writing.

Sometimes I do have to take a step back, however. I put my podcast on hiatus during the summer months in order to spend more time with my wife (she’s a teacher).

I guess the simplest answer to your question about balance is simply to be aware, and to manage my time.

OBAAT: You’ve worked on several collaborations with other authors, so you must enjoy the process. Tell us a little of how that works, how the process differs from partner to partner, and what you like best about it.
FZ: You’ve exposed another reason for the number of books I’ve written – I cheated. Eleven of my books are co-authored, and a twelfth will be published by Down & Out Books next year. When you only have to write half a book to take credit for having a whole book published, it sorta skews your numbers!

My first collaboration was with my friend and colleague, Colin Conway. We wrote Some Degree of Murder together, and set it in River City. At the time, we set the book ten years ahead of the most recent RC book I’d released (Heroes Often Fail, set in 1995). The format was a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. In other words, I wrote one character (a police detective) and Colin wrote the other (a mob enforcer). We both wrote in the first person. I wrote a chapter with my guy, then he wrote one with his. As such, the reader gets the intimacy of the first person, but a wider viewpoint than in traditional first person books.

This format has actually served me well. Jim Wilsky did the same thing in our Ania novels. Eric Beetner and I went this route with our Bricks & Cam Job series, and Bonnie Paulson and I stuck with it for The Trade Off.

But Lawrence Kelter wanted to go with a single POV in The Last Collar, so I gave it a go, though not without some apprehension. I was concerned that two writers penning a single first person voice would end up sounding schizophrenic. In the end, though, our styles blended well to create a singular voice. We went the same route in Fallen City, though with multiple, third person viewpoints. That worked so well that I was happy to use that same format with Colin in our newest book, Charlie-316 (due in 2019).

To date, I’ve collaborated with five different authors on twelve books. Four men, one woman. They hail from New York, California, Texas, Idaho, and Washington. Pretty varied group, but they all have one thing in common… great people. And that made the process an absolute joy. In each case, it was akin to those writer meetings over coffee that always have you coming away jazzed up and full of positive writer energy. I enjoyed the entire process, from the planning, to the writing, to the revisions. All of us were very good about putting egos aside, or at least subordinating ego to story, so I don’t recall a single argument. Disagreements and discussions, sure, but all of it focused on bettering the book.

I wrote about become a collaborator in a D&O blog post, if people find that process interesting. I also interviewed all of my collaborators in an episode of Wrong Place, Write Crime, if readers want to get their take on how it all went down.

OBAAT: I came across the Ania series while researching this interview. It sounds fascinating, a main series character who moves through stories that are the schemes of others, carving out her own niche. How did you come up with the idea?
FZ:  Actually, I’m pretty sure Jim Wilsky came up with the idea for the first book, Blood on Blood, once we decided to write a novel together. We put some meat on his bare bones idea, but the initial story wasn’t about Ania. It focused on two half-brothers who were cooperating and competing to find the loot from their father’s last heist. Jim invented Ania in an early scene with his character, and as the story grew, so did her role. It was a classic case of a character refusing to be ignored and ultimately hijacking the book, or at least part of it.

Once we finished the first book and started talking about our next one, we realized that she was the thread that would connect the series, even though she wouldn’t be the one actually telling the tales. Her POV is only shown a scant few times throughout all four books. Instead, we see her through the eyes of the two protagonists, and in each book, those two protagonists are different – Mick and Jerzy in Blood on Blood, Cord and Casey in Queen of Diamonds, John and Andros in Closing the Circle, and Boyd and Hicks in Harbinger (due December 2018). This keeps the air of mystery around the character of Ania, and allowed us a lot of freedom in setting up each new locale and story.

OBAAT: You and I share several things as writers. We collaborate with the James Brown of crime fiction, Eric Beetner (he does all my covers); we both contributed to Lawrence Keltner’s Back Car Business anthologies (me in Volume 1, you in Volume 2); we both were selected for Thuglit anthologies (you in Hardcore Hardboiled, me in Blood, Guts, and Whiskey), we both write for Down & Out Books, and we both revere Ed McBain and Joe Wambaugh. (I just finished reading McBain’s Tricks) last night. What sets those two apart from the rest for you?
FZ: Well, Wambaugh for a couple of reasons. One, he really pioneered the cop-to-writer persona. He made it something legitimate, and if someone looks at my series and gives it some credibility because of my background, that’s because Wambaugh forged the way. Secondly, he wrote about cops the way they really are (I mean, a little dramatized, but still accurate), and he made that okay, too. In my River City books, I strive to show the reality of being a cop to the reader. Sure, it is amped up and all of the exciting things seem to be happening to a small cast of characters, but outside of that, it is very realistic. Wambaugh not only made that okay, but attractive. He essentially created a sub-genre of the police procedural – former cops writing realistic police fiction.

I think McBain’s ability to build a department with recurring characters and take the reader on the long journey with those characters really stands out. It has definitely inspired me to try to do the same thing with River City.

Right up there with McBain and Wambaugh, I have to say Lawrence Block is an inspiration when it comes to recurring characters. The lessons from his Scudder novels are valuable for me in my Stefan Kopriva mysteries, but good writing like his applies across the boards.

1 comment:

Earl Staggs said...

Great interview, Frank, and I'm glad you're still writing great novels. Keep them comimg, my friend..