July 27, 2016

Partners in Crime, One Book at a Time: an interview with Eric Beetner and Frank Zafiro, authors of "The Short List"

When Bricks and Cam strike out on their own in the aftermath of their bloody showdown with the Giordano family, not everything goes as planned. Boring, straight jobs aren't satisfying, and their first successful solo hit is a messy one. Worse yet, someone has revenge on their mind. 

Before they know what is happening, Cam is kidnapped and Bricks is attacked by an old enemy. 

Cam uses his wits as he struggles to escape his captors while Bricks frantically searches for her partner in crime. Both hack away at the mystery of who is bent upon vengeance against them. There is a short list in play, and both Cam and Bricks are on it. 

But they're not going to stand still and take being attacked. Not by anyone. They're going to fight back. They're making a list of their own, and it's even shorter than the one they're on...

Gef: So how did you two wind up collaborating on not just one novel now (The Back List), but two with its followup (The Short List)?

Eric: I met Frank when I designed several book covers for him, both on solo novels and on a series he collaborated with another author on (the Ania series which I can highly recommend, co-written with Jim Wilsky) We got on well and when we realized we’d both done cowriting we traded stories and it turned out we both had great experiences. So it was a natural for us to write something together. It flowed really well and we’re excited to keep it right on flowing with The Short List and beyond.

Frank: Additionally, I read Eric’s The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, and knew he could write his ass off, and that we both saw crime fiction through the same dark lens, so I figured it would be a good fit.

Gef: You guys aren't strangers to collaborating, either. What kind of give and take is there between you two when cooking up these stories?

Eric: We outline together, or at least back and forth. We live in different states so this is all over email. Once we have the basic story plotted out we get going and trade chapters. I write Cam and Frank writes Bricks. Once we’re done we trade some notes and make tiny adjustments, but we don’t go to any great lengths to rewrite each other’s work. We have styles that mesh very well together so that helps.

Frank: I think the plotting process itself is one of the reasons the collaboration works so well. While we both offer critiques or suggestions on the other’s chapters, mostly we leave the other guy alone in that regard. We definitely coordinate how things will begin and the general direction they’ll go until they hit a mid-point where a little more coordination is necessary. Also, I think there’s a tacit agreement that we each have final say over the nuts and bolts of our respective chapters and/or how our character is treated in the other guy’s chapter. There’s a healthy respect there – kind of a “hey, that’s your creation and I’m going to be cool with it” thing.

Gef: With Bricks and Cam, and you each focusing on one character, did you just each bring these characters to the story or were they created together and then you had to decide who would write what?

Eric: The original idea was to have these two competing hit men, then Frank brought in the idea of Bricks being a woman and I loved it. It really made the story much more interesting. But we each really developed the character we write on our own.

Frank: It’s like writing half of the book by yourself but planning the whole book with your partner in crime. I’m always excited to get back the next Cam chapter, even if the two characters aren’t interacting at the time. Seeing the book move forward is fun, and definitely motivating.

Gef: Les Edgerton is one of the big hitters in crime fiction to have given these books the thumbs up? Is he an author either of you count as an influence with your own writing? Who else do you look up to in the genre?

Eric: Les is great and an uncompromising writer. I really admire that about him. I look up to so many writers: Joe R. Lansdale, Duane Swierczynski, Roger Smith, Christa Faust, Allan Guthrie, Max Allan Collins, Jason Starr. So many more.

I like stories that propel forward and I like stories that keep me guessing. I should clarify that I don't like guessing who done it, but more a story that doesn’t point the way it’s going like too many traditional mysteries do. I love a book that can fool me or take the story to places I never could have guessed.

I’m an avid reader and I like to try a little of everything in the crime/mystery genre so I feel I get a good cross section. I’m also a tough critic so when I find a writer I like I really champion them.

Frank: It is an exciting time in crime fiction, especially darker stuff. I bounce back and forth between older works like Stark or Block to newer writers like Eric mentioned. You really get a sense of how the genre has changed and how it hasn’t when you do that.

Gef: Who or what initially drew each of you to the crime genre?

Eric: They tend to be stories with high stakes. Life and death. I also like stories about ordinary people drawn into dark places. Vintage Cornell Willrich stories are like that, often featuring an everyman who falls afoul of a criminal element or just blind fate. It’s why I’m drawn to Noir stories, tales of men and women caught in a web of their own making.

I like stories like that I think because it’s so very different from my day to day life. I read (and write) to escape into new worlds.

Frank: The cool thing about crime fiction is that the palette is such a wide one, both in terms of what kind of stories you can get, and in all of the different aspects of the human condition you can explore. I enjoy those stories that really get at the reality of being human, and that tell a tale that is just ambiguous enough to be real…but still amped up for fun’s sake. I think that’s why I enjoyed the Grofield novels better than the Parker ones, and why Matt Scudder is my favorite P.I.

Gef: How big a role does pacing play when writing a book like The Short List? Is it something that has to be fine-tuned a lot during the revision process?

Eric: Pacing is pretty important when alternating between two sides of a story the way we are. We don’t have to revise too much for pacing issues since we plot out where we’re headed from the start.

Frank: I think pacing is one of those things that some writers feel the way some musicians can just sense tempo. And just like when two musicians can read each other’s tempo and adjust to complement it, Eric and I seem to sense what kind of chapter ours needs to be, or how it needs to be told, based upon how the pace feels at that time. I can only think of one time we made a major revision to adjust for pacing. We’re usually pretty solid out of the gate in that department.

Gef: What books are you reading this summer? Fiction or nonfiction? Something outside the crime genre? Too busy with your own writing at the moment?

Eric: Never too busy to read. I just picked up the new Terrence McCauley, A Murder Of Crows. I loved his first in the series, Sympathy For The Devil, so I’m excited for this one. I’m currently reading Neal Griffin’s A Voice From The Field, his second Newburg novel. Great stuff.

Duane Swierczynski’s Revolver is out soon and a new DS books is always an event for me. My TBR pile is massive and I try to get in a fair amount of classic crime fiction each year too so I have my eyes on some of the William P. McGivern I haven’t read yet. I have yet to let down by one of his books.

When I step outside of crime fiction it’s usually to entertainment biographies, but I haven’t read a good one in a while. The Martin Short book was fantastic last year. There’s a bio of Keith Morris, vocalist for Circle Jerks and Black Flag that I’m looking forward to to revisit my punk rock youth.

Frank: I’m usually reading one fiction and one non-fiction at any given time, plus an audio book for the car. At the moment, the audio book is a G.R.R. Martin history of Westeros (weird that I’m reading a history book on a made up world, but whatever). Fiction is Dune Heretic by Frank Herbert, part of the Dune series. I read the first one as a teenager and just came back around to the whole series recently. Non-fiction book is Max Bazerman’s The Power of Noticing, but more often the non-fiction book is a history book of some kind. That was my undergrad major, and I dig history. There’s so much turmoil and conflict and nobility and…humanity.

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Eric: I wish “write what you know” would go away. Write what you want to know. That’s interesting. Make something up. I think people tend to get too bogged down in what they think is interesting to them and many times that doesn’t translate to the rest of us.

Frank: When I was thinking about becoming a cop, a guy I knew who had the same aspirations told me not to bother. “They’re only looking for guys who have gone through the CJ program at the community college, and there’s a two year waiting list for that.” Nine months later, I was hired on and was at the police academy. That guy never got hired as a cop anywhere, even though he did go through the program.

When I was submitting my novel after having established a pretty good short story CV, quite a few people said that the only path to publication was to get an agent and get with a NY publisher. Ignore mid-sized publishers that accept unagented material, ignore small presses, and definitely ignore self-publishing. Since then, I’ve published almost twenty books. One of my textbooks is with the publisher who has the largest CJ imprint out there, another is self published. My novels have been published by small presses or I’ve published them myself. I decided that it is ultimately up to the reader to decide whether a book is a good one or not, and not anyone else.

That doesn’t mean to ignore all of the sound craft advice out there. Don’t rush to publication – learn the craft. Produce a solid piece of work. I’m just saying that the worst piece of advice anyone can give anyone is “You can’t do it that way” or “This is the only way to do it.”

Gef: How has the relationship with your publisher been so far?

Eric: Down & Out are real champions of the indie crime world. They are so great to work with and it is a true collaboration. Eric Campbell and his team are really poised to make an even bigger impact with their books going forward. Just getting things like a Publisher’s Weekly review for The Short List (spoiler alert - they liked it!) is huge for a smaller press book. And with so many D&O books getting nominated for Shamus awards, Anthonys, Edgars, all that stuff…big things are coming for Down & Out, I predict. Lets hope it starts with The Short List!

Frank: Hands down the best publishing experience I’ve had. Open to ideas, quick to respond to any emails, obviously passionate about what they do, and damn good at it. I feel privileged to be part of what they’re doing, and moving forward, I think they’ll only become more and more impactful. Of course, they like our work, so I am a little biased, eh? Stay tuned, though, and you’ll see we’re right.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Eric: I have another busy publishing year. I just put out the sequel to my novel The Devil Doesn’t Want Me and the new one is called When The Devil Comes To Call. Book 3 in that trilogy will be out next year called The Devil At Your Door. Then in November I’ve got my prequel to my novel Rumrunners called Leadfoot. At some point the second Western novella I wrote in The Lawyer series will be out. I’ve got some short stories in some great anthologies too including Mama Tried which are stories based on outlaw country songs and the Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou. Plus some others without release dates yet.

Frank: Well, The Short List, of course. And Eric and I are about to get to work on a third Cam & Bricks Job. Beyond that, I’ve got another collaboration coming out in January from D&O called The Last Collar with Lawrence Kelter. It was a different collaboration approach, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked in terms of creating a single voice. Plus, Larry is a cool guy. On the solo front, I’m working on a stand alone set against the back drop of an outlaw motorcycle gang, tentatively titled In the Cut. After that, it is my intention to return to my main River City series and write book #5, and I’ll stick to that plan unless something else makes enough noise to drown it out.

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