By Jeff Ayers
When the mob finds itself on hard times and has to lay people off, the boss decides to give two different hitters separate lists of “overdue accounts”—a backlist—to see who distinguishes themselves enough to remain on the payroll.
In their first collaborative effort, Eric Beetner and Frank Zafiro bring readers the sharp-tongued Bricks and the hapless, eager-to-please Cam—two very different protagonists who find themselves faced with challenges they never imagined when they got into the business.
THE BACKLIST is a fast-paced crime novel full of action, twists, verbal jabs, and mayhem. Lots of mayhem.
This month, Beetner and Zafiro chatted with The Big Thrill about the book that appears to be the beginning of a thrilling partnership.
Frank, could you talk about River City? Also, why the pseudonym for your crime writing?
River City is a thinly-veiled Spokane. Spokane is a city of about two hundred thousand peple. We’re the second largest city in the state and the biggest city between Seattle and Minneapolis…all of which means that we have all of the problems of a large city and yet still retain some of the small town attitude (which can be good and bad, depending).
I started calling Spokane River City, and using a pseudonym for crime fiction, because I was an active law enforcement officer in Spokane at the time my first book was coming out. I wasn’t really sure what my bosses would think of my work, since there are some dark events and not every cop is portrayed in a positive light. So I went with the pen name. As it turned out, the brass were very supportive, but by that time I had a few dozen short stories and two books out under this name, so I decided to keep it for crime fiction. The last name Zafiro comes from the name a few of us used to name our film “production” company during a high school independent study on filmmaking.
What sparked the idea for THE BACKLIST?
Eric: Frank and I had been toying with the idea of writing together for a while since we both knew the other had successful collaborations before. When we started kicking around ideas this was one we both sparked to. I honestly don’t remember who had the initial spark, but we each developed our characters solo and then presented them. I love the way Frank’s character, Bricks, turned out. She’s so different from someone I would have come up with, I think. And she and Cam are different, so the readers get two totally different perspectives as they go through their trials and tribulations.
Frank: I clearly have a better recollection than Eric here…HE came up with a majority of the idea and the plot framework. I was responsible for all of Bricks, and as we moved through the broad strokes of the plot, we both suggested a tweak here or there and bounced ideas off of each other. But if Beets hadn’t come out of his corner swinging, there wouldn’t have been much of a fight…which is my awkward metaphorical way of saying he is mostly responsible.
How did you end up collaborating?
Eric: I design book covers here and there and I had done a few for Frank with a publisher I worked with. I guess I did something right because I ended up doing a few of his self-published works as well. Some of my favorite covers I’ve ever designed, by the way. I’d liked what I read of Frank’s, and we got along well over email so it grew from there.
Frank: That is exactly what happened. All I can add is that I read Eric’s book The Devil Doesn’t Want Me prior to us writing together and I knew we’d be a good fit. He’s a terrific writer, and has some of the same dark humor as I do. Plus it’s clear how much he likes to explore the human condition by rolling up his sleeves and plunging into the muck, which I enjoy, too. So it’s a pretty good partnership.
How do you write together? I understand THE BACKLIST alternates first person with each of your characters telling the story, but you still had to make it flow well together.
Eric: We batted the outline back and forth a few times, each one adding on more about their character but knowing how the final act would play out, basically. Once the outline was set, we dug in and each wrote our chapters and then would send them off. I am always so afraid of writing this way, but I end up loving it because you get to write a book and read a book at the same time. I love being surprised by what came in Frank’s next chapters. I would know the basic from the outline but all the detail and flavor and character would be new to me.
Once we had a draft we would go through and do minor edits, which went off without a hitch. Neither one of us ever suggested anything that pissed the other guy off, which is easily where it could all break down.
Frank: Eric was the third writer I’d collaborated with, and my books with Colin Conway (Some Degree of Murder) and Jim Wilsky (The Ania Trilogy—all of which have covers designed by Eric) were in the same format—dual first person narrative with alternating viewpoint chapters. The process Eric describes has worked well for me in those previous projects, and I knew they’d work for him and I, too. It helped that he came up with a great story idea to start things off!
The actual process was a blast, and here’s why. You know when you get coffee with another writer and brainstorm an idea and flesh it out a little, and then you’re motivated as hell? Well, that’s the way it was every few days. I’d get a chapter back and read what Eric had done with Cam, and get excited about that. Then I’d want to make sure I did his chapters justice with my own, so I’d put in my best effort…which was easy to do, because I was super motivated.
When we got to spots where we had to coordinate story points or plot pieces, usually a quick email or two was enough to handle that. One of the great things about working with Eric is that he isn’t rigid, or at least not unnecessarily so. The other piece that worked out so well was that neither of us seemed to have ego issues at play with each other, which is not only nice, but it lends itself to better editing.
Since you have both written with others, how was your collaboration together in comparison?
Eric: My other collaborations with JB Kohl have been an excellent experience. I was wary to try to duplicate that. I figured it would never happen so easily again, but I’m happy I was wrong. Funny thing is, I don’t like being in the same room and collaborating. In both cases I have never met my co-author in person nor ever spoken on the phone. It’s all over email. I feel like I know a lot about Frank and JB (Jennifer) even though I’ve never spent any time with them. Getting a look at someone’s creative process and first drafts of their writing ends up being a very intimate process. You have to have a lot of trust. I couldn’t be more pleased with how both books with Frank have gone (yes, we already wrote the sequel!) or all four of my books with Jennifer.
Frank: In addition to Colin Conway and Jim Wilsky mentioned above, I wrote The Trade Off with Bonnie Paulson in this same format. And I’ve got a finished first draft with fellow Thrilling Thirteen author Lawrence Kelter, which we wrote in the first person but with a single protagonist and no set number of writing blocks as we went along. We each wrote about half of the book, though. Both of those collaborations went great, and I give full credit to my co-authors. I make it a point not to pick assholes to write with. (Can I write that? I guess I just did.)
Why write about crime?
Eric: I write and I read to be taken out of my day-to-day life. I’m very far from a criminal, so it fascinates me. I also think it lends itself to exciting, life-or-death stories. I embrace the seedy underbelly of society so I don’t like getting the white washed good guy image of heroic fiction or movies. I’d rather see a story about real people with flaws and weakness. I especially love stories of ordinary guys put to the test against criminal elements or confronting their own desires and testing the limits of their lawfulness. That’s classic noir stuff and that’s what really excites me as a reader.
Frank: When I started writing fiction again in 2004 after a long hiatus, crime fiction is simply what came out. I think that given my career at the time, it was some of the “write what you know” sort of thing (or “write what you’re comfortable with,” which is a little bit different). But additionally, crime fiction has some of the same qualities as science fiction, in that there are a great number of possibilities that really let you explore the human condition, especially the baser elements. Understanding those parts of each other and ourselves makes for a great story most of the time.
What is next for you both separately and together?
Eric: It’s been a busy 2015 and it doesn’t look to be letting up any time soon for me. I still have a novella, Nine Toes In The Grave, coming out this year with All Due Respect. I have a Western novella out at the end of the year with Beat To A Pulp, part of the Lawyer series. I’m really thrilled to be able to announce that I’ve signed on with publisher 280 Steps, who put out my novel Rumrunners, to re-release my novel The Devil Doesn’t Want Me and to finally let the sequel see the light of day. Those will be out in 2016 and then the third in the trilogy will be probably early 2017. Also in 2016 will be a prequel to Rumrunners. Somewhere in there I’ll write another in The Lawyer series and hopefully finish the novel I started earlier this year but had to set aside to do all this other stuff.
I’m also excited about an anthology that Down & Out is doing that I put together called Unloaded. It’s crime stories with all the grit and action we love about them but written without any guns. Proceeds will go to a gun control non-profit and if all goes well we can spark a reasoned discussion about common sense gun legislation in this country.
Frank: Eric and I just finished the sequel to THE BACKLIST (The Short List, due Sept 2016 from Down & Out Books). I’m working on Friend of the Departed, the third novel in my Stefan Kopriva series. I am projecting an October release, maybe November. After that is finished, I’ll either dive into the next River City novel, or a stand-alone I’ve been thinking about lately.
Normally, I’m more prolific, but I’ve been teaching a lot this year, so my output is down. I suspect things on other fronts will slow down by the end of the year, and I project 2016 to be a bigger year for Zafiro releases.
Eric Beetner writes hardboiled crime fiction. A lot of it, with more to come. Many folks have said nice things about his books. He’s won a few awards like the 2012 Stalker award for Most Criminally Underrated author. He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series.
To learn more about Eric, please visit his website.
Frank Zafiro was a police officer from 1993 to 2013. He is the author of numerous crime novels. In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He lives in Chattaroy, Washington.
To learn more about Frank, please visit his website.