Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner Discuss the Collaborative Process

Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner

Frank: Eric, you’ve done some collaboration before we got together for the Cam and Bricks Job series. How’d that first time happen?

Eric: My first collaboration was with a writer named JB Kohl which resulted in a book called One Too Many Blows To The Head and eventually two more novels. Well, three if you count the one unpublished book. She and I found each other online back when I was running the social media for the Film Noir Foundation. She asked to link to our page on her author site and I checked it out. Her only novel at the time was called The Deputy’s Widow and it sounded like my kind of book so I bought it. I really enjoyed it and wrote to tell her so and sent her a short story of mine. She was the one who asked me to co-write which I was leery of at first, but it turned out to be great fun and a painless experience.

One thing that I think helped is that we don’t write in the same room together. In fact, we’ve never met formally. Everything we do is via email. And — what a coincidence — the same goes for you and I, Frank.

So I’ll ask you, do you prefer collaborating rather anonymously? Does it give you the freedom to still feel ownership over your part of the books? And I know we’re not opposed to meeting, but do you think it will jinx us?

Frank: My first experience was with Colin Conway, who was a writing friend and a fellow cop, so while we did our writing separately, we also had coffee on occasion. When we wrote the big climactic scene in which the two protagonists face off, we met at a coffee shop and passed a laptop back and forth without talking. It was a pretty cool exercise.

Since then, I’ve worked with Jim Wilsky on three books and you on two, plus Bonnie Paulson on a one off. In all cases, we wrote on our own in alternating chapters. I think you hit it right on the head in that it allows me to still feel like that part of the book is my own, and yet I get to collaborate at the same time. It’s the best of both words.

Meeting you (and Jim — we’ve been friends for years and never met yet) would be great, and I’d certainly hope it wouldn’t jinx us. I guess there’s always the chance that someone is radically different in person, and maybe we’d decide we don’t really like each other after all. But I suspect not.

Unless you’re a jerk.

Our Cam and Bricks Job series is on #2 with The Short List, and we’re about to start work on #3, with an eye toward at least one more after that. Quite a few of your works are in series form, even some that I thought would be standalones. Why do you think you end up working on series books? Do you usually see that first book as a first book, or does the idea of a series come along later? And did my refusal to use an emoticon after the previous paragraph to signify that I was trying to be funny cause you to spit coffee at the screen or extend a particular digit?

Eric: I kind of prefer standalones, actually. This industry likes a series though. And it should be said that I’ve started a few series but only one has gone as far as a third book and that won’t be out until next year (the third in my Devil series after The Devil Doesn’t Want Me and When The Devil Comes To Call which are out now). So our next Cam and Bricks book will be the second time I’ve gone beyond two.

I do like revisiting characters though. I think a trilogy is a good amount and I think my limit is five. Beyond that I don’t think there is any way not to repeat yourself.

For example, I love the Richard Stark Parker books. I’ve read a dozen of them. If the only ones that existed were the first five (and I’ll even give him seven) I’d be fine with it. Still brilliant. After a while though there are only so many scrapes Parker can work himself out of in new and interesting ways. It’s why I won’t even go near a longer series like Jack Reacher or the Sue Grafton alphabet series. No way I’m going to read all of them so why bother starting?

I start writing every book as if it is a standalone. I think if you try to build any jeopardy, it’s the only way to do it. Classic detective stories don’t do anything for me because I know the hero is going to be fine. Put him or her on the side of a cliff hanging with one fingernail and I’m still yawning because I know everything will turn out. Now, put me in a story where anything can happen, anyone can die, there are no classic heroes — that’s an interesting story to me.

I’m in the minority though. A big part of the appeal of crime fiction is making order out of the chaos. More so traditional mystery novels, but in general audiences like to know things are going to be relatively okay in the end.

But only a few times have I left the ending of a book such that it can’t be a series if a publisher or the audience wanted one.

Getting back into characters though is fun and you can really focus on the story because the hard work of learning who the characters are is already taken care of. I’ve enjoyed every time I’ve done a second and now a third book. I’m always open to having my mind changed on things so maybe I’ll be twenty books into a series someday. Hey, if readers want it, I’m down.

In your River City series you write about the police, which is a subject you know well from personal experience. When you were active on the force were you collecting stories every day thinking “I’ll put this all in a book someday”?

Frank: Actually, no. Police work is pretty taxing and requires a lot of concentration, so I didn’t have time to do that … most of the time. Occasionally, though, something would happen or someone would tell me a story, and I would think, “Oh, yeah. I’m using that.” Same thing with smart ass comments. I’d write those down and save them for the perfect opportunity to use them somewhere. That still happens, since I teach in the law enforcement field. I heard a great one just this week that I absolutely know will get into a book, and soon. In fact, I’m going to stop typing this reply and go put it in my notes file right now. Just to be safe.

OK. I’m back. And I realized that people often ask if characters in my River City novels are based on real people, and by and large, the answer is no. I did base the Thomas Chisolm character very closely on a real cop, with his permission. I have stolen a trait or two, a tendency or three, and more than a few events, but even those have been fictionalized to the point of being unrecognizable. A couple of my close friends have hit me up with, “Come on, Lieutenant Hart is really So-and-So, right?” or “You based Katie on Whozit, didn’t you?” The truth is always no, and yes.

Katie MacLeod, probably the center piece of the series for me at this point, is more of an amalgam for about 40% of her being and fictional for the other 60%. And who I was thinking of when I created that character initially and who she took after as the character progressed are very different people … and of course, that’s only a small part of her. Hart? Well, he’s kind of a dick, so if I said he was based on someone real … well … y’know? But even he is an exaggeration.

It’s funny, too, because in my other fiction, no one is based on anyone. They are all completely fictional. Yet the River City characters do have some roots in real people, here and there. I wonder if, now that I’ve retired, if that will increase out of a sense of nostalgia. Guess we’ll see.

You have a background in TV and music. You ever consider writing a crime fiction novel set in one of those worlds? If you did do you think some real characters would seep into the book?

Eric: It has been suggested before, once by my former agent, that I write something set in Hollywood. Marketing departments love that. A book written by an expert in the field. But for me, I write to escape the day to day. I can’t think of anything more boring than writing about my day job, no matter how I fictionalized it.

That said, I tried once on a novel set in the world of film stunt men — my first “I want that job” obsession. I really wanted to be a stunt man when I was about 13. I got about 25 thousand words in before I just wasn’t feeling it. I do have plans to revise it as a TV pitch, which I think suits that story better.

But something set in the reality TV world where I work? NO way. And same with music, too. I just feel like I’d obsess over the wrong things in the story. I could write all the specific details about playing dirty clubs, going to punk rock shows in the 80s, being on stage, but that’s not a plot. Maybe someday. I mean, never say never. But I prefer to make stuff up.

So, aside from Cam and Bricks #3 — what else are you up to?

Frank: I’m writing a little slowly these days, because I’m teaching a lot. But I’m working on a standalone crime fiction novel set in the outlaw motorcycle gang world. After that, I’m thinking it might be time to return to River City. The last book in that series was published in 2011, so it is overdue. It’s also what my readers ask about first, so I think I owe it to them to pick up that story again. How about you?

Eric: Always a lot on the fire, but I’m most excited about completing the trilogy I started five years ago with The Devil Doesn’t Want Me. I wrote that and the sequel, When The Devil Comes To Call, back to back and the sequel sat on a shelf after the publisher of the first book folded. Now a publisher has stepped in and is putting out all three books. I just finished book 3 and it’ll be out next year.

I also wrote a sequel to Rumrunners called Leadfoot that will be out in November. After that, I’m done with everything I’m contracted for so I’m focusing on writing some TV stuff to pitch and working on some solo novels too. My agent is currently shopping two novels of mine. We shall see.

But then Cam and Bricks call again. I’m excited to send them out west. I also want to mention the anthology Mama Tried. It’s a collection of stories inspired by outlaw country tunes. James R. Tuck edited it and it’s being put out by Down & Out Books and it’s going to be great. I really love the way my story came out, but the song I chose is called “(Pardon Me) I’ve got someone to kill” so it kind of writes itself.

So let’s wrap up this little chat and go write us another book! Maybe Cam will get his shit together for this one. Nah, what am I saying …