Awhile back Noir Nation interviewed Jim Wilsky, who with Frank Zafiro, had just produced Blood on Blood, a work that would be the first in a series of hard-boiled mystery novels. It starred half brothers Jerzy and Mick Sawyer, one a career criminal, the other a tainted cop, who were looking for a life-changing score. When they encountered the mysterious Ania Kozak, the game was on. That book did very on Amazon and continues to have a strong shelf life. No doubt the publisher, Snubnose Press, was following the numbers and doubled down on the Zafiro-Wilsky crime fiction machine, and bought the latest installment.
For first time collaborators that may seem a bit like beginners luck, but the writing was too solidly crafted for it to be anything less than a good return on hard work. Now comes Queen of Diamonds, a book that will thrill readers even while teaching them how to play Texas Hold ’em, Las Vegas style. (For those looking for a fuller description of the book without spoiler alerts, we suggest taking a gander at Brian Triplett’s Examiner article.)
Frank Zafiro has kindly agreed to do a follow-up interview with Noir Nation editor Eddie Vega.
Zafiro: Actually, I just retired from the job this month after twenty years. But like many careers, police work is something that works into your bones, which is probably why the majority of what I write is crime fiction.
There was some opportunity to draw from my police experience when writing Queen of Diamonds, though not as much as in some of my other novels. There is a minor character who is a Las Vegas police lieutenant, so that was a pretty direct draw there.
Noir Nation: Did you change in any way how you collaborated with Jim on this second book?
Zafiro: I think the largest difference between this book and the last one was that we streamlined the process. When you work with someone for a while, you tend to develop a sort of shorthand that makes discussions go a lot quicker. You also learn to trust each other, and compromise. For example, Jim selected the title. I selected the quote at the beginning of the book.
Noir Nation: Was it always part of your writing vision to create a series? Or was it an idea that evolved as you wrote?
Zafiro: It was originally just a single book, that being Blood on Blood. In fact, as I remember it, the character of Ania was initially going to be pretty minor and didn’t figure prominently in the struggle between the two brothers, other than as one more battlefield for them to compete on. But as is often the case, characters have a mind of their own and they tell you what they’re going to do… whether you like it or not.
Once we discovered who Ania was, we came to envision a trilogy in which Ania was the connective piece between three works that can also stand alone.
Noir Nation: You write with knowledge and clarity about poker. How much research did you do? Spend much time in Vegas?
Zafiro: Jim’s the real card shark! He almost took me for all my royalty rights in a so-called “friendly” game!
Seriously, though, I’ve been to Vegas a couple of times, and to the local casino once or twice. Most of my direct card experience has been in those monthly “buddy” games where a three dollar raise is met with groans of dismay and a twenty dollar pot pays for the night.
The Internet is grand, though, isn’t it? Where I wasn’t sure on odds or terms, I was able to look it up. Jim, though? I don’t think he needed to do a moment of research.
Noir Nation: Recently, Bouchercon, the large mystery writers convention, was held in Albany, NY. This year’s Noircon, a smaller convention but with a more intensely hardboiled crowd, was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. Have you attended a convention? If so, what were your experiences like?
Zafiro: I attended Left Coast Crime a few years ago when it was in Seattle. I had a great experience. I didn’t get my app in to the organizers in time to be considered for a panel (and doubt I’d have gotten one anyway—they had some pretty strong entries that year, as most years) but the networking and fellowship was spectacular.
Writing is a lonely, solitary pursuit. Being around other people with the same fixation and who go through the same trials and tribulations is good for the soul. Also, you get to meet people that you’ve only ever talked to online, so it’s like making new friends and attending a reunion all at once. (It isn’t always peaches and cream, though… sometimes people aren’t nearly as charming in person as they are online, but that’s usually the exception).
Now that I’ve retired, I look forward to being able to attend more conventions.
Noir Nation: Recently, a young writer told me how much she enjoyed writing. So I asked what she was reading. Her response was so quick it sounded practiced, “I don’t read. I’m not a book person.” Though it sounds as silly as a painter who loves to paint but does not like to look at pictures, that attitude is common among genre writers. And it doesn’t have the veneer of not wanting to be influenced by other writers, hence maintaining their originality. They just don’t like to read. But maybe they don’t need to. What is your take on this? For those who want to write professionally as crime writers, should they be familiar with the works of other writers? If so, who would you recommend they be reading?
Zafiro: ABSOLUTELY a writer must read. Whenever I’ve given talks to writers’ groups or taught workshops, my mantra is this: To be successful, a writer must READ, READ, READ, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE and REVISE, REVISE, REVISE. Reading is not only a joy, it is like push ups for the writing mind. So “I don’t read” is a pretty lame and lazy cop-out in my estimation.
I don’t buy that bunk about wanting to avoid being influenced by other writers, either. Writers are walking sponges and we are hopeless, helpless thieves. In other words, EVERYTHING influences us. The checker at the grocery store influences us and we will very likely steal the curious little smile she gives when she asks, “Paper or plastic?” Same with the way our mechanic answers the phone. And it doesn’t stop at real life. We are influenced by the movies, songs, TV, and yes, books. Why should books be any different from the rest of the world when it comes to influences?
The closer we get to our own art, I think the more careful we are to purposefully not emulate, but there’s some subconscious emulation there nonetheless. And is that a bad thing? That we should learn techniques that work from others in the business? Every other craft, every other art, does that. Learning from your peers is important.
Now please don’t think I’m not advocating plagiarism. Not even close. But I am saying that there really aren’t any new stories under the sun, right? There are only new variations on the stories, and new variations on how those stories are told. You can read other writers, even in your chosen genre, and learn from them while maintaining your own style and voice.
To sum up, not reading at all? Ignorant and foolish. Not reading in your own genre? Incredibly arrogant, not to mention missing a great opportunity to learn (and presumably, enjoy) from those practicing this craft/art.
Who should a crime writer read? Well, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, to name a few obvious ones. I think Stephen King is actually a damn good crime writer, too. Then spread out. Read the big names, like Michael Connelly, and the up and comers featured on the web. The point is, you must read.
Noir Nation: Are you at work on the third novel in the series? If so, can you talk about it or are you sworn to secrecy?
Zafiro: We are. The first draft is finished and its out to some readers. What I can tell you is that it uses the same basic format as the first two books—two main characters narrating in the first person with alternating chapters—and both are chasing after the elusive Ania. One you’ll recognize from Blood on Blood, and the other is the new character.
We’re hoping the book is out before the holiday season.
Noir Nation: How do you define noir?
Zafiro: Ah, the second most difficult question after “What is the meaning of life?” Actually, I think the definition of noir has expanded a little bit to encompass neo-noir and hard boiled, at least to a degree. Noir is dark, broody, and delves into the moral gray zone. For me, though, the most important element is one of character. Most novels feature a hero who may have flaws but is, on balance, good or admirable. Or becomes so. The main characters in noir novels don’t have that to worry about, do they? They can be negative all the way to the end, and they can be doomed, and that’s all right… as long as the reader knows walking in that it is noir.
Noir Nation: How do you think the global consciousness created by the Internet and the Blogosphere has affected the creation of crime noir?
Zafiro: I think it is largely responsible for the expansion of the definition, for one. I also think it has made people more willing to try something outside their normal comfort zone. I mean, growing up, the only dark crime novel that happened outside the USA that I was familiar with was Gorky Park. Now we have the Swedish onslaught, as well as settings in Eastern Europe, for example. And geography or setting isn’t the only thing that has opened up. So has time. I think the greater consciousness has made it possible for us to accept and even praise a work of crime noir set in 1172 as easily as one set in 2272. Yeah, I know that we had The Name of the Rose and Blade Runner already, but I think the acceptance level has increased, as well as the mainstreaming.
Noir Nation: How are your marketing your book and by that I really mean how are you finding your readers? Are you looking for them in the U.S. only or are you crossing borders?
Zafiro: I think our primary audience is in the U.S., just based on the setting, and the language. However, poker is international, so we’re hoping that it jumps the borders at least a little.
Marketing is a tricky proposition, and one we’re still working at. Social media, interviews like this one, and other means of getting the book in front of people are all things we’re trying. I think that’s the toughest part. If you can get someone to actually pick up the book and start reading, I’m confident they’ll get hooked. But that’s a huge challenge—getting the reader to pick it up.
I think reviews are important for some readers while recommendations rule for others. Is advertising a viable option? I really don’t know at this point, and my budget (and presumably, Jim’s) isn’t large enough for a lot of experimentation.
I do think it is important to make sure your book is available in as many formats as possible. One title can be available as an eBook in all of the different formats that go along with that medium, plus paperback, plus audio. Hopefully, you find your readers with one of those lines in the water.
It’s important to have some net presence. And to not be “selling” all the time. Sometimes a reader will discover you when you’re just “being.”
Noir Nation: Are you working on any new solo projects?
Zafiro: Yes, a hard boiled book with a working title of At Their Own Game. It’s about an ex-cop who eventually turns to a criminal life. He becomes embroiled in a drug deal gone wrong, a traitorous friend, a vengeful detective whose wife he once slept with before she skipped town, and the return of said wife, who still has eyes for him. For Jake Stankovic, it’s a very bad day. After that, I’m moving on to River City #5.