Please welcome Frank Zafiro!
This month Karen Treanor interviews Frank Zafiro, writer of the River City police procedurals.
Karen Treanor: Why did you choose to write crime fictionóor did crime fiction choose you?
Frank Zafiro: I think it chose me. I wrote a wide variety of things when I was younger (including crime fiction). Then there was a hiatus (during which time, among other things, I was going to school and working full time) where I didnít write much, if any, fiction. When I came back to it, Iíd been a cop for eleven years, and crime fiction is just what consistently came out. I was comfortable with the material, so that probably had a lot to do with it.
KT: What is it about crime novels that makes them so consistently popular?
FZ: I think itís a couple of things. People are always interested in seeing rules getting broken, especially if those are the rules that they are supposed to live by. Strangely enough, in some cases, I think they gain some satisfaction in seeing those same rule-breakers get punished. Another reason, and this is probably the biggest reason, is that crime fiction allows us to explore those universal human experiences and emotions Ė revenge, hate, love, desire, greed, loyalty, redemption Ė in a way that seems very close to home and real.
KT: Your best-known characters are very different types: Stef Kopriva, Tom Chisholm, Katie McLeod, OíSullivan and Battaglia and the detestable Maurice Payne. Can you tell us something about the genesis of your people?
FZ: At the risk of sounding pretentious, they sort of just introduced themselves to me. I mean, I did start with a ďtypeĒ in mind. Stef was the young hotshot cop, for instance. But thatís about all I consciously decided about him before he just evolved into who he is.
Same with Katie, although her part in the first book was originally played by two different characters. I realized neither was quite strong enough as an individual character and decided to combine them. She hasnít shown any signs of schizophrenia, so I lucked out there.
I will say that most people in law enforcement could pretty easily pick a person, or even several, on their department who strongly resemble any of these characters. Every agency has a Stef, a Katie, a Sully and a Batts. They better have a Chisolm! And, unfortunately, we go through our Maurice Payneís as well. These characters do fit type roles (in fact, I was criticized as being too clichťd in one review of And Every Man Has to Die), but then again, donít we all? Arenít you the avid reader turned book reviewer? Thatís a type. But there is far more to Karen Treanor than what stereotype she might actually fit into. Same with my characters. Anyone who has read Beneath a Weeping Sky, for instance, knows the depth of Katieís character. So while these characters may fit a stereotype, they are more than that. Some of them much more. (Okay, Payne probably never rises above stereotype, but it is a fun one).
I left Chisolm until the end because he is the one character that I based upon a real police officer. And even though thatís the case, Chisolm was a romanticized version of this officer from the mid nineties. Once Chisolm was created, he started taking his own path, quite different from the real officer.
KT: Your work as law enforcement officer must be useful in your writing; the River City cop shop has the ring of the real McCoy. What is the writerís moral responsibility regarding using real events in fiction?
FZ: Thatís an interesting question. I think if youíre going to represent a real event, you should probably be writing history or a biography. If youíre writing fiction, that should be clear, and you should probably stay away from mirroring the real events too closely. People may read your book and take what youíve written as true of those real events. How much moral responsibility does the writer have in keeping that from happening? Not a whole lot, Iíd say. We canít protect morons from themselves, so if someone is going to read a Stephen King novel about JFK (one is coming) and take that as a studied approach to the assassination...well, like I said, we canít protect everyone from everything.
I have an additional level of responsibility, though, that some writers do not. For instance, no matter what the venerable Mr. King writes in his forthcoming novel about the JFK assassination, everyone with half a clue knows that he didnít serve in the JFK administration in some capacity. Nor did he investigate the case while in the FBI. Nor did he cover the story closely as a NY Times journalist. Heís a fiction writer and everyone knows it and hopefully if he writes that the deceased presidentís favourite flavour of gum was wintergreen or that he was bi-sexual or whatever...well, hopefully people will know that itís just fiction.
But I was a cop. Still am, actually. And weíve had serial robbers, like in Under a Raging Moon. Weíve had kidnappings, like in Heroes Often Fail. Weíve had a well known serial rapist, as in Beneath a Weeping Sky. And weíve had a large influx of Russian immigrants, some of them criminals, as in And Every Man Has to Die. So people look at that and they think I must be writing about thinly veiled real events. After all, River City is a thinly veiled Spokane.
The truth is, these kinds of events are unfortunately common enough that I donít have to base my novels on any specific, true event. I can siphon off a little of the flavour and texture of a real event here and there to add authenticity to my own story, but ultimately, as I tell people all the time, ďitís all made up.Ē
And if it seems real to them, thatís good. Itís a nice compliment.
KT: The Russian mafia types in your recent books are very scary people with a very ruthless cold-blooded approach to crime. How real are these villains?
FZ: I think that Renee, the crime analyst in the procedural series, frames it the best. She observes the reality that about twelve thousand people have emigrated from the former Soviet Union and then immigrated here to River City (this is true of real life Spokane, too). Anytime a large group of people exists, a certain percentage of them will be criminals. Thatís human behaviour. And a smaller percentage of those might become organized. So that element of it is not Russian-specific. It was true of the Vietnamese in the 1970s, the Italians in the 1920s and the Irish in the late 1800s.
But are the Russian mafia types a little tougher than most? My research would say yes. Does Valeriy Romanov represent these extraordinarily hard core gangsters? Yes, he does...and heís intelligent, too.
How real is a guy like Val? As real as any fictional villain can be. That is to say, on a scale of one to ten, heís a ten in fiction based on a two or a three in reality.
KT: There seems to be a trend for crime novels and television shows to delve ever more deeply into the goriest details of death and dying and murderers. Can gore and violence ever replace good plotting and solid characters?
FZ: Absolutely not. Iíve noticed this trend, too. Sometimes, it seems as if the violence itself is one of the characters. It can work in hard boiled stories and movies (a la Tarantino), but it does seem to be trending more toward the mainstream of late, much as pornography seems to have done about ten years ago.
Is that a good thing? Personally, I donít think so. The negative nature of mainstreaming pornography is a subtle, secondary theme in Waist Deep, the first Stefan Kopriva mystery. I think any time you mainstream something, it diminishes sensitivity to that. So now everyone is exposed to more violence of a severe nature or to more open sexuality, including kids. Ya gotta think that canít be good.
At the same time, sex and violence is unfortunately a large part of the fabric of who we are. History intrigues me Ė my Bachelorís Degree is in that discipline Ė because it is really just a giant story of the human race, replete with example after example of extreme violence and sex. So how much can it hurt to have it show up in our TV shows?
Ultimately, I think itís a matter of moderation and choice. A reader or a viewer should know walking in that this is a hard boiled novel or itís a cozy or whatever. Then that individual can choose.
But back to the crux of your question Ė can gore and violence replace a good story and interesting characters? No, but it can get away with it for a little while. I think sometimes a little sensationalism will sell. People will flock to watch or read something that pushes the edges of the envelope even if the characters are weak and the story is stupid. But once that initial thrill wears off (and that tends to happen pretty quickly), weíre right back to where we started Ė good story, good characters or goodbye.
KT: Do you have any favorite authors? Which ones have influenced you?
FZ: I do. I like the aforementioned Stephen King quite a bit. In the crime genre, I like Lawrence Block, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Steve Hamilton, and Dave Zeltserman. And, of course, Ed McBain and Joseph Waumbaugh.
Influence? Well, when it comes to procedurals, I think you have to pay homage to McBain and Waumbaugh, without question. On writing as a craft, still Stephen King and Gary Provost.
KT: Your books usually come out as e-books and hard print. How does the writer of good e-books get attention, and how does the reader choose, given the large number of e-books of varying quality on the market?
FZ: I think you have to follow the same rules as in the print world. First, write a good book. Then make sure it is read by a number of reader/editors. Edit that book and make it as good as you can. Once youíre ready to go, you need a professional, eye-catching cover. And a good description.
Iím a little weak on the marketing side, I have to admit. I use Facebook and I blog occasionally. Iíve done giveaways and contests. But Iíve found that the single most effective way to generate buzz is word of mouth, whether that comes from reader to reader or from reviewer to reader. A person is more likely to pick up a book if a trusted someone else says itís good. Then that reader is predisposed toward liking it. If he takes a look at that cover and itís a good one, followed by a quick read of the synopsis, which hopefully increases his interest, heíll probably give it a try. Especially if it is priced reasonably.
KT: How do you develop plots and characters for your books? Are you a methodical writer or do you get an idea and Ďjust wing ití?
FZ: I am a hybrid of the two.
With the procedural series, Iíve usually started with the problem. ďOkay, this one will be about a serial rapist.Ē Then I start asking questions. Why does he rape? Who will investigate? How will this affect those cops? What will the media reaction be? How will the bosses get involved?
Those questions get answered, by and large, by the characters themselves. The rapes in Beneath a Weeping Sky had a very different effect on Katie MacLeod than on Thomas Chisolm, but both of them were affected in a meaningful way.
Usually, I will map out the broad strokes of the plot and the details fill in as I get closer to each plot point.
With something like The Last Horseman, which is a first person mystery/suspense, I start with a ďwhat ifĒ question and go from there. Usually, it involves very loosely mapping out the direction and heading that way. Sometimes I arrive where I thought I was going. Sometimes, things take an abrupt turn. Thatís what makes it fun.
KT: What is your working schedule? Do you write for a set number of hours a day? Do you have a special writing place?
FZ: Unfortunately, writing isnít paying all the bills yet, so I have a regular job. (Fortunately, that regular job helps out with the writing, though!). As a result, I donít have a set schedule. I tend to be a block writer, hammering away in chunks of time when I can. Sometimes days or even a week will go by in which Iím not able to work on a project. Other times, I can put in three or four straight days with several hours per day. It just depends. Luckily, I can type fast, eh?
I write almost exclusively in my study, on my laptop, though occasionally, I do take it out onto the back deck. Note-taking can occur anywhere.
KT: Want to talk about your newest project?
FZ: Which one? [grin]. Iím currently working on book 5 in the procedural series, Place of Wrath and Tears. But itís in early first draft stage, so I donít want to talk about it too much. [Insert superstition here].
I have another mystery that Iím pretty excited about and Iíve finished the first draft of that. It involves a retired detective named Jack ďMacĒ McCrae. Mac hasnít made much of an impact on the world and has no family. When Rachel, the daughter of an old flame shows up, he finds himself in the middle of an adventure, looking for Rachelís lost long sister...who just might be Macís daughter. I hope to have this book out sometime in 2011.
Iím working on a collaborative, hardboiled crime novel with a friend of mine thatís pretty exciting. Two half-brothers who despise each other have to cooperate to find the loot that their criminal father hid before he went to prison years ago. Throw in Russian and Polish gangsters and some women problems, too, and youíve got a roller coaster ride. Lots of that violence we talked about earlier in this one. I suspect it will be out sometime later this year, too.
In addition to that, there are sequels in the works for both The Last Horseman (Some Kind of Hell) and Waist Deep (Lovely, Dark and Deep), as well as a few other River City projects.
KT: If there are questions youíd like to answer about your characters or yourself, but nobody ever asks them, hereís your chance. Your time starts now!
FZ: People actually ask a lot of good questions. I donít know that thereís one burning question I havenít been asked.
The most common one is whether the characters are based on real people (including me). My answer is that, except for Chisolm, they are not based on real people. Of course, little pieces of real people probably seep into the different characters here and there. Thatís the texture and flavour that I mentioned earlier.
As far as me? Well, thereís some little piece of me in every character of any substance. How can there not be, right? But be careful Ė the piece of me might not be the part you think it is.
KT: Weíll end with the evergreen standby: what advice would you give new writers?
FZ: Write. Because writers write. We donít talk about how weíre going to do it someday. We put our butt in the chair and we write. Just like a musician plays, right?
Learn the craft. Be a student with an open heart, so that your writing improves over time. If one were to read Under a Raging Moon (#1 in the procedural series), then pick up And Every Man Has to Die (#4), that reader might be startled at the difference in the writing. Not the style so much, but the craft. Thatís because thereís fifteen years between first drafts of those respective novels, so I would hope thereís been a progression in the writing. Youíll notice the same in your work, if you work at it.
Listen to criticism. Donít just listen, but seek it out. Find those people who love you and/or your work but who will rip it to shreds in its early stages. As long as you know in your heart that these people are ďon your side,Ē they are a treasure trove to you as a writer. Listen well, and consider all. But then decide on your own Ė itís your book. Just donít be obstinate.
Lastly, donít give up. Joe Konrath once said that there is a word for a writer who never gives up. Published. You could substitute the word ďSuccessfulĒ nowadays, since there is more than one route to publication. But believing in yourself and your art and being tenacious is key. After all, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
KT: Thank you for your time.
FZ: No, thank you. I just spent a morning drinking coffee and talking about writing with you. It doesnít get a whole lot better, outside of the writing itself.
Frank Zafiro is the pen name for Frank Scalise. Frank became a police officer in 1993 and is currently a captain. He has written and taught courses at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, written several college courses in police subject matter and co-authored A Street Officerís Guide to Report Writing.
Frank is the author of numerous novels and short stories, including the River City series of police procedurals.
In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey player and a tortured guitarist. His wife, Kristi, is about the only person who will watch him do either activity.