Thicker Than Water?

There are a few infamous brothers that everyone refers to: the Grimm brothers, Ringling brothers, Marx brothers, Smothers brothers. But the Sawyer brothers, the two main characters in the novel Blood on Blood, rank right up there. I mean, I liked them as much as the Winchesters and MacManus of Supernatural and Boondock Saints fame respectively.

Jerzy and Mick are brothers by their father’s blood and they each have their father’s fire; however, each was born from different mothers and that blood sets them apart. The story unfolds from Gar’s perspective, calling forth his sons to see him off and set them upon a quest for missing diamonds. Then each subsequent chapter is from one of the brother’s perspectives. Sometimes the brothers are in the same room, moment, scene and offer very different perspectives of what they are experiencing. Both are anti-heroes in the best sense of the word, and as a reader I found myself rooting for both of them depending on which chapter I was in.

Jerzy is a gangster’s gangster. Mick is the fallen cop. They are two sides of the same coin and both are clearly able to do what’s necessary to come out on top. But then they fall in love. With the same woman. And you thought the family reunion was going to be tense with a simple fight over 1 million worth of diamonds.

Wilsky and Zafiro, the authors of Blood on Blood, create these brothers who are complex, conflicted, and real. And even more impressive is the deft by which they bring the secondary characters to life.

What I love about this story is that the characters drive the plot so hard that I find it hard to write about the novel without splashing “Spoiler Alert” all over the page. Wilsky and Zafiro have dropped by to talk about the book, their unique writing process, and their forthcoming projects.

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What inspired you? Where did the impetus for the story originate?

Frank: The inspiration was Jim. No, really. Sure, there’s tons of inspiration to write (that’s a whole other discussion, right?), but the idea of working on this book came from my desire to work with my friend, Jim Wilsky. We’ve known each other for a few years, and I’ve been a huge fan of his short stories, not just his crime fiction. But it was his crime fiction that had a certain edge to it, a certain quality that I liked, and who doesn’t want to be around something you like?

The other inspiration, truth be told, came from the masters. Richard Stark’s Parker novels and Lawrence Block’s early noir work, full of grifters and gamblers. I wanted to write a departure from police procedurals and first person detective mysteries, and this was the perfect opportunity.

Jim: For me, it was simply getting that book done. My first book. A quirky kind of chance that was offered by Frank and an opportunity that just seemed right to do, at the right time, with the right partner. Writing that first novel was something that I had never taken a really serious stab at. A few drafts and outlines that never really went anywhere. Seriously though and I have to cut right down through to the bone on this, it had absolutely nothing to do with Frank…I mean hell, I would have teamed up with any good author who asked.

The guy brings out the best in me, he pushes when I need to be pushed and it just seems to happen. There were no stalling points or huge blocks in the first book or second. It just flowed.  He knows how to write a great outline, adjust and we both try to create characters that breathe. Not just main characters either. I’ve come to realize that fully fleshing out those ‘best supporting actors and actresses’ are just as important as the protagonists. Frank is like a younger, older brother to me if that makes any damn sense at all.

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Frank, I noticed you have done at least one book as co-author prior to this, how did that experience compare? What were you able to bring to the table with that experience?

Frank: I wrote Some Degree of Murder with Colin Conway. We finished the first draft of that back in 2005. Structurally, the book is much the same, in that it has the same dual narrative, first person format. The experience was also similar in that I drew a great deal of creative energy from working with another writer. I think working with Jim was even better, for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m older and my craft has hopefully improved, so I was a better partner. Secondly, we alternated chapters, never writing our next chapter until we got the intervening chapter back from the other guy. This added some serious energy to the equation.

As far as what I was able to bring to the table, I think having collaborated once before with this same format, I was aware of the pitfalls. This allowed me to say, “Hey, we probably ought to resolve this before we go much further” or “Hey, we need a loose outline here.”

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Jim, have you ever written with a partner before? What was it like?

Jim:Never have before. It was scary, fun, energizing and pretty much painless. Probably the biggest thing it was, and is, though? A huge confidence builder. It made me believe that I had more than a two thousand word story in me and as it continued, chapter after chapter, I was pleased with the results.

I used to have a huge insecurity issue with my writing and I know that’s nothing new or unique, but it’s there. Honestly, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the bargain, that I would maybe make my writing partner regret the project. I told Frank that too. More than once. He thought I was kidding, but I was dead serious.       

I used to write using a pen name because I was afraid I was writing inferior stuff. I’m definitely not where I was back then, but there will always be a little of that self doubt in me. I think in an odd way though, having a bit of that insecurity is natural and maybe keeps you striving to write better, to improve.

In the end, instead of it being a prolonged dentist appointment without Novocain, it was fun. A helluva lot of fun.

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Each alternating chapter – did one of you take a character or was a shared experience?

Frank: We each took one of the characters and wrote the chapters for that character. I wrote the introductory chapter with Gar, the father, and the final chapter was a collaboration. But the entire book was definitely a shared experience, as characterization and plotting was something we collaborated on heavily. And there were scenes in many of the chapters containing both characters. So even though, as a writer, you’re controlling the actions and dialogue of both brothers, you have to remain true to the other brother’s persona while presenting him through the eyes of the brother you’re writing. Wow. Does that sound confusing, or do I need another cup of coffee?

Jim: The really scary part is I understand what Frank just said. And even more troubling, I fully agree. I will only add that there are characters, and then there are characters. This guy in Blood on Blood, my guy, was just a kick to write. He was a piece of work in the best and worst way. I’ll guarantee you Frank feels the same about his guy.

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Did you know where you were going or just riff off each other?

Frank: Some of both. We had a loose outline of plot points, but we jigged and jagged a bit. It probably felt more structured than writing by yourself, which allows you to follow whatever rabbit trail you want to go down. We had to rein in those inclinations and at least talk about them in advance if we were going to explore them, because if we started straying too far from the outline, we’d have continuity issues and be thwarting each other instead of complementing. But we definitely riffed off of each other on smaller, more subtle elements. Kind of like a song you both know. You play the same chord progression, but the little nuances that fill in the gaps are played off each other.

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As individual writers, do you listen to music while you write? If so, what? 

Frank: I usually don’t. I have in the past, but it was usually something weird like Gregorian Chant. The problem for me is that I listen to music too closely, so it ends up being a distraction. I don’t need perfect quiet, but I do need to step through the window and into the world I’m writing about.

Jim: Oh hell no, I can’t do the literary/musical version of chewing gum and walking at the same time. I’d be like Jack Nicholson in the Shining. Page after page of the same sentence. I’m in awe and actually jealous of people who can listen to music while writing.

Or people who can drink, or something else, and write. Can’t do it. I have to drink after I write, never before. Jack Kerouac I’m not. Talent wise obviously, but the ability to put good words together while plowed – faggettaboutit.

Sometimes I do use music and certain songs to frame a story, a scene or a character. Some badass song that everyone knows. If you have that playing silently in your head at least and the readers head, I think it can be very powerful. I wrote a story in the August issue of Yellow Mama and it was all about that. Alannah Myles was playing loud in that story.

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Who decided to beat up a midget? That was not nice. Funny. But not nice.

Frank: I blame that on Jim. He is the midget beater. I was complicit by my inaction alone.

Jim:To be fair, he wasn’t a midget. He was vertically challenged to be sure, but he was wiry and dangerous back in the day. There is only one way to deal with a guy like that.

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The ending was a jolt and I’m not sure we can really discuss, but how did it come to be? Was that planned from the beginning?

Frank: How do you end a book? Sometimes ideas start with the ending and work backwards. Sometimes they start from the beginning with a ‘what if’ and go from there. This was definitely the latter. We asked ourselves a few “what ifs” and then set about answering those questions. I don’t think we had a clearly defined ending until we were what…mid-book or so, Jim?

Jim: Well, I knew the end the whole time. I just didn’t want to ruin it for Frank so I let him explore it on his own and then find… finally… the solution. It took him forever.

Frank: How to end this book merited a couple of phone conversations, but ultimately we came to what we thought was best. It’s been the same for all three of our projects together so far. I think part of the reason for it is that we both listen to the other guy, because we both think he’s got some great ideas. But we’re both also willing to say so if we think it might not work. I can say that I pushed for the ending in Blood on Blood. In the sequel, Jim made a significant change involving one character, and the changes had some repercussions for the third book…but his idea was better than mine, and we went with it. Jim came up with a great ending for the third book.

Jim: I’ll just say this, Frank is leading the good idea game 11-2.

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Are we seeing any of the characters from Blood on Blood again?

Frank: Definitely. There are two sequels in the works, and both of them contain characters from this book.

New project/s?

Frank: As I alluded to earlier, Jim and I are continuing our partnership. We’ve just finished the first draft of the sequel to Blood on Blood, and it is in the review and revision phase. We’ve mapped out the third book and started writing the first draft of that one, too. After that, I’m not sure exactly which direction we’ll take, but I do know that I hope to keep working on projects with Jim as long as he can stand it. We might try a different format or even subject matter, but the partnership is a good one, and I look forward to a long time collaboration.

Jim: It goes without saying that I’m by far the greater beneficiary in this writing partnership, so if the opportunity presents itself again past this current series, well then hey.

I’ve also decided to start my first solo novel sometime before the end of the year. That’s my goal and the resolve has been strengthened and encouraged by writing Blood on Blood with Frank. I also have an exciting new anthology coming out with a cast of other writers that everyone knows. There is unbelievable talent in this collection that I’m lucky to be even included with them. Strong is all I can say. Real strong. That’s all I can share at this point. Top Secret. If I tell you, well you know what happens then.

Frank: Of course, we’ll both work on separate projects, as well. I’m in the revision phase of a novel called Lovely, Dark, and Deep, the sequel to Waist Deep. It’s a first person mystery set in River City and should be out before the end of the year. I have another mystery called At This Point in My Life, also in the revision phase. That one might be early 2013. There’s another crime fiction novel I’m working on with new characters in the first draft stage. Same thing with the next (and fifth) River City novel, Place of Wrath and Tears. A River City novella starring Thomas Chisolm is in the works, too. The thing I like about the Chisolm novella is that it bookends the character, who has been a major part of the River City series, by going back to the time he spent in Vietnam as a young man and jumping forward to an adventure he has after leaving the police force.

On other fronts, I’ve just begun working with another writer (Jimbo knows her) on a romance. I’ve got some ideas for a fantasy series, a mainstream/literary work, and of course, more crime fiction. Like every writer, there’s a shelf full of ideas waiting to make it onto the page. Just a matter of time, and not enough of it.

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While I’ve only chatted on-line, I think it is safe to say these two guys are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. And hopefully you will have an opportunity to meet them at a reading, conference, or just out on the webs. It was a pleasure working with them and I am looking forward to the sequels. Check out Blood on Blood and you’ll see why. Hopefully, you’ll be bugging them about the sequels too.

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