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Frank Zafiro, 2020 Derringer Finalist

I'm a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, an informal association of writers, publishers, and fans that has kept mystery & crime short stories in the public eye since 1996. The SMFS's 2020 Derringer Awards voting ends April 29 and winners will be announced in May. In the meantime, I've invited the finalists for interviews.

Frank Zafiro
Frank Zafiro's "The Concrete Smile", from Down & Out Books, is up for Best Novelette.

Describe "The Concrete Smile" in up to 20 words.

A grifter couple tries to con an alpha male businessman while the Philly mob is hot on their heels.

What were the most difficult and most enjoyable parts of writing your story?

The most difficult part was actually writing the story. Not the writing itself - that flowed with surprising ease once I started. But getting started took forever. This is an idea I've had for a very long time - a series of novellas that follows a pair of grifters as they pull their cons and keep one step ahead of the vengeful mob. I set up the file for the first draft in 2015, and wrote exactly one line - the opening (spoiler: it didn't make it into the final version). But the idea for the story is much older. I thought I was getting close before and even had some preliminary cover design conversations with Eric Beetner as far back as 2013. But other projects kept nudging this novella aside. When I finally made it the number one priority, it was pretty well bursting to come out.

The most enjoyable part was creating the beginnings of a canon. By the time I wrote this story, I knew it was going to be the first episode in a series of novellas that other authors were going to write in. So it was fun to set the table with the characters, knowing that others were going to expand on those same characters. But within the confines of this story itself, I had a great time setting up the nuances of the con, and seeing how Sam and Rachel played it out.

Do you have a juicy story about how "The Concrete Smile" came to be published?

I don't know if it is juicy or not, but my original concept was to write not just "The Concrete Smile" but all of the novellas in this series myself. I envisioned a quarterly release, with each installment standing alone but also moving forward the meta-arc to some degree or another. I pitched it to Eric Campbell at Down and Out Books, who saw the project as akin to a short run series on Netflix. Here's the juicy part - the idea for making the episodes monthly and having a different author write each episode originated with a different series idea that the illustrious Gary Phillips came up with. He'd asked me for a proposal for one of those episodes (still hoping to see that project happen!), and I realized that his format was not only a better idea than my single-author quarterly release - it was flat out perfect for A Grifter's Song. Eric agreed, and the series was launched. Of course, Gary Phillips was the first person I asked to contribute an episode (and he did - episode #4: The Movie Makers).

How does it feel to be a Derringer finalist?

Feels pretty amazing. I was fortunate to be a finalist in the past, but the last instance was more than a decade ago. I moved away from writing short stories around that time. Not purposefully, but it seemed like every idea that I followed ended up being in a longer form. It's only been in the last couple of years that I've made re-discovered the joy of writing shorter fiction. Being a Derringer Finalist is one of the more satisfying accomplishments, too, because of the blind judging. I like the idea that the finalists are selected that way. It feels like an extra boost of "Hey, this is a good story" that has nothing to do with who the author is or where the story was published. It's a very cool recognition to get from the judges, who are writers themselves.


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