A Grifter’s Song: Hustlers on the Run by Nick Kolakowski

Nick Kolakowski enlightens us with his process of writing the 29th novella of the A Grifter's Song series, and how he stayed true to the previous stories and well-established characters.

They’re in love. They pull off scores. If they make one wrong move, they’re dead.

That’s the story of Sam and Rachel, hustlers and anti-heroes of “A Grifter’s Song,” a long-running series of novellas by some of crime fiction’s most notable authors. Each new entry ratchets up the tension: can the pair carry off yet another grift? Can they survive their longtime pursuers? And can they stay enamored with each other?  

“I came up with the idea of Sam and Rachel and their basic storyline,” says Frank Zafiro, who created and continues to edit the series. “The process was no different than many other ideas. Cons and grifters were interesting to me. The way they are able to fleece marks strikes me as sociopathic. Yet the concept that there might be that one thing (in this case, each other) that a grifter cares about was even more interesting.” 

Zafiro originally intended to write the entire series himself, with new novellas released quarterly. “But then I got an invite from Gary Phillips for another project he was working on (still hasn’t surfaced, sadly) that featured monthly installments in an anthology format,” he says. “I thought the idea was brilliant and a perfect fit for ‘A Grifter’s Song.’ Every month, a new author, writing about a new con in a new location? With me there as editor to helm the overall arc and maintain character continuity? It was even better than my original plan.” 

Zafiro adopted Phillips’s formula and sold the concept to Down and Out Books; Phillips would later pen the fourth book in the series. From the beginning, the series has also embraced a uniform cover design: “Zach McCain created a wonderful, battered pulp look that succeeds in creating a brand while giving every episode its own character. Just magnificent.”

Over the course of 29 novellas (and counting), “A Grifter’s Song” has featured a diverse array of authors, including Eryk Pruitt, Hilary Davidson, Paul Garth, S.A. Cosby, Holly West, Gary Phillips, and others. All give the material their own spin while aligning with the series’ overall themes and drive.

When I sat down to write the latest book in the series, “Madam Tomahawk,” I’d already read several of the episodes on my own, but I was fortunate to have Zafiro’s extensive story bible, which breaks down the nuances of all the regular characters and their stories. The bible also stated what an author could—and couldn’t do—with a character. No killing Sam and Rachel, for example. Neither of them can suddenly gain expertise in an esoteric skill like kung-fu or satellite programming. 

You can see why Zafiro wanted to restrict authors’ more extreme flights of fancy. One of the truisms of a long-running series is that you really need to be sure about major changes—and make them only when the plot really demands it. For example, Robert Kirkman, the creator of “The Walking Dead” comics, regretted chopping off the right hand of series hero Rick Grimes; the lost limb would make so many subsequent events a little too complicated. I’ve always liked doing drastic things to the characters in my books (in my “Love & Bullets” series, a major character loses a finger and another deals with injuries from a barrage of bullets) but I was happy to keep Sam and Rachel—and their relationship—whole as they try to survive a treacherous D.C. filled with politicos and killers.

Plus, Zafiro maybe wanted to save some of the best and most permanent moments for himself. After several “seasons” of novellas, the series is finally coming to an end this year, and he’s writing the grand finale. Whatever happens to Sam and Rachel, one thing’s for certain: it’s hard for any grifters—including charismatic ones—to get away clean. 

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