How scammers inspired Rafael Frumkin’s queer crime novel ‘Confidence’

Rafael Frumkin has been having a good year.

Last month brought a report that the author’s debut novel, “The Comedown,” is being developed as a series by the Starz network, with actors Regina King and Freddie Highmore on board as executive producers and “WandaVision” scribe Gretchen Enders attached to write.

Frumkin knew about the project but seeing it hit the news was still exciting for the writer. “My head’s still spinning about it,” he says. “I’m just really thrilled.” 

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But his mind is on another book these days — Frumkin’s second novel, “Confidence,” will be published March 7 by Simon & Schuster. The novel follows Ezra Green, a short teenage boy with poor eyesight and a knack for conning people, who meets a fellow young grifter at a juvenile boot camp: Orson Ortman, a beautiful boy who also has a gift for scamming. Ezra falls hard for Orson, pretending to be dating him on the Tumblr account where he poses as Ingrid, a popular (and purely fictional) girl who’s everything Ezra is not.

After leaving the camp, Ezra and Orson establish a company called NuLife, which hawks magnets that they claim will bring users instant bliss. It’s a scam, of course, and one that takes off to an unexpected degree, throwing their lives into a dizzying disarray.

Frumkin talked about “Confidence” via Zoom from his home in southern Illinois. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Q. How did the idea for “Confidence” come to you?

This was a pandemic book. I was watching the NXIVM documentary with a friend, and I was just morbidly fascinated by Keith Raniere — what a repugnant person, an awful human being. But at the same time, what a huckster, what an effective con artist, you know? I went on a walk with my friend after we’d watched this documentary, and I was like, “I wonder who the next generation of scammers is?” And I thought, it’s Billy McFarland with the Fyre Festival, Elizabeth Holmes with Theranos, Anna Delvey, all these millennial scammers. And I thought it would be cool to write a book about someone my age who’s pulling off a giant scam on the scale of Herbalife or Theranos. 

Q. Ezra and Orson are both such fascinating characters. Did you come up with one of them first? 

They both arrived at the same time. I knew there was going to be this charismatic, beautiful one, who just took over the scam and started believing his own [lies]. I knew he had to have a foil, and I knew it was going to be a love story, a story of being scammed in love, experiencing this unrequited love. That’s why I wanted a character who’s a mastermind, a con artist who knows what he’s doing, but at the same time is very fragile, very vulnerable. And that was Ezra. 

Q. They’re both preternaturally good at deception. What do you think makes them such great liars? 

They’re born with this smooth-talking ability, and they’re both working class and have a lot of resentment for the wealthy. I think learning how to con the wealthy out of their money, learning how to sweet-talk people, learning how to worm their way into these elite spaces, it’s sort of in their blood. They’ve always been hungry for a better life, and they’re trying to figure out a way to get there. So I think it’s part nature, part nurture, in a sense. If you watch “The Sting” and “Paper Moon,” there are these people who almost con for the love of conning; it’s an art. Not that I’ve done it. [Laughs.] But it takes skill, and there’s creativity to it. It’s a natural kind of ability coupled with this resentment, this striving, this desire to implement those skills in a way that can actually get them ahead.

Q. Ezra has ​​had a hard life, but he doesn’t seem to pity himself at all.

That’s part of what made him appealing to me; he doesn’t throw himself a pity party. And I wouldn’t begrudge him if he did. Humans do that. It’s a reaction to difficult circumstances. But what made him so compelling to me is that he works with what he has, and sometimes he’s kind of deluded in his pursuit of Orson, and of wealth, and of perfect eyesight. There are all these things that he wants to have but that he can’t. But he’s also very crafty. He’s wise beyond his years, and I think that makes him self-confident in a lot of ways. 

Q. Orson’s charisma is effortless, but Ezra seems like he had to work to get his. Do you think his charm comes from a place of necessity, almost like a survival instinct?

Ezra’s high school classmates don’t know what to do with him, and they’re cruel to him. He’s coming from such a deficit, both in terms of his lack of wealth and his eyesight issues, being small of stature, all this standard stuff that you get picked on for in high school. So he had to develop this charisma, this craftiness, to cope with that. And then he takes that further on into his adult life. He’s figuring himself out, and he’s figuring out how he can get what he wants and those skills he learned are absolutely invaluable. So he’s one of those rare cases of someone who learned useful things in high school; it’s just not the academic stuff. [Laughs.]

Q. How would you describe Ezra’s relationship with Ingrid? 

She’s his alter ego that he develops in order to be who he’s not. Ezra’s this small, queer kid growing up in difficult circumstances. And he imagines himself to be this beautiful, wealthy young woman who has these like parents with white-collar jobs. She’s very aspirational for him; he wants to become her. Then slowly but surely, she becomes a vehicle for him to pretend he’s dating Orson. He’s feeling some closeted shame, so Ingrid is his way to express that kind of vicarious love in a way that’s heteronormative, so he’s not feeling weird or freakish because of his internalized homophobia.

Q. I’ve never read a book with this kind of long con story that has a queer element to it. Is that important to you, to bring a queer perspective to stories like this that maybe haven’t had that representation before?

It’s so important to me. This is a quote-unquote literary novel, but it’s also dipping its toes in plenty of genres — it’s a thriller, it’s a crime novel. And there are some queer thrillers, but you don’t usually see queer crime novels or queer heist novels. So representation was very important to me. I wanted to write a novel that has queer characters but that isn’t about the trauma of queerness. It’s not about, like, “I’m coming out, or I’m dysphoric, or people are rejecting me.” There is an element of internalized homophobia for sure, and there’s certainly some homophobia in the novel, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a fraught queer love story, but the queerness is almost incidental. It’s important to see queer people in narratives like this, where it’s not about the devastation of being queer and living under a cis, heteropatriarchy.