In the fall of 2019, I was very pleased to become a member of the Sisters in Crime – Toronto Chapter, an organization devoted to “promoting the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of Canadian women crime writers.” I very much believe in this goal, and am grateful to be allowed to take part in this effort.

Since I became a member I attended the joint Sisters in Crime/Crime Writers of Canada (of which I’m also a member) holiday party, which was really enjoyable, and where I met many members of both organizations for the first time. I was then given an opportunity to read from my novel, Undercard, at the Sisters in Crime January meeting; and subsequent to that I was interviewed by Arlene McCarthy for “Criminal Intent”, her regular series of interviews in the Sisters in Crime – Toronto Chapter publication “Crime Scene”. I am so glad to have been given such opportunities by this organization, and I hope I can contribute back to the Sisters in Crime for many years to come.

Below is the full extensive interview, in which I was able to extrapolate on my views on writing in general and writing my novel specifically. I hope you enjoy it.

Q: What is your general philosophy of writing?

A: When it comes to writing, I believe in the accumulation of effort, that great writing is built off foundations in previous drafts or in the cannibalization of other works by the writer. I believe that the more work that goes into a story, the greater the dividends in added texture and depth. This is why I believe very much in revisions. A writer only has so much energy to employ when writing a draft of a novel, and it’s impossible for a writer, no matter how good they are, to achieve everything they want in one round of writing. Eventually their energy will give out, and quality will recede. This is why a writer should take some rest and recovery between drafts in order to have enough energy to push themselves again.

This is why I like to have a primary focus for every draft. For my first draft my goal is just to establish a foundation for the story. While I’m obviously trying to write every part of the book as well as I can, the only aspect of the book where I put pressure on myself on is the plot. And even with plot, I know it might change in subsequent drafts.

In the second draft I try to focus on the characters, developing them as much as possible. As the revisions go on, I find the plot and characters begin to solidify, and the focus becomes more and more about the actual writing, the style, use of language. Those final revisions are when I’m concentrating on getting the writing quality as high as I can, while there are almost no changes to plot, character, or theme.

I also like to have more to work with than I need in early drafts. That way, in every draft I can cut out the weakest material, and the book improves through subtraction. Plus, with each revision I’m adding new material that I’ve zoned in on, so it’s ideally at a high level. So with every revision I try to cut the poorest material and add new material that’s on par with the best material. And this constant adding and cutting eventually leaves only the strongest material remaining.

Q: What rules did you impose on yourself for writing Undercard?

A: When writing Undercard I knew that I wanted to have a powerful twist. It’s an incredible experience when you read a line or a paragraph on a page and suddenly your spine is tingling and the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck. I love books that give me that experience. Before Undercard, I had never had a really great twist in anything I’d ever written, or even just a significant twist, so going into the writing of Undercard I knew I wanted a good twist in it. So I made sure to work out what it was before I started writing it.

Because I had to have the story build to this twist, I mapped it out beforehand more so than any story I had written previously. I actually had the idea for Undercard two years before I started writing it, so I had thought about the characters a great deal, and their back stories and family histories and so on, so by the time I started writing, it flowed well.

Also, the story, taking place over 24 hours, beginning at noon on a Saturday and ending at noon on the Sunday, is structured around time, so there were several rules I followed in terms of syncing the plot with the time of day – one of which was making sure there was a scene during every hour of that time frame, which wasn’t as easy during the early hours of the morning.

Q: Discuss how you used the times and the setting to strengthen suspense in Undercard.

A: All my life I had wanted to write a story that took place over one day. I had come across it on occasion in novels or films, and always I found the setup appealing. But up until Undercard I had never attempted it myself.

Knowing that the plot would revolve around the two action set pieces of a major boxing event and a protest march, I realized I could have these events take place on a Saturday night (when all major combat sports events take place), and the following morning (morning being when most protests occur); and so this story could become my 24-hour narrative.

Time is always a valuable tool in creating suspense, and with Undercard revolving entirely around time, it was a wonderful vehicle to keep the plot moving and keep the reader engaged. By having it divided into two sections, PM and AM, and each chapter correlating to an hour of the day, it creates an atmosphere of the clock ticking towards major events as we approach midnight and noon. By using a time stamp at the start of each scene, cutting between the perspectives of the four main characters, I feel I was able to create a frenetic pace in the story, so the reader feels this intense, eventful day inexorably speeding to its conclusion.

As to setting, Las Vegas has intrigued me ever since I first visited there in 2012. I happened to witness a heavy militarized police presence at one point, and a cab driver there told me about discriminatory practices by the cab companies. These experiences juxtaposed with the incredible opulence of the Strip, in addition to the grandeur of the surrounding landscapes (the desert, the rugged hills and mountains dotting the horizon), made me think that this would be an excellent setting: sexy and spectacular tourist spaces, gritty and exciting urban spaces, epic and grand natural landscapes, and most of all a space that could allow me to engage with a host of issues. All these factors combined allow for a lot of action and suspense.

Q: Assuming you have unlimited money and time, what place would you visit and would you use it as a setting for another novel?

A: If I could visit anywhere regardless of obstacles, I would visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). My first unpublished novel was largely set there, and I still hope to rewrite that book or write a new novel in that setting. That country encompasses the Congo River and the African rain forest, iconic, adventurous settings. In addition, the two Congo Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s and the continued conflicts since then – tied up with the Rwandan Genocide, globalization, the exploitation of minerals that have driven the tech advancements of this millennium, and the deaths of more people than any other conflict since WWII – have remained relatively under the radar internationally.

The Second Congo War was Africa’s first postcolonial world war, one of the most significant events in world history over the last 50 years, and yet it came and went with comparatively little attention. I believe that more needs to be written on this subject, and not just nonfiction but fiction that can hook readers into learning more about it. There is also so much material there for truly great stories.

Q: The boxing arena in the Reef is “a cavernous hall” filled with “teeming masses in their sealed off tomb, clamouring for violence. A scent of blood in the air.” Naomi feels a part of the “mob drunk on brutality and liquor,” fed by the sweat and blood sent spattering with each blow, and she taps into the “wildness that is in all of them” to persuade the crowd to get up on their feet and cheer Antoine on to win that last round. How were Tyron and Keenan in their own lives also affected by this “communal wildness” in the American psyche?

A: I think Tyron and Keenan are constantly navigating the tension between their baser instincts and higher ideals. Tyron is more effective at this, having had more practice, but even he at times is caught up in the glitz, glamour and wildness. He is someone who takes his responsibilities seriously, but after being an officer in the Marines, responsible for so many people for over a decade, there is

a part of him that would like to simply live for himself, go out, go on dates, see friends, have drinks. This is manifested in the night club scene. Ultimately he embraces his new responsibilities as a returning member of his community.

Keenan is someone, I feel, who never actively made sacrifices to do good for others. He wasn’t a bad person, but he didn’t actively try to be a good person, and because of that, when he is put in situations where he is most tested, he ends up hurting other people. How he deals with the resulting hardships of those actions determines whether or not he can deal with his past, and change for the better.

Q: Were your editors or publishers worried that the issues of sexism, criminal justice, Black Lives Matter, gun violence and income inequality in America might turn some readers away from your novel?

A: I do think dealing with so many heated issues in Undercard made everyone involved with it a little wary of how it would be received. I am so grateful to my editor and publisher for believing in the book; it has obviously been such a dream come true to have it published. Speaking for myself, I was very uncertain if a publisher would want a book written by me that engaged with such subject matter. I wrote Undercard on the heels of having two manuscripts rejected, and I thought, if I’m going to spend two years or so of my life working on a novel that will likely get rejected anyway, I might as well write something that’s meaningful and interesting to me. Then after it was bought, I did wonder a lot how people would react to what I had chosen to write.

My goal has never been to provoke readers. The issues I write about are things I care about and I feel they add greater depth to my work, but I try to deal with these issues in as careful and conscientious a manner as possible; so that the book is engaging the reader on these issues, posing a discussion for them, as opposed to directing them to think a certain way. And for that reason I believe it has connected with a variety of readers of different backgrounds and perspectives.

Q: How is Naomi a woman of the era in which the novel is set?

A: I think Naomi is a woman of the era in terms of her ambitions, her assertiveness, her athleticism, and her increasing independence. Professional women’s sports are a relatively recent phenomenon, and the WNBA is one of the most successful women’s pro leagues in North America (perhaps the most successful). Naomi, being a WNBA player and then a basketball coach, is a reflection of newer career paths available to women.

Each character is an athlete in a different sport, and I wanted the personality of each to be shaped in part by their sport. Basketball is often associated with hip-hop culture, with a sort of fun swagger. This culture and its traits would’ve traditionally been considered masculine, but in my exposure to women’s basketball players over the years, I have seen this fun swagger and confidence numerous times, and I wanted Naomi to embody that. Increasingly she is someone who is finding her own way in the world, and I feel that is indicative of women in these times.

Q: Can you share with us what you think Antoine, Keenan, Tyron and Naomi will be doing 15 years after the novel ends?

A: Fifteen years, that is an interesting thought. I think Antoine will be dead within 15 years. I think he will become an assassin of some kind for governments or criminal syndicates and eventually his luck will run out. I think Naomi will have her own basketball academy, and will be contributing to the work ethic, confidence, health, and athleticism of a great many young people. I think Keenan will be leading a much quieter life: I think he’ll have left Vegas and started a family in a slow-paced town, perhaps running a small business, or doing work that cannot hurt anyone, and be very much a caring husband and father. I think Tyron will remain in Vegas and be active in his community, following in his parents’ footsteps after all as a teacher, activist, and community organizer, as well as a coach who would probably do some of his coaching at Naomi’s academy.

Q: What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

A: My first advice is to keep improving. The most important part of achieving any goal is to simply keep improving, and eventually obstacles will fall. The improvement might look different depending on what kind of writer you want to be. For instance, for some genres, to be more prolific is a necessity, and so increasing output could be an effective area to improve. For another genre, improving the quality of one’s prose is desired. Also, one’s habits, writing routines, organization, discipline, time management, even just the neatness of one’s desk, are all valuable areas in which to improve. Whichever directions a writer chooses to improve, that improvement will always pay dividends. A writer should not put excessive pressure on themselves to be great, or to attain a certain level of success; just a steady pressure to push a little beyond their previous best.

My second advice is to try to embed yourself in the writing/literary world. Whether it is online, in person, or both, try to be a part of the writing community. Go to events, take part in things, meet people when you can. There are lots of ways to be involved, and no one way is the best. Any involvement in the literary community helps establish connections for when you’re ready to start submitting your work.

This is something I didn’t do, and when I finished my first unpublished novel, I had zero contacts in the industry and didn’t know where to begin. Establishing ties to the industry does help engender opportunities that could pay dividends in the future.

Third, I advise aspiring authors to be strong. There will be rejections; there will be people who don’t like your work; there will be people who don’t like you; there will be people who undermine your efforts, your goals, who denigrate or belittle your writing; there will be situations that are overwhelming and situations that are disheartening. And most of all, the sustained effort required to write books and to continuously improve will be exhausting. Be strong. Perseverance is a necessity in this field. It is fine to give in to despair when it gets too much, but the next day return to your work. Tell yourself whatever you need to in order to inure yourself to the countless setbacks you will face. Because if you can withstand all this, and keep at it, you will always be rewarded. You might not be rewarded in the way you had planned, but you will always be rewarded.

My last advice is to write things that are both marketable and meaningful. Do justice to yourself, to what matters to you, to what you would like to read; and yet also, be aware of what the publishing industry is looking for, be aware of what readers are looking for, be aware of what the general culture is looking for, and looking for from you specifically, as this industry is looking for different things from different writers. I believe that it is this balance between engaging with material that is important to you and attempting to entice an audience that gives a writer the best chance of being published.

Q: If you could inhabit anyone else’s brain for a day, whom would you choose?

A: I would like to inhabit Shakespeare’s brain for a day. Just to have his command of language and his insights into character would be such a blessing. I would try to write as much as I could that day and give a major boost to whichever project I would be working on.

Q: Complete the following sentence: “As a writer of crime thrillers I . . .”

A: As a writer of crime thrillers I am intrigued by conflict in our society, at the individual scale, the regional, and the global, and strongly interested in the root causes of such conflicts, and the efforts to resolve them. I also like action and excitement, which makes me a fan of this genre.

Q: How has being a member of Sisters in Crime affected you?

A: In the short time that I have been a member of Sisters in Crime I have already met a host of wonderful people. Writing, while so fulfilling, can be so lonely and isolating without a community to connect with, so it has been so refreshing and heart-warming to share in this community. Sisters in Crime has also provided me with opportunities (this interview being one of them – thank you, it’s much appreciated), and it has been a great way to network. I also think that the mandate of Sisters in Crime, to support women crime writers, is a wonderful thing, and I’m excited to be a part of that goal.

NFL super bowl lessons
NFL super bowl lessons

Introduction

As an avid football fan, I have found this NFL season the most enjoyable there has been in at least the last four years. There have been spectacularly dominant performances by teams like the Ravens and 49ers, stellar seasons by players like Russell Wilson, Christian McCaffrey, and Michael Thomas, a record-breaking postseason by Derrick Henry, thrilling playoff games culminating in a Kansas City-San Francisco Super Bowl, and of course there has been the electrifying and exuberant Lamar Jackson, whose season for the ages has been made more entertaining by his warm and magnetic disposition; but I think what I will remember this season for most is the emergence of new coaches and stars. After the first decade and a half of this millennium being dominated by Tom Brady, the Mannings, and Ben Roethlisberger, the last few seasons have felt somewhat like a limbo state, with Brady and the Patriots still kicking, their old competition faded or retired, and the next generation still finding their feet. Yes, the Eagles, a young team under Doug Pederson’s second year at the helm, won the 2017 Super Bowl, and other young coaches and players have found success; nevertheless a true changing of the guard had yet to occur. This season, however, felt like a renaissance, and below are the lessons I learned from watching it. But first:

How I Came to Be a Fan of the NFL

In the late 60’s, after my father graduated high school in South Africa, he was given the opportunity to attend a boarding school for a year in America through a foreign exchange program. My father played soccer, rugby, cricket, golf, and squash, but with a willingness to try new things, he joined the football team. (After we immigrated to Canada, he joined an ice hockey league even though he only learned the sport – and how to skate – in his forties; impressive moxie considering the level of hockey in Canada across the board.) With his soccer background, and potent kick, he became the team’s kicker, but he also played as a linebacker. At 5’7 then (perhaps shorter now in his late sixties), this seems a strange position for him, but he said he knew how to tackle from rugby which is why they put him on defense.

Growing up, he recounted to me how he was once mentioned in The New York Times after a game when he converted many kicks. In my second year at university, studying Film, I had a research project involving databases of old newspapers, and I thought, why not track down this long lost article my father had told me about. Indeed there was an article, and while it was mostly about a dominant win by my dad’s school team, it did mention him by name. According to my memory, it introduced him as “African kicker Chris Albertyn” and reported that he made seven of seven extra points. Not South African kicker Chris Albertyn, but simply African kicker, which, though a cool moniker, seems perhaps a bit misleading considering that he’s white. I imagine the story of that game, my dad’s successful kicks in it, and the article reporting it was embellished over time, as somewhere along the line in my upbringing I conjured the vision of a grainy black and white photo of my father in football attire, his right foot arched high before him, his eyes still down where the football had been, before its epic flight out the frame, a frozen moment in time evoking all the grandeur, drama, and history the sport is known for – my father as its centrepiece. The short article, with its brief mention of his touchdown conversions, didn’t quite match this vision; nevertheless, I was very proud and happy to find the article, and I have a printout of it hidden away in some storage box somewhere.

With these experiences under his belt, my father became a fan of the NFL and watched the Super Bowl on TV during that year in America. Back in South Africa, NFL games were not televised until the 1992 season, when I was nine years old. On Tuesday nights, one channel picked the best game of the previous week, edited it down to 45 minutes, and showed highlights of all the other games over the remaining 15 minutes. It was a very exciting way to be introduced to football. My father was thrilled to show me the sport, and I think the sense that this was both something exotic and something that my father valued was as much of a draw as was the entertainment of the game.

One other engaging touch of the broadcast we received was that at the halftime of the featured contest, they ran a profile of one of the players. The first game I ever watched was between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, and the halftime profile was of Barry Sanders. His jukes, spins, and cuts seemed the most thrilling, dynamic, and aesthetically pleasing manifestation of athleticism there could possibly be. He instantly became my favourite player.

The next year we immigrated to Canada, and while my father and I sorely missed watching cricket and rugby (this was before the days where people could watch any sport from any location) at least we had greater access to the NFL. Every Sunday afternoon was time spent together watching this game, with breaks for us to run around outside to throw the football ourselves.

Now we watch RedZone and still spend most Sunday afternoons together. I’m well aware of the issues associated with the NFL and its owners, and like so many things in life many of us are engaged in that have consequences for society and the planet – driving, flying, eating meat, for instance – I have misgivings about consuming this product. But it has been a pastime for my father and I, and brought us much shared happiness.

Lessons Learned:

One Innovation is Not Enough: The Firing of Tom Coughlin

I have been a fan of Tom Coughlin ever since he was a coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 90’s. I was a fan of Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, and that entire Jags team. When Coughlin was head coach of the New York Giants, I continued to support him and was happy when he won his Super Bowls. In 2015 in a bookstore in South Florida, I came across his book Earn the Right to Win: How Success in Any Field Starts with Superior Preparation (co-authored with David Fisher) and bought and read it. From the title alone you knew that this is a person who believes in hard work. That to him an extreme work ethic and professionalism are the most desirable traits in achieving goals.

In Earn the Right to Win, Coughlin tells a story of the inaugural training camp of the expansion Jags, when he came across an NFL veteran Jeff Lageman in the cafeteria. Coughlin asked Lageman what he thought of the food service, and Lageman told him it was “outstanding” but that “the coffee wasn’t very good”. As Lageman describes it, “The next morning, the very next morning, the entire coffee system had been changed and the coffee was top-notch… It was obvious they were well prepared and intended to run a first-class operation.” (p. 103)

Coughlin was sending a message: just because they were an expansion team didn’t mean that they weren’t going to exhibit professionalism; in fact, they were going to be as absolutely professional as possible.

Coughlin famously set all the clocks to five minutes early in the facilities where he coached, and demanded that players and staff show up to meetings five minutes early or else be deemed late. This was his innovation in the NFL: taking work ethic and professionalism to new heights. And it had a great effect, contributing to a successful team with the Jags (the first time around) and two Super Bowls with the Giants.

All this success is in stark contrast to his recent tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars, from 2017 to 2019, this time as Executive VP of Football Operations as opposed to head coach. After initial success, narrowly losing the AFC Championship game in his first season in this role, the team had records of 5-11 and 6-10 in the last two seasons. Perhaps more damning was that the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) made a public statement that their players should think twice before signing with the Jags, due to the unusually high number of fines they levy on their players for failures to abide by team rules. Apparently 25% of all grievances filed by players with the NFLPA this year were by players on the Jags, about 3% of all players in the league. Within two days of this statement by the NFLPA, Tom Coughlin was fired.

What is there to learn from this? Why did Coughlin’s methods yield such success then as opposed to now? A simple answer could be that he was a head coach then while he was a front office executive in the recent example, and the difference had significant effect. Nevertheless, being fired mid-season while his own players and the NFLPA were up in arms about his methods do make those methods appear to be outdated. How did things get to this point from their positive start? I would argue that Coughlin made one innovation, the rest of the league caught up, and without devising new innovations, he kept mining his original innovation deeper and deeper until it not only yielded diminishing returns but alienated and demoralized his players and was ultimately a detriment to overall performance.

One Innovation Won’t Last Forever: New Innovations are a Must

Instilling an extreme work ethic and absolute professionalism in his organization was an innovation when Coughlin introduced it, and was part of the edge his teams had in order to be successful. In his book, Coughlin writes about his father, who was “tough, proud”, whose “values weren’t complicated: work hard, give your best effort, respect other people, and always be honest and fair.” After one of his son’s high school football games, a loss, he told Tom, “If that’s the effort you’re going to give, you probably ought to find something else to do with your time.” (p. 2) Coughlin learned from his father, and cultivated his own work ethic, which he then cultivated in others.

But pro sports, and sports in general, have come a long way since Coughlin’s NFL head coaching career began in the 90’s. His innovation helped make the NFL more professional and its players harder working and more self-motivating. High-level professionalism and work ethic are now a standard in the NFL, rather than an edge. Also, players, and society at large, are different from how they were a generation ago or even 10 years ago. Fining and punishing players doesn’t work in the same way in this day and age.

Coughlin failed to realize that the innovation he implemented his first time around with the Jags is no longer innovative. If he wanted to once again bring a team to the highest levels of the sport, separating from the pack, he needed to continue exploring for new innovations, not rely on one that had already been absorbed by everyone else.

More Lessons to Come

Check out “Lessons Learned from the 2019 NFL Season: Part 2” after the Super Bowl, including analysis of the championship game!