David Albertyn is a Canadian thriller author, whose debut novel, UNDERCARD, was released last year in Canada, and has just been released in the United States. His book was nominated for the Evergreen Award for 2020, as well as landing on the 49th Shelf's list of Top Fiction in 2019. David is a fellow member of International Thriller Writers and has graciously taken a few minutes to answer some questions.
MB: Let's start by talking about you for a moment. You were born in Durban, South Africa, but your family immigrated to Canada when you were ten. That must have been traumatic for someone at such a young age. How has that childhood experience helped you become the writer you are today?
DA: Yes, it was quite an experience immigrating at that age. I think immigrating, especially as a child, forces one to analyze the new society in order to fit into it as best as you can, which by nature forces you to observe people, their characters, their behavior. Observing and analyzing people and culture are very valuable skills for writing fiction. I also think that during that initial period in a new country when you have no friends or contacts, being so isolated, that reading, writing, and exploring my imagination, were some of the things I turned to in order to keep occupied and engaged. So immigrating I think shaped my writing, and my interest in writing, in a variety of ways.
MB: Your book, UNDERCARD, is set in the world of boxing on the Las Vegas Strip and the plot takes place over a twenty-four-hour period. How hard was it to keep up the rhythm and pacing of the plot in such a condensed time frame?
DA: Yes, it was very hard keeping up such an intense rhythm in such a condensed time frame. When I was conceiving the novel, I knew I wanted to write something as gritty and intense as I possibly could. I wanted not only the plot, characters, and setting to be marked by this grittiness and intensity, but the very structure and even the language of the novel. I wanted the book to be so visceral that the reader feels out of breath, even though all they’ve been doing is stare at words on a page
In terms of the technical side of implementing this, it took a lot of planning to meet some conventions and defy others, to make the story packed with activity in this one twenty-four-hour span and yet not feel implausible, and to coordinate the movements of all the characters throughout the plot, colliding them at regular intervals. While it was very exhausting syncing the individual plot lines and scenes with the others, it’s when you’re reading your work afterward that you experience the payoff.
MB: Did you hide any secrets in UNDERCARD that only a few people will find?
DA: There are definitely quite a lot of clues in the novel foreshadowing events to come. For anyone who enjoys the book I would recommend reading it a second time to pick up the secrets that would go unnoticed the first time around. I would also say, in a broader sense, that the novel quite clearly deals with some issues pertaining to inequality and excesses of power, but also, in a more subtle way, touches upon other issues related to this theme of inequality. Seeing how all the different issues are connected in this book is something else to look out for.
MB: Let's talk about the craft of writing for a moment. Some writers plot out all of the elements before putting a single word to paper. Others, on the other hand, allow the story to grow organically as they write. Tell me about your writing process.
DA: With UNDERCARD, it was a bit of both, plotting and allowing it to grow organically. But I will say that with this book I plotted more than I ever had before. I really wanted to have great twists in this novel, and I knew that to execute them well the entire story would have to build to those twists, so I would have to plot out major events and character dynamics for that to happen. A lot of the climactic moments in the book I had in my head before I started writing. I also spent two years developing all the principal characters, including the principal villains, before putting pen to paper for UNDERCARD. However, most side characters and sub plots grew during the writing itself, and while many scenes were previously plotted out, most scenes emerged during the writing. So it was a fun blend.
MB: If there was one thing that you would do differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would that be?
DA: Great question, and I have an answer ready actually, as it’s something I regret not doing at that age: I would’ve read and written poetry. I’ve often heard people say that you can’t quite define what good writing is, you can just tell. You just feel it. But my feeling is that one of the signs of strong writing, technically and stylistically, is a command of language. I would argue that more accomplished writers tend to have a greater command of language, how to effectively use it whether sparingly or more lyrically, whether with short simple words or long eloquent ones. And I feel that poetry prepares, develops, and requires a writer to have a command of language. A person can write a great novel on the strength of their plot, characters, and subject matter, without doing too much with language. I don’t think the same can be said with poetry, where using language in interesting ways is at the heart of the form. So I would’ve preferred to have pushed myself in that way from a younger age; I think it would have paid dividends for my prose writing now.
MB: What book are you currently reading?
DA: I’m currently reading THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT by Hilary Mantel, the third and final book in her Thomas Cromwell series. I really loved WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, and speaking of a command of language, I feel that there is so much to learn from Mantel. Sometimes you come across writers whose style you admire and enjoy reading, but it’s not necessarily a style you want to emulate in your own writing, as it doesn’t fit with your sensibilities and story. And sometimes you come across writing and you think immediately, Yes, this is exactly how I want to write! That’s how I felt when I read the first page of WOLF HALL, and I still feel that way reading THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT now.
MB: What can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any new projects?
DA: In the future, I hope to keep writing crime fiction that is engaging and substantive while still being fun and exciting. At the moment I’m working on a murder mystery in a tennis club, and while I tried to make Undercard as gritty and intense as possible, this novel I’m trying to make as funny and sexy as possible. So it’s a different tone to UNDERCARD, although there are still a lot of the things that people have responded to in it: cutting between different perspectives, moving back and forth in time, a fast pace, a sports theme, captivating characters, sharp dialogue, and sudden twists.
MB: Thank you taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with UNDERCARD.
David Albertyn's new book, UNDERCARD, is available now. You can find out more about David at davidalbertyn.com. You can follow him Twitter at twitter.com/davidalbertyn, on Facebook at facebook.com/davidalbertynwriter, and on Instagram at instagram.com/davidalbertyn.
You can buy UNDERCARD at the following retailers: