How is tennis similar to boxing? Ask David Albertyn, and his eyes will light up at the question.
Sitting in a café on Eglinton Avenue West in midtown Toronto, around the corner from where he grew up, the newly published author leans in, explaining the parallel techniques in core strength and hip rotation, how both sports demand the athlete funnel their entire body’s power into the end of their arm.
Albertyn is a 36-year-old tennis coach with statuesque jawline and cinnamon-brown hair, but he is not a professional boxer. Nonetheless, the sport has long fascinated him. “It’s probably the most exciting sport I’ve seen,” he says. “And I was just at one of the Raptors playoff games.”
It was a no-brainer that boxing would serve as the central metaphor for his debut novel, Undercard, published by House of Anansi in February 2019. The narrative flips between four characters: a marine who’s just returned home after 11 years abroad, a cop who killed an unarmed teenager, a retired women’s pro-league basketball player and a rising-star boxer prepping for the biggest fight of his life.
“I want it just to be an intense, visceral experience,” he says of the book. “It is like a ride. You’re locked in from the first sentence.”
For Albertyn, blending sport and literature has been decades in the making. He started writing short stories at age six, in his native South Africa, inspired by stories his mom wrote when she was that young.
“I always thought, as a kid, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be a bestselling author,” he recalls.
But those dreams fell by the wayside when he fell into the sporting life. His father loved competition, and would challenge his son to road and swimming races. When the family moved to Toronto in 1993, his father bought him a punching bag and hung it from the rafters of their garage. Albertyn didn’t learn any proper techniques, but he did learn to love exercise. Tennis coaching came as naturally to him as cross-training in the boxing ring.
Eventually, it dawned on him to invest as much energy into writing as he did sports. He embarked on a nine-year struggle to write his first book, a sprawling, 800-page geopolitical thriller set in the bloody jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He spent another 18 months whittling it down and pitching it to dozens of agents and publishers, but nobody bit.
After finally accepting his story’s fate, he connected with a literary agent and began pitching a second novel that he whipped up in just a couple years – but that, too, found early rejection. Albertyn knew the signs.
“If something really works, it should be resonating with most people,” he says. “People always tell you, ‘You only need one person to believe in it.’ I was actually thinking, no, it shouldn’t be such a low margin for error.”
As soon as the rejections trickled in, he began working on Undercard, correcting a decade’s worth of industry mistakes. He knew what would sell, what publishers were looking for. His agent submitted it to two publishers, both of which embraced it.
Part of what made this novel click, Albertyn thinks, is its portrayal of inequality. His novel, set in Las Vegas, “captures this dichotomy of this insane wealth and opulence, this shimmering sexiness,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s a city that has large low-income areas and that’s indicative of inequality in America and so many places these days.”
Another of those places is South Africa. Albertyn’s father fought for years against apartheid, and his mother, who is Jewish, was traumatized after their neighbour was stabbed to death in the stomach by a 16-year-old boy asking for money. That tragedy sparked the family’s Canadian exodus, which echoed in Albertyn’s mind ever since.
“If you allow inequality to fester, things can grow really bad, and it pervades the entire society,” he says. “You can’t allow these kinds of issues to get bad enough. And once they do, it’s not like you can just switch it off.”