SLP: Let’s begin with the basics, Yale. Tell us where and when were you born.
YJ: I was born in 1954 on the south side of Chicago. My parents were offspring of immigrants from Russia and Lithuania. They settled in small towns in Minnesota. My Dad was a cook in the army during World War II; my Mom was his pen pal. After the war ended my parents moved to Chicago and he ultimately owned a small furniture store.
SLP: And where were you raised?
YJ: The turmoil of the 60’s made it an exciting time and place to grow up in the middle-class, south side of Chicago. The racial composition of our local high school transformed from a 65/35 split between white and Hispanic to a equal split between white, Hispanic and black students in a matter of a couple years – the so-called white flight of the south side had begun. As the racial tensions increased, my parents moved to the suburbs for the remainder of my high school years.
SLP: Where were you educated?
YJ: I attended the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. As an undergraduate, I earned some beer money working for the university’s athletic department as a tutor in economics. I also began to referee basketball games for the intramural department. Instead of getting a haircut and a job, I stayed at the university to earn a Master’s in Finance. While in graduate school, I taught introductory courses to undergraduates. In the first semester, my roster mysteriously was half filled with athletes – the reconnaissance of the athletic department was superb!
SLP: Where do you currently reside?
YJ: I live thirty miles west of Chicago in the suburbs with my wife of 30 years. Two grown sons live nearby as well.
SLP: Other than writing, what is your principal occupation?
YJ: Following the university I went to work at IBM in sales and management positions. After fifteen years there, I went back to my educational roots and began to manage money at Merrill Lynch in the private client group. I also began to referee high school basketball, a hobby of passion that I have done for the past eighteen years. I currently manage client portfolios in a Chicagoland based bank.
SLP: What literary genres appeal to you as both writer and reader?
YJ: I love thrillers, murder-mysteries, politics, sports, detective, and modest sci-fi. My first novel combines thriller and sports in a whodunit tale.
SLP: What writers have most influenced your work?
YJ: Stephen King and Harlan Coban are representative of what I like to read. More recently I have exclusively read indie author’s books – these are terrific writers in a variety of thriller books trying to be read and discovered.
SLP: Have you considered other forms of writing such as screenwriting, travel writing, etc.?
YJ: I have toyed with trying to convert my novel into a screenplay, but have not made a serious effort. I also have written (and delivered) several after-dinner speeches about writing, basketball, and my novel.
SLP: Do you write primarily at home?
YJ: I love to write late at night at my desk in our family room, but ideas cropped up along the way at all kind of places.
SLP: Do you write in public places such as coffee shops, etc.?
YJ: An out of control player went down with an injury at a men’s league game I was officiating, and that inspired a passage. Listening to a radio discussion about a coach provided resolution to a thorny plot issue. There were no bounds to where things popped up – I experienced the creative joy of those in the arts’ professions, nearly everyday that I thought about my novel. So away from my desk nook, I’ve written notes on napkins, newspapers, and restaurant menus.
SLP: When do you prefer to write, mornings or evenings?
YJ: Usually at night. From 8 PM to 2 AM. It’s quiet and I can clear my mind.
SLP: Do you set aside specific times to write? If so, when?
YJ: When I was in full production, I wrote every night with a passion. I couldn’t type fast enough. Often I would lose myself and suddenly realize it was 5 AM!
SLP: If possible would you like to write full time, or do you have other overriding interests?
YJ: Writing a novel was never a goal of mine. It just evolved. Once my novel went to publication, I began to participate in several online forums and blogs. Several of the participants profess their desire, or their need to write. I have an “author bug”, but I must admit it is only a mild case. I consider many of the people I have met writing real “craftsman”. I am merely a storyteller.
While working for a large corporation I attended a seminar about leadership styles. In our class the instructors identified dictators, consensus builders, democrats, information-crats, and several others leader styles. They called me an Indian Chief. My style did not involve ordering, dictating, and asking people to perform a task. I was, as a manager, more likely to tell a story with a moral which might lead the employee to move in my direction. This was extremely insightful, I love to create and tell stories hoping the listener will piece together the dilemmas and find the moral answer.
The life of a full time writer would be interesting – but I do not have a goal to be only a writer. I am satisfied with writing as a hobby, a craft that I could perpetually improve. I am happy managing clients’ ‘investments, refereeing high school basketball and writing.
SLP: When and how did your interest in writing first manifest itself?
YJ: About four years ago I decided to put together a collection of basketball anecdotes together, possibly online or in a paperback. These were stories that I observed or were related to me by other officials. Sometime after the project began, I came up with the idea of weaving some of these stories into a novel centered on high school basketball and the related characters. Not only do I still love the game of basketball, I am fascinated by those involved with the game: players, win-at-all-costs coaches, referees, over-indulgent parents, college recruiters, gamblers, etc.. I started thinking about writing a novel which examined the strengths and flaws of the characters involved.
There was a slight issue – I am a number’s guy and didn’t know how to write a novel. I began researching the possibilities. I read several books including King’s On Writing. I also found on the internet a concise “How to Write a Novel” white paper by a Canadian literature professor. Still having doubts, during an eight hour driving trip with a childhood friend, I told him of my novel writing notion. During that trip, I told him the general plotlines. He loved the idea and encouraged me to begin to write the story.
SLP: Do you have any other creative outlets such as music, dance, or graphic arts?
YJ: I have been fascinated by craftsman who create objects blowing glass. I’d love to learn to make clipper ships with blown glass.
SLP: Do you primarily write on a computer? If so, laptop or desktop?
YJ: My best writing environment is at home on a desktop.
SLP: How about note taking? Do you take copious notes or rely mainly on memory?
YJ: I did an incredible amount of research on background information for my novel, and have piles of notes and printouts.
SLP: How much do you read?
YJ: I am reading at least two novels a month. Since exchanging writing and marketing information on an Amazon forum with indie authors, I have several hundred books to on my TBR list.
SLP: Who are a few of your favorite authors?
YJ: My favorite authors are indie writers in Amazon’s Shameless Self-Promotion thread in the thriller forum: Dennis Batchelder, Bill Flynn, Mike Monahan, J R Reardon, Ed Patterson, Todd Fonseca, L C Evans, Lila Pinard, and Wendy Potacki to name a few.
SLP: What would you estimate to be the ratio of fiction to nonfiction?
YJ: 95% fiction, with an occasional political book.
SLP: Regarding Advantage Disadvantage, how did you decide on the title of the book?
YJ: As is explained in the book, Advantage Disadvantage has a duel meaning. For basketball referees, advantage disadvantage is a well know theory of officiating. This theory begins with the assumption that the whistle interrupts the game. If a referee interrupts a game, it should not simply be because a rule has been violated – you could ruin the flow of this beautiful game. Instead, interrupt the game when a rule is broken and it causes a change in the advantage/disadvantage balance between offense and defense. Stated another way, an official should use the spirit, not the letter of the game’s laws.
One of plotlines involves a neighborhood bookie who recruits an accomplice to take money from the local gangbangers by fixing the gambling lines on some high school games. He uses the words, “Advantage Disadvantage” as the name of his scheme.
SLP: Is the book entirely a product of imagination, or is it based on real events?
YJ: Many real events were woven into the plotlines, but it is definitely fiction.
SLP: To what extent is the book autobiographical?
YJ: Very small parts of the book are autobiographical, less than 5%.
SLP: Are the characters Marcus and Elizabeth modeled on people you know?
YJ: Elizabeth, in particular, has characteristics of people I actually know. Marcus originally was inspired by a real person, but his character took off in directions unknown to me.
SLP: Is the fact that Marcus and Elizabeth are of differing races‚—and the tensions inherent in some such relationships—an issue you wanted to address, or is that simply peripheral to the story?
YJ: Marcus and Elizabeth’s racial make-up is important to the credibility of this story, and it deepens their plotlines. It is unrealistic to write a storyline about competitive high school basketball without including race components. However, this book is not a morality lecture about race relations – there are characters, white and black, which are heroic or immoral.
SLP: Basketball plays a central role in the story. How did you come to know so much about the game? Did you participate as a player or coach? If so, when, where, and how (what position)?
YJ: I love the game, but I never was good enough to play Varsity or College Basketball. On the intramural level, I was an above average player. I also have officiated high school basketball for over 18 years, and hope to continue for 5 more.
SLP: When you wrote the book were you aware of Tim Donaghy, the former National Basketball Association referee who was fired and later went to prison for supplying inside information on games for gamblers?
YJ: I have followed every official scandal for the past twenty years. Before Donaghy, NBA referees were caught trading in their collective bargained first class tickets for coach and pocketing the difference. The IRS went after several of them as a warning to referees at all levels to fairly claim game fees on income tax.
Donaghy brought shame to the entire profession, whether officiating is an occupation or avocation. In Advantage Disadvantage, gambling plays a major role in the corruption of a participant.
SLP: Based on the portion I’ve read—the segment included in this interview—the book appears to be intended for the YA market. Does this genre represent your primary interest as a writer?
YJ: The morality issues and complexity of greed and corruption make this book more oriented to mature readers. Actually, I believe this book is a great read for a high school athlete and his/her parent, but not to middle school aged readers. To this end, I developed an instructor’s discussion guide that is being used by high school teachers. Maybe 14 years old and up as a guideline.
SLP: Do you foresee sports being a recurrent theme in your work, or do you lean more toward the crime/thriller segment?
YJ: My next book will be a sequel, and with the exception of flashback references there will be no sports focus.
SLP: Did you have the story fully plotted, including the ending, before beginning?
YJ: After writing character resumes, I developed a 20 page outline to plot the storyline. As I wrote, I deviated from this outline substantially.
SLP: Were there surprises along the way? If so, what were they?
YJ: The biggest surprise was the joy of the creative process. In the middle of writing, an idea would crop up that must be included. But to make that event credible, I had to go back and plant the prerequisite. It was like solving a multi-tier puzzle.
SLP: What, if any, were the greatest difficulties you encountered in writing the book?
YJ: The toughest part was waiting in between edits for the editors to provide feedback. They were unbelievably responsive, and their edits were essential, but I could not wait for them to get back to me.
SLP: Tell us something about your next writing project such as, is it underway and, if so, when you anticipate finishing it? Can you give us a ‘high concept’ or brief plot summary?
YJ: I have struggled with my next project. As a storyteller, I want Advantage Disadvantage “told” to as many people as possible. I know every author must feel this way, but I believe that my novel would make a wonderful, successful movie. I have had some minor interest expressed by a handful of filmmakers, but in the end they want to evaluate a screenplay. I figured out how to write a well-crafted novel, but I’m not sure that I am able to produce a sellable screenplay.
I have outlined the plot for a sequel to Advantage Disadvantage, to handle some unresolved issues. It would go in a completely different direction – a psychological thriller (and non-sports related). It’s a great story (said the Indian Chief), but I’m not sure when I will work on it.
SLP: What do you believe will be the short- and longterm impact of ebooks on the publishing industry?
YJ: The publishing industry is changing before the traditional publisher’s objections. If you read comments on the Kindle forums, readers are upset that a Kindle version of a bestseller is priced close to the hardcover price. I have discovered the fact that there are thousands of indie authors who want to be read, and are willing to price our works for a buck or less. I saw the same resistance in the brokerage business when trading fees were deregulated (Charles Schwab and others), and then later online trading fees for under $10. The traditional publishers and agents need to beware – their monopoly is evaporating, and for that readers can celebrate.
SLP: What do you think of the current publishers’ pricing structure for ebooks?
YJ: I could not control the pricing of my paperback – the publisher set it. But I completely own the electronic version rights. I am interested in attracting and building readers, not profits. To that end, my novel is available for 99 cents on Amazon.com for Kindle users, and also for 99 cents on Smashwords.com for Kindle, Sony, Nook, PDF and many other formats.
SLP: What are some other facts that may interest SLP readers?
YJ: One of the authors in the “Shameless” forum came up with the idea to offer free electronic downloads to men and women serving in the military. Smashwords.com agreed to be the conduit for this project and in a just a few weeks thousands of copies have been provided in multiple formats. The name of the project is called, “Operation eBook Drop”. More information can be found on Smashwords.com.
I am a proud participant of this project. Not a penny changes hands, and books get to our brave soldiers to help pass their off time. Here is an exchange from the mother of a soldier that I received and responded to:
“Mr. Jaffe, my son is a marine in Afgan. He is reading your book, and he swears that, in high school, he played in one of the gyms you describe in your book – but the school name doesn’t match. He is on a quest to find out if he is right. By the way, your book raised his spirits and we are grateful to you.
I wrote back:
“Your son is insightful – I modeled my fictional gym after Proviso East in the western suburbs. It is my favorite gym to referee games. The students rock the house there – it really gets loud, and it is steeped in tradition and NBA legacies. I may have officiated a game when your son played! I would be proud to meet him there when he returns to watch a game. Merry Christmas to your family, especially your brave son!”
SLP: What types of music do you prefer and who are some of your favorite performers?
YJ: Lately, I have been listening to music from my youth: Cream, Janis Joplin, Hendricks, Traffic, Bob Dylan, and Wet Willie.
SLP: There is an axiom preached in most creative writing classes: Write what you know. You’ve obviously adhered to that line very well by combing your coaching background with a detailed awareness all the undercurrents involved in basketball today. Thanks for an interesting read, and thanks as well for participating in this “brain-picking” session. We look forward to your next literary foray. Meanwhile, here’s a taste from the pages of Advantage Disadvantage:
After college graduation festivities ended, Elizabeth came home for the summer to her family’s spacious penthouse to plan her future. She had great options for the fall: DePaul Law School or Northwestern MBA or a two-year stint in South America working for the Peace Corps. Helping her Dad with the basketball league and other temporary jobs gave her something to do for the summer while she sorted out her fall choices.
Elizabeth became the scorekeeper for the Board of Trade Basketball League. Participants in games usually ended up at a funky, downtown Chicago watering hole called The Bar Double R after each game. The staff team led by Marcus Imari lost the first three league games to the members, and Elizabeth could not help but razz Marcus one night at the bar.
“At least your team is very consistent this year” she teased. “Maybe you could beat my little brother’s team!”
Elizabeth surprised Marcus with her opening salvo for this conversation. She normally ignored him – instead seeking the company of the young, white and up-and-coming traders. He found her beauty quite appealing, but perhaps out of reach for a college dropout.
“We could beat any of the teams in the league if we really want to,” Marcus replied. “We found the secret.”
“What about the undefeated “Trader Carl’s” team? They beat you last week like a drum. I’m serious, you might not win a game this year,” Elizabeth paused. “Alright, what is the secret?”
“We need to charge up on barbeque ribs from Tropical Hut. It is a smokehouse on Stoney Island. That’s our secret plan,” he laughed.
Elizabeth persisted. “What a great plan – load up right before a game and be slower than you are already! I really think that you probably are not going to win a game this year. Let’s make a bet on your next game against Trader Carl’s team. How about this – if you lose to them, you have to bring me Tropical Hut Ribs?”
“And if we win?”
“Marcus, you don’t have a chance of that. However, if you win, I will bring you lunch from Manny’s Deli. OK?”
Sensing an opportunity but being nervous about crossing an unspoken, invisible line, Marcus debated about his response Throwing caution to the wind and ignoring the fact that she was Caucasian and the daughter of one his bosses, he replied, “That’s not enough, given how good Trader Carl’s team seems to be. They are undefeated. How about this – if we lose, Tropical Hut Ribs are ok. But if we win, you must promise to go out on a date with me.”
Marcus stunned Elizabeth by his counteroffer; this was a test of her idealism. She was not really inclined to date a black man, but she was so sure of the cocky Trader Carl’s team against the staff’s ragtag squad. It may have been the wine cooler talking but she replied, “You’re on, Marcus Imari. By the way, I like ribs with mild sauce!”
Marcus reminded her of the bet the next few times he saw her at the gym. The staff team continued to lose games because Marcus had not yet showed his complete skill set. He anxiously anticipated the upcoming game against Trader Carl’s team. If somehow his team won, he would have a date with a fine woman, albeit someone way out of his social and educational range. Before the game, Marcus asked his team to gather round for a meeting.
“Fellas, I want you to know something about this game. I made a bet with one of the boss’ daughters that we would win. “
“Are you crazy, Imari?” broke in one of his teammates. “We haven’t won a game yet, and you think we can beat the best team in the league?”
“I’m just asking you to try hard tonight. I’m going to play tougher than you’ve seen so far, and I might hog the ball a little – because I’m not going, we are not going to lose tonight.”
No one took offense at Marcus’ instructions. Most of them suspected that so far he was playing at half speed anyway. They left the locker room fired up, ready to contribute to their first team win.
“Elizabeth, the bet’s on right?” he reiterated as he went by the scorer’s table.
“Remember, mild sauce, please,” she shot back with a smile.
The game started with a couple of missed jump shots. After snagging one of many defensive rebounds, Marcus dribbled the ball “coast to coast” and dunked the ball for an inspiring score. His teammates marveled at the range of his skills unseen until that night. They were reluctant to shoot in the first half, and it was all Marcus. He swatted Trader Carl’s shots away on defense and put in layup after layup in his own basket. As the game wore on, he was double and triple teamed which allowed his fellow teammates to have open, uncontested shots. The staff team’s first win shocked everybody, especially Elizabeth. She knew she had to face the date arrangements at The Bar Double R that night after the league games ended.
“How’s Saturday night?” Marcus asked Elizabeth.
“I don’t, don’t know” She stuttered as she anticipated her father’s objection to her going on a date with a black man.
“You can’t skate on this bet. No reneging allowed. I will pick you up Saturday night. You’ll have fun and I promise to get you home safely.”
Thinking she would satisfy the bet as quickly as possible, she said, “OK, OK. Let’s go early. How about 5:00. Pick me up in Hyde Park”.
“I can’t wait,” he replied.
Music was blasting from the windows of the car as Marcus drove south to pick up his date. Maniacally he changed stations, honking at stopped cars not immediately recognizing the green light ahead of him, and checking his watch persistently. He turned off the radio a few blocks away and practiced aloud, “Good evening, Elizabeth, you look fine tonight!”
“Hi Elizabeth. You look beautiful tonight!”
“Hi, you look nice! That is it. I’ll keep it simple.”
Elizabeth was waiting under the protective awning leading into her father’s Hyde Park condominium. Marcus pulled up in his modest five years old, four cylinders Ford Maverick. He got out of the car thinking he should call up to the condominium to pick up his date, but immediately saw Elizabeth waiting by the sidewalk. She had pulled her hair back and she was wearing makeup – she looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Marcus opened the car door for her and off they went.
“I’m so used to seeing you in basketball shorts and t-shirts. You look very nice tonight dressed-up,” she said to break the silence.
Marcus was so nervous he forgot his practiced opening line and blurted out, “You smell good, too”. Her lilac perfume was distinctive, but so much for his practice greetings.
“So, where are we going to eat?” she asked.
“I want to take you to get ribs at the Hut, but before we go I need to make a quick stop. I hope that you don’t mind.”
“It depends on where it is.”
“I want to introduce you to my kids. It will just take ten minutes, and then we’ll grab dinner,” Marcus said.
The word “kids” was ringing in her ears. She had no idea that he had children. She was shocked. This was going to be the worst date of her life. Her stomach flipped over. As if he did not have enough strikes against him already, she regretted ever making the bet with Marcus. Her face became flush. Any small amount of enthusiasm she might have had flew out of the window as they made the short drive to the near west side. Marcus parked the car in front of an old high school building in the Englewood neighborhood. He shut off the engine and got out of the car. Being a gentleman, he hustled awkwardly around the passenger side and opened her door.
“Come on,” he suggested as he put his hand out to help her out of the car. “My kids are inside.”
They walked through the heavy wooden doors and up a long creaky flight of stairs. He led her down a short hallway and opened a classroom door. As soon as they popped inside, five boys ran toward Marcus. He put one knee down to their level and had a group hug with all of the kids. The boys were looking at Elizabeth and whispering questions to Marcus.
“Something’s not right here,” Elizabeth thought. “The boys are all about the same age, maybe 10 years old, and they are calling him Mr. Marcus.”
“Boys,” Marcus said. “I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. I work with her at the Board of Trade and she came with me tonight to meet y’all. This is Ms. Elizabeth.”
“Hi Ms. Elizabeth,” the boys shouted in unison as she shook their hands in turn.
The high school kid, who was watching the boys before Marcus arrived, waited for the commotion to die down and asked, “Mr. Marcus, would you like the boys to read their stories to you and Ms. Elizabeth? They have been working hard today.”
Marcus winked at the older boy and said, “Love to hear them. Let’s have ’em”.
One by one, each child read his story to Elizabeth and Marcus. They were all similar versions of the following:
“Mr. Marcus is our basketball coach at Englewood Boys Club. He is so cool and very tall. He helps us learn basketball. We have fun with him too, but he makes us do homework before we can play.”
Elizabeth understood, these were not his biological kids – he was a volunteer big brother. He was a huge influence in the boys’ lives. She felt emotionally moved by how much respect the kids showed to Marcus. Based on the way Marcus and the kids interacted, they might as well have been his real children. She was so impressed. “Your stories are awesome,” she told the boys.
“Well, kids. Ms. Elizabeth and I have to roll. I know you guys have swimming tonight, so have fun and remember to read your books at home this weekend. I’ll see you Monday after school.”
One of them begged, “Can’t you watch us swim for a little bit?”
He looked over at Elizabeth. She broke in, “Why don’t we stay for a little while. I’d love to see the boys swim.”
“Yeah!” the kids shouted and they grabbed their towels and suits.
Elizabeth was gushing and could not restrain herself as they followed the boys to the pool. “Marcus, I can’t believe you never told me about the Englewood Boys Club. These kids love you. It’s so obvious how important you are to them.”
“Most of these kids are like me when I was young – they don’t know their fathers. I am just trying to fill in part of the void. To tell you the truth, I think I get more out of it then they do!”
Elizabeth responded, “I doubt that. The time you invest here is invaluable, I am sure. You are going to make a great dad someday with your own kids too.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way – all I know is that it feels good to spend some time here.”
After watching the kids swim around for 20 minutes, Marcus left the balcony and said goodbye to the boys. Before leaving, they splashed a little water on him. He walked Elizabeth to the car and they drove to the famous Tropical Hut restaurant on Stoney Island Street, a few miles southeast of Englewood. When they walked in, they smelled the sweet aromas of Tropical Hut’s barbeque. This was a well-known dining spot, a mini-melting pot for all walks of South Siders. The sixty-something host must have started when she was a kid. No one could remember going there before she was the greeter. She was a large, light-skinned black woman that most people called “Mama”. She always wore Hawaiian moo-moo flowered dresses and she had an incredible memory of the restaurant clientele.
“Hi Marcus. How are we tonight?” Mama asked when she saw him.
“Mama, this is Elizabeth. We are doing great tonight. And you?”
“I’m good, baby. Hey how are those Englewood kids doing?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact, we listened to their homework, and watched them swim tonight,” Marcus said.
“You are a blessing to the neighborhood, Marcus”
“Wow,” said Elizabeth. “Everybody knows about your Boys Club work?”
“It’s no big deal,” Marcus replied.
By the time they sat down to eat, Elizabeth’s head was spinning. On one hand, Marcus was just a security guard. However, after this evening, she understood how deep his accomplishments were and what a great person he was. She noticed things about Marcus that she never saw before: his green eyes that stared patiently at her as she spoke, his disarming smile, and his deep soothing voice. She was falling for him.
At the end of dinner, Elizabeth said, “This place could be an entry in the Best Food in the Worst Place Contest. Food was great.”
“Don’t fret about the neighborhood. I’ll always protect you when you are with me,” Marcus said further cementing her blossoming feelings.