By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Like many who are proficient in a particular field, Adam Berlin sought to do something else.
The lifelong boxing fan and part-time boxing writer headed to New York City with eyes on an acting career, but, after his initial forays in front of the camera resulted in little more than frustration, he happened upon another path.
“I was working in a famous NYC bar called Chumley’s and one of the waitresses was a writer,” he said. “I gave her a few short stories I’d written and asked her to be honest in her critiques. She read my work and said I should pursue an MFA in fiction writing, which I did. It was during my two years of graduate school that I jumped into writing completely.
“You can’t learn talent but you can learn discipline and that’s what I learned. Writing was a struggle and it took me many years to publish my first novel.”
These days, the productivity comes a bit easier.
Berlin’s fourth novel, Both Members of the Club, was released Saturday and, in his words, tells the tale of Billy Carlyle, a professional fighter starting to lose. His eyes cut too easily and his friends - Gabriel, an aspiring actor, and Sam, an artist preparing for her first gallery show - try to persuade him to leave the ring. From the streets of Manhattan to the gyms of Paris, from struggling with hard pasts to harnessing the primal pull, it’s a story of friendship, ambition and violence set against the world of boxing, a place where bodies get tested and truths exposed.
“The best boxing novels I’ve read are novels first and boxing novels second and that’s what I tried to do,” Berlin said. “The story is about three friends who come to New York to pursue their dreams and, the way NYC does sometimes, the city tests these dreams and tests their bonds of friendship. The themes of this book are similar to the themes in my other three novels, which are about violence and loyalty and friendship. But in this book boxing provides the foundation.”
The narrative is prudently paced, introduces the characters quickly and prompts the reader to develop an instant interest in their progression. Berlin’s experience in gyms and around fighters is clear and adds a depth to the boxing content that’s more than sufficient to engage fans.
The evolution of the friendship becomes compelling by the book’s later stages, particularly the lengths to which Gabriel, the narrator, is willing to go to make his points with Billy and Sam.
“Usually when I write a book it takes three years from start to finish,” Berlin said. “I have an idea. I work through it and finish a first draft. And then I do revision after revision to get it right. This book was different. Both Members of the Club started as a story called Canvas Dance. The story grew into a novel with the same title, which was my thesis in graduate school. Then I put the novel away for many years. Two years ago I looked over the manuscript and while I recognized that it was a young writer’s manuscript with a lot of young-writer flaws, I saw something in it, a core, that I wanted to work on.”
We caught up with Berlin to discuss the book, his writing process and what’s drawn him to select boxing as an inspiration.
Fitzbitz: Talk to me about the creative process. When you're sitting down to write, what does the room look like? Morgue quiet? Music playing? Solitary? Chaotic? What's the atmosphere that's most productive for you?
Adam Berlin: One reason so many writers write about boxing, I think, is because writers understand the solitude of boxing. Fighters do roadwork on their own, hit the bags alone, face their opponents in the ring alone. Once the bell rings they’re on their own. Writers face the proverbial blank page alone. For me, I need quiet. I don’t work in Starbucks. I sit at my desk, look at the screen and start writing. Even if the sentences aren’t flowing, if I sit long enough something will come out. And one sentence leads to the next.
Fitzbitz: From the initial idea through the final punctuation mark, how long did Both Members of the Club take? What was your work pattern as you went through the process? Steady output, or intermittent days/weeks of heavy, heavy work? On a 10-point must system, how do you score the final product? Will it have more of a life? Is there a movie in there somewhere?
There was a call for short novels for a university-sponsored competition, so I took my 400-page manuscript and stripped it down to its essence. In many ways that aesthetic fit boxing since boxing is all about stripping down and making weight. I stripped the book down to the required page limit, 120 pages, and sent in the manuscript. A few months later I got the call that I’d won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize sponsored by Texas Review Press. Of course, I was elated. I’m not being cocky when I say I score the book a 10. I write the books I want to read and I’m very careful, very thorough, in my revisions. So this book is the boxing novel I want to read. Whether it has a life beyond its book life is not up to me, but I hope someone picks it up for an option. My second novel, Belmondo Style, was optioned for five years. I think Both Members of the Club would make a great movie. Boxing lends itself to writing and film. And I think the scope of a short novel is perfect for a film adaptation.
Your character images are very vivid, yet you don't seem to need 100 pages to paint those pictures. When it comes to Gabriel, Sam and Billy, where did they come from? Are you evident in any of them? How much of the tale was in your head at the outset, and how much of it developed and was created as you went along?
Gabriel, like most of my first-person narrators, is very close to me. Much of what he does and says and feels and thinks are based on my life and what I know and feel. Sam is based on a woman I know, a romance I had when I was young. And Billy, the fighter, was modeled after a fighter I spoke with. He was young and laughed easily, but he was already a little damaged, his brows scarred up. In the book, Billy is losing because he’s a bleeder. I imagined the young fighter’s scars opening up in the ring. I knew I wanted to tell a story about three friends who grow apart. That was the catalyst for the book and then, once the characters were in my head and roughly down on paper, the plot came to me. That’s the beauty of the creative process. Once I know my characters they really do take on some free will and the plot happens naturally. At least that’s how it works for me.
Lots of great writers have tackled boxing, either as a central theme or as a background topic - and for a lot of reasons. What is it about the sport that provides the draw for you as a writer?
I think of all sports, boxing provides the best foundation for a novel or a story. Boxing is about man vs. man on the purest level - aside from gloves that protect a fighter’s hands, boxing has no equipment, so it’s all about physical and mental strength, one man testing himself against another. In a classic sense that’s what a story usually does. It pits man against man. A character has an obstacle and has to get through that obstacle. A fighter steps into the ring and across from him is another fighter, a human obstacle. How he gets through that obstacle defines the fighter and defines the fight. Many writers feel a deep connection to boxing because they see parallels between the acts of writing and boxing. There’s a great quote from Muhammad Ali, which goes, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” That’s what writers do. Before a book comes out, before it’s under the lights - out in public, ready to be read - the writer is working behind the lines on his or her own. So there’s a kinship of loneliness between writers and fighters. And of course, boxers make good characters because many of them represent the human condition. They rise quickly and they usually fall quickly. They’ve had their glory, some of them have been kings in the ring, champions, but with time they’re not what they were. I think fighters recognize their mortality more than other athletes. Boxers are damaged - from the scars you see to the more dangerous ones you don’t. Damage is a great trait for a character. And I believe boxing is a great subject for a book. Even if you’re not a fan of boxing, I believe you can appreciate a boxing novel that’s a novel first.
Look at boxing today. If you were going to write a book today with one of the modern fighters, trainers, managers or others as the model for the central character, who provides the most fodder?
I have my favorite fighters and I’m not sure if my favorite fighters would make the best characters. Often they are quiet and do their boxing work like blue-collar workers. Today one of my favorite fighters is Mikey Garcia. He’s from a boxing family and he’s amazingly skilled and controlled in the ring, but he’s not the most charismatic man. My brother is in the boxing business, he’s the lawyer for Teddy Atlas and he also represents some fighters and managers, so I’ve been able to meet a lot of boxing people through him. I was fortunate enough to watch Teddy Atlas work with a couple of fighters. As a teacher myself, I appreciated the work he did. He seemed to be teaching his charges about boxing and about life. He really is as much a teacher as he is a trainer. Every time I watched Teddy standing in the ring, demonstrating moves, explaining the reasons behind the moves, repeating the moves with his fighter, it was clear to me that Teddy and his fighter had a relationship so close, so special, that it would make a great foundation for a story.
What is your history with the sport? Who are or have been your favorite fighters through the years? Why?
I’ve been a boxing fan since I was a kid and saw my first fight on TV with my father. So boxing, and everything that’s underneath boxing, that primal pull, has fascinated me for a long time. Pernell Whitaker was one of my favorites and I was fortunate enough to see him fight live. He was an amazing defensive fighter. He was super smart in the ring. And he was beautifully limber, a beautiful boxer to watch. I spoke to his mother after he fought and asked if he’d always been athletic. She told me he could play every sport even when he was a child. In the ring, “Sweet Pea” was completely relaxed and completely natural and completely fluid. In his prime, I think he would have given any lightweight in history a hard time. I always loved Larry Holmes. He had the best jab in heavyweight boxing history, better than Ali’s. He had a blue-collar mentality; he went to work and he collected his paycheck. But he worked harder than anyone. He beat Ali when Ali was on the downswing, but even in Ali’s prime I say Holmes would have beaten the self-proclaimed greatest. Today I like Andre Ward for the same reasons. He’s a master technician. He’s a thinking fighter. And he takes his opponents apart without flash but with beautiful, often subtle work.
What's next for you? What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve had a busy year. Besides Both Members of the Club, a post-9/11 novel I wrote called The Number of Missing comes out this month. I’ve been trying to get the word out about these two new books, so lately I’ve been working more on marketing than writing. But I’ll be able to start writing soon. My next project is a full-length boxing book about two brothers, one of whom is managing the comeback of a fighter. It’s a premise based on real events. I ultimately want the book to be about disappointment - boxing, ideally, is the purest of sports, but in reality it’s often the most corrupt. So I foresee the novel being about rivalry - between brothers, between races, between men and women, and, of course, between fighters in the ring.
From the first time you remember writing it down, what did you want to be when you grew up? How many different roles did you see yourself in before you settled on "writer"?
I never had firm plans, a firm dream of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then in high school I wanted to act. So I moved to New York City. Then I wanted to write. So I studied fiction writing at Brooklyn College. I guess I only had a couple of roles. And both roles were rough roles, especially writing. I had a long drought between my first two books and the two books out this month. So in some ways, I feel like a fighter making a comeback. My other professional role is that of teacher. I teach writing and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC and co-edit a literary magazine called J Journal: New Writing on Justice. But my current roles, writing and teaching writing and editing writing and writing about boxing, are all connected.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBO minimumweight title – Kempton Park, South Africa
Hekkie Budler (champion) vs. Hugo Hernan Verchelli (No. 28 contender)
Budler (23-1, 6 KO): Fourth title defense; Held IBO title at 108 pounds (2010-11, one defense)
Verchelli (11-1, 6 KO): First title fight; Five consecutive wins by stoppage (12 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: “Only two of the challenger’s eight foes - he’s fought one guy four times and two others twice - have more than 10 fights, indicating he’s over his head here.” Budler by decision
IBO super middleweight title – Kempton Park, South Africa
Thomas Oosthuizen (champion) vs. Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna (No. 11 contender)
Oosthuizen (21-0-2, 13 KO): Seventh title defense; Four fights since last stoppage win (3-0-1)
Maderna (20-1, 13 KO): First title fight; Lost only career fight outside Argentina
Fitzbitz says: “Oosthuizen was comprehensively unimpressive in a non-title bout in his last outing, which props the door open for Argentine to score the upset here.” Maderna by decision
Vacant WBO junior middleweight title – Corpus Christi, Texas
Vanes Martirosyan (No. 1 contender) vs. Demetrius Andrade (No. 2 contender)
Martirosyan (33-0-1, 21 KO): First title fight; Sixth fight in Texas (5-0, 4 KO)
Andrade (19-0, 13 KO): First title fight; Fourth fight against an undefeated opponent (3-0)
Fitzbitz says: “Andrade’s been brought along slowly and hasn’t faced the level of opponent his foe has, but the overall skill will be the determining factor in getting a belt.” Andrade by decision
WBO junior lightweight title – Corpus Christi, Texas
Roman Martinez (champion) vs. Mikey Garcia (No. 1 contender)
Martinez (27-1-2, 16 KO): Third title defense; Also held WBO title in 2009-10 (two defenses)
Garcia (32-0, 27 KO): Third title fight; Held WBO title at 126 pounds (2013, one defense)
Fitzbitz says: “Martinez is a sturdy, capable and legitimate titleholder, but he’s not really here to interfere with the belt acquisition of a Top Rank star-in-waiting.” Garcia in 9
WBC bantamweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Shinsuke Yamanaka (champion) vs. Alberto Guevara (No. 8 contender)
Yamanaka (19-0-2, 14 KO): Fifth title defense; Stoppage wins in four of five title bouts
Guevara (18-1, 6 KO): Second title fight; Lost bid for IBF title in 2012
Fitzbitz says: “Guevara stood in for 12 rounds against Santa Cruz a year ago and gets rewarded with another belt try, but it won’t go any better with a change of scenery.” Yamanaka by decision
Last week's picks: 2-0
2013 picks record: 63-32 (66.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 526-184 (74.1 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.