Jerri Williams enjoyed writing her first novel. But what she didn’t like about it was what it cost her.
“This first book, I really gave up my social life,” Williams says. “My brain was a little bit too fried to write in the evening, but every weekend, that’s what I did. I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything. I just got up and started writing.”
Eventually, Williams finished her first novel, a crime thriller set in Philadelphia. And now that she’s found an agent who is attempting to sell the book, she’s leaving her job as as spokeswoman for SEPTA later this month. After she retires on November 25th, she’ll begin writing her second novel: This time, on weekdays.
Williams stresses she isn’t taking a big risk with this career change. “When I’m typing my second book, I will be sitting on a cushion of a federal law enforcement pension and a house with no mortgage,” she says.
Crime fiction makes sense for Williams: Before she came to SEPTA as director of media relations, she had a long career with the FBI. Her last six years were in media relations, but before that she was a fraud investigator in the Philadelphia area. She was on the team that took down the infamous Foundation for New Era Philanthropy ponzi scheme.
So what’s Pay to Play about? Williams gave me the elevator pitch over the phone: “When a female FBI agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry is blackmailed by a one night stand she picks up in one of the clubs, how far will she go to stop him from destroying her career — and her marriage?” The novel features many scenes set in Philadelphia, of course; one stripper character even lives at Society Hill Towers.
KYW 1060’s Pat Loeb got Williams to share a little bit of the text:
Stu Sebastiani tucked a C-note down the server’s sequined bra and raised his voice above the pulsing music. “Can I cop a feel for a hundred-dollar bill?” The curvaceous blonde in her glittery halter and hot pants smiled, signaling in Sebastiani’s mind, consent. However, when he patted her butt, she scowled and dislodged his hand from her backside with a well-placed slug to his solar plexus.
If the plot sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because some of the details are based off a real-world Philadelphia event: The antics of former L&I zoning chief Frank Antico, who was convicted in 1999 of extorting strip club owners in exchange for forgiving code violations. (For more on his 1999 trial, this City Paper feature from the time is a great overview.) Antico was eventually sentenced to 63 months after being convicted of extortion, fraud and racketeering.
“There was a case here in Philadelphia with an L&I inspector who was supposed to be enforcing all the laws in the strip club industry and he was breaking every one of them,” Williams said. “He was married, but he had all kinds of affairs with women and strippers and people in the industry. He was notorious. I watched two very attractive female agents investigate that case — the same two agents who investigated Vince Fumo, as a matter of fact.”
That real-world story is merely an inspiration for the tale, which from the description does not follow the case closely. Williams said she knew she wanted to write crime fiction about 15 years ago. But she took seven years to start writing her first book, which then took a few years to complete. She decided to take the leap and leave SEPTA to work on her second book because things were just so busy at the transit agency.
“As much as I love this place, it’s extremely busy,” Williams says. “These are good times for us, because we have the influx of transit funding. We have some major projects coming along. And we’re working all the time. Not just me: In the evening, on the weekends, when I have to call somebody [her SEPTA PR employees] are answering the phones.”
Williams says she’s happy she won’t have to give up her social life to write her second novel. In the meantime, she’ll be tapping out her new novel as her agent seeks a publisher for her first. Not a bad way to spend retirement.