Now that crime-fighter turned communications whiz Jerri Williams is retired, she can finally pursue the career she always wanted. The ex-FBI agent and former SEPTA spokesperson's debut novel, "Pay to Play," arrives on digital bookshelves today, and it's a project more than a decade in the making.
"Pay to Play," is based on the antics of a former city bureaucrat named Frank Antico, who was convicted in 1999 on charges accusing him of extorting money from strip clubs, check-cashing businesses, prostitution houses and nightclubs over a 13-year span.
The novel follows an FBI agent named Carrie who is investigating corruption in Philly's strip club industry, but is blackmailed after a one-night stand that threatens to destroy her career and marriage.
Williams says she took a lot of creative license with the story. As an FBI agent, she wasn't assigned to Antico's case, but had two friends at the bureau who were. Metro caught up with Williams Monday to talk about her first novel and what's next.
Metro: What has the transition to novelist been like after working for the FBI? How much do you draw on your experience as an agent when you're writing?
Jerri Williams: There's a lot of things in there that are very similar to my background, except for the promiscuous behavior, and the cheating and unfaithfulness. That is all from my imagination. But you don't have a story until something goes wrong, and so I had to look at this as, it's a female agent investigating corruption in the strip club industry; what could go wrong? I decided what would go wrong is that it triggered old behaviors that she had been able to suppress. I think it makes a fascinating story.
There's lots of profanity, there's sex and there's violence in it, but none of it is graphic or gratuitous. I'm still an FBI agent and very conservative, but that stuff had to be in the story.
M: I don't think anyone would expect a strip club setting to be family-friendly. What kind of audience are you trying to attract?
JW: Anybody who loves crime fiction. It's a crime novel, as far as the investigation, and it's a crime novel as far as what Carrie has to deal with. I love crime fiction, that's what I read, and so I know what I like, and I tried to write the type of book that I would want to read. And I think I was successful.
M: If there's one thing you would like your readers to know about you as an author or about "Pay to Play," what would that be?
JW: That this book shows the public, even though it's fiction and I do take creative license, but it shows the public how every agent, when doing an investigation, is going to be affected personally. On TV, whether it's an FBI agent or a police officer working the case, they work the case, something terrible happens, it's all resolved and they go on to the next case.
M: I feel like you just summed up every episode of "Law & Order."
JW: Yes, and it's true the other way around, too. That every agent brings their own baggage, and their own thoughts, their own feelings, their own personality to that investigation. When they start that investigation, they bring their own baggage, and when they leave that investigation, they leave with more stuff in that bag.
I think that sometimes, when you're watching TV or a movie or reading a book, that is left out. And in "Pay to Play," I really tried to show how Carrie brings this thing from the past into this investigation, and when she leaves the investigation, she's changed. That's real, that's authentic.
M: I find it's very difficult for writers to accurately portray leading ladies. How did you balance Carrie as being strong, but not callous, and feminine but not weak?
JW: At the beginning, I made that mistake. I think I made her weak. Terrible things happen to her in the book, and in her past. I learned to make sure that my main character was strong at the same time that these things were happening to her. To make sure that I presented her as a strong woman. And that's hard to do sometimes.
I love Gillian Flynn, and I love "Gone Girl" and "Girl on the Train," I love those dark female characters. And I wrote what I love to read.
M: So do you think that readers will like your main character?
JW: [Laughs] That's the big question, that's what I really had to do. I'll find out soon enough. I like her, I like her a lot. And her journey continues in the second book that I'm writing.
M: What can we expect in your second book?
JW: So the next book, the main focus is on my protagonist, my bad guy. It's also based on another Philadelphia case, which was my case. It was a $350-million cherry Ponzi scheme, but I'm writing it from his point of view, and then Carrie's as a second point of view.
M: So Tuesday is your big day. Are there any events planned? Anywhere we can get our iPads signed?
JW: Friday I am having a fabulous book launch party, and for a book named "Pay to Play"...
M: It's in a strip club?
JW: No, I thought that might be too much, but it's in SugarHouse Casino. I have to admit, it was not my idea. I originally planned to host the party at SEPTA's headquarters, but my former boss, Fran Kelly, helped negotiate the launch party at SugarHouse Casino.
Williams' book will be available Tuesday for digital download on Amazon.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.