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It’s Always Been A Dream Of Mine

M. K. Lever Author Interview

Surviving the Second Tier follows a female college athlete and her team who rebel against a greedy coach and a system that cares more about money than the players. What was the inspiration for the setup to your story?

I had a couple sources of inspiration for my story. My first is personal experience as a former Division 1 athlete who navigated the college sports system myself and had some of the best and worst times of my life during my athletic career. College athletes are under so much social, personal, and external pressure and that’s really hard to understand unless you’ve been there yourself. Although I was a successful runner who loved my sport (until injuries derailed me) I struggled immensely with feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, and anxiety. I was also in an emotionally abusive relationship with one of my coaches and I needed a way to make meaning of that. Surviving the Second Tier was an outlet for that experience as well as a way to educate readers about these dynamics and the problems that college athletes face in the real world.

The second source of motivation is my research. I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas where sports policy is a huge part of what I study. The policy issues I research are important but frankly, policy can be boring to talk about even if it’s fascinating to me. Academic research is also very inaccessible because of paywalls and jargon so I needed an interesting and accessible way to discuss my research because, given the current climate, I believe the stakes of it are high. I started telling people “the NCAA is a dystopia” whenever they asked about my research as a way to create conversation. The metaphor really stuck with people and became a great gateway for discussing the ways bad policy negatively impacts college athletes. I wanted to give the college sports industry the 1984 treatment and give people a thought-provoking book that hit close to home and fiction turned out to be an effective vehicle for my academic work. Plus, it’s always been a dream of mine to write a book!

Did you create an outline for the characters in the story before you started writing or did the character’s personalities grow organically as you were writing?

I’m a terribly disorganized writer so I didn’t outline my characters so much as I outlined the issues I wanted to cover. They’re all stuck in a system that was never designed to benefit them but they’re also dealing with personal struggles like anxiety, injuries, burnout, identity crises, discrimination, poverty, abuse, and masculinity. Once I had a concept of the issues that I wanted to address within the real-world college sports industry, I had a good idea of how I wanted my characters to develop and they sort of had minds of their own once I started the writing process (which I loved!).

What were some themes that were important for you to explore in this book?

Identity was a huge one for me. College athletes tend to get really wrapped up in who they are as athletes and fixate on their performances, statistics, rankings, and so on as measures of self-worth. It’s a form of self-objectification that is hard to stop, and fans and coaches also dehumanize college athletes by viewing them solely in terms of their productivity. A big goal of Surviving the Second Tier was to humanize college athletes because they’re so often viewed in terms of production instead of personhood.

As the title implies, I also wanted to focus on themes of surviving a corrupt system. When we think “survival,” we tend to think of things like food, clothing, shelter, and basic necessities. For some athletes (like Sis and Striker), their sport is a ticket out of poverty so it truly is life or death, but sometimes athletes are surviving other things like abusive coaching relationships, mental health issues, crippling media pressure, and life-altering injuries. There’s a lot of pressure on athletes to be tough and gut through these things without showing weakness so I wanted to explore all of that through my characters, their work, and their relationships with each other.

What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?

I’ve very tentatively started my sequel but I’m also finishing up my Ph. D so it’s hard to juggle creative writing with my academic obligations. If I had to guess, I’d say I could be done with that in a few years (fingers crossed!). I’m also currently working on my dissertation which addresses many themes from my book so I’d love to publish a non-fiction book about college sports as well. The problems college athletes face are a great civil rights issue and writing about them matters a great deal to me.

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“Sicily “Sis” Jones is the only undefeated college athlete in the Amateur Fighting Association (AFA), but her spotless record is running her life. She’s living on pennies and nursing a debilitating injury. Her teammates have their share of struggles, too. Striker fights to support his struggling family. Rip has a secret. Cal harbors a grudge.

Topping it off is their cut-throat coach who pushes them beyond their limits for the sake of his own career.

It’s a new order in the world of college athletics. After a financial crisis, the AFA had to salvage its profits. Fighting became the only sport, a brilliant and violent solution to the economic collapse. But at what cost to the athletes?

Sis and her teammates have made it through nearly four years together at their little second-tier university. But all bets are off when the AFA puts Sis against one of her own. Will the Association survive the aftermath?”

Surviving the Second Tier

Surviving the Second Tier by author M.K Lever is a sci-fi novel that is different from anything else out there. It is a combination of dystopian sci-fi, college drama, and an underdog sports story. The setting is nebulous. We know the novel is set in the future, but Lever leaves it up to the reader to decide how distant. Technology has advanced but is not far-fetched. We know that there are drones, automated exercise equipment, and self-driving cars.  The setting is what I would call grounded dystopian. There has been yet another economic crash, and once again, it is the younger generation who are paying the price.

This captivating novel takes a close look at the world of college sport but through the lens of a dystopian future. In this world, college sports as we know it has been replaced with the AFA (American Fighting Association). Male and female athletes now fight in an MMA-style fighting league where only the toughest and best-funded succeed. Like most extraordinary sports stories, we follow Sis Jones, a second-tier fighter who is undefeated and coming towards the end of her college career.  Sis might be successful in the ring, but it isn’t doing her much good. As a poorly-paid second-tier fighter, the fighting takes its toll on her health and grades. We follow Sis and her teammates as they are pushed and manipulated further and further by their greedy coach and college higher-ups. In the end, enough is enough, and the athletes rebel and take on the corruption directly.

Surviving the second tier feels almost like a more grounded Hunger Games. The setting may not be quite as dramatic and the stakes not quite as high, but Sis is still fighting for survival in many ways. Most of us have never had to fight to the death, but struggling to make ends meet will be painfully familiar to most of us.

Lever is a former college athlete herself, and this shows. She has extensive knowledge of the subject and has gone to great pains to highlight the abuse and corruption that goes widely unreported in college sports today. As well as shining a light on the discrepancies between first-tier and second-tier college teams. For every first-tier college athlete that goes on to great success, many are left behind.

Surviving the Second tier is a gripping dystopian novel with a great underdog story full of easy to root for heroes with an important message. This unconventional combination of genres will give readers a unique look into college sports and much to think about.

Pages: 429 | ASIN : B09MDR6FYH

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