Thursday, 13 September 2012

John Gapper talks about a Fatal Debt

Today's guest post is by John Gapper who is chief business commentator and an associate editor of the Financial Times, for which he writes a weekly column on business and finance. He has written for various publications and makes regular appearances on television and radio such as the BBC, CNBC and CNN. Amongst many awards, he has been shortlisted as best commentator in the Gerald Loeb awards and was named one of the 100 most influential men in Britain by GQ magazine in 2009. He is co-author of All That Glitters: The Fall of Barings and How to be a Rogue Trader (both Penguin). He lives in London.
The Chief Executive of a Wall Street bank – a man widely disliked by everyone for being sneaky, imperious and selfish – lies dead on an expensive rug in a multi-million dollar home in the Hamptons.  Whodunnit?

The chief suspect is another bank chief executive – moody, aggressive, and depressed after being forced out of his job by the dead man.  The police are called to the scene, and it ends the quiet life for the British psychiatrist who treated the accused man – and is in deep trouble himself.  The story of A Fatal Debt, my mystery novel set in London, New York and the Hamptons has a touch of wish fulfilment.  In all the anger and outrage at what characters such as this unleashed on the world in the financial crisis on 2007-08, few have got their just desserts.  In this tale, there is both crime and punishment, which I hope will satisfy the aggrieved reader.

I have been a financial journalist for 20 years and co-wrote All That Glitters, a book about the collapse of Barings.  Yet it took the crisis to make me venture into fiction.  I was based in New York and the best non-fiction stories – the fall of Lehman Brothers, the profits that short-selling hedge funds made from the crash – seemed to have been taken.  Why not a novel, I thought?  Actually, it had a longer history than that.  I’d thought about writing a financial thriller before, encouraged by my agent.  But I had struggled with the subject, as well as the switch from journalism.  The trouble with banking is that, although it involves lots of money and some glamour, the day-to-day reality is too boring and technical to interest most people.

The best novelists have found their own ways around this.  Robert Harris’s The Fear Index, for example, finds an ingenious solution to the challenge of writing about algorithmic trading, which I thought would defeat anyone.  But some other financial novels never quite surmount that difficulty.  The crisis provided my answer.  A friend of mine worked in a Wall Street hedge fund, which failed in the crash, triggering its founder into a mental collapse, which ended in a psychiatric hospital.  The incident started me thinking about the parallels between financial booms and crashes, and the mental state of bankers.  Then there was the second obstacle – turning from journalism to novel writing.  An awful lot of my fellow hacks seem to do it – some highly successfully and others mainly for diversion.  Publishers appear to like journalists – they are accustomed to writing at speed and meeting deadlines, I suppose.

But novel writing and journalism are different – something I knew well enough in theory but only found in practice when I tried.  It felt like climbing a mountain without equipment.  Journalists can do research, take notes and construct an article out of these facts.  A novelist is on his or her own.  I found that psychologically tricky in itself.  After a day of trying to write from my imagination rather than my notes, I felt exhausted, and had to go and take a nap.  Until well into the process, I didn’t completely let go of my roots.

One day, I wanted to change the story in a way that involved an underground car park at the apartment building where Harry Shapiro, the Wall Street titan accused of murder, lives.  I had a real-life model for the building, right by Central Park, and for a moment, I felt frustrated that this block did not have one.  “Hold on, it’s a novel,” I thought.  “I can make it up,” At that moment, I realised that, despite the work and uncertainty, fiction has its rewards.

More information about John Gapper can be found on his website and you can also follow him on Twitter at @johngapper

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