Q: When did you leave the world of finance and why? What have you been doing since you left?
A: I took my first job on Wall Street in June, 1980, and left Goldman Sachs in May, 2000. When I was new, I got a huge charge from the intense competitiveness of the markets, and the comradeship of the trading desk. It was a lot like being paid to play video games all day, and I got to hang out with a great group of guys. Through time though, my job became less about the market and more about managing people. Firms like Goldman have a culture of rigorously culling weak performers, and, much as I understood what we were doing and why, it’s wrenching to fire people. Also, when I worked as a trader, my hours were pretty much my own. I traveled a fair bit, but I was home for dinner four nights a week with the family, and as long as I stayed in touch by phone, I could usually sneak out to make my children’s school events. As I became senior management, that was increasingly less true. So I looked in the mirror one day and admitted that I wasn’t having fun anymore, and I decided to quit.
When I left, I had a list of five things I wanted to do. My job at Goldman was to manage highly technical trading businesses, but I never took math beyond a high school level. So the first thing I did was to head up to Columbia University and enroll in the calculus sequence for engineers. It was a fair bit of work, but I really enjoyed exercising my brain. At the same time, I began working on my squash game. I’ve always been a decent hack player, but I wanted to get my game up to a good club standard. My third ambition was to learn how to fly a helicopter. That was a huge amount of fun, and enormously satisfying. Fourth was to write a decent book that would be enjoyable to read, and fifth was to learn how to make fine furniture. As long as things keep going well on the writing front, I’ll probably defer the furniture indefinitely.
These days I head to my office around 8:30 and write until 1 or 2. Afternoons I play squash, deal with my finances, and otherwise manage my life. Regretfully I’m not getting out in the helicopter as much as I used to, although I still enjoy it. Evenings are family time. My eldest is off to college in a year and a half, so I want to make the most of the time I have left with her.
Q: It doesn’t necessarily seem to logically follow that a former finance guy would start writing thrillers. Has this always been a dream of yours?
A: Yes, very much so. I took a bunch of creative writing classes in college but then pretty much deferred thinking about it while I was working at Goldman. Unlike a Scott Turow, I never felt I had the time or the emotional energy to write a book while I was working full time. Frankly, I was surprised by how much it took out of me even when I wasn’t working. The process of filling a blank page is incredibly difficult.
The decision to write thrillers was a by-product of what I like to read. By and large, I read history, biographies, literary fiction, and thrillers. I wasn’t interested in trying to write the first two, and third seemed a bit daunting. Of the thrillers I read, I’m frequently disappointed at how few really engage me. The people I like to read are Scott Turow, Martin Cruz Smith, John le Carre and Alan Furst. Guys that are writing complex, well-researched stories and working the seam between literary and commercial fiction. My aspiration is to be thought of in the same way.
Q: Where did you get the idea for this book?
A: Anyone working in the financial markets is familiar with the spectacular frauds that crop up every couple of years – Enron, Barings, and Sumitomo, to name just a few. I wanted to write a financial thriller, so it seemed logical to begin with the notion of a similarly complicated crime. I’d spent time doing business in Russia, and had a good sense of the vulnerabilities in that market, so I imagined a character that would be comfortable committing a fraud in that environment and then asked myself why he’d done what he’d done. Everything else, remarkably enough, just flowed backward from there. Andrei – my first character – had to work for someone, which gave me William Turndale. There had to be someone to figure out what he’d done, which gave me Peter Tyler. There had to be some reason why Peter and Andrei weren’t communicating freely, which gave me both Peter’s wife, Jenna, and Andrei’s sister, Katya. And so forth. So it was very much an organic process. And then once I had the characters, I had to figure out all their relationships and interactions. So in some sense I wrote the book twice – once back to front, figuring out which characters I needed to support the plot, and once front to back, understanding who the characters were.
Q: Spending your days alone writing is very different from working in a busy office everyday – how did you take to this shift?
A: I’m still close to the senior guys at Goldman and periodically they tease me about coming back. My response is that I’d love my old job back if I could go to work at 7:30, have a big cup of coffee, wander all around the office hearing what happened overnight, and then go home at 9am, before I have to start dealing with problems. I do miss the comradeship. The good news is that I’m developing more of an infrastructure around my writing – I’ve got a great person that reads for me, a terrific agent, and a couple of editors at Knopf that I really enjoy working with. So it isn’t as lonely as it was when I first started out.
Q: High finance. Art restoration and trade. Pharmaceutical conglomerates and the Russian Mafia – RESTITUTION has it all. How did you manage to convincingly get inside all of these worlds? How much research was involved?
A: The short answer is a lot. I knew all the finance and computer stuff, or knew who to ask, so that bit wasn’t too bad. Most of the rest of it I was able to learn by browsing the Internet. The World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) publish an enormous amount of information about AIDS and tuberculosis on their websites. The Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian is similarly helpful on art restoration. I was able to learn what kind of box an Army service pistol would have been packed in originally by searching auction websites, and how to clean one by reading instructions from an enthusiast. It really is kind of incredible what you can learn on-line if you’re patient. I ran into a jam at one point because my lead character, Peter Tyler, was standing in a particular spot in Moscow and I needed to know what he could see. I’d been to the same spot a few years back, and I had guide books and maps open in front of me, but I couldn’t visualize the sight lines. I spent twenty minutes hunting around on the Internet and found a Finnish language website where some tourist had posted his photos of his trip to Moscow. He’d stood on the precise spot my character was standing, lifted his camera overhead, snapped 360 degrees of photographs, and then posted them all to the web. Amazing.
As to the rest, I relied on a handful of books – notably The Rape of Europa, by Lynn H. Nicholas, Tolstoy, by A.N. Wilson, and The Fall of Berlin, by Antony Beevor. Also, I’m fortunate to live in New York City and know all sorts of people through all sorts of chance connections. Agood friend at the Metropolitan Museum was able to answer a number of questions about art and another good friend – Larry Kramer, the prominent gay activist – was kind enough to answer some questions about AIDS.
Q: You manage to portray the dark side of big business with amazing authority, yet there is a disclaimer of sorts that closes the book: "In an industry renowned for bad behavior, Goldman is notable for adhering to a higher standard. I can’t imagine a more ethical or meritocratic organization." Why did you feel the need to include this note? And in general, do you think the financial industry has more corruption than other industries?
A: In many ways I grew up at Goldman, and I have an enormous regard for the people and for the organization. I really didn’t want anyone to think any aspect of my book was a roman a clef. As to the second half of your question, I don’t know that the financial industry has more corruption than other industries, but it certainly has more than its fair share of monster egos. I introduce William Turndale, the principal bad guy in the book, by saying he’s generally agreed to be the biggest prick on Wall Street, and go on to say that that’s a bit like having the largest shoe size in the NBA. And it’s true – big money and big egos are an unpleasant mix. One of the things I liked best about working at Goldman was that outsized egos weren’t tolerated.
As to the corruption that does exist in the industry, it’s notable for two reasons: First, the consequences are usually more spectacular, because there tends to be so much money involved. And second, the big scandals are frequently initiated at a lower level of the organization. Traders at Wall Street firms have extraordinary authority. They can bind the firm to enormous transactions by simply uttering the word ‘done’. And when those traders get in trouble, they can be remarkably creative about figuring out ways to hide their problems. Every firm on the Street fires guys every year for concealing trades. Now and then though, someone figures out a particularly clever way to conceal what he’s done, and then you end up with an Enron, or a Barings, or a Sumitomo.
Q: There’s a line in RESTITUTION where the protagonist, Peter Tyler, wonders about the time he spent working for a financial company named Klein: “Looking back, my devotion to Klein seems a puzzling waste. I should have paid more attention to the people I loved.” You are a retired general partner of Goldman Sachs Group, and it’s hard not to read into this sentence. Does this mirror your sentiment of your time at Goldman?
A: I was luckier than a lot of people on Wall Street for several reasons. First, I was a trader, not a banker, which means that I was primarily measured on my p&l as opposed to how much time I put in. The bankers – the client guys – tend to have to play with their bodies, which is to say that many of them never see their families at all. To steal a line from Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas don’t let your babies grow up to be bankers’. Second, Goldman has an unusual culture in that it emphasizes teamwork and joint leadership. I always had a partner or a co-head that I could lean on if I really needed to be somewhere else. And third, I spent a big chunk of my career overseas, which meant I had more latitude in what I did because I was so far away from the mother ship. Ultimately, I left the firm precisely because I wasn’t devoted enough, and it isn’t the kind of place where you can fake it.
Q: One of the things that stands out about your book is how convincingly real and complex it is – how much did you draw on personal experience to create such life-like characters and situations?
A: That’s a tough question to answer, because you almost have to go scene by scene and character by character. I’d add by the way that it’s a question that drives my wife crazy, because she’ll recognize things in the book that I’ve drawn from our life together, and then wonder what else might not be fiction. The main character, Peter Tyler, is a lot like me save that he’s not terribly nice – whereas of course I am. He also has the happy facility of coming up with crushing retorts on the spot, whereas I usually think of them twenty minutes later.
Many of the characters and relationships in the book contain something of people I know or things I’ve experienced, but a lot of them are pure invention. Of the things I invented though, I really tried to spend time imagining myself as the character I was writing about, and to see things from his or her perspective. Which, by the way, was a real problem on several occasions, when I needed a character to do or say something very specific to advance the plot, and couldn’t figure out how to get him or her to cooperate.
Q: What’s next for you? Will we see more of Peter Tyler?
A: I don’t think we’ll see Peter again, although I suppose I should never say never. After all, Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes by sending him over a waterfall and then brought him back again eight years later. But my sense is that Peter’s run his course, and that I can trust him to get on with things by himself. There are other characters in the book that I’d like to do more with though. One of my favorites is Grace Tilling, the female police detective. I felt badly that she didn’t get to do more in RESTITUTION, so I tried to write her in to my second book, only to discover that she didn’t get to do much in that either. If I ever work up the nerve to try writing first person from a female perspective, Grace is the character I’ll use. As to what’s next, I’m well into the second book at this point. The working title is THE GARDEN OF BETRAYAL. It’s more political than RESTITUTION, involving terrorism, and the energy markets, and I’m feeling pretty good about it at this point.