Bankers turned novelists found starting a new chapter tough but rewarding; “The world I used to occupy was all about dirty money”; “If you thought you worked hard as a banker you will be begging for mercy by the time you reach the end of a novel”

August 22, 2013 5:57 pm

They plotted to escape the City

By Emma Jacobs

Elmore Leonard, the American crime writer who died this week, was once asked if he could write about the wrongdoers on Wall Stin the aftermath of the financial crisis. “No – where’s the action?” he said. “My people don’t have stock. It’s the most boring thing in the world to make your money that way – using money to make money.” Nonetheless, a number of former executives, bankers and traders have attempted to do just that by leaving the constraints of the corporate world to become novelists – with some of them drawing on experiences from their previous careers.Chris Morgan Jones, a former executive at Kroll, the private investigations agency, has mined the business world for inspiration for his spy thrillers The Jackal’s Shareand the Agent of Deceipt, which feature corporate spy Ben Webster. He did not appreciate it at the time but now realises that his old job provided “an environment rich in stories and characters . . . colleagues were fascinating, clients were fascinating . . . The world I used to occupy was all about dirty money.”

A handful of post-crash novels from seasoned writers have featured reckless bankers, including John Lanchester’s Capital Sebastian Faulks’s Week in December , Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, and Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. However, William Ryan, a former lawyer at Deutsche Bank, is more circumspect about fictionalising his old working world. “You have to write about what you know but you also have to write what you enjoy reading. I realised early on that if I’m going to spend a long time writing this book I must enjoy reading it as ultimately I might be the only person who actually does read it.”

As head of the legal team of the structured derivatives division, Mr Ryan rarely received enthusiastic praise. “No one said, ‘I just cannot wait to read your next contract’,” the 48-year-old reflects. In his new life as the author of historical thrillers set in Soviet Russia, he regularly receives emails from readers.

The feedback can be a mixed blessing for the author of The Twelfth Department: “The City’s a very professional place. You don’t get random strangers commenting on your contract and posting it on Amazon. [As a writer] you’re putting yourself out there for other people to judge, asking everyone to throw stones.” Even his former colleagues are partial to a touch of nit-picking, “spotting inconsistencies and cheerfully pointing them out” to him at book launches.

Michael Ridpath, who used to work as a bond trader and a venture capitalist, wrote financial thrillers when he left the City in the 1990s. Then he used to meet up with fellow bankers-turned-authors, Linda Davies, Paul Kilduff and John McLaren. “A gang of us would meet. White-collar thrillers had done well for John Grisham. We thought maybe the financial angle could work. It didn’t.”

“If you thought you worked hard as a banker you will be begging for mercy by the time you reach the end of a novel” –Aifric Campbell

While his first book, Free To Trade, sold well, reaching number two in the best-seller lists and being translated into more than 30 languages, the subsequent financial thrillers did not. After the crash he thought about revisiting the financial world through his fiction but felt uncomfortable about today’s moral climate: “I believed integrity was important in the financial world. In the 1990s and 2000s there was a disintegration of integrity and the bad guys were taking over. The overwhelming culture is dishonest. I had written about good guys discovering bad guys. Now [every­one is assumed to be] corrupt.”

Aifric Campbell, who used to work as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and is author of three books including On the Floor, a novel about a female banker in the 1990s, says that as a writer she has less control over her career than she did as a banker. “A writer’s financial position is extremely precarious since no one can predict what will sell and how much. And there is continuous pricing pressure on books. You need to love risk.”

“White-collar thrillers had done well for John Grisham. We thought maybe the financial angle could work. It didn’t” –Michael Ridpath

The modern author, says Mr Ryan, has to employ a more commercial approach than previous generations. “You need to sell yourself. Publishers have a lot of other books to promote. You have to get out there. When I started I was nervous about public performance. But it’s part of the job.”

Mr Ryan and Mr Morgan Jones both continued to work as consultants while starting their writing careers. In fact Mr Morgan Jones still does, believing that writing novels has made him more creative in his consultancy work.

It is not just the commercial training that provided a good grounding for Mr Ryan’s writing career but also the precision required of a lawyer. “You can’t waste words when drafting contracts and writing books. You can’t talk about the weather unless it’s relevant.”

“You’re putting yourself out there for other people to judge, asking everyone to throw stones” – William Ryan

Ms Campbell is scornful of the idea that writing is a doddle. “If you thought you worked hard as a banker you will be begging for mercy by the time you reach the end of a novel.”

Nonetheless, others find that writing suits family life better than the City. Mr Ryan says: “I wouldn’t see my son if I was still at Deutsche Bank.” Now, he not only spends time with him, he also reflects on his relationship with his child as part of his working day.

The Twelfth Department is sort of about my relationship with him. I’ve thought about [the parental relationship] a lot ever since [I had him] . . .  All the worries and joy that he brought into my life.” He says he was struggling a bit with the book until he realised he should focus largely on his detective’s relationship with his son. “Suddenly I had this vehicle to explore how I felt about Alexander. [So] life is very different as a writer to what it was as a lawyer – I can spend the best part of a year and a half thinking and writing about my son. And that’s a little bit wonderful.”

Mr Ridpath, who used to get up at 4am to work on his first book before going to the office, now feels fortunate to be able to do the school run. As his own boss, he no longer has to labour under the City’s presentee culture: “After a certain number of hours your brain decreases. I find it bizarre that people in the City work such long hours and feel they are productive. They can’t be. Now I get more done by working less. There’s less rewriting the next day.”

All complain of occasional feelings of isolation when writing. “It can take a while to meet other crime writers,” says Mr Ridpath. “Whereas in my old job it was very quick to make contacts.”

Mr Morgan Jones says of his former job: “At the end I was in a managerial role and my day was one long meeting. All I did was talk. Come Friday night I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Now you can’t stop me.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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