From Finance to Fiction
When I tell people I was once an investment banker, I always watch for their first reaction. Normally, it isn’t positive; the immediate flinch is usually followed by a strange look. It’s as if they want to spit at me, but they feel sorry for me at the same time. Next comes the inevitable question: What on earth made you want to do that? It seems, following the financial crisis almost ten years ago, my old industry is still down there with tax inspectors, politicians and used car salesmen.
It wasn’t always like that. When I entered the world of private equity in the 1980s, I spent most of my time providing risk capital to companies that were looking to grow. It was a job I was proud to do. I saw it as forging a partnership between our capital and the management team of each investee company in order to create a successful enterprise.
But something changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The culture shifted; it became less about helping businesses develop and more about buying and selling companies for rapid gain. Along the way, in search of quick wins from cutting costs, shedding labor, closing underperforming units, and changing senior management, much of my industry morphed into something unrecognizable. “Management is a variable,” I remember one well-known banker telling me, his face beaming with pride. While I like to think I stayed on the right side of the line, it is little wonder the public baulked at taxpayer-funded bailouts for the banks and many other former financial masters of the universe during 2008/09.
In fact, it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 that formed the genesis of the plot for my first novel, The Geneva Connection. The momentous failure made me question who was next, particularly when some of the biggest names in the sector were frantically scratching around for equity to prop up their rapidly evaporating balance sheets. Back then, I was running a private equity firm of my own and I began to wonder what would happen if any of the financial institutions that had bankrolled private equity funds for years suddenly failed.
The thought stayed with me for a couple of years before I started writing my book. I knew I had a story to tell. The Geneva Connection was going to describe a private equity firm’s desperate scrabble to find new backers when its main funder becomes bankrupt. In that struggle, the fictitious firm unknowingly accepts new money from a Geneva-based institution that turns out to be a front and money-laundering operation for the world’s largest drug cartel.
Problem was I knew nothing about writing novels, so I spent another couple of years researching the art of creative writing. By the time I’d finished it, I calculated that my book took something like five years from conception to publication. But it proved to be a watershed period in my life. Today, I no longer work in finance. I write full-time, and my third novel, Shakedown, comes out this month, published by US publisher, Down & Out Books. All three of my novels have been financial crime thrillers. The big egos and the greed and fear of the financial markets have been great sources of inspiration for my stories.
So what have I learned from my transition from corporate financier to professional scribbler? Well, it’s a much quieter life now. Whereas once my days were filled with back-to-back meetings, now, some days, I don’t see anyone other than my wife as I sit hunched over the keyboard. Funnily enough, I haven’t found that change too difficult, but I know some writers find it a struggle. An author friend of mine—also a former investment banker—actually rented an office in his former employer’s building, so as to retain a working environment with which he was familiar while he wrote his early books. I know of another well-known crime writer—a former journalist—who has to have the TV news playing loudly in the background as he writes. He misses the noises of his old newsroom.
Another thing I’ve learned is that getting published is a numbers game, much like it is in private equity. In my old life, I would receive thousands of business plans each year, and we’d take maybe every one in a hundred seriously enough to investigate them further. Even fewer would make it all the way though to getting financed. The numbers are pretty much the same in publishing. Agents and publishers receive thousands of submissions each year, and yet a very few of them actually get published.
One final thing I’ve noticed is that compared to the world of corporate deal-making, the publishing trade moves at a glacial speed. Even when a book finds favor with an agent or publisher, it can take a year or two before it actually appears on the shelves. In this age of digital technology, I still find that hard to comprehend.
One question I get asked all the time is whether I miss the excitement of my old life. My answer is always the same: I used to move money about, but now I get to kill people for a living. How many people can say that?