A Journalist Writes Fiction by John Gapper
I know what you're thinking--isn't a lot of journalism fiction? Well, not at the Financial Times, where I've worked for the past 25 years (yes, an entire quarter of a century) and which has high standards. I write a column there about business and finance and have covered investment banks for many years, since well before the 2008 crash. But writing A Fatal Debt, my Wall Street mystery novel, was a very different experience.
It took me a long time to come round to the idea of even trying. My wife, Rosie Dastgir, is a fiction writer--her debut novel A Small Fortune has just been published by Riverhead--and I always thought we should stick to a marital division of labor. I'd do the factual stuff and she'd do fiction. I was afraid of branching out into something unknown, at which I might fail.
But it had been suggested to me before--agents and publishers like the idea that an author might know about Wall Street since it's a closed world to most. When I'd written a non-fiction book in the UK about the collapse of Barings bank in 1997 (All That Glitters, which I co-wrote with Nick Denton) a few people had told me to try fiction. I almost took the plunge, but pulled back.
Then, after the 2008 crash, when other journalists seemed to have taken all the good ideas for a non-fiction book, I thought maybe I should finally give it a go, and I set out on what became A Fatal Debt.
Since I wasn't even sure that I could do it, I took a journalistic approach at first--I relied heavily on research. I went round and talked to many people on Wall Street--even the wives of hedge fund bigwigs--about their experiences. I spent time with psychiatrists, since Ben Cowper, the narrator, is a New York psychiatrist who gets enmeshed with Harry Shapiro, the former head of Wall Street bank that has crashed.
One thing that surprised me was how ready most of them were to talk. As a journalists, I am used to interviews but there is always an unspoken tension – how will you use what they tell you and how will they be portrayed? In the corporate world, where people are used to the media and often have public relations representatives, it can become a negotiation.
Furthermore, such people are usually unwilling to discuss their personal lives--they regard it as a professional transaction. It would be unthinkable in the middle of chatting to a bank chief executive about the progress of his business to ask him about his hidden hopes and fears--what keeps him up in the middle of the night. If he revealed his emotions, it would worry his investors.
Researching fiction, it turned out, was another thing altogether. Once they were convinced that I meant what I said--that nothing they said would be quoted or used in a way that identified them, some unveiled the most extraordinary details about their lives and work.
Eventually, though, I had actually to sit down at a desk with a blank computer screen and start to write. I can't express how strange I found the process of letting my imagination loose, rather than relying (as I have always done) on notes and hard facts. There turned out to be a whole untapped world out there, somewhere inside my mind.
It was disturbing, as if I was losing my moorings and drifting into a dream-like state. At times, when I'd written all day in the Brooklyn Writers Center, immersed in the characters and story, I felt as if I was waking from a dream when I halted. I was groggy, and had to go home and take a nap.
I expect practiced novelists can slip in and out of the creative state easily, but as a novice I found it testing. Even then, I still unconsciously clung to the security of facts. One day, I thought of a plot twist that required a parking garage beneath the swanky apartment building where Shapiro lives in Manhattan. Oh dear, I thought. The real-life building I was thinking of didn't have one. Then I realized. Hold on, you can just make it up. It's a novel. What a liberation!
All the same, it was a relief to return to my day job with the first draft finished, and be surrounded again by colleagues, facts and daily deadlines, all the day-to-day scaffolding that keeps one in place. The novelist's life is rewarding--to create an imaginary world story rather than recounting the factual existence of others--but mentally tough.
One thing that writing fiction lessened in me was the fear of failure. Journalism is a craft to be learned--some are better at it than others but there are rules to follow. Constructing fiction--even genre fiction like a mystery--is much more mysterious. An author has to find not only a story but his or her own way of writing.
That is an enormous challenge but it means that everyone, apart from a few hugely gifted writers, faces the same insecurity. I'm sure I'll be as sensitive as any writer to a bad review but just to have finished it and to see it on shelves means plenty in itself. I might even try again.