Bull Street is the story of Richard Blum, a naïve, young Wall Streeter who gives a jaded billionaire the chance for redemption, as they team up to bring down an insider trading ring before they wind up in jail or dead.
A Q&A with David Lender
Question: In Bull Street it is often hard to know who the bad guys are from the good. Many characters appear to be using similar tactics to different ends. Was this always your intention? Can you tell us a little more about your characters?
David Lender: I intentionally wanted to create characters with internal conflicts, questionable ethics and suspect motives. It was part of creating a world where even the good guys use sharp-elbowed tactics, and allegiances can shift from deal to deal. As Jack Grass says at one point, “You need a high tolerance for ambiguity to work on Wall Street.” At its core, the novel is about integrity: keeping it and even redeeming oneself after losing it. Wall Street is a perfect backdrop for such a story, since the characters are entrusted with billions of dollars and are in powerful enough positions to take advantage of that situation. It makes it easy to cross the line.
Q: Considering your background and the subject matter of this book, what are your thoughts on the current financial situation in the US? What problems would you fix first and how?
DL: As a believer in free markets and our capitalist system, I’m naturally skeptical of regulation. On the other hand, I think one of the things that got us in trouble in the financial crisis was doing away with the Depression-era regulations that separated banks from investment banks. Once we allowed depositary institutions to combine with proprietary trading houses, traders were allowed to make risky bets with depositors’ money. I don’t know if it’s possible to put that genie back in the bottle, but we should. Another issue we need to address is leverage. Too much of it got us into trouble, and new capital rules for banks are partially addressing this. But at the government level it’s a problem, too, and getting worse, as witnessed by the federal budget fiasco and downgrade of US debt in 2011. We need to start living within our means.
Q: I have read that you worked for 25 years on Wall Street, what made you decide to start writing?
DL: I always wanted to be a novelist. I made up my mind to do it about 15 years ago when my investment banking career was in full swing. I just muscled it into my schedule, getting up at 5 a.m., writing for an hour and then going to my day job, like most aspiring writers. I outlined or edited scenes on planes, in cabs or in hotel rooms. I write because I love it, but also because I got to the point where I could no longer ignore the compulsion to do so.
Q: You must draw a lot of inspiration from your time on Wall Street. Where else do you find inspiration?
DL: Sometimes it’s someone in my life. Dani North, the protagonist of Vaccine Nation, was inspired by my fiancé, Manette, and her work as a documentary filmmaker. Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors, and reading his stuff frequently gives me ideas. Sometimes it’s just throwing ideas around with friends.
Q: What kind of books do you read, and what authors have influenced you?
DL: Thrillers. What else? Thriller writers who have influenced me are Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, John LeCarre, John Grisham (although I don’t think he’s ever gotten close to The Firm again), Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, and Thomas Harris.
Q: What books do you read over and over again?
DL: I think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the great American novel. I read it every year or so. Elmore Leonard is the contemporary author I most admire. Out of Sight is his best, with Get Shorty a close second. Nobody does dialog or backstory like him. I’ll also never stop returning to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal (it may be the best thriller ever written), Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, and Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana.