Monday, September 28, 2009
Norb Vonnegut onTop Producer
These days, it's difficult to identify with anyone from Wall Street. But I hope you'll care about Grove, a decent if somewhat irreverent guy who could be any one of us. He works hard and keeps his head down. He's trying to hold it together as he chases the dream. Only Grove has no clue, he has no idea what's lurking round the bend.
Top Producer begins inside a raucous party of 500 people, where Grove watches the spectacular death of Charlie Kelemen—best friend and money manager with the Midas touch and spending habits to match. After the funeral, Charlie's widow confides to Grove she can't find her husband's money and has only $600 left in a checking account. Grove offers to help, but the more he looks for her fortune the more trouble he finds. With the police. With his colleagues. With some really bad guys.
I've seen plenty during my years on Wall Street—big money, snap decisions that worked and some that went way bad. I've worked side by side with people who belong deep inside the pages of fiction for their quirks, scary-smart intelligence, or relentless drive to grow rich. I know the rush of trading first hand and understand how it feels to buy and sell one hundred million dollars of stock in one day.
As an author, I wove much that is real into the story. Financial risk, trading errors, and cutthroat competition—the day-to-day stress of stockbrokers is all there. The dialogue and jargon are real. I know because Grove O'Rourke borrowed one of his best lines from me.
"My job is to bring you the best of Wall Street. And protect you from it at the same time."
Inside Top Producer you'll find financial advisers who are obsessive, almost maniacal in their insistence on secrecy. It's real. People swap firms all the time on Wall Street, which means stockbrokers never discuss clients by name. Never. Today's colleagues are tomorrow's competitors.
I remember well, from my days as a stockbroker, the tension of open-plan seating in an occupation that prizes confidentiality. No secret was safe among the rows and rows of low-rise cubicles. To protect the identity of our clients, in a room full of ears, my team used aliases. We actually named our clients after super heroes.
So when John called from Malibu, my sales assistant would stand up and holler across the desk, "Norb, Batman is on the phone."
Or when Nikki called from St. Barth, the message was, "Wonder Woman on line two, Norb."
We had Green Lantern and Flash. At times when the phones lit up, it sounded like the Justice League of America was asking for our financial advice. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Our system broke down when we told clients their superhero identities. The problem was simple.
Everyone wants to be Superman.
My observations from a career in finance—some shocking and some humorous—find their way into the fiction of Top Producer. You'll encounter procreative fruit flies, an eighteen-foot inflatable rat, and other anecdotes from the intriguing edges of Wall Street. You'll also find the dark side, the cons and the frauds, which unfortunately are all too real.
Although Top Producer is a novel, it may change the way you think about financial services—as it did for me. My fact and fiction collided the evening of December 11, 2008.
I was walking down Fifth Avenue to a client's Christmas party. It was pouring that night, and my shoes felt like colanders. In my left hand, I held a king-sized umbrella. It was losing a one-sided battle to gusting wind and driving rain.
With my right hand, I was hitting a BlackBerry's refresh button for articles from The Wall Street Journal. Every time I "refreshed," new stories popped up. After a day away from the desk, I was catching up on financial news before wandering into a party filled with clients and financiers.
One story jumped out. One story made me forget the inclement weather and soggy pedestrians. One story took my breath away. I stepped out of the rain into the doorway of an office building. I first called my agent, Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management. And then I called my editor, Pete Wolverton of Thomas Dunne Books. I left the same message for each.
"We need to talk. My novel just came true."
The Bernard Madoff story broke on the afternoon of December 11, 2008. His confession roiled the capital markets as details of a $65 billion fraud came to light. It opened the floodgates to news of other Ponzi schemes, outright frauds, and tax evasion.
No one was more surprised than me. Top Producer is a novel about financial corruption. But I sold the story to St. Martin's Press in 2007 and had finished 99 percent of the edits before December 11, 2008. I do not know Bernard Madoff and never contemplated him as I wrote.
At its core, my novel is about friendship, betrayal, and ultimately redemption. I personally enjoy stories about underdogs, about everyday people who solve problems under the duress of overwhelming odds and bleak consequences—no matter the backdrop, Wall Street or otherwise.
Top Producer is a Today Show Top Fall Pick!
Saturday, September 26, 2009
I’m a bit tired of people stepping on dreams. I have a lot of dreams. Some are pretty attainable, and others are off the charts so rare that even I have to admit the odds are long.
But I still don’t want you to step on them.
My view on dreams is that if I’m not bothering anyone, haven’t compromised my real life existence to attain them, and in other ways am a responsible person, then the best thing to do is leave me go on my merry way.
Which brings me to the moral dilemma I face when giving panels on writing. People ask me, will this be published? What are the odds? What do you thnk?
Here’s what I think: the odds are long, we know that. The time spent on writing may never pay off, either financially or in published format, we know this also. So what? Should you give up? Stop writing? Choose not to start? Only you know if that’s right for you.
Of course, this answer never satisfies. When I say, “if you continue, diligently, for many years, taking courses, staying in the writing world, going to conferences and panels to pick up tips, you will be published.”
The next question I get is: “How many years?”
This answer is not acceptable to many, either, but it’s true. Last week I watched “Biography” present George Clooney. By most standards, he’s a success in his field. The backstory was interesting. He landed in Hollywood in his early twenties. Did bit parts and recurring roles until he hit with “ER.” Time from landing in LA to ER: ten years give or take. Ten years to get a role that really pushed his career to the next level. That’s a long time. If I said ten years to a new writer, they’d likely get angry. “Ten years! But I want this manuscript to sell now, not ten years down the road.”
I imagine Clooney wanted to hit ten years earlier, too, but that wasn’t in the cards for him. From ER he took roles in movies that generated roller coaster reviews and average box office. Then came “The Perfect Storm.” Big hit, great reviews. Time from landing in LA to big hit—eighteen years, give or take.
So should the unpublished writer give it ten years to get published, another eight to hit huge, and be prepared to wait eighteen altogether? I’m not a fan of delusion, but in this case absolute truth is harsh. Even I, the tortoise of the hare and tortoise race, wince at eighteen years.
But I write because I have to. I love it. A few days without writing and I’m definitely headed into a downer mode. Best I just hit the computer for a couple of hours. I always feel better after. The only other option is to quit. Now, that’s a great option if it doesn’t really matter to you, but if you like writing, like creating characters, and like the creativity that goes along with it, then don’t quit.
Just trudge onward. Your turn will come.
Running from the Devil
Morrow: May 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Can a novel change the world?
by Karen Dionne
I don't mean DaVinci Code or Harry Potter change, though there's no denying those novels' influence. They've redefined the term "blockbuster," spawned countless knock-offs, created a new sub-genre, even added words to the popular lexicon.
I'm also not referring to Booker or Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction destined to be discussed and dissected by literature students for decades.
I'm talking real-world change. The kind of change that affects people's lives in demonstrable, tangible ways. Meaningful, food-on-the table change that addresses a critical and very real global problem, such as the lack of clean drinking water.
Every day, more than a billion people have no choice but to consume contaminated water. A child dies every 15 seconds because of it. 2.7 billion people live in areas with inadequate sanitation, with 40-60 million deaths per year the result.
Contaminated drinking water is the issue at the heart of my environmental thriller Freezing Point. The story features a concerned environmentalist who thinks he can alleviate the world's fresh water crisis by melting Antarctic icebergs into drinking water. Instead, his lack of understanding of the polar environment coupled with corporate greed creates an even bigger problem that ultimately threatens the entire planet.
Disillusioned, he abandons the corporate world and goes to work for the WaterLife Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing clean water and sanitation for underserved communities around the world.
The novel, of course, is fiction. But the WaterLife Foundation is real. In my author's notes, I direct readers toward this worthy non-profit. I discovered the organization while researching the novel, and was particularly taken with the way WaterLife targets villages and peri-urban communities with chronic water and sanitation issues - areas that are overlooked by emergency aid organizations because they're not experiencing a catastrophic situation, yet which actually represent the greatest need.
A typical WaterLife project is the one in Bapa, Camaroon, which includes a rehabilitated well, pump, and water reservoir for a health center serving 3,500 people.
3,500 might seem a drop in the bucket compared to the suffering billions. But these aren't just statistics, these are people: 3,500 very real people with hopes and dreams of long life and health and happiness - and the right to basic human services most of us take for granted.
Likewise, compared to hardworking environmental groups and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, my novel's potential for social change is small. And the story wasn't written to educate; it was written to entertain.
Yet all writers hope their words will make a difference. If my readers come away with a greater understanding of the world's water crisis and are moved to action, the story's reach might - just might - extend beyond the page. A reviewer observed that Freezing Point's "ingenious plot, genuine characters, superlative writing and nail-biting suspense will change the way you look at a bottle of water." Another said, "The storyline is chilling, and the reader can't help but become educated about the earth's fresh water resources."
Earth's fresh water situation is critical. Uneven distribution, pollution, abuse of the aquifer - serious scientists around the globe are sounding the warning. By incorporating their concerns into the storyline, I hope my novel shines a small spotlight on a very big problem.
For more about the WaterLife Foundation, visit www.waterlife.org.
Also see Michael Specter's analysis of the global water crisis "The Last Drop," as published in The New Yorker, October 23, 2006
Photo by Antony Funnell / AusAID
This essay originally appeared on The Huffington Post
Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point (October 2008, Berkley), a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her next novel, Boiling Point, will be published by Berkley in October 2010. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.