June 20, 2012
THE LAST TRADE is the first novel by James Conway and the third novel by James Othmer–his stab at a commercial thriller. I’m pleased to report that an Othmer by any other name is still a damned good writer. He can’t dumb down commercial fiction to DaVinci Code levels, and that’s a gift to his readers–and if the rave reviews in arcane publications like Reader’s Digest and Parade are any indication, there will be a lot of them. And they will be rewarded. THE LAST TRADE reads like Michael Lewis trying to write fiction; I can think of no greater praise. I sat down with James With Two Names:
The promotional materials for THE LAST TRADE lead me to believe that you’ve found some link between international terrorists and cutthroat Wall Street neo-Gordon Gekko types.
I have found no such link. I have imagined it. Though it’s not a tremendous leap to imagine a cabal whose members include corrupt financial Masters of the Universe and evil international terrorists.
What do you have against a system in which those who ruthlessly gamble other people’s money and hide behind the federal government when things go wrong are the most highly prized members of society?
The system is obviously flawed in a million straightforward and complicated ways. The sort of What-If that prompted this was to tease out one of the hottest real-time issues in our culture – Wall Street greed and terrorism – and imagine what would happen if they worked hand in hand. A pact between monetary and ideological evil. Madoff and Hitler. Lex Luther and The Joker. That’s the fun and horror of working in this genre.
Bain Capital: a machine of efficiency that helps companies it buys, or the Wall Street equivalent of a turkey vulture?
Both. Obviously “helping” a company doesn’t always mean helping its employees. Or the economy. Or humanity. The tricky thing is this sort of operation is legal. When I talk to college kids or business groups about character and vocation and what it means to live a worthwhile 21st century life, about what one would and wouldn’t be able to do for a paycheck, I ask if they want a job that sucks the life out of our culture or one that contributes to it. I have a hard time making a case for anyone who presently holds the turkey-vulture position. Though, coming from a guy who makes ads and books for a living, some under an assumed name, it’s hard to cast the first stone at that particular creature.
The book has the same smart, snappy, witty prose we’ve seen in The Futurist and Holy Water, but THE LAST TRADE is more plot-driven, as thrillers tend to be. I think it’s a good use of your talents. What made you go this route?
I didn’t want to dumb down the prose or radically alter my style to accommodate the genre. My other stuff is always fairly straightforward and accessible; it’s the characters and premises that are more absurd and quirky. This started with the aforementioned What-If scenario. I contemplated attacking it through satire – and I may still; the world of finance is certainly ripe for it – but I decided to do it as seriously as I could. It was an interesting exercise: extract all of the things I supposedly do well (humor, irony, absurdity) and ramp up the aspect of my writing that I consider the weakest (air-tight plots). Also, after my last novel, my wife and my agent said to me within minutes of each other one day, “You know a lot about this stuff. Why not try to write something that sells?”
It seems primed to do just that. Was it Parade magazine who wrote of the book, “At last, Wall Street greed is entertaining”? Because that’s a fucking fabulous pull-quote.
Great question, especially because it allows me to share two quotes. The quote above is from Reader’s Digest. Parade, ahem, said it was “a fast, fun Wall Street thriller.” Both make me happy first because they have about 50 million readers between them. But also because they validated one of my goals, which was to try to give a flesh and blood, entertaining context to this stuff that dominates every aspect of our life in such a dry, depressing and confusing way: the Euro, the Dow, Madoff, Corzine, the banking collapse. Non-fiction has done a decent job of covering our recent economic shitstorms but I don’t think fiction, especially commercial fiction, has done it justice in more than a cursory fashion.
The more light shown on it, the better, I say. And sometimes fiction is a much more effective spotlight than nonfiction. Did you know anything about “quants” going into the book? How did you research the material? Do you moonlight as a derivatives trader?
After I wrote The Futurist I was invited to speak to a sort of financial think tank, run by the head of a hedge fund who had read the book. It was a fascinating experience and despite what many think, there were a lot of brilliant people of high character there. Specialists in every sort of industry or sector as well as scientists, anthropologists, and even a few futurists. They invited me back and ultimately made me a Research Fellow, which basically means I get to soak up some amazing insights about that world in exchange for sharing weird email bites and telling a bunch of culturally interesting jokes every few months.
That’s awesome. Are they looking for other Research Fellows? I always wanted to be a Fellow…Sorry, keep going.
The idea for THE LAST TRADE absolutely came out of this but the subsequent research – books, interviews, visits with hedge guys and cyber-security people — was a fun but especially daunting for this mediocre liberal arts major.
In your work, the characters are always going to these far-flung places. Are you a big traveler? What are some of your favorite destinations?
I love to travel. My kids have always been amazing travelers so that has helped. And working in advertising has taken me to some amazing places. Johannesburg. The beaches of Normanday for a D-day anniversary commercial. The base of the Grand Canyon. In a few weeks I’m doing a shoot in China for a client. Advertising often takes me to a place, but I always try to view the journey through the eyes of a journalist and then later, process it with the sensibility of a novelist. Of course, the case now is, which novelist?
Ah, yes, that. Why the nom de plume? Because the thing about noms de plume is that they work better when people aren’t, you know, aware of who the real writer actually is.
I think you keep it secret if you give a shit or if you’re famous or if you want to play some sort of coy promotional game, Who’s James Conway? The thing with my situation is that if you tease it out there would be some expectation that, you know, it’s Alice Munro or Cormac McCarthy, which would be a hoot. Once you give the answer, it’s this guy Othmer, people would shrug. Oh, and who’s that. At one point I considered going all-in on the pseudo, making Conway this whisky-drinking, hotel room-trashing, globetrotting bad boy. Call James Patterson a fraud in the thriller press. Have an author photo where I’m in the cockpit of an F1 car. Or at a shooting range. Or on a camel. But there was surprisingly little heart for any of these suggestions from the folks at Dutton. Or my house. The best justification I have for this is that we didn’t want to confuse my 1217 “literary” fans as well as booksellers. If you’re looking for absurdity and then you get a financial thriller you might be disappointed. Or you might find an entirely different sort of absurdity. All of this is why, when my women’s erotic trilogy comes out, I’m going go with my birth name.
The name Jennifer performed very well in focus groups. So, yes, Jennifer James.
I just realized that James Patterson also worked in advertising. Was he an inspiration in any way?
You’re not going to bait me into dissing the James Patterson Publishing Complex. I may have to ask him to ask one of his ghostwriters to blurb one of my alter egos one day.
Speaking of alter egos: why Conway ? An homage to Tim Conway?
As much as I respect Tim Conway’s oeuvre – I mean McHale’s Navy, Carol Burnett and Dorf? – the name is an homage to my mom’s maiden name. While I’m at it, Cara Sobieski, my female protagonist, is an homage to my wife’s maiden name. My early suggestions for pseudonyms did not go well with my agent. One email response to me said, “Derek Holliday? Really? Sounds like a porn name. Or the name of an author of women’s erotica.”
You have women’s erotica on the brain. I say, roll with it.