Publishers Weekly Interview – uncut
Publishers Weekly was kind enough to interview me recently. An excerpt from the interview appeared in the physical magazine, and another excerpt was posted online this week. PWs Lenny Picker asked a bunch of great questions, some of which didn’t make it to the final publications, so I thought I’d include the entire interview here for anyone who’s interested.
You wrote that this book began as a nonfiction one; could you elaborate on why you switched gears?
I wanted to write a follow-up to my financial markets explainer, Man vs Markets. Specifically, I wanted to describe how a system of rules was created around the markets from scratch, and I chose the New York Stock Exchange as my subject. I very quickly found myself bogged down in research, which was fine, but I wasn’t doing any writing. Moreover, the subject was incredibly dry. I had hoped that characters like Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, William Duer and Isaac Whippo might bring the story to life, but I just couldn’t make it work. Maybe I should have set it to music!
Anyway, the long and short of it was that I was a) bored and b) not writing. So I took some of the characters and wrote a murder into the narrative, as a side project. Pretty soon I found myself working almost exclusively on the murder, and the non-fiction project was consigned to a drawer.
What did it enable you to do that you couldn’t have with a nonfiction treatment of the period?
The great thing about fiction is that you can paint in broad strokes in a way that you can’t if you’re writing history or journalism. I’m a journalist, which – if you believe that journalists write the first draft of history – also makes me an historian. I believe that if I’m doing my job properly and honestly I have to include context in my account of events. I can’t be selective: if it’s a fact and it’s relevant, it has to go in.
As a fiction writer, I’m not bound by those restrictions. And that solves two problems. The first is that I can de-clutter my narrative. I can choose what to include and what to leave out. I personally prefer to make my settings as historically accurate as possible, but I don’t include everything because my readers would soon get hopelessly lost in the weeds of the past if I did. Secondly, I’m free to create characters that can shed light on the issues that I want to bring to the reader’s attention. That might be the irony that New York State banned slavery within its borders in 1799, but was still dependent on trade with southern states that couldn’t have functioned without slavery. As a fiction writer, I can tell listeners about that issue in a single exchange between two made-up. Non-fiction writers don’t have that luxury.
Does it further your goal of being an “explainer”?
Absolutely. There’s a reason news reports are called stories: journalists are always on the hunt for the best way to inform people about events and explain how they came about. The best way to do that is to tell a story. And the best stories always have people in them. Put a person in a narrative account and it comes alive. Fiction is another way of informing people about events. In the case of the Devil’s Half Mile, I want to tell people about the way the markets operated back then – with no rules and a kind of utopian expectation that human beings would behave ethically and honourably without any kind of supervision. So much for that!
What was the hardest part of switching to fiction?
Not having a play-by-play. When you’re writing non-fiction, you have arrange facts and data to get your message across in the most engaging, compelling and memorable way. But you don’t really get to choose what you put in. In fiction you have too many choices. You can do whatever the heck you like, which is a bit of a nightmare, because you never know if you’ve made the right call.
What about 1799 NY most interested you?
It was a fascinating year for New York. It was the year before the millennium, of course, but it was also the year the legislature passed the law for gradual abolition of slavery in the state. The result was an explosion in the black population in the city, which immediately became a destination for free blacks and runaway slaves. Weirdly, because slavery was only to be gradually abolished, there were still slaves in the city, which created all sorts of labor issues. Immigration from Europe was rising at the same time, and many of those incomers were from Ireland. Thanks to the brutal oppression of the Catholic Irish, the vast majority of the people coming from Ireland were unskilled laborers, which put them in direct competition with black workers. So it was a tense time. And the City Council knew it. They commissioned a survey of the island of Manhattan and a plan for its development. That plan was delivered in 1799, and its grid format looks remarkably like the city maps of today.
How did you research it?
I started with a variety of Wall Street histories, from the Los Angeles and New York Public Libraries. I read correspondence from estates of people who lived then, including Alexander Hamilton, and I read a lot of minutes of the Common Council of New York, which gave me all sorts of information about people, court proceedings and cost of goods. But I barely had to leave my house to do all of this. So much is now available online that with a library card and a good internet connection, research has become a lot easier.
And I walked. A lot, all over lower Manhattan, to see how the city has changed.
What surprised you the most as you did your research?
Two things: the first was how English New York was. I hadn’t realized how long the city was held by the English during the Revolutionary War: they didn’t quit New York until 1783. And their legacy remained. Their customs, their styles, their attitudes and many of their people stayed on after the War. Much of New York’s wealth came from trade done with the English – and those very profitable trading relationships were resurrected in the peace. The British shaped New York in the late 1800s, and it was a long time before their influence wore off.
The second surprise was the naivete of people in power in America back then. They genuinely believed that human beings could be trusted to regulate themselves and not exploit their fellows, even though experience had told them time and again that was not so. America had just thrown off the English yoke, so I can understand the urge to be as free as possible, but the result – in the financial markets, at least – was anarchy, which was bad for everyone.
In what ways was the market scandal similar to more recent market crashes?
The Great Panic of 1792 came about because the markets were essentially unregulated. The man who effectively caused the Panic, William Duer, indulged in market manipulation, stock fraud, insider trading and a whole bunch of other things that would have put him in the slammer today, but were entirely legal – if not entirely acceptable – back then. He did go to prison in the end, but only because he couldn’t afford to pay his debts.
Our financial crisis of 2008 came about in large part because of a move towards deregulation that began during the Clinton Administration. The argument was that banks and other financial institutions were essentially good and could be trusted to police themselves. Does that sound familiar?
Does the average investor today understand more about economics and how the markets work?
The markets were very different back then. The only securities one could buy were government bonds and shares in a few banks. And only a few, wealthy people invested in those. Most investment was in ventures or enterprises or businesses of various kinds, which couldn’t be easily traded. Also, most people in America then didn’t have much in the way of money to spend on more than the essentials. So I would say that understanding of markets was quite low, overall.
But understanding of basic economics was probably pretty high. Most people traded, in goods or services. We didn’t have the kind of employment situation we have today, where most people are paid in salaries, or contracted into employment for long periods of time. That, along with the lack of a social or medical safety net of any kind, would have made people much more aware of their personal economies. As for national or regional economics, there were a few newspapers competing to keep people informed of what was going on, but they had small circulations and were highly partisan. As now, your point of view would depend in large part on what you read, or who you got your news from.
Do Americans have the appropriate level of financial/economic literacy, and if not, why do you think that is?
Research suggests that financial literacy in the US is pretty low. A recent FINRA study found that 2/3 of Americans either can’t or don’t know how to calculate interest rates. I think that’s a problem, and it’s one of the reasons we got ourselves into so much trouble during the lending boom in the 2000s that led to the financial crisis. People simply didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.
Financial literacy isn’t taught in school. Should it be? Maybe. Even if it is, the lessons won’t sink in unless they are re-taught and consolidated at home. But people are afraid to talk about money in the home. It’s a stress point. A relationship killer. It’s hard enough taking to your partner about how to budget – why would you want to go over all that stuff with your kids? The result is that kids aren’t coached in good money habits and they learn bad ones, and they carry those on through their lives.
I think that personal responsibility is only part of the story, however. Financial institutions are also responsible. They need to make financial instruments less opaque. They need to adhere to certain standards when it comes to selling products. And all of that requires some degree of regulation.
I was surprised that securities laws were being discussed back then; were there ones in existence in other parts of the world at the time that were being modelled (e.g. England)?
Yes. The Antwerp Bourse was set up in the 1500s. The London Royal Exchange was opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. These systems were pretty freewheeling, however, and most trading was done away from the exchanges in coffee houses. Even the London bourse didn’t have a set of formal regulations until 1812. The result was that, as in America, the markets would lurch from crisis to crisis until the majority of traders – or the biggest traders with the most to lose – decided to create some kind of framework for the financial system.
Was there government support for passing securities laws?
Not in the US. The system was essentially self-regulated until the Securities Act of 1933 was passed, in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions lay-readers have about 1790s America?
I’ve found a lot of people have this image of America after the Revolutionary War as a kind of paradise of freedom, this young country that welcomed people fleeing the tyranny of European monarchy; the Irish in particular.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Irish found they had simply swapped one kind of discrimination for another. Nativist Americans, most of whom were protestant, shared the English view of the Irish catholic as an apelike, subhuman being, fit only for the meanest manual and domestic labor. If you were black, your situation was even worse. America only wanted Africans if they came in chains and were set to work in the fields. There were strong anti-slavery movements at the time, of course, but many Manumission activists also believed that once freed, slaves should be repatriated.
How has your work as a video consultant influenced your writing of fiction?
Not much, to be honest!
Has your writing of fiction influenced your other work?
I think it has improved my storytelling. I have a better sense of narrative now, and I think I’m a better story editor as a result. I think I’ve learned how to strip a story down to its essence, so that it lands most effectively with an audience.
Why did you change the book’s title?
The original working title was Raising the Wind. It’s an old phrase that means raising capital for a venture. I think it still applies today, especially for dot-com companies that have no revenue or obvious prospects and need a flurry of excitement to get funded. We changed it because we felt it didn’t have any sense of menace – The Devil’s Half Mile is a murder story, after all – and it felt a bit too financial.
Why make your lead Irish?
There are a number of reasons. I’m an Irish immigrant, and I wanted to tell the story of the Irish diaspora in America. I also wanted to touch on the way the Irish were treated by the English, in Ireland, long before the Great Famine. It’s a brutal, bloody history of several centuries of oppression that I never really learned at school, but I wish I had. Most of all, though, I wanted to tell the story of someone who is part of something and is at the same time an outsider. Someone who doesn’t quite fit. Just as a Catholic Irish lawyer might have felt in New York at the turn of the 19th century.