Monday, December 27, 2010

The Novel Road Interview: Norb Vonnegut

Product DetailsWhat better way to start December 28th!

   The paperback release of a superb financial thriller, "Top Producer" is today. Not only is this an incredible novel, it will have you calling your broker just to "check"...Please welcome Bestselling author Norb Vonnegut to The Novel Road...


   Today's visitor to The Novel Road, I count as a friend, which makes interviewing this vastly intelligent, funny and kind man something I've looked forward to for some time. I made him promise not to look at the interview questions till he finished the final edits on his next Bestseller "The God's of Greenwich" due out in April of 2011. (He peeked, which led to me showing him how NOT to answer the "two sentence Hook" question. Like I could answer it better than a bestselling author? I re-looked up hubris after I failed miserable to answer my own question)

Product DetailsNorb Vonnegut writes financial thrillers and blogs about money for The Huffington Post, Switzer in Australia and Acrimoney. Before turning to a career as an author, Norb worked in private wealth management as a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley, Paine Webber and other investment banks. It was there, knee deep in the business of finance, where he learned one absolute and irrefutable truth.


   The people of Wall Street are characters. They're a ready mix of quirks and edgy humor. They speak in tongues, and their escapades make them the perfect fodder for irreverent fiction. Their behavior, so ordinary on Wall Street, can border on the bizarre anywhere else. You'll see what he means inside the pages of Top Producer, The Gods of Greenwich and his novels to come.

   So after two decades in the trenches, he traded money management for writing thrillers about fictional stockbrokers, traders and hedgies. His villains are a blend of pure fiction and people he heard about or read about through the years. You'll find themes like friendship and betrayal in his novels, lots of backstabbing as he describes financial scandals and gravitate toward stories about underdogs who prevail against overwhelming odds.

Go to fullsize image   You don't need a background in finance to understand what makes his characters tick or the mistakes they make. They're are no stock tips in his novels. But you might gain a few insights from a Wall Street color commentator (Norb) as you board a roller coaster ride of fiction that could be fact.

   Norb graduated from Phillips Exeter in 1976, Harvard College in 1980 and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1986. These days, he and his family split their time between New York and Narragansett, Rhode Island. Norb is an avid cyclist and volunteer with the American Foundation for the Blind as a member of the Board of Trustees.


Amazon's Norb Vonnegut Page
Norb Vonnegut
Me: Your novel, “Top Producer”, has gained you the reputation of being the “Grisham of financial thrillers”. I believe this reputation is not only well earned, but also well founded by your experience as a stockbroker and financial analyst for the Huffington Post. How hard is it to live up to your fans expectations? How does the pressure to deliver measure up to your days as a broker?
Norb: First and foremost, thank you for your kind words and for inviting me to be your guest on The Novel Road. It’s an honor to post here with so many talented authors.
   Author versus stockbroker—these are two different worlds that converge, oddly, in ways readers might not expect. As an author, I work hard to deliver something special on every page. It might be that whoa plot twist from left field. Or an irreverent observation about day-to-day life. There’s always pressure to captivate readers en route to the last page.
     Is it “hard”? You bet. Turning pages is a choice for readers, not an obligation.
Go to fullsize image    When I was a stockbroker, clients charged me with protecting their wealth. The pressures of watching over billions of dollars had nothing to do with entertaining readers. The job was all about people—keeping their money safe from predators and bad markets and sometimes even from themselves.   So where’s the convergence? I’ve been asking one question through both careers: What can go wrong? As an author, I control the answers and the outcome inside a fictional world of my own creation. I never had this power as a stockbroker, and sometimes events developed a life of their own. My real-life experiences are a fertile place to start fiction, which is good news for a novelist. Most of the time . . .
   It’s scary when fiction turns into fact, as it did in Top Producer. Who would have guessed what happened on December 11, 2008—twelve months after I completed my novel and signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s press? Here’s what SmartMoney magazine wrote last fall when they named Top Producer to their “best reads” list:
 The story mirrors reality — in ways that may now surprise even its author, who finished the book before the economic meltdown.”
   See what I mean?

Me: Social Media. Talk about its importance to the modern author’s success.
Go to fullsize imageNorb: Social media is the new word of mouth. On steroids. The fastest way for authors to gain recognition is for their readers to “tweet” or “like” posts on Facebook. I often wonder whether Ernest Hemingway would tweet if he were alive today. I hope Mark Twain would have more followers than Lady Gaga or Paris Hilton, but that’s a tough call.
   The power of social media, I think, is its simplicity. An author’s comment can zing around the world in seconds. See those Twitter and Facebook buttons off to the right. You’re doing writers a big favor whenever you click them. Two seconds and you make an impression that could take hours of talking with friends about a good book or an interesting interview.
   This is an aside. But I believe the value of big voices—the richness of James Earl Jones, the raspy charisma of Bill Clinton, the world-hangs-in-the-balance gravity of Fred Thompson—will be lost as we move from sound bites to digital bites. It’s easier to comment on a blog than lock into an extended conversation.
  Whatever. We are where we are, and social media is here to stay, evolve, and weave its way into the fabric of our lives. I recently converted my author website into a blog, because I like the conversation with readers.
   If you have a minute, check out my breaking news on Bernie Madoff. One of his guards in North Carolina forwarded a photo of him in the prison yard. You’ll never guess what Madoff was reading.

Go to fullsize imageMe: Your main character, Grove O’Rourke, is one of the best modern day protagonists around. He’s balanced in both savvy and humanity. Talk about finding this balance in your character?
Norb: Everybody loves underdogs. And like many others, Grove O’Rourke starts with the basics. He’s smart. He’s edgy—prone to blistering one-liners. He’s safe and approachable. People tell Grove stuff, because he uses their information in the right way rather than trading on it for personal gain. He’s a good guy, who always seems to be rescuing the people that cycle through his life.
   But Grove is no superman. He has his own shortcomings. Plenty of them. He’s working through a personal tragedy. He’s has this sense of never fitting in. It’s been that way ever since his childhood. And as you will see in Top Producer, Grove’s profound sense of loyalty makes him vulnerable. Things go wrong when he helps friends and events spiral out of control.
   There’s a little Grove in all of us. I think readers care about characters with foibles. It’s nice to see heroes work through problems—especially if they’re not faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap buildings with a single bound. Everybody has weaknesses, right? And I’ll confess, mine are power tools. If I have a drill in hand, there’s a disaster in the making.
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Go to fullsize image"If anybody can turn international finance and hedge funds into a riveting thriller, it's Norb Vonnegut. The Gods of Greenwich is a pure delight, racing relentlessly from the bedrooms of Manhattan to the boardrooms of Connecticut to the banks of Iceland. Bravo!"

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Me: To the financial layperson, the financial world seems to be based on whim. The stock market can crash based on rumor or innuendo. What’s more, companies with no relationship to the rumor, fall simply because if brokerages sell one, they sell them all, furthering the fall and appearance of “no confidence” in the overall market. Are analysts over analyzing, putting too much faith in conjecture?
Norb: Okay, Doug, you’re touching on important issues—whim, innuendo, and no confidence. I worry less about “over analyzing” and more about dangerous investment techniques. Forget about playing the game. There’s a new breed of hedge funds that are “gaming the game” with uncertain consequences.
Go to fullsize image   Some of these funds program computer “robo-readers” that scour the news and social media posts for words or emoticons indicating mood. Once they know how the world "feels," hedge funds can make lightening fast momentum trades. Buying when spirits are good and propelling the markets higher. Or dumping shares when the world is on the verge of an extended funk.
   The thing about traders, though, is that they lay traps for one another. It’s been that way ever since the first market opened, and it’s behavior that I explore in my new novel The Gods of Greenwich. It’s probably easy to dupe robo-readers into buying, for example, with a computer code that spits out thousands of happy emoticons over social networks every few seconds. Tweet here and watch the market go up.
   Whatever happened to value investing?
   I’m old school. I like it when analysts scrutinize corporate balance sheets, cash flow, and profitability. It’s when the investors focus on how the game is played—and forget the basics—that I get scared. BTW, I’ve posted a video about “speed trading” on my blog Acrimoney. It will be especially interesting to anyone interested in the flash crash of May 6, 2010, which is a non-fiction example of how the game unraveled.

Me: Did you struggle with the amount of information you wanted to include, versus the amount that kept your novel moving at it’s blistering pace? How much information is too much?
Go to fullsize imageNorb: I assume you’re referring to financial information. Less is more. I spent my career reading how financial securities work. And there’s one thing I know beyond any doubt. It’s people that make for a good story. It’s human interactions—the plotting and the scheming, the reacting to overwhelming events, the backstabbing and betrayal—that create the stuff of mystery, suspense, and a good cry. Nobody ever gets emotionally involved in a synthetic CDO, right?
   I regard Wall Street and Hedgistan as background, not the story. The Gods of Greenwich, for example, is really about keeping up with the Joneses. Something we all understand. It just so happens my characters own hedge funds and are dying to join the Greenwich glitterati. Readers will disappear into a different world, and I hope, learn a little, laugh a little, and lose themselves in the story.

Me: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for your novel, “The Gods of Greenwich”.
Norb: Want to know what’s worse than going broke? Get in bed with The Gods of Greenwich.

Go to fullsize imageMe: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout literary history or present. Who would it be and why?
Norb: I probably change my mind ever five minutes. Sometimes the answer is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other times it’s Ernest Hemmingway. Or it’s a working author like Carl Hiaasen, Tom Wolfe, or the writers I’ve linked to on the home page of my website. But when push comes to shove, I’ll go with Dorothy Parker.
   I can’t imagine a better way to spend lunch than drinking wine with DP and listening to her zingers. She probably has the sharpest tongue of all time. I am so taken with her venomous wit, in fact, that I created a character with a DP backstory in The Gods of Greenwich.
   It wasn’t hard mixing DP into a thriller about hedge funds. She was always weighing in on the subject of money. Here’s one of my all-time favorite quotes from her: “I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”

Go to fullsize imageMe: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall: “I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you, throughout a 200 thousand word journey?”
Norb: It’s pretty simple. I write novels that are 100,000 words, give or take. That cuts the problem in half, right?
   I don’t mean to be flip. My goal is to laugh or go ballistic while writing. (Sometimes it gets noisy in my office.) If I don’t enjoy what I’m writing, readers won’t either. That’s why I struggle to make every sentence perfect and pithy. Ponderous doesn’t cut it.
   If I can turn a phrase that makes me happy, then I’m ready to test it on my editors—my wife first and then, if she’s okay with the draft, my editors over at Thomas Dunne/Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press. If the last word of every chapter is the most important word, then I’m telling the story the right way.

Go to fullsize imageMe: If Norb Vonnegut ever writes a Non-Fiction book, what would the subject be?
Norb: Bicycling. My wife Mary and I once bicycled 1,500 miles through Europe. That was twenty-five years ago. But we’d love to do it again. Now you may understand why cycling is such a big part of Grove O’Rourke’s life in Top Producer.
   There’s part of me that says write a book about professional cyclists during an extended race, like the Tour de France or the Giro de Italia. I’d like to make the sport come alive for non-cyclists—in much the same way that Michael Lewis writes about finance for readers outside of Wall Street.
   The truth is, however, you don’t need to be a professional to love the sport’s adventure. I cycle regularly and would prefer to write a memoir about re-tracing our route from Copenhagen to the Loire Valley twenty-five years ago. Stuff happens on the road, and I’m sure there would be plenty of anecdotes.
   Now that you have me fantasizing, let me put something out there. If any readers produce reality television shows and want to do something involving extended bicycle tours and a middle-aged guy who could stand to lose ten pounds, I’m your man.

Me: The publishing world is changing. Share your thoughts on what you think these changes may hold for authors, both successful and debut.
Go to fullsize imageNorb: Clearly, the delivery system for books is the biggest change. Bookstores are finding new ways to add value, because they’re locked in something of a cage fight with electronic books. We have no idea how publishing will evolve. Today’s economics allow anyone to self publish and hope for a viral hit.
   Editors are the one constant I see no matter how publishing evolves. As long as there are great books, there will be great editors. I think the key for all authors is to align with the best editors they can find.
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"This novel ponders the age-old ramifications of greed, but Vonnegut gives it a fresh timely twist."
– USA Today

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Me: A friend of mine gave me a question to posit to Ben Greenman of The New Yorker and short story fame: “How will literature change when 80 percent of all books are sold on e-readers?” How would you answer this question?
Norb: Tough question. What did Ben say? 
   Purists will wince at this prediction. But long term, I think novels will border on interactive experiences. Right now, we can click on words for instant definitions. We can fall in love with books and tweet passages from readers left and right. It won’t be long before we can click into videos. Brilliant, right?
  As the processors grow more powerful on I-pads, Kindles, and Nooks, I think the exchanges between authors and fans will grow more complex. There will be more opportunities to entertain readers, which is what stories are all about. A click here or there, for example, might bring a personality insight into a character that’s not available in the main story.
   Kindles and other devices, however, are still in their Jurassic Park stage. In The Gods of Greenwich, I list an email address—which is almost a dare to get readers to send a message. They’ll get a nice surprise in return. But this form of exchange is fairly basic. Fifty years from now, the back and forth will grow more sophisticated as technology continues to advance.
   Don’t believe me? Who heard of Google ten years ago?

Go to fullsize imageMe: Among your many talents as a writer, you write great short stories as well. My friend Jeff Hall was wondering: “As a short story writer, my greatest struggle is not deciding what to put in, but rather what to leave out. My 5K shorts typically start out as 12K novellas that I have to pare and trim ad nauseum. Do you find the process works best if you give yourself free reign and then whittle the result down to a manageable size? Or do you keep your stories focused and directed as they are birthed so that the initial product is of a workable size?”

Norb: I don’t think about stories in terms of size. Or in terms of chopping them down—even though “whittling” is always part of the process. My goal is to hook readers at the open (you can download the first chapter of The Gods of Greenwich on my website), ratchet up the tension in the middle, and then end with a killer finale.
  
   The middle is the most difficult part to write, whether it’s a short story or 100,000-word novel. Peter James, #1 internationally bestselling author (Dead Like You), explains it best. He draws a line graph of “the middle” with three peaks, each one higher than the last. The goal is to introduce new events, each one turning up the heat in the story.

   I like Peter’s visual, which reminds me of roller coasters. It’s the kind of ride I’m trying to give readers. When they finish one of my stories, I hope they say, “Yikes.” Or something like that.
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                                       Norb, Thank you for your time and incites. All the best my friend!

"The Gods of Greenwich is a fast-paced and satisfying locomotive of a financial-based thriller, Dominick Dunne meet Barbarians at the Gate. Vonnegut has opened the vaults of Greenwich's elite, and oh what secrets and schemes pour out!"
  Andrew Gross, New York Times Bestselling author.
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