Friday, September 12, 2014

(Books) Joel Hames: The Carnage Report One On One With Author Of Banker's Town

What made you want to be a writer?

Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? I’d always loved books and respected the people who created them, it was just a matter of opportunity. But when I had the time to write, I was too busy enjoying myself, and then work got in the way, and I ended up becoming a lawyer, and then a banker, and the idea of being anything I really wanted to be (other than a husband and father, of course) just faded away.

But then I gave up banking, and relocated to a spot about as far away as you can get from a major financial centre in England, with no viable Plan B, and my wife reminded me how I’d told her so many times, in years gone by, that I wanted to be a writer. And that was it.
Did you have any literary influences growing up?

Not really. I just loved books, pretty much any book, they were all good. Even an Oxford English degree didn’t really influence the way I went on to write. I might admire the craft or the beauty or the sense of the astonishing works I was reading, but it stayed outside, at a distance, something brilliant but ultimately alien.

But once I decided to write, I couldn't keep it out. Every great book, every glorious passage, I find myself dissecting them all, trying to work out the how and why, like Frankenstein with a few bundles of literary flesh. And there’s no reason in it, no decision to focus on books that relate, stylistically or thematically, to whatever it is I’m working on. So now everything I write has echoes of what I happen to be reading at the time, and it’s only in the never-ending redrafts that the inconsistencies between Chapter One’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Chapter Twenty’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows get ironed out.

How much of Bankers Town, your latest release, is based on your background as a former banker?

The nature of the work, putting together complex debt capital markets deals, that’s all pretty much true. The people – well, a number of them are drawn on my ex-colleagues, generally exaggerated because (much as no one wants to believe it) bankers tend to be as normal as anyone else, and thus not the greatest material for a novel. The fraud is absolutely and completely made up – all the fraud (apart from LIBOR, which I knew nothing about at the time your honour and so help me that’s the truth).

Some of the deals are based (very loosely) on real, actual deals. Most of the steps within the deals did actually happen, at one point or another. The delicately-poised relationships between different groups and individuals within and outside the bank, the day-to-day business of putting these deals together, the idea that they’re basically a gigantic Jenga puzzle made out of compromises and half-truths, and that at any moment a rating agency or tax advisor or lawyer or investor or another bank or lender or swap counterparty or your client could whip a piece out, just like that, and a year’s worth of work could collapse round your ears, that’s real enough, that happened more times than I care to remember.

The notion that it was all a game, that what we were doing existed in its own abstract world and had no impact on the “real economy” – and accordingly, the ease with which a banker could abdicate responsibility for that economy and ultimately for everything he did – there’s an element of truth in that. I’d like to think that’s all changed, now, although I’m not sure the Treasury Select Committee would agree.

The camaraderie of the early years at the bank is real enough, unless it’s just time and distance putting a pretty gloss on it. And the post-financial-crisis feeling of a slow, inevitable descent into a place where things weren’t going to be at all nice, I’ve tried to capture that, to the extent I could, in the book.

Being a former banker, what was the best and worst thing about being a banker?

The best thing, undoubtedly, was the buzz of walking into a pitch wondering how the hell you’re going to sell your deal without boring the brains out of the people on the other side of the table, and getting questions you never imagined thrown at you, and then finding (to your delighted astonishment) that not only can you throw the answers right back at them, but that they’re the right answers, and even better, they’re the answers everyone wants to hear, and walking back out thinking the only way you’re not going to win this deal is if someone else is actually paying for the privilege of doing it.

The worst thing is working like hell on a deal for months of long days and nights and weekends and then finding at the last minute that it’s not your deal after all because someone else has actually paid for the privilege of doing it.

In your blog “The Economics of Banking”, you mentioned the lack of knowledge about economics among your former colleagues; do you think a greater knowledge of the field would have helped avert during the crisis?

I can only really speak for myself here, although I suspect many senior bankers in London are in a similar state of ignorance about the role they’re really playing in the world.

But it’s interesting that while I was putting deals together I’d have a view on the effect my deal would have on the bank, the investors, the client, and the client’s employees and customers and other lenders, and that was about as far as it went. It wasn’t until after I sat down to think about what had gone wrong in 2007 onward, and write Bankers Town, that I started to look outside this circle to the lenders of the lenders of the lenders, and their other borrowers, and their other lenders, and realise that (if I can use an example from the book), a surf-board boom and bust in Sydney can kill a spark-plugs factory in the Midlands as easily as a footballer can crash a Ferrari.

If everyone had studied economics, would that have occurred to them? And would it have occurred to enough of them to have made a difference? It’s just one thing, really, correlation, interconnectedness, call it what you will, the butterfly-wing effect. In reality, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. And I’m not sure it even would now, because for all the increased capital cushions and Basle III and clampdowns on bonuses, the next crash is only a matter of time. When it comes to money, humans are (as I’ve pointed out repeatedly in my blog), dumber than dogs. Once bitten, twice bitten, three times bitten, it doesn’t matter. It won’t stop us getting bitten again.

Everybody can name their favourite book to read, can you name your worst?

I’ll stick to the dead, and go with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a book that prioritises the quality of the prose over character and plot to such an extent that it ends up looking like a long, tremendously dull poem in badly-formatted blank verse. If you’ve never read it, don’t bother.

Much has been said about the self-publishing phenomenon, what’s your take?

As someone who benefits from it simply by virtue of being available to readers, I’m an unqualified fan. There were never enough agents or publishers to read everything out there anyway – I remember a brief job I had at a publishing house, straight out of university, flicking through hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts sent over the last couple of years to the ignominious fate of being judged by someone who had not the faintest idea of what a commercially-successful modern novel should look like. So much effort, so much talent, all consigned to the reject pile by someone who wouldn’t have known Donna Tartt from a Bakewell Tart/ Julian Barnes from Julian Clary.

Now, finally, there’s an outlet for it. Sure, there’s a lot of dross out there too, but it’s not that hard to spot. The difficulty (as a reader) is distinguishing the excellent from the merely very good. And the satisfaction of taking a plunge, risking a few quid and a little of your time, and discovering something really good, a pleasure formerly reserved for agents and publishers, is now available to all.

What the best and worst thing about being a self-published writer?

The best: being able to publish at all, and see your sales mounting up and your reviews suddenly appearing, and being, to all intents and purposes, a real writer.
The worst is having to do all your own marketing and not having the faintest idea how to do it without doing what everyone else is doing anyway.

How much of your time is dedicated to marketing as opposed to writing?

About half, now, which I was warned about online before I published, and didn’t believe, and look at me now. Some of it’s quite fun, I kind of enjoy coming up with “witty”, topical tweets, and for the last couple of months I’ve been working with a local film production company on a trailer for Bankers Town that’s going to be, if I say so myself, absolute YouTube dynamite.

Do you have projects in the work or new releases share with our readers?

Yes. There are always ideas boiling over, and a couple of books I’ve already written that I fully intend to hammer into shape for publication one of these days, but the book I’m working on at the moment is more of a straight conspiracy thriller. It opens with a riot at a prison, an armed convict who doesn’t exist, and a wheeler-dealer lawyer who’s telling the truth for once in his life, but can’t get anyone to believe him. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first draft, so with luck I’ll have the whole thing ready for publication by the end of the year.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. 

Connect with Joe on Twitter @Joel_Hames and pay a visit to Get your copy of Banker's Town on Amazon here and here.

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