Michael Ridpath spent eight years working as a bond trader at an international bank in the City of London. He is the author of Free to Trade, Trading Reality, The Marketmaker, Final Venture, The Predator, On the Edge and See No Evil. The latter two feature his new series character Alex Calder. He grew up in Yorkshire, and now lives in North London with his wife and three children.
Michael provides an insight into the writing of, On the Edge, and the pros and cons of creating a series character.
Why have you decided to start a series with the same central character?
I have written six books so far, each with different protagonists. I spend a year and a half with each, mess up their lives thoroughly and then abandon them to obscurity. I decided I wanted to see my central character’s life develop, to tell a longer story of how his experiences in each of the books shape him and change him.
Tell us a little about Alex Calder?
He comes from a small town in the Scottish Borders. He was an RAF pilot, flying Tornados, until an ejection damaged his spine and he had to stop. He went into investment banking and became a successful bond trader, which is where we meet him in On The Edge. He is an inspired risk-taker, but sometimes he can be impulsive and take a risk too far, which gets him into trouble. He is also lousy at office politics. During On The Edge, he becomes disillusioned with banking and quits to buy his own small airfield in Norfolk. But he gets drawn back in to the murky dealings of the City.
What are the difficulties in writing about a series character?
Until now my heroes have been innocents caught up in difficult situations that stretch them and bring out inner capabilities that they never knew they had. Alex Calder starts off like that, but he needs to be a slightly different character, someone who goes out looking for trouble rather than waiting for it to come to him. A restless risk taker.
Every time you create a character you have to take some decisions: where do they come from? What do they look like? Who are their family, their friends? Where were they educated? Usually these decisions only last for one book, but every decision I make for Calder I shall have to live with for years. This leads to a kind of paralysis, a fear of choosing the wrong path, taking a decision I will regret. Strangely, once I had started, the question of what Alex Calder’s essential character should be was much less fraught. I feel as if I know him already, it is more a question of how to show who he is.
Is Calder like you?
In some ways. I’m not as much of a risk taker as he is. But I like the idea of writing about someone who used to be part of the City and isn’t any more. Over time I have grown more disillusioned with the inhumanity of the big banks, and this gives me a way to write from the perspective of a former insider who is now outside the system.
Is Calder an amateur sleuth or a professional?
He’s an amateur. This worried me at first. I try to make my books as realistic as possible, and I was concerned that I was creating a Miss Marple who always happens to be in the vicinity of some ghastly murder. I considered making him a forensic accountant or a corporate security consultant, but these seemed either too dull or too sleazy.
One response was to make Calder a risk taker, the kind of person who if offered the chance to get himself into trouble will take it. The other is to make sure that in each of the books he helps out important people with contacts. The financial world is a map of overlapping networks where people often prefer to use someone they know and trust to deal with particularly sensitive situations. So over time Calder builds up a reputation for sorting out the kind of problems that people would not want to go to the police with.
In On The Edge you write about sexual harassment. Is this something you have witnessed yourself in the City?
Not personally. People often tell me stories in pubs that they insist should appear in one of my novels, but a friend told me one about a sexual harassment case he was involved in as a witness, which struck a chord. The incident itself was not necessarily particularly shocking; it all depended on the context and the perspective of the victim. What was shocking was the lengths the investment bank concerned went to isolate the victim and ensure that witnesses did not speak up on her behalf. It seemed to me to typify the inhumanity of many banks these days, and it was something I wanted to write about.
What’s next for Alex Calder?
I’m in the rewriting stage of the next Alex Calder book. Fortunately, I still like him, although I put him through a pretty rough time during the course of the book. An old friend asks him to help her find out about the death of her mother-in-law in South Africa in 1988. Her father-in-law is an Afrikaner who owns a chain of international newspapers and was active in denouncing apartheid at that time. I originally intended the book to be about international media takeovers, but the question of what it was like to try to be a good person living under an evil regime has grabbed me.
Everyone needs a holiday and our authors are no different. Some have had scorching holidays and some quite frankly were too unsavoury to let you into. From dream holiday destinations and holiday horror stories to top holiday survival tips and summertime memories we’ve got the low-down and we’re willing to share…
What’s your favourite summer memory? Late evenings in June when I was at school. After we had finished homework or exam revision, we used to walk up the hill to the football field and kick a ball around. The school was in Somerset and there was a magnificent view over the fields to Glastonbury Tor about 5 miles away. The combination of easy friendship, mild physical exercise after mental effort, and the peaceful surroundings created a feeling of deep contentment that has stayed with me.
Dream holiday destination? Botswana. I know a couple of people who have been on safari there and said it was wonderful. I have always been excited by the concept of a safari since I was a boy, but I have never quite managed it. One day.
Top holiday tips For the past fourteen years I have been going on holiday with small children. It took a while to get used to. The most important thing is to reduce your expectations and not try to do too much. Otherwise the whole event just becomes stressful. Also aim to spend half the day by some water, and the rest doing some minor sightseeing.
What place in the world should everyone visit? There is nothing as romantic as a lost city, especially one perched on extraordinarily shaped mountains above a jungle. Machupicchu is quite simply the most wonderful place on earth. To get there, you walk for several days on the “Inca Trail” over the Andes until you come to the ruins of the city. The ruins speak of a civilisation as advanced as the Romans, yet when you stand beside the sacrificial altar perched on a narrow ridge above the town and survey the miles of lush green rainforest stretching out below towards the Amazon, you can feel the mystical power and ruthlessness of the people who lived there. On second thoughts I wouldn’t want everyone to visit it - just me and the ghosts of the Incas.
Holiday horror story When I was twenty-three I worked for six months in New York. At the end of the stay I went on holiday for three weeks to Peru. My plan was to fly back from Lima to Miami and buy a standby ticket from there to London. At Miami airport I discovered that my visa had become invalid as soon as I left the States, and I couldn’t even get a transit visa unless I had a ticket out of the country. So I tried to reach to the airline sales desks to buy a ticket, but even though I could see them, I couldn’t actually walk over to them without the transit visa. This would have been funny, except the immigration officials had no sense of humour and no inclination to help. After half an hour of bouncing from desk to desk, I decided to surrender myself to the police. They put me in a small room sitting next to two other gentlemen who were handcuffed to their chairs. After an hour or so I was interviewed, and then told to wait. Finally a big man with a gun told me to come with him. He led me to a British Airways desk where a ticket was waiting for me and then escorted me on to a full Boeing 747. All the other passengers stared. I suppose very few of them had seen a dangerous criminal escorted on to an aeroplane under armed guard before. Since that time I have always been careful to treat US immigration officials with more respect than they deserve.
What books will you be packing? I find my holiday reading falls into two phases. In the first phase I am trying to relax my brain and empty it of all the clutter of whatever book I am writing. At this stage I will probably read a thriller, like Spin by Martin Sixsmith, or the next in the series of the No1 Ladies Detective Agency. After about ten days, my brain is clear and I begin to look for things to think about, usually nothing to do with my own writing. I might take The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey which is supposed to be a very readable account of the earth’s geology, something about which I am vaguely curious and know absolutely nothing.
Euro 2004 I intend not to let this disrupt my summer. Who wants to spend hours in the middle of June glued in front of a television when it’s sunny outside, and there is a book to write? But the competition will get me. It always does. I can feel the misery of England’s inevitable defeat on penalties even now. It’s like the anticipation of an unavoidable dentist’s appointment for major fillings.
Michael Ridpath author of Final Venture and The Predator is back with Fatal Error, a scintillating thriller set against the ferocious rise and fall of the dot.com industry. Here he talks about career changes and why you should never base one of your characters too closely on a friend or colleague.
What prompted you to change direction from your career as a city trader to become a full-time author? It wasn’t intentional. I began writing my first novel, Free To Trade, as a hobby. It was a form of escapism from my day-to-day life as a bond trader. I had never tried to write any fiction before: like many people I assumed I wouldn’t be able to do it. But once I started Free To Trade, I became obsessed. I was determined to see the novel through to the end. After many years of writing and rewriting, I submitted it to an agent who showed it to a group of major publishers and started a bidding war. Suddenly someone was offering to pay me a serious amount of money to do what I loved doing during the working day, instead of at the weekends or evenings.
I enjoyed working in the City, and I love writing. I am a firm believer that you can’t do everything at once, and I think I am fortunate to have been able to follow two completely different careers at different times of my life.
Fatal Error examines the Internet boom and bust - what inspired you to use the dot.com phenomenon as a backdrop to your novel? I was fascinated by all the hype of the dot-com boom, and I was itching to write about it. The problem was that I felt it couldn’t last forever, and so I had to wait until the bust came. Although this was later than I expected, it was all the more spectacular for it.
The boom and bust provides a tremendous emotional backdrop for a story. There is the initial trepidation, the intense excitement as everything grows so fast, and the massive disappointment when expectations are exceeded one day and shattered the next. Working relationships and friendships come under pressure and people are driven to do things they would never normally consider. Great stuff for a thriller.
How did you go about researching Fatal Error? Apart from a brief jaunt to the French Riviera, most of the research was done in London. I sought out dot-com companies and asked their founders what it was like in the boom and how they had survived the bust. Sometimes these entrepreneurs are portrayed as greedy and stupid. How could they ever believe they were worth so much money? But the people I met were hard-working idealists for whom the most important thing was to coax their companies into profit and survive. Sadly, by the time Fatal Error made it to publication, all but one had disappeared.
Are David Lane, Guy Jourdan or Tony Jourdan based on real-life acquaintances? I try not to base characters in my books too closely on real life acquaintances for fear of losing people’s trust. I suppose David Lane is based on some aspects of my own character. Guy Jourdan started off as the blue-eyed boy at school who never quite lives up to the expectations of his peers. But he became much more than that. I also have a friend who reinvents himself every five years or so. If you haven’t seen him for a while, you have no idea how he will behave next time you do. Guy is a bit like that.
Did you have the entire plot in mind from the outset, or did the story develop as you wrote? I had two ideas in mind at the outset. I wanted to write about the dot-com madness, and I wanted to write about the relationship of two old friends of different temperaments over fifteen years. The plot emerged eventually from that. I like to write detailed synopses before I actually start on page one, and this seems to take me many months. But I do allow the story to develop in different directions as I write. Of course then I have to change the synopsis. It all seems to be much more work than it should be.
Which other writers do you admire? I admire Dick Francis, Michael Connelly and Wilkie Collins (who is in the same tradition, but was just doing it a hundred years earlier). I have to admit to a grudging admiration for John Grisham as well.
Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment? Yes, I’ve started my next book. It’s about a manager of a hedge fund who has an enormous ego and wants to be the world’s most admired investor. He becomes ‘The Man Who Broke the Euro’, and he takes bigger and bigger gambles until the inevitable happens. His fund is based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I have just returned from a research trip there, where I had to sample the skiing and snowmobiling first hand. It’s tough being a writer. Why did I ever change careers?
SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF
Several years ago, one of my more eager friends pressed upon me a book he had just discovered entitled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”. He claimed it had changed his life. I nodded politely and glanced at the book. I didn’t think I needed to read it, for I was already converted; I was a big picture person, not someone to be bogged down in irrelevant detail.
I didn’t worry about the small stuff when writing Free to Trade, my first novel. This was essentially a thriller about my day job; at that point I was a bond trader working for a bank in the City. Certainly there were lots of details in the book, but they were the details of the life I had lived that day. No research was needed. Where I strayed into areas that I knew nothing about – police investigations, for example – I kept things deliberately vague.
Seven books on and my attitude has changed. I am still writing thrillers set in the financial world, but I no longer work there myself, and, more importantly, I find myself wanting to write about things I know little about because I know little about them. I now find myself doing several weeks’ research while writing a book, ferreting out details, putting tiny pieces together to make a whole. The small stuff fascinates me.
For me, research doesn’t involve locking myself in a library for three months surrounded by financial journals and weighty books on economics. There is some of that, but not much. My novels are usually set a year or two in the future, so that they will still be topical when they are published. Since the financial world changes so fast the relevant reference books haven’t been written yet, and probably won’t be for several years. And what I am trying to discover is not necessarily written down in books.
Researching a novel is different to researching something like a history book. I read History at university, a subject that by and large I enjoyed. Two things annoyed me about it, though, two rules that the undergraduate was not allowed to challenge. One was that the historian must write as if he is objective. I say “as if” because we all knew it was impossible as a historian to be truly objective, indeed there was a whole branch of history known as historiography which proved this point, and about which we wrote lots of supposedly objective essays. This meant we were not allowed to take sides, or at least not overtly. We couldn’t decide who were the good guys and who were the bad guys; we couldn’t cheer on Wellington at Waterloo, or deride Chamberlain’s spinelessness. A thriller is all about figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and then rooting for the one against the other.
A second shortcoming of history as it was taught to me was that individuals are unimportant. Events move because of social trends, economic forces, political upheavals, climate change, anything but the decision of a particular individual on a particular day. The person doesn’t matter, “the people” do. How refreshing it is to write a novel where what happens is the result of the decisions characters make and the reasons they make them. It’s not just refreshing; as a means of describing the way we live, it is true.
The best sources are people, not books. The first task is to find the right people. They might be people I know already; more often they are friends of friends. For example, when I realized that my latest book, See No Evil was going to be set in South Africa, even though I knew very few South Africans myself, I soon drew up a long list of possible contacts through friends. And of course one source leads to another. The best of them don’t tell me facts, but give me opinions, prejudices, fears, or stories from their own backgrounds which then become the backgrounds of some of my characters. It was interesting that many of the reminiscences of South African women about the apartheid years involved the strong relationships they had with their maids, and I was able to use these to weave the domestic background of Martha, an American woman trapped in South Africa in the 1980s. The sexual harassment case that is at the heart of On the Edge was loosely based on a story I heard in a City pub. Much of the detail of how the case was suppressed so shamefully comes from other stories heard in other pubs.
I try not to base characters on friends and acquaintances, but sometimes people I meet become the characters in my books. Some of the events in On the Edge take place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One of these is the death of a character in an avalanche. I wasn’t able to visit Wyoming until I was half way through the book, and I had already written the scene where the hero, Alex Calder, tries to find out what became of his colleague. So I went into the Teton County Sheriff’s office, and spoke to a Sergeant Moss. I then asked him the same questions about avalanches and their victims that Alex Calder had already asked in the scene, and he gave many of the same answers. It was surreal. Until he recounted an ingenious scam, which he had come across a few years before, and which I wrote down avidly. It was only afterwards that I reflected that although the meeting mirrored my fiction, Sergeant Lindsey was talking about real people who had lost their lives, and their real relatives who had been looking for them. It’s at times like these I feel a touch of guilt about peddling death as entertainment.
Of course, it’s not just the people, it’s the places. I try to make sure I visit every location that I put in my books. This isn’t just to make sure that I get the details right, it’s so that I can have a clear picture of a scene’s setting in my mind as I write it. Writing is at its most fun, and probably at its best, when the writer loses himself totally in the scene he is devising. If you have actually been to the place you are writing about it helps enormously. I can still visualize the corner of the Wyoming canyon where the last scene of On the Edge takes place. And the view from Martha’s house in the wooded valley above Stellenbosch in See No Evil. And perhaps most importantly in both books, the looming, mystical presence of the two mountains, the Grand Teton and Table Mountain.
It is possible to write scenes in foreign parts direct from guide books. But I think the details that add the most authenticity to descriptions are those that go against the stereotype, and these are what I am looking for when I travel. The middle-aged blonde hooker throwing up on a squalid Copacabana Beach. The suburban rows of ranches along the Snake River, each in their one-acre plot, housing New York’s super wealthy getting back to nature. The scrawny old Afrikaner farmer sitting on his stoep surveying the broad veldt through thick iron gates and two sets of electrified perimeter wire.
I do tend to set my books in places like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Wyoming, rather than Tamworth, Dortmund or Akron, and why not? Since boyhood, safaris have always enticed me as adventurous and exciting. So I decided to set the ending of See No Evil in a game park, which of course required a few days’ safari. I will never forget the look in the eye of the elephant that charged at our Land Rover when she thought we were threatening her calf. Which was very kind of her, really, because it is now all written down in black and white in the last dozen pages of the book.
When you are in research mode, even the most prosaic of places becomes interesting. In my second novel, Trading Reality, I wrote about a company in the romantic sounding Glenrothes, one of the hubs of Scotland’s virtual (ie imaginary) Silicon Glen, and a place from which I had received a number of ambitious business plans when I worked as a venture capitalist. When I travelled to Fife I discovered that Glenrothes is a former coal mining town dominated by an indoor shopping centre. The contrast with Silicon Valley was delicious.
Usually by the time I visit places I have a pretty good idea about what I am going to write and I am often ruthless with myself to stick to my planned trail. But every now and then I come across somewhere that forces its way into a book. One such place is the Voortrekker Monument, a giant granite memorial to the Boers great trek, squatting on a hill above Pretoria. I decided to have a good look at it; I was sure that it would find its way into the book somehow. And sure enough, when my editor suggested the insertion of a new scene into the second draft of the manuscript, I knew the perfect place to set it.
There are some details which I never quite manage to pin down while writing the book, but eventually they have to be faced. In the case of See No Evil, the cause of my trouble was two small birds whooping loudly in a bush. The normally highly reliable and knowledgeable South African friend who was accompanying me said that the birds were a type of shrike called a piet-my-vrou, and the call, which sounds like the Dutch words “piet-my-vrou”, was the sound of one mate calling the other. So a short, quite poignant scene appeared in the book, where Martha hears the birds calling and finds herself weeping at the realization that her own marriage is falling apart. When I came to double-check the spelling of piet-my-vrou, I discovered that the bird was otherwise known as a red-chested cuckoo. I had heard the bird in June; the middle of the South African winter, and more importantly, June was also the month that Martha had heard it. I looked further and discovered that the first red-chested cuckoo of spring doesn’t arrive in the Cape until a few months later. After much further work, I realized that we had actually heard a bokmakierie, which does much the same thing as a piet-my-vrou, but with a different call and a much less evocative name. So a dilemma. Stick with piet-my-vrou and put up with the ire of sharp-eyed Afrikaner-speaking ornithologists, or change it to the clunkier bokmakierie? How I dithered over this, even considering giving up all together and dropping the whole scene.
In the end I decided to follow my usual rule never knowingly to leave errors in the book, no matter how convenient they are. I am convinced that however obscure the fact is the reader can somehow tell if you are making it up. So the call of the piet-my-vrou became the whoop of the bokmakierie.
Now that’s sweating the small stuff.
Michael Ridpath, bestselling author of The Marketmaker and Final Venture, once again opens up the high-powered world of international finance in his latest electrifying thriller, The Predator. Here, Michael takes us through his inspiration for writing The Predator and the aggressive, speculative world of hedge funds.
The Predator was fun to write. Of all my books so far, it is the most personal. Not because the financial background or the crimes represent my own direct experience, but because it describes the transition from idealistic graduate trainee to red-blooded investment banker.
The book is about a group of newly qualified investment bankers from all over the world who go on a training programme in New York, one of whom is drowned. Ten years later, another is murdered in Prague. The hero, Chris Szczypiorski, must discover which of his friends was responsible.
I went on such a training programme when I was twenty-two. Nearly fifty graduates were gathered in New York to be taught the basics of banking and to be indoctrinated to believe that they worked for the best bank in the world. I learned a lot about banking and I fear some of the indoctrination rubbed off too, although I would never have admitted it then. I also had a great time. British bankers at that time were paid considerably less than our American counterparts and so we were given an additional allowance to make up for it. Thanks to a mistake by Personnel, we were paid this twice. We took it as our duty to spend all of this during our six months in New York.
I made many friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with eighteen years later. I met my wife and four of my children's godparents. Even now I can travel to Sao Paulo or San Francisco, Zurich or Highgate and be sure of a place to stay. But the world's big banks have changed significantly since 1983 and these changes have affected all my former colleagues in one way or another.
In 1983 we were taught that the best bankers were loyal, conservative, intelligent, cautious and only dealt with people they trusted. They were good team players. They would be paid well but not obscenely. As they spent decades at the bank, they could expect promotion and respectability. Above all they would have pride in working for the best bank in the world.
Something happened between 1985 and 1995. Now the best bankers get paid the highest bonuses, often millions of dollars. They change employers every two or three years, either attracted by guarantees of even higher bonuses or thrown out for a poor year's results. There is no shame in this; the only shame is to be underpaid and do nothing about it. Employment contracts are scrutinised by lawyers who also examine their clients' redundancy packages a year or two later.
The reactions of my contemporaries vary. Some throw up their hands in despair at the way the world has changed and sink slowly down the corporate ladder. Some, like me, get out. Most take to the new regime with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some go small, setting up 'boutiques' and become involved in corporate finance, venture capital or fund management. What links the bankers of 1983 with 2001 is ambition. They were always ambitious. And for some, the spirit of today is more congenial to that ambition than the spirit of the past.
From such ingredients, it is easy to draw up a fictional group of friends with enough different motivations to keep a plot whirring. But while I found The Predator easy to write, I found it difficult to plan. I started off well enough, by writing thirty pages of memories of my own training programme. But then I got confused. Naturally the story would be split into two, the training programme and then the events of ten years later. These would revolve around a hedge fund, where most of the graduates had ended up. At this stage I thought the book was about the hedge fund. These are fascinating animals: they are aggressive, speculative funds usually managed by a few highly skilled investors. The most famous is run by George Soros, but there are literally thousands more in existence. I wanted to use the training programme as a means of explaining the wrinkles in this hedge-fund story. It all got very complicated.
Finally, after three months I gave up, ripped up what I had written, and started again. This time I focussed on events on the training programme and let the hedge fund take care of itself. This worked. Everything clicked and I was soon writing.
I enjoyed writing The Predator. But what is most important to me is that you enjoy reading it.
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