James Conway is the pseudonym of James P. Othmer, a hedge fund insider and global strategy director at a major advertising firm. He published two satirical novels (THE FUTURIST and HOLY WATER) about the corporate world and a humorous nonfiction book (ADLAND) about the advertising business before turning his hand to a deadly serious financial thriller, THE LAST TRADE.
Conway’s hero, Drew Havens, is a young star at one of the world’s most successful hedge funds who feels guilty about getting rich from other people’s devastating financial losses. When Havens suspects that his boss is orchestrating a crash that could bring down the U.S. economy, he races to stop the scheme – and the string of stock broker murders left in its wake – before time runs out.
In a starred review, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called THE LAST TRADE “[An] impressive first thriller” that “offers a compulsively readable look into the arcane world of high finance.” Seth Godin, author of WE ARE ALL WEIRD, declared it “an instant classic of the genre.”
Recently Conway talked about his new thriller and the new direction of his writing life.
After three books that take a humorous look at the business world, what inspired you to go in a totally different direction and write a thriller about a conspiracy to destroy the U.S. economy?
The simple answer is I follow my ideas and this one was a direct response to a set of events that were shaping our world. There has been plenty of excellent non-fiction about, for instance, the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008 and the subsequent fall of several venerable financial titans, but I felt that fiction hadn’t taken it head on. Like most of us, I was distressed by the reality, but I was also intrigued by the notion that if this happened through gross negligence, what could happen if a consortium of smart and dangerous people conspired to bring it all down?
The fact that the book I wanted to write would be different from anything I’ve published is what made it exciting for me. I was transfixed by the premise and thrilled to be writing in a whole new way. What’s happened in the financial world is absolutely ripe for satire, but this story was clearly better suited for a more serious, suspenseful, plot-driven treatment.
Do you believe the events in your book could actually happen? Considering all the gaping holes in cyber-security that have been exposed in recent years, should we be worried less about somebody stealing our bank account password and more about our country’s enemies plunging us into another Great Depression?
I don’t believe that an attack on our economy of this magnitude will happen, but my research leads me to believe that it certainly can. In the past five years we’ve seen the US market rise and plummet with alarming frequency; we’ve seen the Euro tested and the economies of sovereign nations pushed to the brink, we’ve seen some of the mightiest financial institutions in the world disappear over the course of a weekend; we’ve seen the human element scaled back from the trading dynamic to the point where programmed trading can cause a flash crash at the speed of light.
It’s a fact that the security walls of banks, stock exchanges, Fortune 500 companies and even the Pentagon are frequently probed and often infiltrated by extremely sophisticated hackers. Since there’s no shortage of bad guys and anti-American sentiment in the world I don’t think this sort of scenario is out of the question. If the sub prime could happen, why not this? If Maddoff could happen, why not this? If Greece and Corzine and MF Global could happen, why not this?
Some people don’t seem to understand that the U.S. economy isn’t isolated, that it is influenced by events around the world and we can’t simply withdraw from the world and go our own way. Have you found a way to dramatize that connection and make it meaningful to readers on a personal level?
That was my goal — to humanize and dramatize in a compelling way the events that have dominated and defined our post 9-11 world. This emphasis on an isolated US economy gets especially heightened in a Presidential election year, because we’re hurting so badly domestically. I think most people understand we’re not isolated, and that our economic relationship with the world is intertwined and extremely complex. But it’s hard to focus on that when you’re out of a job or scrambling to pay bills. Very few seem to have an entirely holistic grasp of the complexity of a world where seemingly harmless actions that happened overnight on the other side of the planet – the tenuous Euro, a Syrian bombing, a bad day at the Nikkeii – can set our own markets into a tailspin before they open. To make this world interesting and thrilling, I had to distill a lot of complexity into a singular premise – let’s leave talk of derivatives and bond yields to Michael Lewis –and tell a story where everything was at stake for the individuals involved, as well as the entire U.S. economy.
Did you draw primarily on your own professional experiences and observations in writing THE LAST TRADE, or did you have to do considerable research?
The questions that my protagonist Drew Havens has about the decisions he’s made in his professional life and their impact on others are quite similar to questions that arose and sometimes haunted me during my career in advertising. I believe they apply to all professions: Are you telling the truth? Are you contributing to or sucking the life out of society? I tell college students – from fiction writers to advertising majors to would-be venture capitalists — to ask themselves these questions frequently when they enter the workforce. What does it mean to live a worthwhile 21st century life?
I’m fortunate to have worked with the leaders of some of the world’s largest corporations, and to have been granted access to things that a journalist or outsider is not. I’m also doubly fortunate to be married to a woman with a background in global finance whose previous clients list includes many of the names behind the biggest financial windfalls and scandals of our times. While this was a good start, I did an enormous amount of research with financial insiders, counter-terrorism and law-enforcement officials, and IT security experts.
However exciting the plot may be, readers want characters they can care about. Tell us a bit about your Drew Havens, the young trader at the center of your story, and Cara Sobieski, a U.S. Terrorism Financial Intelligence agent. What makes them special to you, and why do you think readers will connect with them?
In Drew Havens, I wanted to create a good and honest man who unknowingly (at first) benefited because a horrible thing that he predicted came to pass. He didn’t cause the housing market bust, but he predicted and profited from it. I wanted to explore how a real person of conscience would cope with this sort of “success”. His total immersion in his job cost him his marriage and led to a more profound reckoning. Page one, however disturbing, is the start of his redemption.
I love agent Sobieski. She has so much strength and so many flaws — from gambling to family issues to having the world’s worst taste in men. I knew immediately that I couldn’t tell her complete tale in one book. As soon as I finished I began writing another in what will be at least a trilogy of novels in which Sobieski and her complex and fascinating lineage plays a recurring, more prominent role. Her skills impress, but her flaws humanize her — and really, who loves a perfect protagonist?
Because of events of the past few years, those who work in finance have been demonized as cold, unconcerned about ordinary people, and focused only on making themselves rich. Is this a fair view on the whole, in your opinion? Do many people like Drew Havens exist in global finance – people with consciences who do care about the way their actions affect others?
I’ve met and interviewed dozens of admirable, authentic and honest people in the financial services industry who defend and love the world of finance and are devastated and disgusted by the cultural shift in the industry, led by a rogues gallery of characters. But the system – the corporations, the government, the leaders – created this. Some by accident, some by negligence and others through pure, short-sighted, unadulterated greed. The good thing is that all of this has accelerated the conversation about Wall Street ethics. We’ll see where it goes, but I’m hoping for the good of all of us that others in finance, like Havens, have a renaissance of conscience.
In addition to writing more books featuring Sobieski, do you have plans for standalones?
As mentioned, I’m far from done with Cara Sobieski, but I’m also writing standalones. The common denominator is that all of them will revolve around the intersection of emerging technology, media, finance and, of course crime. I live in that world (except the criminal part!), and I find it fascinating that while there are plenty of thriller writers who excel at the legal or medical or any number of areas of expertise, no one is consistently writing about this fascinating and exciting world that is part William Gibson, part Malcolm Gladwell and part Robert Ludlum. That’s the plan, anyway.
James Conway is a pseudonym for a hedge fund insider and global strategy director at a major advertising firm.