Dixie and I had just finished dropping my stockbroker off the end of a long pier with a concrete halibut in his arms when I bumped into author Michael Sears whose debut thriller, BLACK FRIDAYS, has been creating all kinds of buzz in both the mystery and financial community. Naturally, we sat down, opened a flask and tried not to let the bubbling pleas for help from my former broker disturb our chat.
Hey Michael: What can you tell us about BLACK FRIDAYS?
Jason Stafford, ex-Wall Street trader, is released from prison where he served two years for cooking the books and associated crimes. The only work available to him is to investigate fraud at another firm, where he quickly discovers a conspiracy that leads to murder. But the book is also a story of a man seeking redemption as he takes on the role of single parent to his five year old autistic son — the single biggest challenge of his life.
The decisions he faces help to reveal to him the man he wants to become.
You worked on Wall Street for over twenty years. Finance and creative writing don’t usually go hand in hand (I only need to look at my bank balance to confirm that). Did your writer’s imagination ever get you into trouble on the stock exchange?
I worked in the bond market for most of my career, during a time when creativity in that area of finance was booming. But creativity in writing was frowned upon. I wrote often for market commentary and product marketing promo pieces, but the legal disclaimers and boilerplate from the compliance department took up more space than my writing. But I was able to describe complicated financial technical details in simple straightforward prose, understandable by both the sales force and the client. Some of that has been incorporated in the book. Some. I hope not too much.
BLACK FRIDAYS has been described as a financial thriller with heart. How important was it for you to bring the human element of the father-and-son relationship into the shark-infested waters of Wall Street?
Early on, I briefly contemplated scrubbing the whole father-son story and writing much more of an adrenaline/plot driven thriller. I am so glad that I stuck with “The Kid”. Part of what I hoped to convey in BLACK FRIDAYS is that Wall Street workers are also fathers, sons, husbands, wives, etc. They have lives, sometimes difficult and complicated, outside of their jobs. Defining people solely on their function in society allows us to distance ourselves from them and leads to even greater misunderstandings. I wanted Jason to be as real and three-dimensional as possible. And, I must say, writing the “Kid” scenes was a lot of fun. Sometimes painful, but very satisfying.
Your protagonist, Jason Stafford, is a former Wall Street hotshot who is trying to rebuild his life after a two-year prison stint. Was it difficult to find the heart in someone who would do anything for money before being caught?
Jason’s crime, and the path he takes, are a constant in the world he inhabited. The temptations are endemic, the rules and their enforcement elastic, and the rewards and punishments often at odds with the practices. It’s a tough place to be a saint. But he does not think of himself as a ‘bad’ man and he discovers that he may in fact be a very good one.
You worked on Wall Street among the cowboys and sharks, pirates and whales. How did the greed affect you?
They say greed and fear are what drives markets, but a trader’s job is to make money despite those emotional swings. A trader has to know how much he can reasonably take out of any given trade, and then move on to the next one. Greed blinds a trader, so does fear. And to be a good trader, you have to love the action, be a bit of an adrenaline junkie. When I realized that I no longer cared very much about making lots of money, and that the hormonal charge I got out of being plugged into the market had relocated to a stress-ridden constant backache, I picked up my marbles and moved on. I didn’t run away. I knew what I wanted to do — write. I ran toward it, and I do not regret the move.
The heart of BLACK FRIDAYS is the story of Jason’s connection with his autistic son. What drew you to autism? And what surprised you most about it?
When I started this book, the incidence of autism among children was still in the 1 in 115 to 125 range. It’s now 1 in 88, and the numbers for boys is much higher. The autism spectrum seems almost all-encompassing. Jason and the Kid are fabulously fortunate in that his symptoms fall somewhere in the middle of the curve. It was Temple Grandin’s book THINKING IN PICTURES that got me headed in that direction. The recognition that some people with autism are experiencing a very different reality from the one I walk in. It takes a very strong and committed parent to be effective. The more I read, the more I realized how little we know.
You’ve received some wonderful praise from thriller heavyweights, such as John Sandford (a personal favourite of mine), Jonathan Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen, Meg Gardiner and more. Did any of them ask for stock tips in exchange for a blurb?
I got to meet many of the authors who blurbed my book at Thrillerfest this year. I was blown away at how helpful everyone was and I look forward to next year’s where I get to be a debut author. And I ‘m glad that no one asked for any stock tips because I am clueless on that score.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Janet Evanovich made me massage her feet in exchange for a blurb–and she still stiffed me 😉 Author John Sandford said: “you feel that you’re really beginning to understand the workings of the crazy Wall Street underworld.” How difficult was it to make the complex world of Wall Street accessible to the average reader?
I was flattered that John chose that aspect of the book to speak to. I very much wanted my reader to understand not just the financial shenanigans going on, but also the thoughts and feelings of the people involved.
As my broker finally goes quiet and the flask runs empty, I ask “What’s next for Michael Sears?”
I am putting the final touches on a sequel to BLACK FRIDAYS, and have an idea or two for a third installment — all featuring Jason and his son. But first I have the next few weeks to get through as the book rolls out. I’m feeling a bit of that adrenaline buzz about it, and it feels very good.
Michael Sears is the author of BLACK FRIDAYS, a thriller with a financial twist, and the first in a series featuring Jason Stafford and The Kid. Mr. Sears was a Managing Director for two different Wall Street firms, where he worked in the bond market for twenty years. Prior to attending Columbia University for his MBA, he was a professional actor for eight years.
To learn more about Michael, please visit his website.