From Banker to Writer: Sunday Business Post, Mar 25 2012
Trading places by Aifric Campbell
‘If you can stay alive — commercially and artistically — you may even become a better writer.’ Photo: Maura Hickey
I was supposed to die in 1987, when I was trading eurobonds in London on the day of the crash. My boss had been fired after an incident involving a missing hedge book. I was under the supervision of a Swiss, a scrawny old man who used to croon Jimmy Buffett songs and smoke cheroots and eat in the same Mexican restaurant every night. “The first cut is the cheapest,” he’d warble, stroking his moustache as he surveyed the car crash I was creating on my risk positions.
My job was to make a two-way market in each bond: a buy and sell price. His job was to stop me spiralling out of control while simultaneously watching me tighten the noose around my own neck.
The object of the exercise was damage limitation, to cover my ass and live to tell the tale. I knew he’d watch me dangle, then kick away the chair just in time to save his own skin.
Suffice to say I didn’t manage it. In fact, I had my eyes ripped out. In the rapid and public humiliation that followed, I learned a lesson I would never forget: everything you need to know about human nature is presented in one bad day on a trading floor. About character and its durability, applied morality, trust and friendship, loyalty, greed, truth and fear. And the necessary separation of brain and heart. Most importantly, you learn that in times of crisis you can throw away the rule book. That, to quote Bono, everything you know is wrong.
But I survived – in fact, I flourished – and eventually became the first female managing director on the trading floor. But all the time I was doing this, I was filling notebooks with stories, just as I had done since I was a child. When the time came, I left the markets. I my loyalty was to writing.
“How can an investment banker write such a good book?” asked a Dutch journalist when he read my first novel in 2008. A week later, at a signing in Birmingham, I was told that I should delete my financial career history from my biography since it would only discourage potential readers.
We make a lot of assumptions about people based on the jobs they do. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch, the Greek historian and father of the modern biography, remarked that “the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them . . . a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall”.
And despite having placed it firmly in my past, my time as a banker continues to fascinate. Three questions are constants on the interview circuit: do I miss the money, how many handbags did I buy, and how did a banking career equip me for writing?
In financial markets, you learn quickly that you are only as good as your last trade. You operate in an environment of highly visible deliverables, your performance is entirely quantifiable. Your contribution, your effectiveness is measured by a number – despite the farce of personal development plans. You can be the biggest foul-mouthed bastard in the universe, but if you make $20 million on your profit and loss (P&L), you’re home and dry.
As part of my transition from banker to writer, I took an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. During a seminar, Andrew Kidd (then head of fiction at publishing house Picador), showed the class the P&L of a debut novel. That is: debut novels usually provide a negative return on a publishing house’s investment. They are financed by the backlist – that is, the house’s other writers who are making a profit.
So writing a good novel is not enough – there has to be a marketing plan and a sense of who your readers will be. Publishers are businesses, not arts foundations, and they need to stay alive in an environment where the business model is becoming increasingly uncertain.
Selling bonds, it transpired, is much easier than selling books. In Britain and Ireland, where books are treated as a commodity, the writer of literary fiction is – commercially if not artistically – only as good as their last book.
Your commercial viability is measured by EPOS (electronic point of sale). Every time the barcode is scanned at the till, your stock rises. You might create a great work of art that bombs, and then you might do it again . . . and then you will struggle to find a publisher.
Pretty much everything I learned in my years on the trading floor has been a useful transferable skill. A “monstrous detachment” is how Nadine Godimer defined the essential element in a writing: to be completely involved while standing apart. This is similar to what makes a good market player – to be completely embedded but to remain objective – many of the great trades are contrarian and depend on the ability to remain dispassionate. Ruthlessness, doggedness, tenacity, knowing when to sublimate your ego – all of these things apply equally in banking and writing, as does the need to develop a taste for hard work.
Both jobs teach you extraordinary resilience. If you think spending 13 years in a hangar-sized trading floor with 400 people packed in like battery hens staring at screens and yelling down phones would drive you mad, try spending two years alone in a room with a laptop. There are times when the unfinished novel resembles a twitching corpse. You develop the survival skills of a bird watcher, sitting still for hours at a stretch. Both jobs are bad for your posture, your circulation and your sleep. Both feature intense bouts of concentration and frustration, punctuated by occasional moments of total bliss.
You need humility to recognise when you are wrong, to cut your losses and slash your word count. You need to cultivate a self-belief that insulates you from hubris and despair. A crisis of confidence will eat away at your soul and your performance.
Studies of traders show how a losing streak quickly leads to paralysis and the inability to take risk. Similarly, writer’s block involves the terror of the blank screen and the fear that you will never write a word again. I once met a mercenary who’d been in Iraq and commissioned to write a novel. He was blocked and it was killing him. His therapist told him to write a sentence a day – no more, no less – and so he woke at dawn each morning to the torment of the unwritten book and the unwritten sentence.
The big difference between banking and writing is, of course, the pay. The novelist Patrick Gale provided my second sobering moment at the University of East Anglia when he warned us to expect to earn less than the minimum wage – which is why most writers are portfolio workers and supplement their earnings with journalism and teaching.
In this digital age it will get harder to find a way of getting paid, yet sadly, its price does not reflect the contribution the art makes to society. A study by the London School of Economics and Manchester University in 2008 argued that fiction can do a better job of explaining world problems than academic reports. It praised Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker winner, The White Tiger, for its “passionate depiction of the perils of rampant capitalism in contemporary India”.
The chief executive of Barclays Bank, Bob Diamond, was asked by a White House economist if bankers could be good citizens. The question mark hangs equally over writers. “Novelists are like parasites,” a psychiatrist once said to me. “Everything you tell them is just material. You break up with your boyfriend and two years later you read your story in their novel.”
For the writer of fiction, life is material and so is potentially everyone you meet: your marriage, your family’s secrets and your children’s right to privacy – Rachel Cusk’s recent book, Aftermath, is a case in point.
Writers are also grave-robbers who steal plots from the dead, drafting real-life characters into their plots. I did this myself with a murdered mathematician in The Semantic of Murder, where I took the facts of a life and wove it into a fiction. I felt rather grubby as I slunk around his archives at UCLA.
“We owe respect to the living,” said Voltaire. “To the dead we owe nothing but the truth.” My mathematician’s parents were dead. He had no family. I’d changed his name. But the fact is, when a novelist takes inspiration from a real-life person, truth serves the interest of plot.
Bertrand Russell criticised the biographer Lytton Strachey for “always touch[ing] up the picture to make . . . the folly or wickedness of famous people more obvious”. Life-writing involves reimagining and reinterpretations but, as Carole Angier asked: “How much responsibility do we have to stick to [the facts of a life], resisting both dramatic myths and our own theories?” 
Perhaps the important difference between banking and writing is career longevity. If cortisol overload doesn’t knock a banker down in their prime, they can spend their twilight years practising their golf swing and making up for lost time with the kids they barely know. But the age of 50 is fossil territory in finance and – despite research by Cambridge neuroscientists Herbert and Coates suggesting that the presence of older traders and women on trading floors has a smoothing effect on risk – it’s difficult stay in the game much over the age of 40.
By contrast, writers can indulge in all sorts of antisocial behaviour as they cruise into middle age: wear outrageous clothes, get drunk at parties, insult people, give moody and petulant interviews, and live out their days as an elder statesperson of letters with young wannabees hanging on their every word.
And if you can stay alive – commercially and artistically – you may even become a better writer; like Christopher Hitchens, tapping away until he drew his last breath. So while the bankers fret about inheritance taxes, the writer is so busy composing the next line, he doesn’t even notice when the lights go out.
 Carole Angier, Matters of Life and Death, The Independent Review, December 31, 2004, page 13
Aifric Campbell’s novel, On the Floor, has been longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012