From Banker to Writer: Sunday Business Post

Aifric Campbell 

I was supposed to die in October 1987, when I was trading eurobonds in London on the day of the Crash. My boss had disappeared after an incident involving a missing hedge book and I was under the supervision of a scrawny old Swiss guy who used to croon Jimmy Buffett songs, 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. 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 it to say, I had my eyes ripped out. Everything you need to know about human nature will surface in a Crash –  you learn 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, I learnt that in times of crisis you might as well  throw away the rule book. To quote Bono, everything you know is wrong. But I survived – in fact, I flourished and went on to spend 14 happy and challenging years at Morgan Stanley and eventually  became the first female managing director on the London trading floor. During all that time I was writing fiction, filling notebooks with stories just as I had done since I was a child. And eventually I left – it was about time to get serious about a long-held dream and see if I could actually write that novel.

“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”. Despite the fact that there was no trace of my financial past in my fiction until my  third novel, On the Floor, my banking career was always the key point of interest in interview. Did I miss the money (are you **** kidding?);  how many handbags did I buy (not nearly as many as I could have) and, the most interesting one: how does a banking career equip you 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 ultimately measured by a number – despite all those personal development plans. You can be the biggest foul-mouthed bastard in the universe, but if your P&L impresses you’re home and dry.

As part of my transition from banker to writer, I took an MA and later a PhD at the University of East Anglia. The seminal moment came when Andrew Kidd (then head of fiction at publishing house Picador)  traumatised the class by revealing the P&L of a debut novel. His point was that 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 a culture where books are increasingly 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, 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. So you can see why 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 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 euphoria. 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. Novelist Patrick Gale provided my second sobering moment as at the University of East Anglia when he warned the class of aspirant writers to expect to earn less than the minimum wage. In this digital age of free content it gets ever harder for writers to find a way of getting paid, which is why so many writers are portfolio workers and supplement their earnings with journalism and teaching. The former chief executive of Barclays Bank, Bob Diamond, was once asked by a White House economist if bankers could be good citizens. But you might just as easily ask the same question of writers. Some years ago my table companion at a symposium in Rotterdam where I had been guest speaker frowned as I sat down: “Novelists are like parasites,” she sighed. “Everything you tell them is just material. You break up with your boyfriend and two years later you read your story in their novel.” Her observation was well-made, since real-life is material for fiction and there are plenty of writers who are more than happy to offer up the entrails of their failed relationships or family dysfunction in their novels – and plenty of readers who will devour them . And writers are grave-robbers who steal plots from the dead, drafting real-life characters into their plots. I did this myself with a murdered mathematician in my first novel, The Semantics of Murder, where I took the facts of a life and wove it into a fiction.

So perhaps the key difference between banking and writing might be career longevity. Despite intriguing research by Cambridge neuroscientist and former Goldman Sach’s trader, John Coates, suggesting that the presence of older traders and women on trading floors has a smoothing effect on risk, it’s hard to stay in the game over the age of 40. Writers, on the other hand, 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, best of all, if you can stay alive – commercially and artistically – you may even become a better writer!

On the Floor, Aifric Campbell’s 3rd novel, was longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012. A version this article was first published in the Sunday Business Post, available only to subscribers.