Interview: January 10, 2003
January 10, 2003
In the first of two special interviews for Bookreporter.com's Suspense/Thriller feature, Stephen Frey discusses the characters and research for his latest novel, SILENT PARTNER and gives readers insight about his financial career.
BRC: SILENT PARTNER is your second book with a female protagonist (THE INNER SANCTUM was the first). What influenced your decision to write this character?
SF: The decision to write the protagonist of SILENT PARTNER as a female was a function of the fact that the initial character I came up with for the book (the basic idea, really) was the silent partner --- Jake. I wanted him to be a reclusive, Howard Hughes type and definitely a male. And I wanted there to be a developing romantic spark between the silent partner and the person carrying out his work as the book went along. So, Angela. As I wrote her, I was pleased with the way she became a very strong character. I loved writing her.
BRC: The media plays a large role in SILENT PARTNER. Tell us about creating your supporting character, journalist Olivia Jefferson. Is she based on a real journalist you've met over the years?
SF: Olivia Jefferson isn't based on anyone I've met. Olivia is a true imaginary creation, but I had a lot of fun writing her. Olivia says what she thinks when she thinks it --- wouldn't we all love to do that? --- which is why I say it was "fun" to write her.
BRC: While we are talking about influences on your books, are any of your characters based on people you have worked with or dealt with?
SF: I can honestly say that I have not based a major character on someone I know. All the characters are combinations of people.
BRC: In SILENT PARTNER, when Angela first meets Jake she feels that he must be paranoid because of all of the security measures he takes. How much time did you spend researching security issues/practices? How common is it for someone as wealthy as Lawrence to be placed under so much self-imposed scrutiny?
SF: I was working on a mergers and acquisitions transaction in Houston (out in the Galleria north of downtown) in 1989 involving an energy company. We got word one day that the Saudi oil minister was about to land by chopper in the parking lot, and we all rushed to the window and watched this black helicopter land and a guy get out under heavy guard and rush into one of three waiting limousines. We found out later that the guy was a decoy. I thought that was pretty cool.
In addition, we have an investment in a security company that does K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) work, and I talk to the CEO of that business a great deal. According to him, it would be automatic for a guy of Jake's wealth --- particularly since Jake is involving himself in so many causes --- to protect himself in such a way.
BRC: What influenced your writing about the little-known clause you discovered about racial discrimination that drives so much of the story in SILENT PARTNER?
SF: I met a gentleman in New York City who does nothing but represent low-income people against predatory lenders as I was thinking about exploring that topic. It was neat. I found him on the Internet and called him, and he'd already read a few of my books so he was familiar with me. We ended up having an hour conversation the first time we spoke, and had many subsequent conversations. He pointed me to that clause. As an aside, he's an excellent writer and I believe will be published someday.
One important point, the government implemented a clause that you reference to help monitor discrimination --- I truly believe the government's agenda was sincere in implementing that. To monitor entities that don't lend to low income folks. The problem is, it could have the opposite effect.
BRC: Beginning with the first chapter of THE DAY TRADER, you convey the anticipation Augustus McKnight feels during his online investing activities. In an age where the economy continues to be unstable, what advice do you give readers who are interested in day trading for the first time?
SF: Don't do it. Not unless you have a great deal of experience. It's really just gambling. And, as we've seen lately, what goes up comes down. Seriously, as an individual it's very hard to make money trying to get in and out of any market quickly. The best advice--and everyone hears it all the time but they hear it because it's true --- is to buy value stocks and hold them for the long term. Buy them, forget about them for ten years, and one day you'll wake up and they'll be worth a lot of money.
But if you're going to do it, approach it the same way you'd approach a blackjack table in Vegas. Give yourself a certain amount of money to "play" with. Once you lose it, walk away. And peg an upside. If you hit that peg, pick up your money and walk away. Have discipline.
BRC: It has been said that you write about the financial industry like Grisham writes about the legal profession --- that is, in terms that many non-financially oriented readers can understand. Do you agree? How do you achieve this? What's more difficult --- writing in general or making the financial details intelligible?
SF: This is one of two things (the other being character development) that I have had to work on the hardest. In the first draft of THE TAKEOVER way back when, I think I had a four page discounted cash flow description. Can you believe that? In a novel? I think I've gotten better at putting financial details in, but not making them as tough to understand. In fact, my wife made that comment this past weekend after she read the latest manuscript before I sent it to my editor. I've tried to describe things like that more in the form of a story --- someone talking to someone else --- and I think it works. Ultimately, writing in general is more difficult.
BRC: In a number of your earlier books the characters dine at the River Cafe and walk along the Brooklyn Promenade. Are these particularly favorite spots of yours?
SF: I lived in Brooklyn Heights at one point and really loved the Promenade. What a view. I enjoy New York City in general.
BRC: You run a very successful financial business by day and write books on nights/weekends. During the day, do you ever find yourself developing characters or having your characters work through a business scenario? How do you balance your "day job" with writing? Do you find yourself scratching notes about your characters during the day, or do you compartmentalize your world?
SF: I am constantly going back and forth between business and writing from a mental perspective. I'll literally get an idea for the books when I'm negotiating a transaction on the phone or in a conference room, and write it down as I'm still talking. The day job is a great place for ideas in this genre, obviously. I keep a pad of paper on my nightstand at home and have had ideas at 3AM. I had a great idea (at least I think it was) one time, and forgot it. I couldn't remember it in the morning, and I vowed that would never happen again.
BRC: There are numerous references in your books to the length of men's hair, and their needing a haircut. Is this some inside joke that you have about how appearance counts in your profession?
SF: I think that's right. In fact, now that you said it, I did the same thing in the latest manuscript. Thanks for pointing it out.
BRC: Have your work colleagues read your books? What are their thoughts about them?
SF: Lots of colleagues have and I constantly get the "that character was me, right?" I always have to disappoint them and say, no, it wasn't. In general my colleagues have been very supportive. But I work in the world of finance where people are pretty direct. I've gotten my share of criticism --- which I appreciate and hopefully take better as I've gotten older.
BRC: If pressed, do you see yourself as an author or a financial guru?
SF: Now isn't that a loaded question? Let me answer it this way. I know I'm not a financial guru. I'm always learning. Put it this way, I love both. What I do during the day is fairly high-stress and mentally challenging, but it's fascinating. The days go very fast. But the writing allows me to express the creative side that I don't usually get to do in finance as much.
BRC: What made you decide to write your first book? Was there always a hunger inside you to be an author?
SF: I have always had a hunger to write books. My two roommates from college and I took a trip around the country after graduation and we came up with what we thought was this great spy book --- we had lots of time while we were driving. When we got back, we found out that others didn't think it was so great, but one of the roommates was the person who ultimately introduced me to my agent and was very helpful in terms of bouncing ideas off of/reading starts of manuscripts for ten years before I finally wrote a book I thought might have commercial value --- THE TAKEOVER.
BRC: Each of your 8 books have been a "stand-alone" title. Why did you choose to write these books instead of a series? Have you thought about writing a series? If so, have you given any thought to your recurring characters?
SF: Interesting question, and I don't have a satisfactory answer. I think it's that I usually come up with the basis for the book first (as in SILENT PARTNER re: predatory lending) then the characters. In the serial books, it would seem you'd need to focus on the characters first. It's an excellent idea and one I'm thinking about, especially since you've brought it up.
BRC: Tell us about your next book and what you have in the works for the future.
SF: I just finished a new manuscript (sent it to Random House yesterday, in fact --- whew!!!!) and it involves, what do you know, corporate fraud. Enron, Worldcom, etc. I have one more book after that one in this contract and I have a few ideas kicking around, but I haven't decided yet exactly what to write about. I'm thinking seriously about the serial idea.
BRC: Who are some of your favorite authors? What authors have influenced you?
SF: John Grisham. He really inspired me. I read THE FIRM in about 2 hours and loved it. I'd graduated from business school a few years before and could relate to the whole recruiting process Mitchell McDeere was going through at the beginning of the book. Other than that, I hate to say it, I don't get to read much.