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Interview: May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007

In addition to advising the White House on economic policy, teaching at Harvard and managing a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund, Todd Buchholz has written five nonfiction books and one novel, the newly released THE CASTRO GENE. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Buchholz explains how his experiences in the fields of politics and economics have taught him to be a storyteller, and sheds light on the inherent difficulties of writing fiction.

He also describes why he chose the controversial Cuban dictator to be one of the central figures in his work, discusses his newfound respect for mass-market writers such as John Grisham and Dan Brown, and touches upon his participation in the Broadway hit Jersey Boys. Your new book, THE CASTRO GENE, is a thriller infused and informed with financial and political backgrounds and laced with the same dark humor as contained in your nonfiction. What initially prompted you to write a work of fiction?

Todd Buchholz: You think there's not a lot of fiction going on in the White House and on Wall Street? Those are the two places I spent my career learning about storytelling! Seriously, my nonfiction is often praised for its wit and readability. In a book I wrote called MARKET SHOCK, I included some fictitious vignettes that Businessweek called "oddly riveting." I think that was a compliment. I've always been a fan of fiction and the theater, and thought I could weave my knowledge of money and politics into a gripping tale that could really touch people.

BRC: One of the more interesting elements of THE CASTRO GENE is the connection you make between the sport of boxing and the financial world through Luke Braden, your primary protagonist. A great deal of what you do in your writing, commentating and consulting has to do with connections between seemingly disparate ideas that influence not only each other, but also other seemingly unconnected story threads. Can you talk to us about this technique and delve into what you want to achieve from this kind of writing?

TB: My mind works by connecting the dots among seemingly disparate things. I was at the gym the other day and I'm sure I was the only person clicking the television button back and forth between the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" on Spike TV and Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl. She sang "People who love people are the luckiest people in the world," and then some super-steroidal hulk smashed his elbow into another guy's face. After working in the White House, I made a nice living revealing to hedge-fund investors the secret code of Washington politics. I am not a gifted linguist, but in my writing, I exploit my ability to "speak" the languages of different cultures. I've been very lucky to have worked in some pretty good places: the White House, Harvard, the legendary Tiger hedge fund, etc. In each of those places, people tend to talk differently. The kind of dialogue you hear at a White House strategy session sounds nothing like the language of the Harvard faculty club, or the stressed-out trading floor at Goldman Sachs.

In THE CASTRO GENE I try to accurately portray the patter and the motivations that push people forward in these various settings. In THE CASTRO GENE, sports are tied up with the Rat Pack Days of Vegas and the emergence of Fidel Castro in the gambling capital that was Cuba.

BRC: There are parts of THE CASTRO GENE that reminded me of Mark Twain's THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. Luke Braden is an ex-boxer who one day is employed as a security guard at an office building and the next day is working at the elbow of Paul Tremont, the head of a major fund. How much of Todd Buchholz is in Luke Braden? Did you use a specific model for Paul Tremont?

TB: As a young man, I boxed only with my big brother and his friends. That was a mistake. It would've been smarter to challenge younger kids. My grandfather, Robert Buchholz, boxed under the name Buck Roberts (and also won the 1929 New York Tennis Championship, in the era of Bill Tilden). In THE CASTRO GENE, I gave the name "Buck Roberts" to Luke's crusty but wise coach. In my 20s, I was thrust into high levels of politics and billion-dollar investment trades, so I experienced some of Luke's awe at beholding the levers of power. Paul Tremont is my creation, of course. I would be sued if any of my hedge-fund colleagues suspected I used them to create a megalomaniac. Or maybe they would be proud? With his mid-Atlantic accent, Tremont has no patriotic loyalties, and yet he feels passionate about defeating Fidel Castro. He's a bit like Captain Ahab, but instead of sailing the Pequod, he flies his own Gulfstream jet.

BRC: While Fidel Castro is one of those people who always seems to be in the news, the publishing of THE CASTRO GENE could not be more timely, especially with the new concerns --- and anticipation --- over his health. When did you initially start writing this book?

TB: I started writing the book a few years ago, before Castro's recent and mysterious hospitalization. THE CASTRO GENE helps us understand the upcoming battles about Cuba in the streets of Havana and in the U.S. Capitol. Fidel Castro, as the book reveals, has played the role of romantic revolutionary and brutal despot. His bearded face is a 20th-century icon, along with Gandhi's and Mao's. He is simultaneously loved, hated and feared. The book shows us the power struggles to come and the bitter disagreements between the Cubans who fled and those who stayed. It also exposes the scars of the Kennedy administration and the miserable failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

BRC: Compare and contrast for us, if you would, the similarities and differences between writing a nonfiction treatise and writing a work of fiction such as THE CASTRO GENE. Which did you enjoy more? Which did you find more difficult? Does your writing schedule differ, depending on the type of book you are writing?

TB: Fiction is supposed to be more free-wheeling, but I find that in fiction I have to reign in my sense of humor. A too-witty narrator can be annoying or distracting in a mystery novel. In my nonfiction, readers expect me to look at issues from all sides and point out the ironies. After all, my just-released nonfiction book is called NEW IDEAS FROM DEAD CEOs.

My basic writing style does not change, though, because I try to write my nonfiction in a dramatic, engaging fashion. I've learned to improve my nonfiction by reading fiction and even the sports pages. When I ran an investment publication that covered the world of finance and politics, I instructed my writers to study the sports section of the newspaper, not the business section. How many different verbs can a sportswriter use instead of the obvious word "hit"? A player can bash, knock, slug, strike, swat, thwack, etc. Why must a business writer be condemned to saying that the Federal Reserve Board "raised" interest rates. Maybe they "thwacked" the bond market!

Writing a mystery/thriller is tougher than nonfiction. Let's face it, for nonfiction you are delving into a world that someone else has already created. Fiction is playing God. That's not an easy role! You can take nonfiction one chapter at a time, but mysteries require a careful architecture that doesn't crumble when you go from chapter one to chapter fifty.

BRC: I just learned that, in addition to your writing, you are also the co-producer of the Tony Award-winning show Jersey Boys. How did you become involved in that production? And --- given your writing, network television commentating and consulting --- when do you find time to work on a Broadway musical?

TB: I have to credit my wife for introducing us to the Jersey Boys project. She's the general manager of the La Jolla Playhouse, which first produced Jersey Boys, and previous Tony Award winners Thoroughly Modern Millie, I Am My Own Wife, Tommy, et al. I saw the project being incubated in La Jolla and wanted to invest and be a part of the production team. Why? Not simply because of Frankie Valli's music, but because the script was so strong and the show fit the zeitgeist. Because of "The Sopranos" television show, I knew that a play about Italian hoods in Jersey would resonate. Sure enough, at opening night, the cast of "The Sopranos" showed up in the front row, along with many of their fans. Further, it appeals to baby-boomers, who grew up in the 1960s. I'm a little young for that demographic, but I loved the idea. And people who love Jersey Boys will loudly applaud THE CASTRO GENE.

BRC: What authors and/or scholars have influenced your work and economic philosophy the most? What authors do you read for pleasure?

TB: Writing a novel has totally erased any snobbery I ever felt toward mass-market writers. I had a strong grounding in literary classics, but now I will kow-tow to John Grisham. To hold an audience's attention is a wondrous skill. Never sneer at someone reading Dan Brown on the beach. Forget about Faulkner! --- many college English professors and literary writers would love to unlock Brown's secrets. My book, NEW IDEAS FROM DEAD ECONOMISTS, has been dubbed a "classic" by the American Economic Association, right next to books by Milton Friedman! Yet, I don't think I've ever worked harder than in devising the plot for THE CASTRO GENE.

For pleasure, I enjoy Tom Wolfe, John Grisham, Phillip Roth and books my wife recommends like THE KITE RUNNER. Milton Friedman influenced me a great deal on economics, but I also learned so much from John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who Milton rebelled against. As a graduate student in Cambridge, I read original letters of Keynes and untouched first editions of John Stuart Mill's autobiography. Keynes, who loved the theater, could have been a great novelist, and his characterization of President Wilson and Prime Minister Lloyd George are marvelous. Keynes was the perfect British schoolboy, and Alan Bennett's play "History Boys" offers witty insights into that complicated culture.

BRC: I understand that you also hold several engineering and design patents. Are any of your creations found in THE CASTRO GENE?

TB: I'm proud of the "Lacunator," a futuristic concept in THE CASTRO GENE. The Lacunator is a computer that fills in the gaps (lacunae) between police surveillance video and other pictorial crime evidence. The Lacunator scans all the Google images and video files stored on the Internet, and then plugs them into the police evidence. When the FBI high-tech whizzes turn on the Lacunator, they are shocked by the results. It's hard to describe the revolutionary concept until you see it deployed in the book!

BRC: You, individually and with consulting groups, have been a part of and/or founded and advised financial institutions across the nation and around the world, as well as President Bush and his father. Are there any particular experiences that you have had while doing so that found their way into elements of THE CASTRO GENE?

TB: Paul Tremont puts Luke through a number of tests as he moved Luke up the chain of command. I had previously considered calling the book THE FIDEL TEST. In one of those tests, Luke goes on network television to try to pump up the share price of Boeing. But just before the interview starts, he learns that Boeing has a big problem. I've spent many, many hours in front of cameras and radio microphones and have sometimes felt torn about what I really knew, and what others wanted me to say --- whether those others were presidents or portfolio managers.

BRC: Do you have plans to write any more works of fiction? Do you have further plans for Luke Braden, who is, as things turn out, so much more than he appears to be? What are you working on now?

TB: By the end of THE CASTRO GENE, Luke Braden learns a shocking truth about himself. And readers will learn the most shocking theory of the Kennedy assassination to come out in 40 years. There is more to come for Luke, of course. I'm drawn to people with secrets, and I'm designing another book that should shake up the history books!