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Interview: August 14, 2018

Hedge fund pioneer Jerrold Fine blends a heartfelt story of a young man fiercely intent on achieving independence with a fascinating insider’s look at the perks and pitfalls of a high-stakes life in the world of financial markets in his debut novel, MAKE ME EVEN AND I’LL NEVER GAMBLE AGAIN. In this interview conducted by Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, Fine explains his inspiration for writing his first work of fiction, why he chose to set the book in the 1970s and early ’80s, and the differences between the financial world and book publishing. He also pays tribute to two mentors who played key roles in his personal and professional lives, offers advice to those who would like to pursue a career in finance, and reveals how close (or not) Showtime’s “Billions” is to real life. You have had a brilliantly successful career as a hedge fund manager. What inspired you to write a novel?

Jerrold Fine: I wanted to be challenged again. When Rogers’ character came to me, I leapt at the opportunity to tell his story. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

BRC: The setting of the ’70s and early ’80s immediately lends itself to certain memories and gives your book a nostalgic quality. Why did you choose to set your book in that timeframe?

JF: As Rogers was emerging from his apathetic teenage years, the financial markets were in a period of great turmoil, exhibiting significant volatility. Traditional investment management wasn’t working and change was on the horizon. It was a perfect time for an outsider like Rogers to be at its forefront.

BRC: Rogers is measured in his investments into Atlantic City. He carefully watched every angle of development there to try to size up the market. That kind of diligence said something about him. By setting the book at the time, were you able to have him more “boots on the ground” than one might be today?

JF: Yes. In those days, the stock market wasn’t so closely followed by mainstream America. There was no CNBC or Bloomberg, and the market’s moves were not worldwide news events 24/7 as they are now. Professional investors didn’t have the media competition, and companies and their employees were happy to talk to Wall Street analysts and money managers. Now, they are hesitant to do it; instead, they communicate at conferences and on regularly scheduled conference calls. Hedge funds in those early years had numerous advantages then that are not so apparent now.

BRC: While this is not a memoir, there are strains of your own life that permeate the storyline. Like Rogers, you were a baseball player. You did play poker at one point. You write vividly about Rogers’ mentors and the importance of them, as well as men he admired, beginning with his father. Talk to us about mentors and their importance to you in life.

JF: I was very close with my father, who taught me at an early age about the word “honor” and keeping your word. Whenever my parents were about to leave me alone, he would force eye contact and say, “You are on your honor.” I would then have to repeat it back to him. He was a big believer in the linkage between maximum effort and success. (When you work, work hard; when you play, play hard.) He stressed that I should stand up for my beliefs and to be accountable for my actions. He was very strong; he made a real, lasting impression on me.

My second mentor was the president of the investment bank where I worked for two-and-a-half years, a true gentleman and a philanthropist. He was one of first people to trust in me, believe in me, and invest in me when I was very young. I never wanted to let him down. The fact that he plucked me out at 24 and let me run some of the firm’s money and backed me when I left has stayed with me. He also taught me about dignity under stressful conditions, as when his firm eventually fell on hard times during the turbulence of that era.

BRC: Rogers has romantic relationships with two women: Charlotte and Elsbeth. They are very different, but each lends something special to his life. As Rogers’ mother has died, these female friendships have special meaning. Were there always just the two women, or were more part of your earlier drafts? And was one easier to write than the other?

JF: There were no additional women in earlier drafts. I was always intent on Rogers going the distance with Charlotte but wanted some conflict, and Elsbeth --- as a compelling, intelligent woman --- created it. Rogers needed a strong woman, someone who was different from him, and it plays out in the end. He wouldn’t have been drawn to just a pretty face; it wouldn’t read right.

Charlotte was easier for me to write. I had clear in my mind the woman I thought was perfect for him. Elsbeth was much more difficult. I didn’t want people to dislike or resent her. To make her worthy competition, she had to be someone special, attractive as a person in her own way. Otherwise, her part in his story wouldn’t have worked.

BRC: Writing a book has its own version of risk involved. While you can study the market and learn from others, there is a bit of flying blind. What analogies do you see between the financial world and book publishing? What did you learn from the experience of being published that you did not anticipate?

JF: The financial world and book publishing are very, very different. When you’re a money manager, it’s all about competition, which I enjoy. You’re competing against every other money manager and the market itself. It’s a battle you want to win as often as you can, and you want to mitigate any losses. Running my firm, I was surrounded by good people who were experienced professionals and proven winners. I never hired anyone I didn’t expect to be of partnership caliber. Writing a book, on the other hand, is a solitary endeavor. I was competing with myself to write well, to make the book better with each draft. Initially, I thought publishing was first and foremost about art, and it is, but what I quickly learned is that it is also, of course, a business. Beyond producing a good book, publishing takes a hard look at the costs to produce and promote against anticipated sales and dollar receipts.

BRC: In many ways, the financial world that you described then feels the same as we envision it now, but in others, today’s world feels a lot more cutthroat. I would love to hear what you think. What’s changed?

JF: In the ’70s and ’80s, hedge funds were run as private partnerships. By and large, that meant you could suffer your mistakes privately, and if you were ultra-successful, you could keep the dollar thing to yourself. Now, everything is so public. Managers are closely followed by the media. If you do well, you’re touted as a rock star, and if you stub your toe, it’s cited in print and across digital sites and you’re publicly humiliated. In today’s world, results are actively followed, which can lead to resentments as some outperform others. It’s not an attractive quality, but it’s out there.

BRC: The section where you talk about the Iran oil crisis and its effect on the world of finance showed the average person how tricky it is to make decisions about the market, using a pivotal moment that many will remember. Were those memories vivid, or did you have to research them?

JF: I wrote about events and scenarios that I experienced firsthand. I wanted to add color and perspective, so Rogers’ professional investments, for example --- Resorts, Brown-Forman --- were meticulously researched. It was all about writing what I knew, researching and double-checking facts, and presenting this all to readers in Rogers’ voice.

BRC: Clearly being smart is not the only thing that one needs to succeed in the world of finance. Rogers is constantly weighing risk. As you were writing, you knew how a deal was going to end. Was writing the tension a challenge?

JF: No, because I know these feelings all too well. I know the loneliness of making decisions. Am I right on the fundamentals? Is my timing correct --- is it too early or too late? I’ve lived my professional life with it. I had to make sure that what I put on paper was, in fact, what I was thinking.

BRC: You clearly are a master at conquering the market. Many of our early readers told us that they learned a lot by reading this book. How difficult was it to drill down your expertise into something that you knew readers would understand?

JF: It was difficult. In my first draft of the book, I glossed over investing nuances in some sections. People I had asked to read the book and Marc Jaffe, my editor, came back to me asking for more detail regarding the financial intricacies. Writing the descriptions wasn’t difficult, but I had to be careful that I added language to explain thoroughly concepts such as leverage and short sales. I knew I had it right when I got their positive responses on later manuscripts.

BRC: Readers have come to know a lot about the world of hedge funds after watching “Billions” on Showtime. How close is that show to real life?

JF: Not even remotely close! It’s all entertainment imagination, with outsized main characters such as the prosecutor and some of the money manager’s right-hand henchmen. Most individuals working at hedge funds are normal human beings, people who are smart as hell and motivated as hell, but really just pretty regular folks. In reality, the job entails coming in every day, working hard, listening, weighing risk and making decisions. And unlike on “Billions,” most go home to families, eat dinner, watch some TV and go to bed early.

BRC: If you were giving advice to someone who was going into work in the financial world today, what would you tell them?

JF: Don’t chose this career just for the opportunity to make a lot of money. You may, you may not. You have to love it. You have to want to come in every day. You have to be able to peel back the onion on yourself and make lonely decisions. You have to look in the mirror, knowing that you believe in yourself. The fact is the highs are very high, but also, the lows are very low. Your performance is out there quantitatively in black and white; you embrace it or not. You cannot phony it up.

BRC: We hear that you are working on another novel. What can you tell us about it?

JF: Yes, I’m working on another novel. For the moment, I’m keeping anything more about that one to myself.