Q&A with Mike Cooper
Ruthless bankers, one-percenters behaving badly, populist anger—the themes in CLAWBACK come straight from today’s headlines. Are you an Occupy Wall Street fan?
In fact, I’d wanted to write a full-length Silas Cade story for a while, before Occupy started making national headlines—I’ve published some short stories with him as a protagonist. The original concept was of a hitman accountant. I was amusing myself there—after years in finance, who wouldn’t want to bring automatic weapons into an audit? So the character and setting were ready to go. Then Wall Street cratered the world economy, and the plot practically wrote itself—“Don’t bail them out, take them out!”
I should stress that, however cathartic it might seem in the novel and however much blame they bear, shooting banksters is not a good solution to the country’s financial problems. The Occupy movement has done well to bring the real issues to everyone’s attention: inadequate regulation, sociopathic behavior among the financiers, and consequent extremes of inequality.
Do you really think financiers are sociopaths?
Not all of them! The problem is that the financial industry—nearly a tenth of GDP now, an all-time high and truly an astonishing figure—is built on a structure of individuals maximizing their own gain. That’s capitalism, I suppose. But when everyone on Wall Street is primarily concerned with the size of their own bonus, overall outcomes are poor.
What research did you do for CLAWBACK?
The usual: talked to some traders, read a lot, walked the streets of New York City. The financial material was familiar to me already, less from work than from paying attention to the news every day. A lot of specific details (on weapons for example) I checked using the information cornucopia of the internet.
Not everything in the novel is accurate. It’s fairly difficult to acquire a concealed-carry permit in NYC, for instance. But that’s the benefit of fiction—if the story’s compelling and believable, that’s good enough for me.
You mentioned traders. CLAWBACK’s window into their lives is fascinating—they seem driven by an almost carnal desire for the acquirement of wealth. Are they really like that?
Some, sure. But after a point the money’s just scorekeeping. Even a 25-year-old can only drink so many bottles of Cristal Brut. The better traders have an unusual combination of risk tolerance—or risk desire, really—and capacity for objective analysis. They want the thrill of jumping of the cliff, but they know exactly how far they’ll fall, what the acceleration will be, and how hard they’ll hit the water. Many of the novel’s characters (not just the bankers) are cynical, gossipy and sarcastic.
It sounds like your worldview is somewhat jaded.
Perhaps that’s what studying Wall Street does to one’s psyche? I’m kidding. Some people believe in the goodness of humankind, especially in the abstract, but find fault or difficulty in everyone they know. For me it’s rather the opposite: I’m deeply disappointed in civilization’s progress and pessimistic about its future, but most people I meet in person are interesting and likeable.
Is that what encouraged you to become a writer?
Oh, I’ve always been a writer. In third grade I wrote my first book – a six-page science fiction epic that ended, classically, with “it was all a dream!” But I didn’t try to get published until our daughter was born and we decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent. I published a few stories, wrote a novel that found an agent but not a publisher, wrote another novel that did sell, started another…and then our second child was born, free time totally evaporated, and I went fallow for a couple years.
Are your children older now?
They’re in grade school. Our older has read some of what I’ve published. Our policy is not to censor—whatever they want to read, go ahead! So far it’s worked out; I think children are generally good about stepping back when a book is too scary or complicated or challenging. Which is only to say that neither has read CLAWBACK. I haven’t stopped them, but I think they might miss the humor.
Your sister Sophie Littlefield is a writer as well—how did you both end up in the same profession?
Genetics? Our father, an academic, has published numerous books. Sophie got started years earlier than I did, publishing fiction and nonfiction in magazines. I got the first book contract, but then she sold one novel, another, then another, and never looked back.
People often seem to assume that if either of us is cornered, in private, and given enough to drink, we’ll spill all—about the rivalry and jealousy and backstabbing. The boring truth is that Sophie and I have a wonderfully supportive relationship. In fact, it’s great to have someone to talk freely with, about all the little irritations of publishing that we normally keep hidden away. We do write in somewhat different genres. Sophie’s inclined to darker themes, and has a keen ear and eye for relationships, while my books tend to have exploding helicopters.
Not just helicopters! Silas Cade is interesting in how thoroughly he’s managed to keep his life off the grid. He leaves no data trail at all, which would seem especially difficult in Manhattan. Could someone looking to slip off the radar employ any of the techniques he uses?
Most of them. Like a thriller author whose afterword notes that, say, certain lockbreaking methods and kitchen-sink explosive recipes have been altered for public safety, I won’t tell you which disappearing techniques might backfire.
But in seriousness, privacy is a considerable concern of mine. Advances in technology—from storage to visual surveillance to Big Data analytics—have made it impossible to live free from the Panopticon’s eye. The danger is not just from government, though legal and technical protections are being eroded with astonishing speed. Private-sector aggregation is just as scary, as anyone who’s tried to clear up a credit-score inaccuracy knows.
The world knows far too much about me already. I’m not ready to live in a mountain shack with no electricity or phone service (still less our children), but the loss of privacy is a loss of liberty as well. We would all do well to emulate Silas, at least in some ways.
What’s next for you and Silas Cade? Will he be on to other adventures?
Yes! Look for him in a short story, “The Sellout,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine this month. And Viking will publish the sequel to CLAWBACK next year, in 2013.
As Silas himself has pointed out, when your job is taking down corrupt bankers, you won’t want for work any time soon. With luck he’ll be around for some time yet, helping Wall Street heal itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Cooper is the pseudonym of a former jack-of-all-trades. Under a different name his work has received wide recognition, including a Shamus Award, a Thriller nomination, and inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
After a stint in the Middle East, black ops vet Silas Cade becomes an "accountant"-the go-to for financiers who need things done quickly, quietly, and by any means necessary. Silas is hired by a major player to pay a visit to a hedge fund manager to demand clawback: the mandatory return of compensation paid on a deal that goes bad. But before Cade can tell his client that he got his ten million back, the guy turns up dead.
And he's not the first. Someone's killing investment bankers whose funds have gone south. Silas's scrubbed identity, and his insider's perspective, makes him the ideal shadow man to track down whoever's murdering some of the most hated managers on Wall Street. With the aid of a beautiful financial blogger looking to break her first big story, Silas tracks a violent security crew who may be the key to the executions. But as paranoia and panic spread, he begins to wonder: is the threat coming from inside the game-or out?
With breakneck pacing, nonstop action, and cutting edge details of today's financial intelligence technology, Clawback hurtles to its final twist, a gripping contemporary tale of shady finance, venal corruption, and greed run rampant.
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