The Story of My Book: Common Stock
Naomi Manuell tell us how her job as a business journalist – and a fling with the poshest person she’d ever met – helped shape her first novel, Common Stock, a tale of greed, sex and financial skulduggery.
Years before I knew I was going to write a novel set in the world of finance, I worked briefly as a business journalist in London and witnessed something of the greed and amorality Common Stock explores. I spent time chatting to stock brokers and analysts and occasionally they’d tell me stories about the lengths some of them went to ensure their clients traded big and traded often. Of course, fancy lunches and tickets to big sporting events have long been the common currency of business. But I was also hearing a depressing number of anecdotes about nights out at strip clubs and broker-sponsored ‘conferences’ with prostitutes laid on.
The people whose lucrative business these brokers were chasing were institutional fund managers, professionals whose job it was to make clear-headed and prudent decisions on behalf of investors. So how was it they allowed themselves to be compromised so easily? And what did it say about their attitudes to women? For me, it suggested something was very rotten at the core of our financial markets and pointed me in the direction I’d eventually take the book in.
During my research, I came across Susan Antilla’s 2002 book Tales from the Boom-Boom Room. It chronicles a toxic culture of sexual harassment in US investment banking that culminated in several high-profile cases and massive plaintiff payouts. It’s also very confronting reading for anyone fooling themselves that feminism’s job is done. While these days businesses take pains to educate staff on appropriate workplace behaviour and recruit with diversity in mind, I’m still a little sceptical of anyone telling me that some of the long-held male attitudes to women working in the financial markets have improved. In Common Stock I write about things going wrong for women in the financial markets despite these recent measures.
When I sat down to write the book I realised I also wanted to tell the story of the outsider, the guy with his nose pressed against the window wondering how to get in and start making money. Delving even further into the past for inspiration, I remembered a brief fling I’d had years before when I was a young university student travelling to London on my own for the first time. He was an Englishman and just about the poshest person I’d ever met, with classically tailored suits and floppy Hugh Grant hair. But it wasn’t long before he went all Henry Higgins on me, only half-jokingly criticising my Aussie accent and suggesting if I wanted to get on in life I should make an effort to sound less like a colonial. I laughed it off, realising his comments were less to do with me and more about his own peculiarly English class anxieties. He’d grown up in a fairly poor, lower-middle-class family, leaving school at 16 and, with few other options, had joined the army. It was as a young soldier he was finally able to observe at close range the kind of people he considered his betters: the publicly-schooled officers secure in their place among the ruling classes. He watched them like a hawk – the way they dressed, behaved and above all, the way they spoke. By the time he left the army a few years later to begin a career in the City, London’s financial district, his new identity was already firmly in place.
I asked him about his ‘old’ accent once. He’d had a few drinks and obliged me with a demonstration, reverting back to the glottal stops and H-dropping of his younger self, and ever since I’ve been fascinated by the ways people tinker with their identities to suit their needs. Common Stock’s main protagonist, the socially ambitious but morally incontinent Charles Fullerton is the result of this fascination.
I’d already started planning Common Stock when the global financial crisis of 2008 happened. I’d like to say I saw it coming, but I was just as surprised as everyone else. What I had seen, however, was so much evidence of greed and ineptitude I felt I had no choice but to hold it up to a harsh light and turn it into a story. It still pisses me off that a lot of the people responsible for what happened got away with it and I think Common Stock might just be my way of trying to make some kind of sense of this.
N. Druce is the pen name of Naomi Manuell, a Melbourne writer whose non-fiction has been published in the Australian literary journal Meanjin since 2003. Her website is www.ndruce.com and she can be found on Twitter at @Naomi _Manuell.