Focus: City slickers who have the write stuff

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The Independent Online
When Michael Ridpath wrote the bestseller Free To Trade in the early 1990s, he told none of his colleagues in the City. He had taught himself how to write by studying a handbook, and he reckoned they would be unimpressed by his hobby. But when he sold the book in 1993, the advance allowed him to give up his work at the venture capital firm Apax Partners. Mr Ridpath now writes full-time, spending three days a week at the office he rents in the City.

The fantasy of writing fiction has become surprisingly commonplace among City professionals. In the 1980s, Wall Street trader Michael Lewis fictionalised events at Salomon Brothers in the now-classic Liar's Poker, but for most people in the financial world, fiction looked like a third-rate career path. Mr Ridpath, who formerly managed Saudi International Bank's investment portfolio as its head of securities, says: "I was slightly nervous about the fact that I was writing a thriller - I thought it was a bit demeaning. But that was stupid.

"I've since become a magnet for people in the City who are trying to write on the side and make money at it." The market for fictional intrigues based on financial trading - seen as an exciting lifestyle - has become keener. But, despite longer working hours and less leisure to write, so have the ambitions of City scribblers.

John McLaren is one of a handful to have inched into the big league. Last month Simon & Schuster published his thriller, Black Cabs, with a campaign including posters on the London Underground and window displays in bookshops. "I developed a love for words in my first job, at the Foreign Office," says Mr McLaren. In 1980, he was recruited to set up Baring's operation in Tokyo, and moved to Morgan Grenfell in 1987 as a mergers and acquisitions director. This year, he left his job, though he still runs his financial boutique, Barchester Advisory, and holds non-executive directorships of Groupe Chez Gerard and Macallan Distillers.

Three years ago, when he was 45, he decided it was time to write. "I have always reckoned everybody has a roughly equal amount of creativity and if they love their job, they tend to put it into that, or into their family. Some, like me, don't have a family, and my job had reached its sell-by date.

"People go into gardening, or marathon running; most of us can't write symphonies but we can all sort of do words." In the City, he found a scarcity of talent. "They simply can't do words. They can do syntax, and they know where to put commas, but the idea that your tempo is fast or slow, hot, warm or cold, is a totally alien concept."

Sheila O'Flanagan, 41, trades at NCB Stockbrokers in Dublin by day, and writes by night. Her last book, Isobel's Wedding, topped the Irish women's fiction chart a year ago. Her original ambition was to be a librarian, but she failed the interview and came top in banking exams instead. At NCB she was a foreign exchange dealer, and now deals in corporate bonds. She too had an early desire to write and no family of her own, but along with Mr McLaren, she agrees that a major motivating force was the potential to poke fun at City values and to reinvent herself. Her new book, Suddenly Single, features an aggressive, go-getting businesswoman - something akin to her younger self. "I'll be sitting in a meeting at work and I'll be thinking I would rather like to get on with my scenes, any of the confrontational ones, where people are sparking off each other." Writing such scenes, says Ms O'Flanagan, liberates her, and not just in imaginative terms. "I will think I could have done something like this. What's stopping me?"

Mr McLaren's Black Cabs tells the story of three cab drivers who want to make a quick buck on information they overhear from traders. The cabbies lose but are drawn into the web of a massive takeover bid as they try to fund medical treatment for a sick child.

"The thread is revenge," says Mr McLaren, "but that's slightly missing the point. It's simply a feeling for the underdog. The only way to resolve the problem is for the cabbies to get their own back, but I wanted them to have a decent motivation." Realistic characterisation is harder than it looks. When John Winkworth-Smith, 55, retired from partnership at City solicitors Dibb Lupton Alsop, he intended to write a novel based on an industrial espionage trial. Long, stressful hours alongside colleagues had given him, he thought, the necessary insights.

"If you see your colleagues at 3am, you can understand what motivates them. But I'm finding it most difficult having to invent characters, and avoiding naming people I know. You're dealing with personalities and relationships which have no equivalent in a piece of legislation."

The writers who succeed - in sales terms at least - share a bottom-line: ability to execute. "Bashing out 150,000 words in itself is hard enough, but the fact that you have to make them up as you go along is challenging," says Ms O'Flanagan. "You really have to want to do it." Motivation is in scarcer supply than in a team-based culture.

Christopher Reich, 38, worked in mergers and acquisitions at the Union Bank of Switzerland before becoming chief executive of a Swiss watch company. When he decided to move to Texas in the mid-1990s to write novels, the thrill of the adventure was his spur. "When I wrote my first book, Numbered Account, it took a year to do a first draft. My agent said, `Chris, I'm selling your book and I've sent it to eight people. We should hear by Friday'. It really was do or die. In the afternoon, he phoned to say he'd sold it for $100,000. It was an incredible rush."

Like Mr McLaren, who produces 25,000 words per week in high-energy stints, Mr Reich sees writing as a job, not recreation: he is at his desk by 8am. "There are a lot of similarities to my former job. When you're starting a big merger, there are so many obstacles and you're saying: `What have I got myself into?' It's all about what you're going to get from it at the end. I miss the camaraderie, but I don't miss rushing around and living on coffee."

Francis Bennett was group managing director of Thomson Books before co- founding market research company BookData. He started writing after founding the company in 1987, but it was several years before his first book, Making Enemies, came out." When you start a company it's a bit like being in the front row of a rugger scrum; you hope like hell you'll survive," says Mr Bennett, 57.

"Writing has helped me to stop rushing into everything. Soon after we started BookData we went into a recession, and had to work incredibly hard. But when I got home, it gave a distance on problems. Writing fiction, you have to give all your mind to it, which can be a blessed relief."

So is writing books all about finding an escape route, or creating a marketable product? Mr McLaren is busy proving that marketing counts. Black Cabs has been optioned by a film company, Working Title, and Mr McLaren has commissioned a series of ceramic mugs for the book launch.

"In the business world, I'm used to saying, `We can do it this way, or how about this way?' Writers have to realise they are fighting for attention. What you are doing is building a brand, and while the publisher has the lease on the brand, you as writer own the freehold. I don't take the view, `Just tell me where to turn up'. You have to be willing to invest time and money."