Norb Vonnegut is, according to New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin, “a seriously underappreciated author of three glittery thrillers about fiscal malfeasance.” But with his third novel, The Trust, he will no doubt start getting his due.
Vonnegut (fourth cousin to the late, legendary author Kurt) had a 20 year career as a banker and Wall Street wealth manager before writing his first book, Top Producer. He left the Street behind, but not entirely. Those two decades, he estimates, have given him a lifetime of plots for gripping, page-turning financial thrillers.
The Trust is Vonnegut’s second book to feature stockbroker Grove O’Rourke (think Ryan Gosling should they make the movie), who becomes embroiled in some brutal business down South in Charleston, S.C. when he joins the board of his beloved mentor’s philanthropic board. It would be his mentor’s last request—his body is found washed ashore. Boating accident or something more sinister? To reveal more would be criminal, but Kirkus Reviews hailed the book as “fast and furious…a guaranteed good time.”
Vonnegut spoke with Millionaire Corner about leaving Wall Street for life as a writer, and how the former prepared him well for the latter.
Millionaire Corner: Was it a difficult transition to go from Wall Street to being an author?
Norb Vonnegut: It didn’t feel as huge a transition as you might expect. When I was managing money, my job, basically, was to ask the question, “What can go wrong?” and then to protect my clients and their portfolios. As a writer I ask the same question, but instead of protecting my clients, I’m taking readers on a roller coaster ride.
MC: What wealth management skills have served you well as a writer?
NV: Wealth management was like a dry run to becoming a writer of financial fiction. Outside of a 50-mile radius of Wall Street, everyone thinks Wall Street is a four letter word and that the (financial) instruments are too complex for anyone without exposure to them to fully understand. Even (comparatively) simple things like stocks and bonds take time to explain. My job was to make Wall Street and the products of Wall Street as simple to understand as possible. I have 20 years of practice, and that has really helped me as writer of financial thrillers.
MC: During the Cold War, Russians were the villains of choice. Today, it's Wall Street and big banks. The timing seems opportune to write about financial skullduggery.
NV: There is an annual convention for writers of thrillers. One of the things writers of financial thrillers say is that Wall Street is fertile ground for creating villains. I suppose that’s true, but it’s unfortunate, because in the real world, there are lots of good men and women (who work there).
I try to strike a balance. My villains come from Wall Street, but my heroes come from there, too.
MC: One of those heroes, Grove O’Rourke, is making his second appearance. Budding writers are advised to write what they know, and you know Wall Street. Still, a stockbroker isn't your average action hero.
NV: If you think about police, legal, and medical fiction, they all have one thing in common: Those genres explore relationships. So many different kinds of people cycle through the lives of cops, doctors, and lawyers. They have the greatest stories in the world. The same is true of stockbrokers.
MC: What was the inspiration for The Trust?
NV: It’s based on something that happened to my team at Morgan Stanley in the late 1990s. We managed $2 billion in assets, which ballooned to $10 billion in the dot.com era. One of my partners got a phone call from a guy who said, ‘I’ve heard good things about you and I want to invest $2 million, and if you do a good job, there’s more to follow.’ That never happens! Stockbrokers chase money, not the other way around. We submitted the man’s name to our compliance department, which kept a ‘Bad Guys’ list. Sure enough, he was on the list. He was (drug kingpin) Pablo Escobar’s first cousin and he was knee deep in the family business. Needless to say, we were terrified, and we cut off all contact.
But I thought about the experience. Often in my practice, I helped families set up charitable foundations. A lot of money floated around the foundations with the idea to give as much money to charity and keep expenses lean. It got me thinking: What would you do if a Columbian drug lord permeated your defenses and became the fabric of a family’s finances?
MC: What about Wall Street hours vs. writer hours?
NV: I really have two jobs. Authors right now are emerging as a new breed of entrepreneur. When I get up, I flog myself until I get 1,000 words on the page. That takes the better part of the morning. From there, it’s trying to get the word out about The Trust. That’s a second business. So my hours these days are about 7 in the morning to 11 at night. Even when I read for pleasure, I’m reading for structure and style to improve what I write. There are a great many authors out there I’m trying to learn from, such as James Lee Burke.
MC: You are related to Kurt Vonnegut. Was he an influence and did you ever talk about writing?
Vonnegut: Kurt is a source of inspiration everyday in all the ways you can imagine and some you cannot. You know him as one of the greatest writers, but I know him as a phenomenal salesman. He was always pitching something. He could have been a great bond trader (laughs).
MC: What’s next?
NV: I have enough material from my days on Wall Street for the next 50 years. I have two Grove stories in mind, bur first, I’m working on a piece of non-fiction. What I can tell you is that my co-author spent two years in jail. (Vonnegut’s website describes the project as being about “the American Dream colliding with American justice”).
MC: When you were working on your first book, did you tell any of your Wall Street colleagues what you were doing?
NV: I didn’t and the reason is because it would have been too easy to find reasons to stop writing. If you show someone what you’re working on, and they don’t say it’s the greatest thing in the history of western civilization, you’re totally crestfallen. I didn’t tell anyone initially, including my friends on Wall Street. In all honesty, they weren’t going to be part of the decision as to what I was going to do next. It is what it is. You get one shot at life. I wanted to do this, and I’m really enjoying it.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.