If you could summarise the book in one sentence, what would it be?
One agent in Los Angeles who shall remain nameless described it as “Bridget Jones meets Darren Aronofsky”. I’m not sure if that is entirely accurate, but it does capture the style of it quite well. A London based agent described it as “Sophie’s World meets Veronika Decides to Die“. This summarises the structure of the book, but not the main message. I would probably choose something like “Decency versus Zeitgeist”. The essential question I am posing is: what does decency mean in our time? Above anything else, this book is about the role of decency in today’s society; about the ability of decent people to prosper through hard work alone and about the value of the individual in the corporate machine.
What prompted you to write this book, is it something you had been thinking about for a while?
This book has been seething inside me for years! Everywhere I go I hear stories of people being treated cruelly at work, at home or in some other setting where universal social mechanisms apply. Unable to understand cruelty intuitively, I started to get obsessed with finding out why it occurs and why it is so omnipresent. The simplicity of my conclusion astounded me: most of the time, people do what they do simply because they can. Think about that for a moment! Do you really think that this is where our society should be, at this point in time? If so, should we face up to it collectively and raise our children to be the most effective predators they can be? Or should we try to do something about it? This is as fundamental a life question as we’re ever going to face, and I thought it was time that someone addressed it in normal words; not in a textbook.
You describe the corporate world as a cut-throat jungle, how difficult is it for intelligent women to succeed in this environment? Do they need to adapt/change?
I grew up being told that I should just work really hard and then I could achieve anything. This naive eighties mantra simply isn’t true. The corporate world is indeed a cut-throat jungle. What I wish someone had told me earlier is that intelligence and hard work is not all you need. You need to be good at power games in order to succeed in the conventional sense, which our society reveres. Those who do not possess those skills will either need to adapt or accept that they will be sidelined or wiped out. This does not just apply to women, but it seems that men are generally better equipped to play power games because of the way they’re socialized from a very young age. I cover this in the book. But asking if women need to adapt is the wrong question in my opinion. What I am hoping people will start asking collectively is: is this really how we want things to be? Why the hell has this question gone of out fashion?
Your main character finds that she’s not cut from the same cloth as her ruthless City colleagues. Do you believe there are certain City ‘types’/can you describe them?
Of course there are City “types”. I have described them in my “generic survival matrix”. It’s fair to say that, with very few exceptions, the top layers of any organization I have studied are populated by bullies and brown nosers. The only places where I have observed a departure from this is in places where the top dog has inherited his or her position. And then the logical question is: Well, then, how come these guys are decent? Simple – because they can be!
The friends which your book centres around both have a shopping habit wildly beyond their means, despite their relatively good jobs. Why do you think this is such a common problem?
Everybody in Britain knows women who have maxed out several credit cards and can barely meet interest repayments! I could talk a long time about why mindless consumerism has become so rampant, but I’ll keep it simple for now: because it could be. I could talk about the carrot-dangling role of advertising, the values of our society and so on, but fundamentally, there are only two components that govern behaviour: the desire and ability to do something! This is what economists call “demand”. I am hoping this book will make people question their desires (for example eating beans on toast for a month to buy an overpriced bag). But my main gripe is what I summarise as “ability”.
As long as people are able to buy too much, many of them will do just that. For a long time, we were all inundated with cheap credit and multiple credit cards were pretty much thrown at us. Believe me, financial institutions were perfectly aware that a significant proportion of the population would never manage to pay off their debt, but that was all a part of the business model. It’s the people who nearly default, but somehow manage to keep payments afloat at inflated interest rates that are the real money spinners. So why not let us think we can have it all? We all want to believe it! Trust me: if we didn’t have the means with which to overspend, we would not be able to.
There is a great feeling of resentment towards bankers and bonuses at the moment – do you feel this is justified?
Frankly, there isn’t nearly enough resentment being directed towards bankers! And by that, I don’t mean every teller clerk or secretary who works in your local branch, but the bigwigs who took all the major decisions during the heyday of the last decade. These guys can actually be named and shamed! So what if one guy’s knighthood is taken away? What about the rest of them? Why aren’t we barricaded outside their multimillion pound houses, demanding that bonuses be paid back? Why aren’t we forcing the tiny nations that are tax havens to play ball so that the rapacious spoils of these people are repatriated? Why haven’t more of us joined Occupy Wall Street? The 99% needs to do more.
The irony is that the policemen who have brutally cracked down on Occupy Wall Street protestors have actually harmed the people who are standing up for their interests! And the people whose interest they are actually protecting regard them merely as useful inferiors. These policemen don’t seem to realize that every time their department has budget cuts, it is a direct result of the system championed and exploited by the people they are protecting.
I am amazed that we haven’t seen a major left wing resurgence in the wake of the financial crisis! Even if bankers didn’t break any laws in the last decade, it is time we made such behaviour unlawful now, so that this won’t happen again. The only way to do that is to use our political freedom to vote, while we still have it!
This book is a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. The only commercially successful book of this kind in recent memory was Sophie’s World. Why did you pick this unusual format?
I wanted to do for the current crisis what the ground-breaking novel Sophie’s World did for philosophy – I wanted to make it accessible and human. Admittedly it’s a tall order, but I decided to have a crack at it nonetheless. My book presents a unique take on the current malaise by fusing economics and philosophy in fictional form. And unlike Sophie’s World, it aims not only to elucidate, but to provoke. Writing fiction has two distinct advantages:
1) The choice to unravel my perspective by way of fiction makes my conclusions more easily accessible to wider cross-sections of the population. Most people are not going to buy an economics textbook to read about this topic.
2) The emotional format of my perspective makes it easier to care about my conclusions.
Despite their unpopularity in the public discourse, emotions are easy to understand because they are pretty much universal. I have written this book to provoke the multitude of decent people I know are out there to take a stand for their values. I really believe that if we accept the world as it is today without fighting back, we should all be training our children to be the most effective predators possible, because anything else is just not a viable survival strategy. But is this really how we want it to be?
It’s true that the genre of Philosophical Fiction is nearly extinct, but I will never understand how “basic” philosophy could ever go out of style. Asking fundamental questions about where are we going as a society and why should be as regular an exercise as an individual’s health check, because it is so very easy to veer off course if we don’t pay attention. Do we like the society that is unfolding before us? I believe that in tumultuous times such as these it is more important than ever to seek a metaphorical North Star of guidance. I am not claiming to have that beacon of light, but I think it’s time we engaged in a major societal debate about what that beacon could and should be.
Given that this is not usually a money spinning genre, how did you actually manage to get published?
It took me over two years to find Acorn Independent Press. Conventional channels were pretty uniform in their feedback. The usual response was that this book was well written and thoroughly original, but not likely to make any money, simply because not enough people care. I refused to believe this. In fact, I have always been convinced that the opposite is true, which is why I persevered. I believe there are many people who want to fight indifference, apathy and collective decline, but feel so alone that they don’t know where to begin. It is those people I am reaching out to. My turning point came when I was contacted by an agent from one of the top 5 literary agencies in the UK. She said that my manuscript had been selected from a “slush pile” of thousands and that they wanted to discuss it with me. When the same editor told me in a dejected tone of voice a few weeks later that despite fighting for my book with tooth and nail, her superiors had decided not to proceed due to the all too familiar reason, I was crushed. But this lady did not just leave it at that. She kept in touch with me to encourage me personally and gave me tips on how to proceed to get the novel to the attention of the right decision makers – just because she believed in it. A few months later, the Occupy Wall Street protests began. I wrote to her again to ask her to try another round with her bosses. After all, protesters in hundreds of locations around the world had to mean that I was on to something! I got no reponse, which I thought was odd, given her previous engagement, so I called her office. The person who answered told me that she had left the agency and set up her own publishing company. I tracked her down and asked why she had done this. Her response was exactly what I wanted to hear: her inability to publish books she believed in was what drove her to risk everything by setting up her own company in the midst of an economic downturn. She didn’t want to publish the memoirs of glamour models; she wanted to publish books that matter. In other words, she was a fellow idealistic contrarian. I signed with her on the spot and have never looked back.
Why did you use a first person perspective for the protagonist and why does she remain nameless until the epilogue?
I wanted the story to feel as immediate as possible, as if you had a direct insight into this character’s mind and soul. I was hoping that would make this story more personal, because the effects of this crisis are nothing if not personal. Behind each statistic is a human being. I also wanted to show that the protagonist could be any relatively young woman in the Western world, as the statistics on this website show. That is why I wanted her name to be more of an afterthought. The system we all live in doesn’t even seem to grant us that status, and Stella’s anonymity until the very end is meant to highlight that.
How would you respond to people who see your story as either morbid or unrealistic?
For anyone who thinks that, I urge them to have a look at the statistics on this website. I put them under the heading Some Shocking Statistics for a reason. Behind those numbers are real personal tragedies. There is nothing unrealistic about those.