Laura Hemphill and Nancy Mauro Interview
Novelists Laura Hemphill and Nancy Mauro discuss the trials of working in advertising and on Wall Street, career changes, and the invention of a now famous (in northern Ontario) donut called the Persian.
Laura Hemphill: Both of us spent seven years in the corporate world before writing our first novels — you called it the seven-year itch. What made you decide to leave your career in advertising and switch to writing?
Nancy Mauro: It was a slow dissatisfaction. I was a copywriter working at a big agency in Toronto — I actually loved writing ads, creation was great. But as the job progressed, it became more managerial. More meetings, more strategy sessions, more focus groups. And most of the time, the work wasn’t made better because of the bureaucracy (Don Draper would have left the board room a long time ago). But I was writing short stories on the side; I’d been doing that forever and had some luck getting published in lit journals. A friend in a fiction class told me she was applying for a creative writing graduate program. I’m not sure I knew such a thing existed but it sounded like a perfect exit. How about you? Did you formulate your “escape” from Wall Street?
LH: It took me a while to get up the courage. I wanted to write a book, but I had no idea whether I could finish one, let alone whether it would be any good. And my job was too all-consuming to finish a book while I was still in it. So I made a deal with myself. If in the few hours I had away from the office I managed to write a draft of a book by the end of the year, I was allowed to leave and spend two years trying to finish it. It was a risk, but my time on Wall Street had made me much more comfortable with taking risks. I found, though, that deciding to reroute your life isn’t nearly as difficult as what happens afterwards. The real challenge started the first day when it was just me and my computer and a draft that even I knew wasn’t any good. What about you? What unexpected hurdles did you encounter after switching to writing?
NM: Luckily, there weren’t many hurdles in the first years. I went from a job into a masters program and that seemed like a noble choice. It was a secure environment and fortunately my first novel was written quickly. My second novel, which I’m working on now, is somewhat the opposite. It’s an immense project: I’ve written thousands of pages and have tossed half out. The surprising thing is, the subject matter and characters are based on my own history (it’s about a family of Italian immigrants who invent a donut) so I thought it would be easy to write. But it’s proven to be the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. A donut!
LH: Who would’ve guessed, right? At the beginning of a book, you really have no idea what you’re getting into.
NM: What sort of knowledge did you have about the world you were entering?
LH: I didn’t have any training as a writer, and I didn’t really know any writers. My only qualification was that I read a lot, which meant I knew just enough to be dangerous: I could tell my writing wasn’t very good, but I didn’t know how to fix it. My time on Wall Street had convinced me, though, that the best way to learn is by doing. If I wanted to write a book, the way to do that was to sit down and try to write a book, even if that meant losing my way over and over. In the hedge fund world, the number one question is always: what’s my edge? What do I know or what unique qualities do I possess that make me think I know an investment better than the rest of the market? When it came to writing, I didn’t really have an edge. So my strategy was sheer effort: work longer and harder. What was your approach?
NM: Ha, sheer effort is my life strategy. I’m going to print it on a t-shirt. Relentlessness is a basic function of the advertising life. We’d generate about twenty to thirty concepts to come out with three good campaigns. And of course, the client would kill those and send you back to the start. That was great training for fiction writing. Last year  I went to hear Delia Ephron in conversation with Lena Dunham. Delia is a screen and stage writer and best known for the movies she wrote with her sister, Nora. But she’s also a novelist. She compared novel writing with being lost in a desert where the greatest strength one can have is persistence. Did this surprise you about the writing life — the aloneness?
LH: The isolation didn’t surprise me, but my reaction to it did. After years working on a trading floor where I had zero privacy, sitting alone with my laptop sounded idyllic. But when I began writing full-time, I quickly went crazy. It’s so easy to get stuck inside your head. I was lonely, and something about working from home didn’t feel real to me — it felt like I was pretending to write a book. I lucked out when I found a shared writer’s workspace, which gave me an office to go to every morning and a community. My favorite cubicle is in the middle of the room, where everyone can see my screen. It’s like I’m on a trading floor: There’s nowhere to hide, and everyone can see if I’m checking Facebook instead of writing. I’m the most productive when there’s public shaming involved. It’s one of the things I learned about myself from my starter career. What do you think, is there a benefit to having a starter career?
NM: From a mercenary standpoint, there can be a huge financial benefit to a starter career. It’s easier to write a novel after a few years of bankrolling income from a corporate job than it is when you’ve just come out of college with student debt. The real beauty of the ‘starter’ career is that you don’t know in advance that it won’t work out, so usually you give it your all. It’s really a time to learn about your own ambition. So let me ask, how did you relearn or re-envision ambition when you decided to make a career change? Ambition on Wall Street seems to have a clear trajectory. How do you disassemble this and apply it to novel writing?
LH: With writing, input doesn’t necessarily correlate with output. That was frustrating for me in the beginning. I’d set a goal of writing a certain amount of words each day, but I quickly found that not all words are created equal, so quantifying them is really not that helpful. I also learned that there are days (months?) when for whatever reason you write badly, and there’s not much you can do to get around that. It’s kind of a mystical phenomenon. As I see it, a bad day is a necessary condition for having a good day in the future. The only thing you can do is to make room for the good days. And you do that by showing up consistently, even when it’s miserable. Luckily, after Wall Street, I was already used to doing that.
NM: It taught you the most valuable lesson of all.
LH: Yeah: Don’t get up from that chair. What’s one thing you learned in advertising that’s helped you as a writer?
NM: How to write well and persuasively. It taught me how to make associations between two seemingly disparate thoughts, thereby creating dramatic tension in even a simple headline. In advertising terms the perfect headline is a short story on the head of a pin. You’re limited in space and time, you have an audience with a short attention span. The task is to locate the heart of the matter and write toward it. It’s a fascinating industry and it inspired the subplot of my first novel [New World Monkeys]; I couldn’t just leave it and not write about it. What about Wall Street? How did it inspire you to write Buying In?
LH: There have been some fabulous books about Wall Street. Bonfire of the Vanities and Liar’s Poker are my personal favorites. But they’re written by men, about men — they’re basically temples to the male ego. In their version of Wall Street, women are non-existent. Which is understandable; Wall Street is famously short on women. When I started at Lehman Brothers out of college, my analyst class was 110 people. Only 11 were women. Half of those women quit within our first year. And those are entry-level women — further up the career ladder, the numbers get much worse. As a woman on Wall Street, you always feel like an outsider. Psychologically, it’s a challenging existence. That’s the experience I wanted to address in Buying In: a young woman trying to find her footing in that male-dominated world.
NM: Your novel is actually a sort of psychological thriller. This is due to your careful plotting, but also because your characters have such real, inner lives with quirks and rough edges. For instance, your main character, Sophie, likes to sneak looks into her co-workers’ desks late at night. It’s a delightful aspect of the book, really, as it provides a break in a very tense plot, but then charges that break with anxiety — is she going to get caught? Why is it important to give your protagonist a dirty little secret?
LH: Sophie’s compulsive snooping was the first thing I knew about her. She changed a lot over the many drafts of Buying In, but the snooping always stayed the same. We undermine ourselves in insidious ways. Sophie is ambitious, but also insecure, which leads her to do stupid things like “exploring” her bosses’ desks even though she knows it could get her fired. I noticed a similar strain in your work, characters who take wrong turns. One of my favorite characters from New World Monkeys is Lloyd, the town pervert who becomes Lily’s closest confidant. I got the impression as I read your book that he might be one of your favorites, too. Why do you think it’s so easy to fall especially in love with our least loveable characters?
NM: Lloyd was a joy to write — in a shameful, illicit way, of course. I made him the resident pervert in a small-town library because I liked the juxtaposition of dark sexual intentions unraveling in a sexless environment. He’s a peeping Tom and like any professional, he abides by a complex ethical system in regard to his career. He’s not the best pervert out there, but he wants to be. He has career aspirations and worries over them. It was fun to have Lloyd — who is arguably a monster — judge himself by the same stringent standards of a craftsman.
LH: There’s a tension there that pulls the reader forward. You can’t not stick around to see what happens next.
NM: I’ve mentioned this to you before, but in Buying In, you are constantly subverting expectations and it too results in a suspenseful read. You do it both on a plot level and on a personal character level. Sophie starts off as the underdog — so in a formulaic novel she would begin to rise in status in the second act. But that’s not what happens. As she gains footing at Sterling, she doesn’t get a great haircut, doesn’t get less sloppy, she doesn’t buy that power suit, she doesn’t take more time off and become a better girlfriend. Also, we see the whole financial team forge ahead and get swamped in bigger and more dramatic ways, as though holding with the belief that life is really a series of arcs. Is this a comment on Wall Street? Are you telling us on so many levels that the industry is bigger than any individual, that it really is too big to fail?
LH: When I started writing Buying In, I didn’t have a good sense of the story I wanted to write, but I definitely knew what story I didn’t want to write, and you touched on it when you mentioned the formulaic novel. There’s a slew of single-in-the-city stories in which a young woman takes a demanding job that puts pressure on her relationship with her boyfriend or family or child, and after months of sacrifice, she finally has a taste of success at work only to decide her job isn’t worth it, and she quits to open a cupcake shop or something. That kind of story so often rings false to me. I wasn’t interested in why people leave demanding jobs, but why they so often stay. Wall Street is predicated on an imbalance: you give everything to your job, but it will not give everything to you. I felt an obligation to portray Wall Street realistically, and I can’t imagine doing that without including those thankless moments. Both New World Monkeys and the novel you’re writing now are also strongly rooted in industries — advertising and food. Did you find writing about those worlds hampering or somehow liberating?
NM: I loved writing about advertising. I really knew the industry and felt I could start with this genuine, insider knowledge and push the boundaries of realism. The food industry, however, I knew very little about. My parents used to own a bakery years ago and they made a pastry called the Persian, which to this day is famous throughout Northern Ontario. No one in my family really knows where the Persian came from — but I was able to take it from there. I turned it into a story about a family war launched over a donut. If I had really known the industry well, I think I would have gotten bogged down in the technicalities of cake dough versus yeast dough. What was your experience with this kind of personal knowledge? I mean, no one will ever accuse you of a shorthand portrayal of the financial industry. It’s not just a convenient backdrop. This is a technical story that obviously required a high degree of insider knowledge.
LH: Writing about a world you know intimately is an advantage, but it also led me to make a lot of mistakes. I was all too aware of what would usually happen in a given situation, and early drafts of Buying In relied too heavily on those choices — I thought too small, too ordinary. The challenge was to find situations and plot points that were true to the world but also had the highest possible dramatic value. It took me a while to understand that when I was making a plot decision, the right question wasn’t “what’s the most likely” but “what’s the most interesting?” Once I did that, the book started surprising me, in a good way.
NM: That’s smart. I really feel your book is about a merger. About a monumental business deal struggling toward inception on the eve of the financial crisis. Did you decide to write that story first and then find the characters, or did the characters come first?
LH: I wrote six drafts of Buying In before I admitted that I didn’t have a plot, I only had characters. Your number one goal as a writer is to make the reader turn the page, and I wasn’t doing that. I knew I needed to unite all the point of view characters around a common goal. The AlumiCorp merger had always been in the book, but it had been a thin thread in the background. I decided to elevate it to the plot’s backbone, which meant scrapping over half the book and changing which characters would narrate. It was scary but also extremely exciting. By the time I finished that draft, for the first time, I thought the book might actually work.
NM: That’s a lot of work just to get on the right track. A lot of slashed pages.
LH: Mercy killing. Well, you know something about those: New World Monkeys actually opens with a mercy killing of a wild boar. As a writer, how do you get up the courage to knock off a problematic character, chapter, or plot line?
NM: If you go at a faulty draft long enough, you really do end up killing a lot of your darlings. This second book has been a bloodbath; I’ve killed off a number of characters to get to a more focused and fierce plot. But when the characters go, so do their subplots, and I’m comforted by the thought that I’ve now got the bones for several short stories. The mercy killing I regret most in this new book is that of a character named Enzo. I had envisioned him down to the details of his crooked little mustache and too-tight jeans. His voice had bite but in the end he was just one POV too many. Can you tell us a little about the multiple POVs you used in Buying In? Why did you choose this route?
LH: I was interested in how relationships with colleagues are unique from other interpersonal relationships. There’s a strange intimacy there because we spend more time with our colleagues than with our families, but at the same time, we only have access to limited aspects of our colleagues, which creates a lot of opportunities for misunderstanding and mistaken assumptions. Writing from multiple points of view let me explore that more fully, and it was ripe for dramatic tension because the alliances between Sophie and her colleagues are constantly shifting. I’m curious: New World Monkeys is told from the perspectives of both Duncan and his wife Lily. Are you more comfortable writing from a female or male point of view?
NM: I prefer writing from the male perspective when it’s a close, over-the-shoulder POV, a perspective that’s just shy of being first person. It sounds more genuine in my ear. But when I’m taking a more distant, omniscient approach I really have no preference. I suppose there’s more liberty in writing from the male POV. I’m not worried about being mistaken for the protagonist. Which did you like better?
LH: I prefer writing characters with whom I have less in common. It’s more fun, the same way it’s more fun to read about a character or world I don’t know much about in real life. So writing men usually comes more naturally to me, or at least it did with this book. In the beginning, Vasu was the easiest. I found that with each draft, I’d have a new favorite who was easiest to write, so it all evened out, in a way.
NM: I like Vasu. I like the family life you built around him. While they’re not happy with his absence, they know that it’s pointless to try and change him and his commitment. This thought is echoed by one of the other character’s mothers (also a foreigner) who believes that a woman’s twenties are a time to work as hard as possible. When you look at the pressure that family exerts on each character in the book, realistic portraits begin to emerge. On the other hand, the pressure that Sophie’s father and boyfriend put on her are astounding. To me, they’re the villains. Especially her father, who nearly costs Sophie her job by unplugging her alarm clock. And there’s her boyfriend who doesn’t understand her need to be employed because his parents are still bankrolling his life. You’ve created two perfectly delusional, small-minded liberals. Is this saying something about fat, white North American entitlement?
LH: I do wonder whether we’ve come to expect too much from our jobs. There’s something in the air that tells twenty-somethings a job shouldn’t just provide a decent paycheck, it should be personally fulfilling, too. Sophie’s father and boyfriend both adhere to different versions of that idealistic mindset, but they also allowed me to address the way work divides us from those closest to us, and the ways in which, at work, we are alone. The challenges and struggles of a demanding job don’t really translate outside of the office, and often friends and family aren’t sympathetic to them. I used Sophie’s father and boyfriend to show how that kind of isolation affects her.
NM: A meta-comment on the isolation facing the novelist?
LH: Sometimes the only way out is through.
NM: Let’s get that printed on a t-shirt as well.