Interview with Aifric Campbell
- by Ann Canela
- August 6, 2013
Aifric Campbell is an Irish writer living in the United Kingdom and the author of three previous novels. She spent many years at Morgan Stanley, where she became managing director on the London trading floor.
photo credit: An-Sofie Kesteleyn
About On the Floor
A hard-living investment banker has three days
to decide her destiny. It has been 182 days of
vodka and insomnia since Geri Molloy got dumped. A 28-year-old investment
banker with a rare knack for numbers, Geri counts the days since her breakup
with the same determination that has made her serious capital on the London
trading floor. But it is January of 1991, and war in the Middle East is about
to shake up the markets and maybe change the course of her career. The firm’s biggest client is a reclusive hedge fund
manager in Hong Kong who will only talk to Geri. But Geri is being pushed to
her breaking point, and several rivals are hungry for a seat at the table. When
she finds herself caught up in a high-stakes takeover, the price tag is her future.
Aifric Campbell’s On the Floor is a sharp-edged story about love and money, the cruel appraisals we make of one another and what it really means for a woman to take control of her life.
You were an investment banker for years in London, how true to life is this world? Is it really the good ol’ boys club? How difficult is it for women?
The book is completely faithful to that period in the
financial markets. Authenticity was very important to me when I started writing
the novel — I had spent 13 years on the trading floor and wanted to recreate
that very particular environment exactly as it was in the early 1990s but seen
through the eyes of 28-year-old Geri Molloy, the “skirt amongst men.” There
were very few women and so the atmosphere that prevailed was at times like a
cross between a locker room and a racetrack. Survival and success for a woman
meant proving that you could stay the course; it took longer to get accepted,
to make it clear that you wanted to get ahead that you were there for the long
haul. When I started on in finance I felt like an endangered species — but I
have to stress that I loved the job and the business, the sense of being at the
center of news, the frenetic pace, the power of the team.
This reader found the heroine Geri (whose name even evokes asexuality) to be devoid of all typical female traits. Even her emotional outbursts seem less about her character as a woman and more about the manifestations of her downward spiral. How was it to embody this character and did you pull from real-life examples?
I really enjoyed spending time with Geri. She is full of contradictions, but even in her moments of dark despair her sense of humor shines through. On the surface she is incredibly confident, a math whiz who is smarter than men, and yet the reality is that she allows the men around her — her boss, her eccentric hedge fund client and her ex-lover — to control her. Geri possesses all the insight she needs about their own condition, but she chooses passive acceptance, denial and submission. She allows men and her feelings for men to define her identity and shape her life. On the surface she looks like a woman who is in charge of her own life, but this is an illusion.
Writing a novel is a way of thinking aloud. When I was writing On the Floor I was mulling over questions like: Do women take refuge in victimhood? Is this the female condition? And what do women really want — to take charge or to be looked after? Life on their own terms or on men’s terms? Is desire dangerous for women — is love (for a man) more likely to derail a woman from her purpose? Does love (for a partner, or indeed, for children) get in the way of ambition? Is “femaleness” an obstacle to self-realization? Do women make better victims? And has political correctness made this discussion too difficult to have?
The pace of the book is as unforgivable and as brutal as the heroine. How difficult is it to keep up this pace and drive the plot forward while still fleshing out the characters and their motivations? It’s quite a masterful piece of art.
I wanted the reader to enter Geri’s life at a moment when she was dangerously close to the edge — she’s running on empty in a world that is poised on the brink of war in the Gulf. The story unfolds over three days, during which she barely sleeps and travels from London to Hong Kong and back again. The markets never sleep and neither does Geri. The pace of the storytelling is consistent with her state of mind — her back is against the wall, she needs to make a decision that will transform her life and she is running out of time. There is a limit to how much time you can spend in the company of a first-person character who is under intense pressure, so I always knew that pace would be a challenge.
Geri feels trapped — by the past, by the present — and the solution lies in her understanding that she can regain control and be the architect of her own destiny.
Managing the pace was quite a challenge — but I’m always telling my students that cutting transforms a text! I started out with a draft of 120,000 words. I knew I needed to shed 30 percent. It was a ruthless and exhilarating bloodletting. I weighed every scene, every single word. I read it aloud over and over again and everything that was not essential to the story got excluded. I was very lucky with my first reader and my editor, who kept pushing for leaner pace.
Within the book, there are brutal scenes of verbal and physical abuse, and a subterfuge of a character’s intellect. What forces drive the characters to “go underground” with their smarts and does this have any dialogue with the modern finance industry?
The tension between the public and private self in a high-stakes, high-pressure business means that all the characters are playing a role. The trading floor is high drama, a kind of competitive theater. All closed worlds have their own language and codes, and the behavior on the trading floor reinforces that firewall between the public and private. Macho put-downs, public humiliations are tests of resolve and stamina.
How do you think the industry has changed from the ’90s to today? Do nerds now rule?
On the Floor offers an historical perspective on the financial crisis — the time when there was a seismic shift in the industry that would set the stage for the global financial crisis years later. The was when the “quants” — the math geeks — began to move into banking and the derivatives bus really took off; when proprietary trading and hedge funds blossomed and a combination of creativity, technology and mathematical trading would transform the business and the risk profile, which meant bigger trades, bigger bets and much greater layers of complexity. This was the beginning of everything that started to unravel with a vengeance in 2008.
Some reviewers describe the book as a coming-of-age story. Does this resonate with you?
Absolutely. On the Floor is a story of a woman who needs to grow up. Geri’s problem is deciding who she is going to be.
There is quite a lot of talk about women in the workplace now and whether or not a woman can have it all. Where do you stand? Is it a foolish and selfish notion in the first place?
I think it obscures a much more interesting discussion about what women actually want. Sometimes I stand at newspaper racks and skim the titles on women’s magazines. They are chock full on articles telling us how to live — how to have better sex, better bodies, to how to be a good mother, how to live. And it seems that very little had changed since I was a teenager. When I was writing On the Floor I was wondering if this reflects an ongoing crisis of confidence.
Since I started in the financial sector back in the ’80s, protective legislation has transformed the workplace for women. I think that the biggest single career determinant in the long run is ability and ambition. To a large extent you will be the architect of your own future – that will require reserves of stamina and commitment – and you probably have far more influence that you think. I do feel that the debate of women and work is increasingly a question about self-realization.
Do you believe in happy endings? In redemption and absolution?
I believe in interesting endings! I think redemption and absolution are big words to describe moments of transformation throughout our lives.
In fiction the story ends at the writer’s whim, but the most interesting characters continue to linger in your imagination — and you wonder how things will pan out for them, what they have made of their life choices.
Have you ever read a description of your work that you felt was perfect?
I am always so happy when a reader has enjoyed something I’ve written. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that a story you have written has engaged a stranger! For me, there is always that issue of “failing better” each time you tell a story.
What’s next for your readers?
At the end of July, the Irish Times will publish my story inspired by a pivotal moment in the Irish financial crisis — a very unusual step for a newspaper to take. And, I think, a sign of growing awareness of how fiction can open up closed worlds and add to our understanding of real-world events.
I have another novel underway and also some more stories. There’s never any problem with ideas — just a problem of time!
Ann Canela is a
published poet and a founding member of the 12 Gauge Brooklyn Writing
Group. Her work has been featured in literary journals and online
publications. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City and is
currently a marketing and fundraising consultant in Washington DC.