10 Questions with Michael Pocalyko
1. Mr. Pocalyko, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your thriller, THE NAVIGATOR, comes out on June 11, 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Ethan, first of all, thank you for inviting me. You and your blog readers are incredibly important to our community. As authors we just don’t say that often enough. I really appreciate your interest.
THE NAVIGATOR is correctly billed as a financial thriller, but it’s also a very literary book that crosses a whole lot of boundaries, deals with up-to-the-minute political anxieties, and addresses some major issues like the confluence of big business, big data, big government, and big regulation. It’s also a brothers novel, which is kind of unusual today. The basic plot revolves around an investment bank and a technology deal that’s getting ready to close. ViroSat is the world’s first trillion dollar deal, nicknamed “Internet Next” in the popular and political consciousness of this novel. Some people want to control it, the bankers have to finance it, and there are elected officials in the federal government have a vested interest in regulating it. All of that makes a great recipe for conflict.
But like any good fiction, the plot is only part of the story. THE NAVIGATOR begins in a very dark place, at the liberation of a death camp in Germany in 1945. Something bad happens there. And then instantly, flash forward, we’re in the middle of a summer deal in New York and Washington. The way people are affected by the deal and how they react provide the raw energy in this book. The past begins to intrude on the present in a way that nobody intended, or could have seen coming. The action is lightning fast and comes with reveal upon reveal.
The risks that I took in writing this novel are that it is a big issue book; that the personal psychology of its characters is so prominent for a thriller; that there are significant literary themes; and that as readers we’re taken deep into capital finance, a world that few people know. The tagline is “Wall Street comes to Washington” and I think that’s a pretty good description in five words.
2. Who are the main characters of THE NAVIGATOR, and how did you go about creating them?
Warren Hunter is the reigning master of the financial universe, only he’d hate that description. Based in Manhattan, he is a roaring young lion out of Princeton and Harvard Business School, not yet forty, and he’s the deputy chief of investment and merchant banking at Compton Sizemore, which is the last remaining true partnership investment bank on Wall Street. Actually it’s in Citigroup Center, because one of the novel’s motifs is that “Wall Street” is not exactly one specific place any more. Warren is running the ViroSat deal. He is brilliant, driven, famous for his self-control . . . and inside, he’s coming apart. His deal will either catapult the “wallowing” global economy—that’s Warren’s description—into abundant prosperity, or else plunge the international financial system into unfathomable chaos. That kind of risk appetite shows us what sort of guy he is.
Rick Yeager is from Washington and the high-technology industry in and around the Beltway, in northern Virginia. He’s stumbled about a very checkered career in entrepreneurial finance, always on the edges of the government services and intelligence firms that are the mainstay of the economy in the nation’s capital. To underscore the contrast with Warren, for example, he cadged an Internet MBA from some barely-accredited online university in California. He’s just landed his dream job as a partner at Carneccio & Dice, an asset management firm in downtown Washington that’s mysterious even to Rick. He’s the guy in the novel whom everything seems to happen to, and his role is to figure out just what’s going on, because his new partners definitely want a part of the deal. He’s a really good man caught up in a lot of stuff happening that may or may not be the result of his own choices. He also represents a part of the financial world that’s seldom seen, a milieu much more circumspect but far more influential than Warren’s marquee Wall Street.
Julia Toussaint is unambiguously the novel’s moral center. She is a political legislative aide on Capitol Hill working for a powerful New Jersey Senator. She’s young, early thirties, gorgeous, quite reserved, and African American operating in what the novel describes as “white Washington,” even as it’s set right now in the Obama administration. Her Senator, a terrific and strong woman who is as ambitious as Julia is serenely competent, is very interested in regulating ViroSat. Julia becomes caught in the middle of competing interests as the deal and the wild action in THE NAVIGATOR progress.
The three main characters and their supporting cast are wholly my imaginative creations. Of course they have personal characteristics based on some people I’ve known in business and government, but the fun and thrill of writing for me always come from making things up. And admittedly, Warren and Rick can be read as two sides of my public persona. I get asked all the time now which one I’m most like, and I always answer “Both.” Julia, on the other hand, is the woman that every female reader wants to be, and that every guy reader wants to be with.
3. What kind of research did you do for THE NAVIGATOR?
One of the most prominent themes in THE NAVIGATOR is that the past is never really the past, even if it’s not your own past. Most of my research was on the backstory that fuels the action in the novel, along with contemporary finance and legislative processes. My professional lives have given me a great storehouse of insider knowledge. This book expresses that knowledge, taking the readers into places that they’ve never been before in fiction.
That perspective requires that everything has to fit together tightly, especially with the history that begins to intrude on the present day. Much of it is made up, but even when a novelist creates history, that history must be credible and verifiable. Readers deserve that, and the end result must look seamless to them. I read voraciously about everything that I wrote about.
One area on which I particularly focused was the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In THE NAVIGATOR I use the rather unusual literary convention of next-generation effects, particularly of combat trauma. A lot of that verisimilitude comes from personal experience and personal observation. I also spoke a great deal about PTSD with my father, a World War II veteran, and I consulted with mental health practitioners. I am a Beirut veteran and very proud of my service. In a most respectful way, this book is a valediction for veterans—a theme that is only unmasked very late in the narrative.
On weekends at our mountain home in the Shenandoah Valley, in early mornings and evenings, and always in between professional obligations. I’ve shared elsewhere that I don’t golf, which does provide me with some significant time to myself. I genuinely love to write, and I’ve been doing it professionally and publishing expository writing since I was sixteen.
Most of the work that we investment bankers do is episodic, project-centered. If you have reservoirs of self-discipline—and that’s absolutely required of both investment bankers and novelists—you are able to schedule time to compose, to write the first rough draft. For me, that’s really the only time that I prefer to be uninterrupted. I can re-write almost anywhere, any time, and in between other tasks. There’s also this paradox: I find it easier to write when I am in the middle of intellectually intense professional work. I think that I’m better, and I am sharper, when I’m “full on” than when I enjoy rare dedicated down time.
Calendar timing matters, too. When I set down the first draft of THE NAVIGATOR, we had already come through the worst of the financial crisis. We were well established in this very difficult economy where we’re still operating, and which this book is the first to deal with in fiction. I was professionally freed up a little more, so I had more time to write. I took advantage of that time to create this story, and then I re-wrote and revised it right up until publication.
If you want to write, if you really want to write, you find the time.
And finally, when you think about it for a minute, as the managing director and CEO of a boutique investment bank, I really do have a lot more degrees of freedom than, say, an assistant professor of English with a teaching schedule. Or any working mom.
5. What is it like to be a combat aviator?
Boredom, frustration, well-controlled fear, and a most sincere desire not to fuck up.
6. A word of advice for new writers?
Figure out if you really want to write or if you just want to be a writer. There’s a huge difference between the two. If you do not inherently grasp the difference, or if you think that this is a simple rhetorical flourish, then you just want to be a writer.
Ignore teachers who tell you to write about what you know. You should write about what interests you.
Discipline matters more than passion, intellect, or talent.
Know the market. This world is full of people who have truly great manuscripts on their hard drives. Writing is a product and it must respond to extant market demand.
Writers lie about how much money they make about as much as high school guys lie about how much they are getting laid.
7. Why do you write?
I write to convey the ideas that I care about. I’ve known since I was a child that I am a storyteller. For me, however, story is secondary. Themes, ideas, personal intellectual passions that can only be expressed in the written word comprise my primary motivations. For most of my writing life—actually except for juvenilia, all of it until the publication of THE NAVIGATOR—that expression has been in expository writing: essays, op-ed commentaries, monographs, public policy and international affairs analyses, business and economic writing. There came a moment for me, though, when only fiction could liberate the wonderful synthesis of ideas that most accurately undergirds some powerful truth that I wanted to tell.
I write for permanence. If there is one overarching characteristic of society at this moment, and here I mean our global society, it is its fundamental impermanence, its ephemeral societal personality, especially online. When I write, I am setting down these moments and chronicling this time in a way that can both define us in the present tense and describe us in the future.
I write for entertainment. This is why I elected to write a thriller, the most exciting and imaginative formula that the novel takes. Ideas and story always lead, but they cannot take cognitive shape without creative art, without entertainment. No one would read them otherwise, and I have little interest in just writing for myself, no matter how compelled I am to set things down in print or on screen.
I write out of respect. I respect my readers, and I am always conscious of them.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
Mountain pursuits, writ large. I like nothing better than to sit on the terrace of Hamatreya, our mountain home, facing west, watching the sun set over the mountain. That’s my favorite place in the world to sit and read, too. I love horseback riding—western riding only, on the range and in the hills. We have some favorite places out in the Great West for riding, too. I’m very fond of fly fishing but I don’t do it nearly often enough—that’s a whole lifestyle for which I wish I had more time. And I enjoy hiking in the Shenandoah National Park and on the Appalachian Trail. I am an old Eagle Scout and I still love the environment that energized me at camp as a kid.
9. What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
For my own reading I actually prefer narrative nonfiction, although I read a whole lot of fiction. I always have several books going at any given moment. Right now I’m reading Thomas Kaufman’s Erased and Other Stories, Alan L. Lee’s Sandstorm, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, an advance reading copy of Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union to be published in October, and my long-term reading project, Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, volume four of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
10. What other book are you working on?
I’m working on the next novel, with the characters that survived the action in THE NAVIGATOR.
Where THE NAVIGATOR deals with the high-tech economy and the confluence of big business, big data, big government, and big regulation, this new novel will be about for-profit higher education. The stakes are enormous, the deal is a roll-up in a consolidating industry, and this time what’s at risk is a lending exposure in for-profit colleges that already exceeds the sub-prime mortgage debt that brought on the 2008 financial crisis.
The scariest thing? I didn’t make that up that part about the lending exposure.
Oh, and for those of you who have already read THE NAVIGATOR . . . that romance continues.