10 Questions with Mike Offit
1. Mr. Offit, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your debut thriller, NOTHING PERSONAL, came out today. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Nothing Personal is a coming-of-age story, a white-collar-crime novel, and a murder mystery wrapped up in a single package. The novel sprung from my career on Wall Street and the effect that the financial industry has on all of us, either directly or indirectly Whether you’re a bond trader for Goldman or a benefits administrator for a small company, Wall Street reaches us all through our pension plans, our savings, its effect on the economy, and when things go wrong, the havoc it can wreak. Even if you’re a Starbucks barista or in a struggling band, the financial industry can have a huge impact on the opportunities and well being of an entire generation. In that sense, the story of Warren Hament, the world he is exposed to and even absorbed into, is intensely personal, not just a series of numbers or paychecks. As his world changes, so does he, and in the arc of his character and those around him, the reader will hopefully be entertained. Laughter, anger, fear, outrage and joy are all responses I hope this novel will evoke in my readers, and I believe they will be rewarded for the investment of their time and money with both a satisfying story, a bit of an education, and a deeper appreciation for how simple, even elemental the financial world actually is, and hopefully find something new and interesting in the story that found me. It’s a very cinematic book, with description and dialogue carrying the story and the “morality tale” such as it is.
2. Who is Warren Hament and where did the inspiration for his character come from?
Warren was inspired by a variety of people I’ve met or worked with over the years, and there is a great deal of Mike Offit in him, though he is far better-looking, smarter and insightful than I have ever been. He’s a composite of my experiences, combined with the qualities I found admirable or interesting in a large variety of people or characters as diverse as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or Jeffrey Wigand in Whistleblower and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence.
3. What was it like being a trader at Goldman Sachs? Is the financial world as cut-throat as it is generally described in books and movie?
I don’t think there is a book or movie that has come close to depicting what working at Goldman can be like. Greg White’s book “Why I Left Goldman Sachs” barely touched on it – Greg wasn’t in a position to see what was really happening on the transactional side of Goldman, which was far more intense and even brutal. I spent almost four years there in the middle of my career as the senior trader of commercial mortgage and asset backed securities, and worked with the principal investment side of the business as well. Goldman wields immense power in the markets, and it is very effective at leveraging its reputation and its skill into opportunities to make profits that other firms can’t or possibly wouldn’t approach. After my second year there, they reacted to a bad year for the firm caused largely by losses in London on large complicated bets on different markets by laying off a large number of people. As a result, the next year, which was a great one, I found myself doing the work of four people. I wound up getting quite sick. Within two weeks of my disability leave, they were contacting people I had trained about possibly replacing me. When I did come back, it was as if I had demonstrated weakness, and that was something management at Goldman, as all firms, will exploit. The financial world can be collegial and fun, and a lot like team sports at times. But ultimately, there is a lot of money at stake, and “cut throat” doesn’t do it justice. My grandfather, as in the novel, called Wall Street “the slaughterhouse.” He had it right.
4. What was your journey like from the idea to write NOTHING PERSONAL to actually seeing it in print?
I have always wanted to be a writer, but took my Dad’s advice to put it off to later in life, when I could hopefully afford it – it is a hard way to make a living! When I decided to pick back up the few chapters I had written a decade back and try to build it into a complete novel, I discovered it is a journey of immensely hard work, discipline, and complete insensitivity to self-doubt or criticism until you have finished. The day I got the email from my publisher that he wanted to buy my book, I was just stunned. Of course, analogue publishing is painfully slow, so finally holding that first hardcover copy in my hand was like picking up my children as infants. And the similarity runs deeper, because without the support of a tolerant and indulgent wife, a dynamic, brilliant and successful woman, there is no way this novel ever would have been possible.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
There are a few great talents who can write wonderful fiction when they are still quite young and haven’t seen too much of the world. If you are gifted with that kind of rare imagination, then the only advice is to commit to it and bring it to light. For someone like me, I believe that telling a good story is a great gift to give to your friends, family, and strangers, and to draw on what you know, what you wish you knew, and what you believe. Don’t worry about approval or criticism, just put the words on paper and see where they lead you. When you think you have something worthwhile, ask a person or two you like and respect what they think, and focus only on their positive comments and the practical criticism that you agree with — don’t ever get discouraged!
6. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing? Did you ever consider it or might you consider it in the future?
I was about to self-publish this novel when the offer to purchase it came in. I had no success with the two agents I approached. Agents became the screeners for publishers, and from what I have seen they are rarely qualified for the job. I think self-publishing and self-promoting are absolutely valid and perhaps vital in the digital age. Publishers rarely have the budget to promote new writers, and getting through the maze can be impossible. Unfortunately, there are a lot of deeply awful self-published books out there, so there can be a stigma. Yet, I have been completely hooked by a bunch of self-published books, and the economics for a successful book are absurdly better for the writer. Very few really bad books succeed in this world… while romance and zombie books may not be everyone’s thing, if they’re well done, they have every chance of recognition and success. As for me, if I can’t sell my future works, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish, as long as my wife thinks what I’ve written has merit, rejection is something any former trader knows how to live with and overcome.
7. What have you learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?
It is a long, intense process, and less is always more. I would say forever word that is in Nothing Personal, two others lost their lives along the way!
8. What are your writing habits?
I write a lot in very short bursts. I can’t write when I have a lot of pressure or anxiety about other things, but if my mind is clear, I can easily burn through 20 or even 30 pages in a day. I wrote most of Nothing Personal in about six months.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
Sports have always been important to me. I am a rabid, screaming fan of the Rangers, Yankees, Knicks and Giants in New York. I played a lot of tennis and golf, and boxed before I broke my neck in 2012, and am working at getting back to them. I don’t think I’ll ever get back to a scratch handicap, but consistently breaking 80 again doesn’t seem impossible. The best thing is that the game gives me an opportunity to spend time with a few great friends who are just high-quality people. I love to travel with my wife and my kids when they can get away, and plan on seeing a lot more of the world now that she has also retired from full time work. I love to cook, and to collaborate on design and construction work with my wife.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
Right now I am working on a mini-epic saga about the long history and present day excesses of Easter Long Island — the Hamptons. It is great fun to write, and will have a multi-generational murder mystery theme as well as some intense, and hopefully humorous social commentary. I also had a tragi-comic economics textbook in the works, which I temporarily abandoned when the financial crisis made all my predictions come true. I plan to pick that back up now that the financial industry has cowed the governments and regulators of the world into enabling the next cycle of boom and bust, Nothing is clearer than the sad fact that we are doomed to repeat our financial errors, and that the financial world will never stop giving us the next great scandal.