January 13, 2010 / 7:01 AM / 9 years ago

Adam Haslett's new novel mixes finance and power

SYDNEY (Reuters) - American writer Adam Haslett has always been fascinated by power, particularly the kind wielded by a singularly influential institution like the United States’ central bank, the Federal Reserve.

His first book in 2002, a best-selling collection of short stories called “You Are Not A Stranger Here,” dealt with themes such as estrangement and suffering and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

But when he turned to write his first novel, “Union Atlantic,” which is released next month, he delved into the world of finance, tackling topics such as wealth, greed and power.

Little did Haslett, 39, realize when he started work on his novel seven years ago that he would finish his book the week before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the worst global financial crisis in generations.

Haslett spoke to Reuters about his writing:

Q: It’s been a while between books. Why so long?

A: “It’s been five years of full-time writing on the book and the other two years I was finishing law school at Yale so it was a while before I got started. Since 2003 I have been pretty much full time on it.”

Q: Did you know much about the financial markets beforehand?

A: “I didn’t know a lot about it in advance. I became interested about 10 years ago in the Federal Reserve mainly because I was fascinated by the idea of a huge and important bureaucracy that was largely anonymous that exercised such a good deal of power over people’s daily lives but they didn’t know much about it or how it functions. It struck me as interesting to have a character with that power.”

Q: Did you do a lot of research?

A: “I did a fair amount of research and talking to people. The challenge is to take a reader into a world without downloading too much information. You have to keep it narratively alive for the reader. I tried to teach myself as much as I needed to know to dramatize it.”

Q: Did you see the crisis coming as you did your research?

A: “I think it put me more in touch with the fragility of the system well before the crash ... but, like everyone, I was surprised by the speed and drama of it. The events as they unfolded did not surprise me but the timing was a little odd. It did seem as if my mind had exploded into the world. I didn’t know if I had been scooped or validated.”

Q: Do you think it could happen again?

A: “I don’t think any of the reforms we are seeing leads me to think that what we dealt with couldn’t happen again. The moment for dramatic reform is slipping away. We are seeing more transactions going private so it seems despite how serious the crisis was — maybe because of how quickly the stock market popped back — that the alarm was not sounded loud enough.”

Q: How does your novel contrast to your short stories?

A: “This book is more of a change of emphasis. My ambition was to combine some of the things that I have loved the most about great 19th century novels, where you are getting the author’s take on what is going on in the world, but at the same time maintain the intensity of their interior life.”

Q: Was it hard to shift to writing longer form?

A: “It was. The first 2- years of writing I was struggling to teach myself to do it as I went. I threw a lot away as I went. There was a lot of false starts and if I do it again, which I imagine I will, I’ll try to lay out a plan a little earlier and outline things a lot more.”

Q: When did you start writing?

A: “I started writing short stories when I was an undergraduate (English and Philosophy) and worked at various jobs. Then I went to graduate school and the University of Iowa for an MFA. It was a pretty constant interest of mine before the book came out.”

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: “I would say to try to put out of your mind the idea of the marketplace for as long as possible and focus on your own intentions and what is meaningful to you and what kind of book you would want to read that has not been written. Due to the way the media works and the fact there are so many authors it is easy to put the cart before the horse and think about agents and publishing houses before you are fully absorbed in your craft.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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