Norb Vonnegut, the author of financial thrillers like Mr. President, Top Producer and Gods of Greenwich, will discuss his work at Authors on Main at Contemporary Theater on Sunday, Aug. 17, at 6 p.m. He recently answered questions from Betty J. Cotter via e-mail.
To what degree was Goddesses and Doormats, your upcoming novel, inspired by the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist?
Confession time. I read everything I can about the Gardner heist. Priceless by Robert K. Wittman is an excellent inside look from an FBI agent. The Art of the Heist by Myles Connor offers perspective from a New England art thief. Because of my interest in the Gardner heist, I follow other types of art crime and interviewed Ken Perenyi at some length. Ken is an art forger and the author of Caveat Emptor (a really good book about the world of forgeries).
I do not believe the Thomas Crown explanation for the Gardner heist or any other art theft. I’m skeptical that billionaires pay vast sums to purchase stolen paintings, which stay hidden in private underground galleries. Why would they ever pay millions of dollars for something they can’t sell because they can’t deliver valid title?
In Goddesses and Doormats (a working name that may change) I pose a solution to the criminal problem of valid title. But instead of writing about the Gardner Museum, I’m writing about a fictional, single sex college located in Newport. (It’s not based on Salve Regina in any way.) And instead of old masters, the stolen paintings include two by Picasso, two by Matisse, a Monet and my favorite, a Modigliani of Anna Zborowska—which was a choice inspired by the one at RISD.
Many of your novels have predicted real-life financial scandals, such as the Bernie Madoff case. What is next in financial malfeasance? In other words, what do you think Wall Street is up to?
First things first…Wall Street is not bad. We need a sound financial structure in order to build and maintain a vibrant economy.
That said, art fraud is the new Madoff. Here’s what I predicted at the beginning of the year on Algonquin Redux, which is a blog I share with other authors:
“We’ve seen those stories about soaring art prices, like the Francis Bacon triptych that sold for $142.4 million. Big-money sales mean investors will chase the art market for their piece of the action.
“One problem: The returns are so-so for mid-list works as James Stewart notes in his column, Record Prices Mask a Tepid Market for Fine Art. And when markets cool off or in this case—when reality sets in—that’s when frauds crumble under the weight of their own deception.
“I spoke with L. Burke Files recently. He’s a private investigator with Financial Examinations and Evaluations. He said, ‘Art funds always lose money…investors always lose in an engineered and contrived market.’ ”
How important is voice in a genre format such as the financial thriller? How do you use the first-person within the constraints of that genre?
Voice is everything. Readers know within seconds whether they care about a hero or a victim or the pickle that turns into a really bad day for some fictional character. Here’s a short passage that illustrates my voice in Goddesses and Doormats, where I flip back and forth between first person and third person, a technique that makes the story clip along at a fast pace:
“Susan parked her car and hustled down Pontiac Avenue. It was 9:45 AM. She had no idea if the funeral would start on time. Or if Woody DeWoody’s friends from the old neighborhood would show. As far as she was concerned, the world was a better place now that the prick bastard had gone room temperature.”
Could you describe your creative process and your writing habits? When and where you write, for example?
Our dog, Lucy, is a tough disciplinarian. There’s been no living with her ever since she made a cameo appearance in my novella, Mr. President.
She drags me out of bed at seven every morning and stares with baleful eyes while I sit in a grumpy, old Adirondack chair behind our house. When she’s decided I’ve had enough—meaning I’ve written 1,000 words on the day—she plugs me into an iPhone and hooks me up to her leash. There’s nothing I like more than Lucy taking me for a walk along the Narragansett seawall, listening to a book on tape, while she holds court with all her two-legged friends.
Everyone thinks they have a story to tell, and a lot of professionals think they can just toss off a best-seller about their experiences. What sort of cautionary tale can you tell about making that transition? How difficult was it for you?
Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejection letters before The Help was published. I love Cormoran Strike, the hero of Robert Galbraith’s novels. But Robert Galbraith was largely unknown until we realized he’s JK Rowling. So while any “transition” is tough, I would point to their experiences as an indication of what it means to be a “new” author.
For me, Wall Street was great training ground because I like stories about friendship, betrayal, and redemption. I’ve seen it all from my twenty years on the Street and probably have enough material for the next fifty years. But in terms of the personal cost of making the transition to my life as a writer—I have a doozy of a story, which I will save for my appearance at the Contemporary Theater in Wakefield on Sunday, August 17 at 6 pm.
You have been traditionally published and you have published an e-book through Amazon. What are the pluses and minuses to some of the new publishing opportunities available to writers?
Good news: Everyone can be published.
Bad news: It’s still really difficult to get discovered.
Word of mouth is everything. That’s why when I like a book, I try to tell everybody. I recently read Suspicion by Joe Finder. It’s a good story that goes especially well with a glass of wine and a lobster roll from Monahan’s.
One of the great things about our new, new world is that word of mouth (whether we’re talking about e-books or traditional books) is simple as the click of your mouse. If you click the LIKE button on an author’s Facebook fan page—here’s a link to mine—that’s a nice endorsement, which every author appreciates.