An interview with Norb Vonnegut, writer of financial thrillers


Whether it’s the tremor of a passing No. 2 subway train or the aftershock of an earthquake, no one listens more carefully to the sounds coming from Wall Street than Norb Vonnegut. As a former financial wiz, he well knows what the implications are for everyone  from goat herders in California to billionaire sailors cruising the Aegean Sea. And he puts that detailed knowledge about the dark back alleys of Wall Street into his financial thrillers, the latest of which, The Trust, received a glowing review from Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

Noir Nation editor Cortright McMeel sent him some questions about the writing life and about his new book. Below is the exchange.


Noir Nation: At what point did you know you were a writer? What was the process of discovery like?

Vonnegut: I’ve always told stories. I suppose the moment of discovery — me knowing I’m a writer — was when I left my office on Monday night, October 22, 2007. My agent called and said that St. Martin’s Press agreed to buy my debut novel, Top Producer. In fact, they offered me a two-book deal. I was almost delirious, the idea it was possible to make a living doing something I love.

Noir Nation: Why crime fiction? Why not write about travel or continental cuisine?

Vonnegut: The human element of crime is inherently more interesting than travel or cuisine.

In my first novel, Top Producer, three Grey Nurse sharks devour a money manager inside the Great Ocean tank at the New England Aquarium. Five hundred people, guests at a surprise birthday party for the money manager’s wife, watch in horror as the sharks devour him. First one strikes, then the others. It gets ugly.

Writing this scene was far more fun than describing an egg-white omelet with ham and feta cheese. I don’t care where anybody puts the parsley.

Noir Nation:  Recently, the term noir has been used very broadly. Here in the States it has become like the word martini, which many use for any drink served in a cocktail glass. Pour beer in one and it becomes a beer martini. At some point the word becomes useless. In your view, what are the elements that distinguish crime noir from other forms of crime fiction?

Author Norb Vonnegut

Vonnegut: Well, we can start with the cover art. The heavy graphics — black, sinister, foreboding — convey the feeling of a dark story inside the pages, an early hint the protagonist will be swept away by forces beyond his or her control.

Most readers love underdogs, though, and I suppose the idea of prevailing against overwhelming forces is one that reaches beyond the category of noir. The truth is, I’m not an expert on the genre. Janet Maslin of the New York Times calls my writing “money-porn beach reading.

Here’s what she wrote when she reviewed The Trust:

“Another of Mr. Vonnegut’s favorite ploys is writing about how families like the Kincaids (or, in ‘The Gods of Greenwich,’ anyone with an art collection and a 27-bathroom house) spend money. This is money-porn beach reading, after all. ‘With $10 million you fly first-class,’ he says. ‘With $50 million you fly private, NetJets or one of its competitors. With $200 million you’re wondering where to park your Citation X in Monte Carlo.’ ”

So if I’m writing money porn, do my heroes prevail against overwhelming odds? You bet.

Noir Nation: Tell us about your most recent book, The TRUST.

Vonnegut:  Kirkus Reviews does a bang-up job describing my plot. Here’s what they write:

“When Grove O’Rourke takes a call from Palmer Kincaid, his old mentor and his biggest client, he can tell that the old man is more than worried. But he doesn’t catch the next plane to Kincaid’s home in Charleston, S.C. As a result, he has to make the trip anyway for Palmer’s funeral after he’s killed in a convenient one-person boating accident. Smarting with guilt, Grove agrees to join Palmer’s daughter Claire, 33, and his second wife JoJo, 39, on the board of the Palmetto Foundation, which Palmer launched and headed. Another mistake. Katy Anders, Grove’s boss at Sachs, Kidder and Carnegie, is anything but supportive. And the very first item of business before the Foundation, a transfer of $65 million donated by the Catholic Fund to the Foundation for relief work in then Philippines, raises Grove’s hackles. He’s taken aback by dogged Fayetteville lawyer Biscuit Hughes’ revelation that the Catholic Fund owns Highly Intimate Pleasures, an adult novelty superstore, and he doesn’t trust Father Frederick Ricardo, the fast-talking Maryknoll priest who’s pressing for the transfer. Just to keep the pressure up, Grove learns that Morgan Stanley Dean Witter is poised to purchase his division at SKC and that Isabelle Torres of the FBI is dogging his every move and demanding he spill everything he knows about the Foundation. And that’s all before JoJo is kidnapped by someone demanding $200 million-virtually all the Foundation’s assets-for her safe return.”

Noir Nation: What was your writing process like?

Vonnegut: I wake up at 7:00 every morning, pad downstairs for a cup of coffee and flog myself until there are a thousand words on the page. Every so often, my dog interrupts. We disagree over who’s the boss. Ultimately, I cave and say, “Uncle.” This leads to long walks along the Narragansett beaches—where I try to keep ideas in my head.

Different question: How do I dream up my stories? I worked on Wall Street for 20+ years. Most of my fiction originates from real-life incidents that I’ve twisted into something else. For example, The Trust began with Pablo Escobar’s first cousin.

Let me explain. For years I worked at Morgan Stanley as a stockbroker. Before Google became part of our day-to-day life, my firm kept a “bad guys list.” There may have been a more formal name, but that’s what we called it in the trenches. Our compliance officers spent hours compiling the list and identifying people to avoid at all costs.

Sometime during the 90s, a man called my team — there were five of u — and told one of my partners that he wanted to open a $50 million account. “More to follow if you do a good job.”

Nobody in the brokerage business ever gets a call like that from a legitimate source. Believe me, I know. Stockbrokers chase money. Not the other way around. The prospect was roughly the same age as one of my partners, and they went to the same business school a few years apart. But they didn’t know anyone in common. Something didn’t smell right.

We submitted the man’s name to our legal department—in those days I regarded Morgan Stanley as a law firm with a very large financial subsidiary—and sure enough our $50 million prospect was on the bad guy’s list. He was Pablo Escobar’s first cousin. Needless to say, we cut off all contact.

So what does this story have to do with The Trust? My job as a stockbroker was to ask one question on behalf of my clients: What can go wrong? My team managed about $2 billion in assets for very wealthy individuals, some who maintained philanthropic foundations. The charities did plenty of good work, but they always ran on a shoestring budget. No lawyers. No compliance department. No bad guys list. It occurred to me that financial criminals would gravitate toward organizations that are vulnerable.

The Trust is a story about a savvy international criminal who infiltrates a small community foundation and hides behind the First Amendment, specifically freedom of religion. I owe this novel to my time on Wall Street. I’m spinning fact into fiction.

Noir Nation:  Do you socialize with other crime writers? If so, does it help your creativity? Or hinder it?

Vonnegut: I see crime writers several times a year, usually at a convention like Thrillerfest. But most of my friends work in financial services. It’s the industry where my stories begin.

Noir Nation: Do you use online social media to create awareness of your work? If so, which platforms do you think work best?

I’m always on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and GoodReads. The truth is, I have yet to decide which is most effective. And frankly, I’m old school when it comes to connecting with readers. There’s nothing better than meeting book clubs in person, whether it’s talking about my books or literature in general. I learn from reader opinions and find book clubs critical for my growth as an author.

But for the record, I hope you will like Norb Vonnegut Books on Facebook.

Noir Nation:  Tell us about your literary influences.

Vonnegut: Okay, I know this answer will sound trite. The truth is I love everything Earnest Hemingway wrote. I’m not a big fan of oysters. But whenever I read the following passage, I feel like driving twenty minutes to the Matunuck Oyster Bar and re-living the experience he describes below:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

These days, I gravitate toward Southern writers. They often write about people who are gentle on the outside. But their characters are messy on the inside and live complicated lives. The mix makes for great fiction.

If you ask me, Southern jargon is a gift to the English language. Where else does anybody say, “I’m happy as a dog with two tails?” And when there’s conflict, the dialogue is like cyanide served with syrup. It’s still lethal, right?

I’ll read anything by Pat Conroy. James Lee Burke does a great job painting scenes where you can smell the magnolia, feel the damp, clingy heat, and hear the song of cicadas at night. I’m a huge fan of his Dave Robicheaux series and can’t wait to start Creole Belle.

Noir Nation:  Of the questions I did not ask, which would you most like to answer?

Vonnegut: What was the biggest challenge in writing The Trust?

Getting dispensation from our family priest was a huge hurdle. You’re probably thinking, Whoa! Where does that come from?

In The Trust there’s a 20,000 square-foot adult superstore — named Highly Intimate Pleasures — that opens up just off I-95, near exit 55 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That store is about the worst thing that could happen to the community, where there were fifty-four churches in the surrounding area when I did my research.

The community hires Biscuit Hughes, a big, lumbering real estate attorney with a proven track record. During a tense meeting, in a room packed with angry neighbors, he tells the crowd that the “Catholic Fund” owns the adult superstore. You can imagine what happens from there and why I needed to talk things over with our family priest.

New York City opens up crime photo archives

From the New York Times…

Here’s one case where, as far as the city is concerned, crime can pay. Among the 840,000 archival images placed online recently by the city’s Department of Records are 1,326 police evidence photographs mostly taken from 1915 to 1920. The Municipal Archives gallery provides free research online and at a new visitors’ center at 31 Chambers Street behind City Hall, but a digital file or 8-by-10 print will cost $45.

The crime scene photos are part of what Eileen Flannelly, a deputy records commissioner, describes as “the largest collection of criminal justice evidence in the world.”

“When I look at these pictures, it’s like looking at an old gangster movie,” Ms. Flannelly said.

But where she sees a body in a barrel, Kenneth Cobb, an assistant records commissioner, focuses on the background.

“I see the spectators looking at the body,” he said, “what people are wearing, the posters on the wall.”

The stark black-and-white images conjure up the gritty, grim underside of a city where politicians were not above anticrime grandstanding; accidents involving automobiles were a relatively new phenomenon (New York claims the dubious distinction of being the site of the first fatal auto accident, on Central Park West in 1899); criminals relied only on the most primitive tools of the trade; courthouses drew a familiar scrum of reporters, photographers and spectators; and law enforcement authorities feared labor unions, anarchists and foreigners in general.