Q&A with Nadine Galinsky Feldman – author of What She Knew

Nadine Galinsky Feldman

Nadine Galinsky Feldman

Q: What made you decide to write a book about the financial crisis?

A: A lot of pundits said “we couldn’t have foreseen” the financial crisis, but my husband and I saw it coming at least a year before it did. We knew of people who had purchased multiple pieces of real estate who didn’t have to go through any sort of income verification…something that shocked me, since I had worked in the mortgage business in the 80s. At that time, it was so tough to get a loan through that the nicest people were monsters by the end of the process! I wondered how people in the business could not have seen the crisis coming, when I, a little nobody, did. I also wondered how an intelligent person who wasn’t evil could get caught up in a huge con job without knowing it…and then one day a tall, beautiful blonde money manager walked into my imagination.

Q: Why did you choose to make Bernie Madoff the backdrop to your story?

A: Madoff has always been a source of fascination for me. I will never understand how he could justify his actions in his brain and sleep at night. Based on my reading, he may have been up to no good for decades before he got caught. When the Madoff story broke, the public tended to villainize his victims as well, which I didn’t think was fair. As I read some of their stories, I gained a greater understanding and empathy for the victims. I wanted to make some sense of it all in my own mind.

Q: Where you or anyone you know affected by his Ponzi scheme?

A: No. However, I knew someone who was a small-time financial planner who inadvertently sold an “unlicensed security” due to a lack of understanding of the investment. He was fined by the SEC. At the time, I was impressed at how quickly the SEC acted…yet when the Madoff story broke, we learned the SEC had ignored Madoff whistleblowers for years. This puzzled me. This is, in part, why I made Liz “not too big to fail.”

Q: You seem to have a great understanding of the financial market. Have you worked in investment or is your knowledge acquired purely through research?

A: I never worked in the investment business. I wouldn’t have the stomach for it! I worked for years as a secretary and, later, a contract administrator. When starting this book, I knew what it was like to work in Janice’s shoes…probably why I made her the quiet, behind-the-scenes hero of What She Knew! I did a LOT of research. It took about three years to write the book, in large part because I wanted the financial parts to be as accurate as possible. The hostile takeover stuff was particularly hard for me to grasp. I read books about Madoff and his victims, books about takeovers, and watched documentaries. I studied news accounts and followed the Madoff timeline in the story.

My husband is knowledgeable about investing, and I had him read the manuscript to let me know if I got things wrong. He mainly corrected some terminology. As I was writing, I often double-checked my research because it all seemed so unreal. For example, some people were investing with Madoff without realizing it. I didn’t know that could be possible! The biggest challenge with the research was to try to make the story believable without overwhelming the reader with information. I hope I pulled that off, but it’s not easy.

Q: The reputation of bankers has been tarnished since the crisis, yet Liz’s character shows some moral compass that most people would find difficult to associate with bankers. Did you make her so because she is a woman?

A: I’d read that 15% of Wall Street money managers are sociopaths, but what about the other 85%? Those are the people I’m curious about, whether male or female. I could have written a male character and given him a conscience as well…that was more a stylistic choice than a commentary on gender and morality. I think Liz’s moral compass was a bit wobbly at first. That’s why she’s so confronted by Don Esterman, who has managed to succeed but refused to play certain games of what’s expected of a corporate CEO. At some level he’s a mentor to her, and he’s one of the factors in her transformation.

Gender does play into this story in that I felt a woman working in a male-dominated industry would have to work harder and be even more aggressive than a man to succeed. This ambition isn’t in itself a character flaw, but it takes over and blinds her. She has the added pressure of being a woman who is aging, so she has to make sure her appearance is flawless at all times. She comes across as superficial, when in fact she is just trying to survive.

It was a meaty challenge to present a character whose career alone would prejudice people against her, and try to get readers to keep turning the page. I also liked creating a female character who is strong, powerful, and ambitious, and who isn’t saved by a man.

Q: Mason Stewart, Liz’s boss on the other hand, has no redeeming features and is the stereotypical banker. Are you implying that the financial crisis may not have happened had women dominated financial institutions as opposed to men?

A: This wasn’t intentional. It’s an interesting thought, though. I’d like to think women would have handled things differently, but we will never know that. For me, this story isn’t so much about gender or even the financial crisis as much as a woman’s personal journey to become a more honest, authentic version of herself.

Q: Why was it important for Liz’s character to be exonerated? In real life, good people don’t always get to win.

A: My editor and I discussed this point (she sort of wanted Liz to go to jail). I will admit to having a fondness for happy endings, especially in these difficult and uncertain times. Also, despite a certain cynicism about the world, I still believe redemption is possible and love to see people get second chances. Had the story required her to go to jail for it to make sense, I would have put her there, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

Q: Liz is childless and so is her aunt Edna. Is the subject of childlessness born out of your personal experience?

A: Liz and Edna were both very focused on their careers, so there was never a question for either of them. My situation was a bit more complex. In my younger years, life just never led me in that direction. A long and difficult illness triggered something in my brain that said I should have a child, but by then I was infertile. At the age of 46, though, I became a stepmom to twins in high school, and I’m happy with the way that part of my life has turned out. Had I given birth, I may never have met my stepchildren.

Q: You are a stepmother to your husband’s two children. What advice would you give anyone entering into a similar relationship?

A: I had friends at work who had children the same age as Joe and Sarah. I went to them often to ask questions, and that helped me quite a bit. I also had a therapist at the time who knew me well, so I could bounce concerns off of her from time to time. My main advice would be: be patient and give the children time to come around. It takes a long time to blend a family, even when you like each other, as we did. Henry and I were together nearly three years before we got married, which gave us all time to get used to each other and work through some of the difficulties. Also, trust your instincts. There are a lot of books on being a step-parent, but sometimes you need to do things differently from what was recommended. I made plenty of mistakes and was often overwhelmed, but we managed. I think (I hope, anyway) that they knew I came from a place of love. They are wonderful young adults now, both newlyweds, and it’s fun to watch their young lives unfold.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I’m working on a story set in late 19th-century Scotland about a young woman working in the woollen mills at the height of the Industrial Revolution. It’s loosely based on the life of my great-great grandmother, who for reasons I won’t go into disappeared from the family history until I uncovered her existence a few years ago. While I can’t make it nonfiction — there will always be too many unanswered questions — I want to bring her back into the family by giving her a story. I also have a basic sketch of a sequel to What She Knew. When I finished the novel, I realized I wasn’t quite done with Liz’s world. This has surprised me, but that’s part of the fun of being a writer, so I’ll see where it goes.

Discussions on What She Knew will begin on the forum on Monday October 3rd.

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