A Conversation with James Grippando: 2010Q: The main character of Money to Burn is Michael Cantella. That almost sounds like a pseudonym for James Grippando. Just how similar is Michael to you?
A: "Cantella" is the maiden name of one of my ancestors from Villa Rosa, Sicily, so I didn't choose that name lightly. The relationship between Michael and his grandfather—"Papa"—is especially personal for me. I wrote most of the outline for Money to Burn while at my father's bedside in a skilled nursing facility, and after his passing, the book almost seemed to write itself. It was in the later stages of his illness, while reading early pages aloud to him, that I realized how much the crumbling financial world (and an investment hotshot like Michael Cantella) could have learned from a D-Day survivor whose idea of the American Dream was not just to buy a home, but to actually pay off the mortgage. In my seventeen published novels, no character has spoken to me more clearly than the voice of "Papa."Q:2 The subtitle of Money to Burn is "A Novel of Suspense." I thought it was a thriller. What's the difference between a novel of suspense and a thriller?
A: "Money to Burn" is most definitely a thriller. The distinction between thrillers and novels of suspense must mean something to marketing people, because I don't see it as a writer. I suppose you could say that mysteries and thrillers are a subgenre of "suspense," but you could probably say that about every novel ever written. Don't we always want to know what happens next?
Q: How much research into the financial world did you have to do for Money to Burn?
A: Tons. I love research, especially when the subject matter is timely—and Money to Burn was so timely that I conducted most of my research by watching Wall Street implode in real time. Many of those startling events play a central role in the plot. Short-sellers trading investment banks into oblivion. Financial media fanning the flames by carelessly spreading dangerous rumors planted by unscrupulous traders. Mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps landing insurance giants on life support. Fortunes lost overnight in Madoff-sized Ponzi schemes. It was fascinating research with so many unexpected surprises that there is plenty left over for another financial thriller. Someday.
Q: These days how does a novel compete with the spate of nonfiction books recounting what's been going on in the world of finance?
A: Most of the nonfiction books on Wall Street are old news before they are published. Think about the books on the collapse of Bear Stearns that were written before Lehman Brothers came down—and that was just a span of seven months! Money to Burn gives readers an insider's look into what happened on Wall Street, which is fascinating background. But because it's fiction, the characters and story are timeless. I'm not at all comparing myself to Upton Sinclair, but go back and read his fictional account of the Wall Street collapse of 1907 in The Money Changers. Then read some of the nonfiction works published around the same time. Which do you think you'll have more fun with? And which do you think will give you more insight into the greed, dishonesty, and other human failures that caused history to repeat itself a century later?Q: Money to Burn is a standalone. So was your previous novel, Intent to Kill. Do you think Jack Swyteck, the hero of your series, is feeling miffed or neglected?
A: Nah. Jack's a cool guy. I wrote the first Swyteck novel in 1994 (The Pardon), never intending it to be a series. Not until years later, when he started calling out to me for another run, did I write Swyteck #2, Beyond Suspicion (2002). Even with a few stand alones sprinkled in along the way, it's been a pretty steady run for Jack: Last Call (2003); Hear No Evil (2004); Got the Look (2006); When Darkness Falls (2007); Last Call (2008) and Born to Run(2009). I'm now putting the finishing touches on the 9th thriller in the Swyteck series, which will be released in 2011. Jack will be around for a long time. I promise.
Q: Joseph Finder, Christopher Reich, and Brad Meltzer all give Money to Burn terrific blurbs. Have they influenced you as a writer? How? What others writers have been an influence?
A: I've always said that you have to be a reader to be a writer, so I can't help but be influenced by three writers who have given me so many hours of enjoyment. Joe Finder's Paranoia is still one of my all time favorite thrillers. Numbered Account by Chris Reich set the bar for financial thrillers. And the ring of authenticity that runs through every single one of Brad's novels—he is a research machine—is an inspiration. As for other writers who've influenced me, there's none greater than my mom. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my father coming home from work on Saturday afternoon from the printing factory and my mother giving us a bath (there were five of us children) before she headed off in her starched white nursing uniform to work the Saturday night late shift at the hospital. Somehow she managed to raise five kids, work, and take courses on the side to get a doctorate degree in education. Her dissertation was later published and became one of the top textbooks in the country for nursing students. It lasted through six editions for over twenty-five years. I hope I can have a run like that.Q: Are things so laid-back in Florida that there's nothing to do but think of nefarious crimes, kinky villains, and twisty plots? Are mosquitoes passing around some disease that you, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, Tim Dorsey, Jonathon King, Christine Kling, the late great Stuart Kaminsky, Vicki Hendricks, and Jim Born have all come down with?
A: You often hear it said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in south Florida. Where else could the United States Attorney lose his job after losing a big case, getting drunk, and biting a stripper? Over beers at Thrillerfest I'm sure we could expand your list with the names of at least twenty other talented writers who have jumped on the wealth of material that seems to wash ashore down here (sometimes literally). But I like to stretch myself as a writer, which means getting out of my comfort zone every now and then—especially with the stand alone thrillers. That's one of the reasons I'm so proud of Money to Burn. Not a single scene set in Florida, scarcely a lawyer in the book.
Q: Money to Burn is your sixteenth novel? Holy mackerel! Just how disciplined are you?
A: Seventeenth, if you count my young adult novel. But I've always loved to write. At age eleven I wrote a comedy western and put my friends in it so they would sit and listen to me read it to them. In high school and college I was the weirdo who actually looked for courses that required you to write a paper. As a lawyer I published in more academic journals than most tenured law professors. I keep an "idea file" in my closet, and I'll never live long enough to write all the stories I want to write. It blows my mind that I actually get paid to do this. Truly.
I live in south Florida, so I write in my backyard. My outdoor office has these essentials: a patio table and chair, a big shade umbrella, a laptop computer, a hammock, a hot tub, and a swimming pool. The cell phone is optional. For me a "normal" workday means putting on my oldest pair of shorts and favorite T-shirt, visiting the refrigerator every half hour, and explaining to my pre-school daughter that she can't bang on the keyboard while daddy is trying to write a book. Early in my career, I often woke in the middle of the night to write. I try not to do that so much anymore, but you never know when inspiration is going to strike. For the most part, morning is my most productive writing time, and I try to finish every afternoon in time to coach my son's basketball team.
I have people approach me all the time telling me they have a great idea for a novel...all I have to do is write it. But as your question implies, it's mostly about the discipline of sitting down and doing it.