Michael Sears discovered there’s more than one way to do well on Wall Street. After more than two decades operating in this killer world of derivatives and $10,000 dinners, he turned to writing. His first novel, Black Fridays (2013), introduced engaging ex-con and former Wall Street insider Jason Stafford, who now works as a “financial investigator,” having discovered that there are people willing to pay him to use his knowledge of the Street and its dark side to bail them out of various jams. Three more Sears novels followed, including this month’s Saving Jason, each of them notable for their deceptively easy style, their insider knowledge, and something more. Stafford’s autistic son is with him most of the time, his presence adding an emotional resonance and a chance for some interesting plot complications. We talked with Sears recently about his series and its setting.
What drew you to Wall Street, and why did you decide to leave? A press release quotes you as saying it stopped being fun. Is there more to it?
Wall Street in 1983, when I finished my MBA at Columbia and re-entered the working world, was still more than a bit untamed. It was an exciting, non-corporate environment, where standout individual performance could be seen early and rewarded. And it was a challenge. Markets tell you very quickly whether you are right or wrong. I wanted that challenge and needed the immediate feedback for my decisions. I became a trader, and for years I had a lot of fun. And eventually, the fun faded. Markets changed as did the environment. Risk parameters expanded, but so did oversight and the layers of management that second-guessed my actions. The pressure to constantly outdo my past performance took away from the joy and excitement of calling a market move correctly. I truly admire the traders who are able to maintain their chops through 30 or 40 years of fighting the markets, but I realized that I was not one of them. Eventually my health began to suffer, and it was time to move on. I had been lucky and smart, but my time there was up. And it wasn’t fun anymore.
Your hero, Jason Stafford, is a former Wall Streeter, too, but that’s only one thing that makes him different than most fictional PIs. He also has an autistic son, who plays a strong role in the books. What led you to include this character and how have readers responded?
The Kid, as Jason’s son calls himself, is the heart and soul of the series. He humanizes Jason and teaches him how to love. I have held a great fascination with ASD for years, well before I began writing. The inclusion of a character on the spectrum was a natural fit. I know that I have disappointed a few readers who find the Kid’s story a distraction from the action and the plot, but the overwhelming response to the character has been quite positive. Parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts of children on the spectrum have written to me, or stopped me at a signing, to share their own stories. Caregivers, teachers, and medical professionals have all told me that they love the stories of the Kid and congratulate me on “getting him right.”
Who among thriller novelists—past and present—do you most admire?
I don’t make much differentiation between the subgenres of crime fiction—thriller or whodunit, I value a story and how it’s told. Hammett and Chandler, of course, but also Sayers and Tey. John MacDonald and Robert Parker will both always stand out, and I re-read their best quite often. Martha Grimes for her humor. Tim Hallinan and Reed Coleman for their prose. Donna Leon and Dennis Lehane for place and character. You see that I am an eclectic reader. My favorite author of all, Patrick O’Brian, combined great prose with high adventure, domestic comedy and drama, the greatest buddy story ever, and thrilling plots—including one book of financial intrigue—but he’s not a crime writer.
Is the Occupy movement correct? Are the fat cats the cause of most of the country’s ills?
I tend to shy away from politically charged questions—I spent more than 20 years as a liberal on Wall Street, and I’ve heard it all twice—but this is an easy one. Yes. We need to find a way to separate money and politics. Democrat, Independent, or Republican, we have to agree. Big money undermines our democracy. That’s one of the few places where you find Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders on the same side of an issue.