Article published on November 29, 2017.
After reading and reviewing Trading Down for Nudge, Paul Burke penned some questions for Stephen Norman:
Paul Burke: Congratulations on the publication of Trading Down; I really enjoyed reading your first novel. I recognise some of the things you write about, for example, the urgent conference call with people in various locations across the globe trying to identify a problem and fix it before it effects the trading operation. These days we hear a lot about cyber terrorism, data loss and personal banking services going down for a period of time. All of which is trivial compared to the meltdown in Trading Down. You tackle the idea of bringing a major bank to its knees and the wider implications for the economy. Your expertise imbues this thriller with real insight. So let’s start there. Trading Down is a thriller set in the world of banking. It would be helpful to start with a little bit of your background in the industry and how that shaped this novel. Can you tell us about that?
Stephen Norman: I got into banking in the early 90s. I worked in the IT departments of three investment banks during the next 20 years. I don’t know if I attracted disasters or the industry was just volatile but I’ve been through a lot. I worked as a turnaround project manager (like Gawain in TD) in various places: Tokyo, Hong Kong Milan Paris, New York. Then I got promoted and did Chris’ job, at Merrill Lynch. I was in a building next door to the World Trade Center on 911 and we lost our data centre and our trading floor. What happened that day and what we did in the following months made a deep impression on me. Later, I became the CTO of Merrill Lynch (so “Neil Jenkins” in the book) and I suffered two data centre meltdowns and spend nights praying that we would be back in business the next day. Finally, in 2005, I moved to RBS Global Markets back in London and became I suppose “Alexis van Buren” and went through the whole RBS disaster, buying ABN AMRO, going bust etc.
Paul Burke: Did you always know you wanted to write a novel or was it this particular story that drove the urge to write?
Stephen Norman: That’s a really good question. My children will tell you “this is the story Dad had to write.” And it’s true, because I think the world behind the scenes in a trading bank is an amazing place and I always wanted my Mum to know what on earth I did…and others. But I have always wanted to write a novel. No, let me correct that. I have always wanted to write a story that people enjoyed reading. I wrote a book back in the 90s and with luck, I will get that published now. I’ve always been a writer of one kind or another, even as a child.
Paul Burke: How does it feel to be a writer now, with fewer deadlines and a daily routine, it must be very different to what you were used to?
Stephen Norman: Yes and no. I have to exert more discipline. I try to write for 4 hours every day and not do anything else until I have done that. It worked with Trading Down. I have spent so many hundreds of hours on that book. I have thrown away many more pages than ever got published. I do find myself very busy.
Paul Burke: The scary thing about Trading Down is that the threat seems so real and given certain parameters not all that complicated to initiate. Are banking systems that vulnerable?
Stephen Norman: Every attack in Trading Down (and some of the other incidents, remember the “missing” memory stick?) are things that have happened to me. I have stood on broken trading floors and seen traders smashing keyboards etc. And yes, banking systems really are that vulnerable. You can’t have rapid change without risk, and at least the trading platforms are all about rapid change and so also fragile. I think we got better. The hardware is a lot better. But when it comes to cyberattacks, yes, the war is going on but the bad guys are mostly after money, not terrorism. They are highly organised criminal gangs. Islamic State in my humble opinion missed a trick. If they had concentrated on bringing down a bank using insiders, they could have inflicted a lot more damage on the Western world.
Paul Burke: We don’t seem to know much as a society about the dangers we face; I suppose we trust banks to be secure. Was part of the reason for writing Trading Down to highlight the flaws in the system? Did you feel the need to tell this story as a warning we need to heed?
Stephen Norman: Yes. And while writing it, I came to be more concerned than I was when I was in the thick of it, weirdly. The banking system and indeed the Internet are under greater stress than ever.
Paul Burke: This novel is about the possibility of a financial apocalypse. It could happen not just because of the threat of sabotage or terrorism but also system failures or human error. When you were at the bank did you have to live with this fear on a daily basis? If so, was it a cathartic experience to write the novel?
Stephen Norman: You learn to live with stress and the responsibility. My friends used to ask me “how can you sleep at night knowing that any one of a hundred failures will create a financial disaster, put the bank on the front page of the FT, and get you fired…” But you do. I can honestly say I was as stressed running a small and struggling software company (which I did after leaving college) as working in the finance industry.
Paul Burke: One of the strongest elements of the story is that it puts ordinary, if talented, individuals in an extreme situation. You don’t resort to a gun toting super spy to save the day, which a lot of financial thrillers do. Sometimes the financial issue is more of a McGuffin than the heart of the novel. Trading Down is a much more interesting read for having a different approach. Was it always your intention to stick firmly with the realistic plot and characters?
Stephen Norman: Yes. Always.
Paul Burke: Much of the early novel is actually about Chris Peters, a man working in a high pressure environment. I found that intense and revealing. How much of Chris Peters’ experience is based on your own time in banking?
Stephen Norman: Chris is technically smarter than me. BUT I struggled with work/life balance just like he does. And I struggled with taking the hard decisions (like sacking people), just as he did.
Paul Burke: Did you worry about the technical side of the novel, something that I think is very well handled, taxing non-expert readers a little bit?
Stephen Norman: I spend countless hours trying to get the balance right. I imagined that I was explaining things to my mother (which I used to do!). I wanted the technical experts to be happy reading it, but I wanted it to be accessible to a wider audience. I’m glad that you found it OK.
Paul Burke: You have said that this novel was a long time in the making; what was the toughest thing about writing Trading Down? Can you tell us a little bit about the process?
Stephen Norman: My sister Charity Norman (who has published five novels) told me that the 3 years it took her to get her first novel published were the loneliest years of her life. It was the same for me. It’s such a noisy world, it is hard to get heard. My agent (when I finally got one!) told me not to write a book about technology or finance. “It just makes it harder to sell.” But I knew that my children and friends were intrigued by my experiences and so I always believed I could make it appeal to a wider audience. The actual writing was a doddle by comparison with getting it published.
Paul Burke: Trading Down is a thriller but many of the thrills come from the tension of a normal but high pressure working environment. Was there ever a plan to just tell an IT banking story or did you always envision the thriller element?
Stephen Norman: Hmm. Yes, I think it started as an IT banking story and the thrill of cybercrime came later. But it’s all a bit hazy now!
Paul Burke: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now? Can we expect a follow up? Perhaps in the same vein?
Stephen Norman: Yes. I have two books that I’m working on. One is a sequel, of a sort. The other is completely different, an out and out thriller set in the world of competitive cycling.
Our thanks go to both Stephen and Paul for this insightful Q&A.
Stephen Norman’s cybercrime novel, Trading Down, is published by Endeavour Press and available on Amazon.