Former Morgan Stanley managing director Aifric Campbell reflects on the financial crisis and what led her to create the world of a brilliant, burned-out banker in her new novel, On the Floor.
What prompted you to write about your former profession?
The first time I stepped onto a trading floor it was like stepping onto a film set. It’s a performance—you’re working in public and the outcome of your day, whether you make a lot of money or you lose a lot of money, is very visible. You work under intense pressure, very close to people, in volatile conditions. It’s perfect ground for anyone who’s interested in human drama.
What books and authors helped you bring the world of On the Floor to life?
I’m a huge fan of Michael Lewis. We are contemporaries—when Liar’s Poker came out [my colleagues and I] were all looking it up to see if we knew anyone in the book. I have to say, the most recent [book that influenced me] was American Psycho. People don’t talk much about the fact that Patrick Bateman was a Wall Street financier. To me at the time, Bret Easton Ellis was the first person to write about this weird feeling in the 1980s where everything was on the surface.
On the Floor came out in the U.K. last year and was longlisted for the Orange Prize. What surprised you the most about readers’ reactions?
The book came out right in the middle of the financial crisis and it’s interesting how much readers really engage with that closed world that a few years ago nobody was interested in. Nobody asked you questions about your job—they asked you what you earned or what you thought was going up. The other big thing was how many women would come up after readings and say, “It’s really nice to read about a woman who’s at work all the time and is really engaged in her career, and who’s not hopelessly falling in love with men.”
How has banking changed since 1991, when On the Floor is set?
That was the beginning of a seismic shift in the industry that sowed the seeds for everything that unraveled 20 years later. The people who were running these businesses didn’t have a clear picture of what was going on. It’s a story of incompetence, negligence, hubris, greed—but the only difference really over time is that the numbers got bigger. There’s a tendency to look at the financial crisis as if it has just to do with bankers. It’s a much bigger problem than that—it has to do with human behavior.