Stephen Frey, author of over a dozen best-selling financial and political thrillers, including the Red Cell Trilogy, tells us that it’s not just what you know, it’s where you live, that makes for great fiction.
We stand side-by-side on the seventh floor of 23 Wall Street, staring down across Broad Street at the main entrance to the New York Stock Exchange. It’s six o’clock in the evening of October 19, 1987.
“What now?” my friend asks somberly.
We’re young associates in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions group. We recently joined the firm after graduating from business school—and spending a boatload on tuition.
“I’m defaulting on my student loan and enlisting in the army.” I look over at him. “You?”
He nods at the window in front of us. “I’m jumping.”
The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 508 points today, Black Monday. It’s a one-session drop of 23% which translates into trillions of lost dollars. We’re assuming we won’t have jobs in the morning. Many people around the country won’t.
“We want you to use pre-agreed upon words on pre-agreed upon pages in your novels. That would allow us to communicate covertly with our people in-country.”
My fork stops halfway to my lips as the man I’m having lunch with speaks up quietly from his seat beside me at the table of a well-known Washington restaurant. Arranged by a mutual friend, this was supposed to be a casual meet-and-greet with a guy from State who, in return for a good steak, would give me cool ideas for the thriller I was writing.
A week later terrorists fly a plane into the Pentagon. We could have seen that plane from the restaurant.
A week after 9/11 I call my friend in New York City. The one I’d worked with at JP Morgan in the late-eighties. A few years before, he’d taken a job with another investment firm, and his office was high up in one of the Trade Towers. I fear the worst as his home phone rings, but for some reason he doesn’t understand, he took that horrible day off to go fishing with his kids. He hadn’t gone fishing in years.
I never heard back from that guy at State about using code words in my novels. Or maybe I did.
In 2014 almost everyone in the country has an opinion on whether the Washington Redskins football team should keep using that name or drop it out of respect to Native Americans.
A few weeks ago I’m in a local mall when someone passes a nasty remark to a prominent Redskins player about how he should refuse to play on Sundays as long as the owner keeps using the name. Fortunately, the player takes the high road and doesn’t engage even as the man keeps harassing him. Maybe he agrees with the man, maybe he doesn’t. But getting into it at a mall with a fanatic won’t solve anything.
However, the incident gives me an excellent idea for a scene in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m halfway through the manuscript.
I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life in and around New York and Washington—cities in which, often times, local news equals national news. That compelling point was made to me recently by a savvy young woman at Thomas & Mercer, my publisher.
And, as I started thinking about my writing career in that context, I realized what a profound effect physical closeness to that phenomenon has had on me in terms of writing what I know. I started my career in 1994 penning (literally) novels set in the financial world. When I moved to Washington in 2000, those “financial thrillers” quickly gained more and deeper political threads. And now that I’ve been here in DC for a while, my genre has become ninety-nine percent political.
“Write what you know” is the oldest and most often used adage in the publishing world, and it can be interpreted in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily mean that only doctors should write medical thrillers. But, in my case, it’s pretty clear that the Proximity Factor has set the tone for everything I’ve ever written.