It’s shortly after 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, and banker-turned-novelist Alex Preston is sipping a latte in a London cafe, reflecting on how life has changed since he quit the City in May 2010.
“I sleep a lot better now,” he says. “There were things about it that were incredibly attractive besides the money, but at my core I was pretty miserable because I didn’t get to see enough of my kids. I was always reading a book inside an annual report.”
He was also going home and writing each night. His first novel, “This Bleeding City,” was published while he was global head of trading in the Carlyle Group LP’s leveraged finance division.
It tells the story of a hedge fund analyst who forgets he’s left his baby son locked in a baking car.
“It was sort of spewed,” explains the 33-year-old Oxford graduate, whose eight-year City career, which included a spell as an investment banker at ABN Amro Bank NV, began as a two-year plan to get rich and get out to pursue his true vocation: literature.
“I’ve always felt a desperate need to write, but of course you’re dumb and you get sucked in,” he says.
Preston confessed he was tempted by the greed of banking, too. The ruthless competition was the inspiration for his first novel.
“There were a lot of non-fiction books dryly unpicking asset-backed securities and CDOs etcetera,” he says. “There didn’t seem to be at the time any story about the people behind it. It seemed to me that CDOs don’t kill people, traders do.”
His former life also haunts his second novel. “The Revelations” is about four London friends who are drawn into a charismatic religious movement called “the Course.” When one of the group vanishes, it takes on a thriller-like cast.
The idea is based on the Alpha Course, a practical introduction to Christianity, whose headquarters happen to be across the road from us in Holy Trinity Brompton. Preston, a former choirboy who embraced atheism as a student, attended the course there in 2005, tagging along with a friend.
He was already working in the City, surrounded by people who were active Alpha members or had at least done the course. Too cynical to become a believer himself, he nevertheless saw its appeal.
“It’s massively attractive to bankers,” he says. “I would think the bankers are pretty attractive to the course, too, given that they pay their 10 percent of earnings. It’s a very abstract world, the City. You live in numbers and currency signs. And it’s a very alienating world. There’s definitely something cult-like about it.”
When “This Bleeding City” was published, he says he was inundated with letters from the wives and girlfriends of finance folk, thanking him for opening up their secretive world.
Though he’s wary of becoming known as the guy who writes about bankers, City types hover throughout “The Revelations.” Hedge-fund managers loiter after the church service, hoping to glean tradable tidbits. “Gym-inflated bankers” spill from a pub and slap a passing woman on her bottom.
The Mercedes-driving preacher is also a former banker, though Preston says he drew his voice from the world of politics.
“The priest is based entirely upon Tony Blair,” he says. “I wanted to channel the disappointment of seeing our former prime minister grubbing around on the floor for five-pound notes as he’s doing with his life now. And also that sense of style over substance.”
Preston’s own style is studiedly literary these days, from his rumpled shirt and cardigan to his heavy-framed spectacles. He observed the antics of London’s Occupy offshoot with interest, in particular the decision to set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral.
“It makes a very strong point -- this is what the Church should have been doing. It’s shameful that they haven’t. Occupy seemed like a physical manifestation of the City’s conscience where religion would once have been.” Barclays Plc, he notes, was founded as a Quaker bank.
Did he find that Alpha helped make his colleagues better human beings?
“I think there is a form of antinomianism about it,” he says, “whereby if you say sorry enough on a Sunday, you can do what you like in the working week. It seemed to me that Alpha was particularly forgiving of financial misdeeds but then hugely punitive on sex.”
Speaking of which, “The Revelations” contains lashings of the stuff. Though his publisher drew the line at a particularly steamy scene on a boat, Preston has already installed it in his next novel, a historical tale which he says features not one banker and unfolds far from London’s counting houses, in Italy.
Not that he’s fully turned his back on the financial world. When is it set? Just after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
“The Revelations” is published by Faber (326 pages, 12.99 pounds). To buy the book in North America, for $19.57, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)