Aifric Campbell is sipping coffee in a bar in London’s West End. Across the street are the former Morgan Stanley offices where she worked for 13 years, eventually running the international convertible-bond sales desk.
That experience suffuses “On the Floor,” her third novel, which is that rare work of fiction in which the financial world functions as more than mere backdrop. Its heroine, Geri Malloy, is a vodka-slamming trader in the middle of a hostile takeover.
The book’s appeal is broad enough to have landed it a spot on the long list for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction.
Campbell is a fast talker with a faded Irish accent. Wearing black dress pants with an embroidered velvet jacket, she manages to discuss ambition, depression and what banking taught her about writing before swapping heels for flats and dashing to her next meeting.
Anderson: “On the Floor” takes place during the lead-up to the Gulf War. Why set the novel when you did?
Campbell: I wanted that backdrop to broaden the context, though the war is just another variable for Geri. That was also when the business started to change.
I’m surprised that so much of the discussion of the financial crisis is focused on events in the immediate past, when really it was the movement of quants into the business that transformed everything.
Anderson: You’ve written since you were a kid. How did you get into banking?
Campbell: I was your accidental banker. I’d done a linguistics degree and applied for 40 jobs, mostly with publishers. I got two offers, one from British Airways -- air hostess -- the other, which I took, a marketing job with the Council of the Stock Exchange.
I had a ball for a year then got on to Morgan Stanley’s graduate training program. I was completely hooked.
Anderson: Geri has what you describe as a “moment of becoming,” when she sets the course of her career. Have you had a similar moment?
Campbell: I can remember vividly the first time I stepped on to the trading floor. My family was involved in greyhounds, so I spent a lot of time at the racetrack as a child, and there is the same feel of something about to happen.
That, combined with current affairs. You’re in the unfolding world and you have to respond very quickly to each new challenge.
Women at Work
Anderson: Like Geri, you didn’t have many female colleagues.
Campbell: I was struck that first time that these were all men but I didn’t see that as an obstacle.
Anderson: Was it sometimes a plus?
Campbell: I used to say to women I mentored, look, if there’s a room of 200 guys and you’re the only woman, at least they’re going to notice you.
So much of the conversation about women and work is about glass ceilings or obstacles. That wasn’t my experience. Of course it took me longer and of course I probably got paid less, but I took the view that merit would out.
The head of the trading floor who asked me off-the-record was I going to have children got his comeuppance -- he lost his job. I was pregnant when I got promoted to run the convertibles desk and they knew it.
Leaving the City
Anderson: Why did you leave?
Campbell: I went back to work after my maternity leave and four or five months later, everything just fell apart. I don’t think I even knew post-natal depression existed before then.
The firm was very good but it was over for me. When something like that happens you lose all sense of yourself. It was the right time, ironically, to do the thing that was the scariest, and just write a book.
Anderson: How have readers responded to Geri?
Campbell: I wasn’t prepared for the fact that a lot of female readers would find her an anti-heroine. I wonder if it’s to do with this female attitude toward ambition.
Attributes that are positive for men -- hard working, very focused, intensely competitive -- make women sound like bitches. They internalize it and attribute their success to luck, which is complete balls.
Anderson: What do you make of the financial crisis novels by writers outside the industry?
Campbell: It’s a very human story but there’s a lot of stereotyping. All that does is reinforce the idea that there’s only one villain in this story, that financiers are evil and there was some vague conspiracy as opposed to lots of incompetence. Where are all the politicians in these books? Everyone was at the party.
“On the Floor” is published by Serpent’s Tail (256 pages, 12.99 pounds). The Orange Prize shortlist will be announced on April 17 and the winner on May 30.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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