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Monday, December 10, 2012

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Norb Vonnegut, Author Our Coverage Sponsored by Stribling and Associates

Norb Vonnegut

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It's not who you know, it's WHOM YOU KNOW and no one knows that better than Norb Vonnegut, Grove O'Rourke and Jimmy Cusack. There's the old adage: write what you know and Norb exemplifies this. In 2009 Norb traded a successful career in wealth management for life as a full-time author and we are absolutely thrilled about his career transition and sincerely admire it. If you really know Peachy, such a path should sound familiar...His novels include The Trust, The Gods of Greenwich, and Top Producer, all of which were highly recommended by Whom You Know, and more is coming soon which will take the literary world by storm. They draw primarily from his days as a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley and PaineWebber in New York City.

"It was a soap opera," says Norb. "I have enough material to write the next fifty years—like the time Pablo Escobar's cousin tried to open an investment account with my team. That story is what inspired The Trust."

Prior to becoming a stockbroker, Norb worked as a commercial banker for Citibank in Manila and Chase Manhattan in Melbourne, Australia. He traveled extensively, both business and pleasure, and once bicycled 1,500 miles across Europe. Here too, the sights, sounds, yes the smells, and people he's encountered or heard about have found their way into his fiction.

In The Gods of Greenwich, for example, he tells the story of an old-line bank in Reykjavik that declares war on a hedge fund in Greenwich, CT. 

"In some ways, my two careers are remarkably similar," says Norb. "As an author I ask, 'What can go wrong?' That's the same question I asked when my team managed two billion dollars. [Peachy: We applaud such attention to Risk Management!] Only now instead of protecting client portfolios, I'm trying to take readers on a thrill ride through the what-ifs of Wall Street. The big difference is that I control the outcome—which probably comes as a relief if you're reading one of my books on the beach."

Norb is a graduate of Phillips Exeter, Harvard College, and Harvard Business School. He credits these institutions with providing him the tools to simplify the Byzantine world of Wall Street and make it accessible to everyone. Again, we draw parallels to Norb-this time with the prep school education-Whom You Know is named after Peachy's 10th grade English Class at Miss Porter's School taught by Mover and Shaker Rennie McQuilkin.

"Sometimes, readers tell me how much they've learned about Wall Street from my novels. That always surprises me. Because I'm really trying to explore the motivations of my characters as opposed to the incongruities of securities that bankers cook up. Just hearing about those products makes my teeth hurt."

The recurring hero in Norb's fiction, Grove O'Rourke, grew up in Charleston, SC. So did Norb. He was part of a humble, deeply Catholic, military family. The dinner conversations focused more on politics, or what the nuns had to say at school, than success on Wall Street.

Norb explains, "My childhood is one reason I describe the accoutrements of wealth. I never saw it as a kid. But the behavior of people in an industry, where everything is about big money, really intrigued me as an adult."

Norb lives in Narragansett, RI, a place with "quahogs," "big hairs," and other slices of Americana that will no doubt find a way into his fiction, and most famously on Whom You Know, home to Lucy Vonnegut. He spends much of his time in New York City, where he is a trustee for the American Foundation for the Blind.

"I love listening to audiobooks. Hemingway. Wolfe. I think James Lee Burke and Will Patton are the best author-narrator tag team in the business. The AFB was the first organization to record books on tape, which is how I came to learn about their mission. And now that I understand the importance of our work in the blindness community, I'm all in."

Norb has appeared on Bloomberg, Dylan Ratigan, and the Judith Regan Show among others.
"I wake up at 7:00 every morning," says Norb, "pad downstairs for a cup of coffee and flog myself until there are a thousand words on the page. Every so often, my dog interrupts. We disagree over who's the boss until I cave and say, 'Uncle.' This leads to long walks along the Narragansett beaches—where I try to keep ideas in my head."  We are absolutely thrilled to present Norb Vonnegut as our latest Mover and Shaker.  Peachy Deegan interviewed Norb Vonnegut for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is the first thing you wrote and what do you remember about it?
Norb Vonnegut: An essay during first or second grade. My teacher was a nun, and she asked us to describe what we wanted to be when we grew up. In those days, I dreamed of becoming the pope. I liked his hat, that and the way everybody respected him.

What should most of the world know about Wall Street and what are the most common misconceptions that can be cleared up?
Bad guys get 85 percent of the headlines. That’s a problem. There are plenty of good people on Wall Street—important to remember because we depend on our financial institutions for economic recovery. 

What would you change about Wall Street if you could change anything, and you can answer with more than one aspect...?
Level the regulatory playing field. There’s a long-term exodus of smart people from the Morgans and Goldmans of the world. The less-regulated financial institutions, the ones responsible for this brain drain, wield considerable financial clout because of their ability to borrow money and take massive, principal positions. I’m not sure anyone will know what the big hedge funds are cooking up until it’s too late.

How did Exeter influence you and how did you like it? Did your children also attend?
I love Phillips Exeter. It’s where I met my wife Mary, even though I wasn’t in her target market in those days. (We re-connected at our Fifth Reunion, had two dates, and moved to Australia together.) Our kids did not attend, which was just fine with us. We were able to keep them at home for an extra few years.  
Exeter was my first real look at the world outside Charleston, SC. The great thing about being away from home—in a boarding school full of smart teenagers—is that everybody’s keen to acquire knowledge even if there was no immediate purpose for it. My classmates and I enjoyed the sciences, art, humanities, a little of everything. That experience was a real gift. 

How did Harvard influence you and how did you like it? Did your children also attend?
I had terrific teachers in Asian studies, English literature and Greek classics at Harvard College. Alan Trustman, who wrote Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair for Steve McQueen, taught a film course that I’ll never forget. The biggest influence were my classmates, friends that are an integral part of my life now. I had eight roommates, and we’re all close still. 

Lucy is ridiculously cute and highly photogenic. But, I suspect, her diva outlook on life is what garners the attention. 

How does Lucy maintain her boss position?
Persistence. Sometimes when I’m typing, she’ll shove her nose on my keyboard and won’t go away until I take her out to play. She’s a princess, who won’t be denied.

What do you miss about your Wall Street career?
You’ve heard that expression “kids do the darnedest things”? So do the people on Wall Street. I miss the morning-after stories about what happened last night with so and so. Oh, I still get the dirt. It just takes a little while longer.  
This weekend, for example, I received a photo of a hedgie washing his hands with $900 champagne over a stainless steel bucket used to chill bottles at the table. His hands bubbly clean, the hedgie then bribed the waiter to fill two champagne flutes with the bucket refuse and send the glasses over to a former client who had pulled his account. 
Yuk. The ex-clients drank the nasty, dirty, filthy, $900 champagne. It was, I suppose, a Wall Street equivalent to that special scene from The Help. Unlike the book/movie, however, I doubt anybody feels like cheering the hedgie. I know I’m not. 

What do you not miss about your Wall Street career?
The morning hours. I’m a night owl. Paying attention to a 7:20 A.M. research call was brutal. I lived on double-shot venti mochas.

What is the hardest aspect about being a writer?
Juggling. Authors are not only writers. We’re also entrepreneurs. Every morning, I flog myself until there are 1,000 words on the page. Then, I start a second job, which is promoting what a write. There is no Field of Dreams component to the life of authors. “Write it, and they will come.” This career is a business.  
I’ve been a full-time author since 2009, which means I’m still in the startup phase—a grueling and glorious time for any entrepreneur. 

Have you ever heard or seen a trader take estrogen or did you make that up?
You’re referring to one of the threads in The Gods of Greenwich. I have never seen a trader taking estrogen, but there was a lawsuit several years ago involving a prominent hedge fund near Greenwich. Hint: the fund keeps its trading floor at 69 degrees.  
An ex-employee charged that his boss had pressured him to take estrogen. He did. And among other things, the ex-employee’s marriage fell apart. He developed a fondness for stockings. This story worked its way around the Wall Street blogosphere for a while.  
There are some things you just can’t make up. 

How are you able to make the reader so sucked into your novels that they will undoubtedly be up all night reading until they are finished?
Thank you for your kind words, Peachy. 

Where do you enjoy bicycling the most and why?
Rhode Island. The terrain is flat, which I admit—I like. The breakdown lanes are wide. The ocean views are spectacular, and I can always count on red wine and the world’s best spaghetti Bolognese at the end of my twenty-five mile loop. 

What should our readers know about the American Foundation for the Blind?‬
The American Foundation for the Blind (“AFB”) is your first call for every aspect of vision loss. ‬‬‬If your child has lost his or her sight, call us. If you require help understanding the needs of vision-impaired workers (perhaps returning Vets) in your office, call us. If you’re wondering how to take away the car keys from a parent because of macular degeneration, call us.  
For over ninety years—ever since Helen Keller got us started—we’ve been helping people cope with blindness. We need your support, though. And I ask you to visit our website and make a donation.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
My father. He was a woodworker in his spare time. He taught me to measure twice and cut once.

What are you proudest of and why?
Our kids. Both are pursuing their dreams, what they want to do as opposed to what my wife and I want them to do. Our son is programming for a startup in San Francisco. Our daughter is getting a double major in South Asian studies and studio arts at Colgate. 

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I’m dying to write a screenplay. I just saw Argo and think Ben Affleck set the gold standard for Hollywood with his movie. I’d love to get involved with a project like that.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
I’m still a relatively new author and have been fortunate to receive some acclaim. Top Producer was published in 2009, part of a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. It was a featured pick of the Today show and SmartMoney Magazine. The New York Times selected The Gods of Greenwich for its 2011 beach reads and, more recently, Janet Maslin praised The Trust in her review this summer. I am published in ten countries, and while none of these successes qualify as an award, my view is that those things happen when they happen. My goal as an author is to write every book better than the last. After that, everything else sorts itself out.

What one word best describes you and why?
Tenacious. My novels average about 100,000 words each. I probably make ten corrections per word, which means that I write up to 1 million words per book when you consider all the edits and re-writes. Yikes.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
The Red Flame Diner on West 44 with an egg-white omelet, glass of fresh orange juice, and a copy of the New York Times.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
It’s the Apple store just off Central Park. I love my gadgets.

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
Raymond Kelly from NYPD. The primary reason is that I’d benefit from his expertise on investigative procedure. But, frankly, I’d also like to have him in the office just to hear about life behind the scenes at NYPD.
How about it, Commissioner?  [Note from Peachy: We suggest you go to Peg's gala as we always see him there.]

What is your favorite drink?
Vodka martini made with Grey Goose and served with a lemon twist. I like the martini shaken so hard that shards of ice float throughout the drink. 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
Our last dog—not Lucy—squatted on the shoes of a lawyer known for handling mob business and relieved herself. 
It’s funny now, but I wasn’t laughing back then.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
Right now, it’s Shun Lee. The Chinese restaurants in Narragansett leave something to be desired. So when I travel to NYC, I generally need a fix of spring rolls.

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature?
I’ll go with something current, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer. If you haven’t read the book yet, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. The trivia about NYC, even though the book is fiction, is worth the price alone. But if you’re like me, you’ll lose yourself in the hands of a consummate storyteller.

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
One of the top competitors during a stage in the 2013 Tour de France. I’d like to experience that level of cycling competition at least one day in my life. 

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
The bike path that runs from the West Side highway, around the tip of Manhattan, and up the East River. Aside from the fact that I love bicycling, I think this park is one of the many, many offerings that make Manhattan great. 

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
In 2002, I bicycled from the site of the World Trade Center to the Pentagon over the course of three days. The event was a 300-mile, three-day charity ride in memory of 9/11 victims. I think 2,000 people participated, including many disabled athletes. It was an extraordinary experience.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Seeing a Broadway production in Times Square.

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
Dorothy Parker. Nobody in the history of mankind, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, has ever had a sharper tongue. I strive to incorporate the quality of her wit into the dialogue of my characters. 

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
Jersey Boys—this musical makes for a magical evening. I saw the show with my extended family, and I’ll never forget my 80-year-old mother, on the eve of two hip replacements, dancing in the aisles at the end of the production.

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
I serve as a trustee on the American Foundation for the Blind—although the truth is, it’s an honor to be involved with the organization.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Underrated: meatloaf
Overrated: champagne

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
Manhattan Tips. These days I’m spending less time in NYC, Peachy, so I depend on you to find the best in fine restaurants.

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
Not yet, Peachy. No excuse. I hope we can correct that when I’m in NYC next. Maybe we can do a video for your website. 

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I love meeting with book clubs. There’s nothing better than connecting with readers in person. I get to NYC all the time. So if your club has an interest—send me an email. I’ll come prepared with great stories—my mother’s world famous shrimp casserole, how 5,000 bald-faced hornets ate my first novel, my most embarrassing moment as an author, you get the point…

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?
You can send an email through or like my page on Facebook, Norb Vonnegut Books, and leave me a message. I try to answer everybody. 
Thank you very much! 

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