'Bond Girl': Erin Duffy on her Wall Street roman a clef
After she was laid off from Merrill Lynch in 2008, Erin Duffy decided not to jump back into the Wall Street game. Instead, she used what she saw in the workplace to write Bond Girl, a roman à clef that reveals the behind-the-scenes story of a young woman working in a male-dominated industry. Just before the 2008 financial collapse, 22-year-old Alex Garrett joins the bond sales team at Cromwell Pierce, where she encounters unwanted sexual advances, office pranks, and the type of truly odd behavior that can only be found on Wall Street (wheeling a $1,000 block of cheese across New York; a secretary who throws weekend slumber parties in the office). EW’s Sara Vilkomerson wrote, “Bond Girl is a sparkling debut, smart and snappy but never weighed down by financial terminology. Who knew Wall Street could be this much fun?” Read below for Duffy’s thoughts on the book and women in finance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How exactly did you go from finance to published author?
ERIN DUFFY: Not exactly a normal career progression, I guess. What happened was, I was on a fixed-income sales desk for nine years and then 2008 happened and the firm that I worked at basically disappeared. I found myself out of a job, and I knew then especially that I wasn’t going to be able to get another one. No one was exactly hiring in the fall of 2008. [Writing a novel about Wall Street] was sort of something that I always wanted to do while I was working and living it – the things that would happen I sort of filed away in the back of my brain. Like, “People would never believe this if you told them.” You sort of had to see it to believe it. That’s what I did with my unemployment. I just sat down and started writing. Like I said, never in a million years did I think it’d get me here. A lot of it was dumb luck and in a sick way, getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. I should call up the guy who let me go and thank him!
Your novel has an amazing hook. Were agents and publishers immediately interested?
Yes, I actually had pretty amazing feedback. I think if I remember correctly, there were five different publishers who bid for it, which was completely nuts. Actually, you’ll find this amusing: I didn’t realize that my manuscript should have been double-spaced, so I actually wrote basically the new testament of women’s fiction. I wrote 300 pages single-spaced and in the wrong font, so when my agent actually got it and read it and put it into the normal format, it was over 700 pages. [Laughs] They were like, “We need to whittle this down a little bit.” So I spent a couple of months basically hacking it in half, and then sort of reassembling it and putting it back together, so going forward, that’s something that those books, How to Write a Novel, should tell you in chapter one: Double-space your pages.
Bond Girl covers the worst of Wall Street but also some of the best. Do you look back on your time in finance fondly?
I absolutely do. To be very honest, one of the reasons that I wanted to write this is that when everything was blowing up, and obviously it still is today, everything was so negative. All the stories about all the CEOs and the stupid things they were doing and the money they were spending — the whole profession got vilified so badly, and that wasn’t my experience. Obviously there are always going to be a few people who ruin the reputations of everybody else, but the normal rank-and-file people who are actually doing their jobs every day I thought were being really unfairly smashed. I wanted to humanize them, and maybe show that yes, there’s excess and it’s a man’s world and all that stuff, but there are good people who work there with good personalities who genuinely care about each other, and that’s something I don’t think anybody had really examined.
The most striking part of the book is all the sexism and blatant sexual harassment Alex experiences in the workplace.
I think any time you have a workplace that’s heavily weighted to men just by the nature of what it is, the same way you can say PR or fashion is heavily occupied by women, there’s always going to be a little bit of that sexism. I don’t know how much of it necessarily is “real” or just kind of an act for show, like, “We gotta rip on the girl.” It definitely exists, but I don’t think it’s as widespread as people would expect. Especially not in this age. I don’t know what it was like in the ’80s. That said, there are always going to be certain guys who don’t want to take a phone call from a woman or don’t want to take advice from a woman, but they would probably be like that if they were doctors or lawyers or anything else.
You mentioned in the acknowledgements that you changed some names and nicknames. How much of the novel is what really happened to you, only with the names changed?
For the most part – don’t get me wrong, it’s fiction, and some of it is completely fabricated – the people I worked with, if they read it, would be able to decipher certain sayings or quality traits. All the characters are kind of compilations of a bunch of different people and a bunch of different attitudes. It’s kind of a little bit of both if that makes sense — not everything was real or something happened in some variation tweaked. I mean, the cheese wheel happened! Not because someone came in late, but it actually happened to a woman who went out for lunch and came back a couple glasses of wine deep, and they decided that she shouldn’t be on phones, so that’s what they did with her to keep her busy for the afternoon rather than sending her home and rewarding her. [Laughs] Certain things like that have some truth to them. People seem to think that’s hysterical. Everyone who’s read it, that’s the first thing they say. You almost couldn’t make it up.
What is it about the industry that creates such stories and characters?
I think the industry in general by definition is a social one. It’s a lot of entertaining and schmoozing of people and things like that. The people who are drawn to it and do well at it are naturally kind of outgoing, funny, and social people. There aren’t a lot of, for lack of a better word, “bookworms.” You’re already starting off with a lot of type-A off-the-wall people. Secondly, there are so many of you in one room. We don’t have cubicles or offices or anything like that. When you have a couple hundred people in one huge space, that’s gonna lead to jokes and it’s a breeding ground for practical jokes and teasing. It’s almost like a frat house for grown men. You’re on phones, you’re usually going out at night, so people are spending more time with each other than they spend with their spouses or girlfriends. You develop familial, very close-knit type relationships that if you work in another industry where you’re not required to go out four nights a week with each other, you wouldn’t necessarily have that. You get to know each other very well. There’s no privacy. You know everybody’s quirks, everybody’s fears, and you know, when you get bored, it’s an easy thing to do to kind of prey on them. That’s really the best way I could describe it.
The novel is an interesting look at the people at a financial firm leading up to the Great Recession, but it’s not at all about what caused it.
Right. No one wants to read a math book. I figure if people want to read that they should read Michael Lewis. There are people who will do that way better than I ever could. I didn’t want it to be so much about the events so much as how the events affected the people. It was more about the psychological impact on the people who worked there than the actual mechanics of everything.
I was shocked, because when the layoffs happen in the book, it’s heartbreaking. It’s like reading about your fave characters dying.
It was really hard because we were having round after round after round of layoffs. I’d been there for almost ten years and I was watching people that I literally saw every single day for 10 years. All of a sudden, they’re gone. You become almost like a family. The dynamics of everything just change when people start to leave. When I got let go, I cried my eyes out for 15 minutes. I wasn’t even crying because of the job because at that point I was so exhausted by everything. I remember saying, “I can’t believe I’m not going to see you guys tomorrow.” Then you wake up the next morning and you’re sad. You wonder what you missed or what other funny stories they have that you’re not a part of anymore. Emotionally, I think that’s really hard. They’re not just your colleagues. They’re your friends.
You got people to care about these people who are kind of vilified in the media.
That was one of the hardest things because people’s instincts when they hear about finance layoffs is not to care. They don’t wanna like you. Most people if they don’t understand it it’s easy for them to feel compassion for them or feel bad for them. It’s “Cry Me a River.” You lost your job but how much money did you make while you were there kind of thing. I think that’s something a lot of people would struggle with and something I kind of wanted to hoped to change the perception of a little bit.
The cover of your book has a big ol’ Louboutin on it. Do you worry that your book will get grouped into a certain genre?
I myself am a fan of chick-lit! This could be a huge generalization, but I think for the most part I know a lot more women who are active readers than are men. I think in that way, why is that so bad? You’re almost skewing your book toward the majority of people who read them. I think there are a lot of fun aspects of being a woman writing about women. If you can make people laugh along the way and make them feel not so bad about themselves because somebody else has it worse, that’s not a bad thing either. The feedback that I got when I was talking to publishers and trying to sell it, what they liked about it was that it was a different type of industry. It wasn’t about fashion or PR or like the Nanny Diaries — babysitting or roles that are typically for women. They liked that this sort of a chick-lit take on a job that typically is done by a man.
It’s a nuanced portrayal of men and women, too. Not all the women in the office are nice.
Definitely not! I’ll tell you, some of the toughest people – not all of them – to work with and work for were women. They have maybe either higher expectations of the younger girls. Because they’re female, they can kind of be rougher on you to sort of help you grow. A woman is not going to be afraid to make you cry. A man would feel bad. A woman would tell you suck it up. “You want to be here? This is what it’s going to be.” I think in a lot of ways they feel like better they do it than a man does. They kind of want to break you first. [Laughs] There’s always that female competitive thing going on no matter what. No matter how old you are or what part of life you’re in.
What are you writing next?
I left the ending open a little bit in case Alex wants to come back somewhere in some form of life. I’m working on a second novel now. It’s not a sequel. It’s all new people. The girls are in their 30s, and it’s not Sex and the City type stuff, but it’s just sort of a whole different set of issues. It’s going to take place on the beach. We’re moving out of the city, we’re moving out of finance, we’re moving out of everything.
You can always come back to finance, right?
Exactly. It can always come back. I wanted to wrap up Bond Girl but not wrap it up so much that there’s nowhere for her to go.
This book would make such an amazing movie. Who’d play Alex?
It’s funny. My friends and everyone have been having these conversations. It’s kind of hard because you need someone who’s got a little bit of an edge. She can’t be too kewpie looking and someone who can hold her own. If this were going to be a movie, there’d be a lot of male characters and one or two females. You’d have to be able to kind of stand up to that but you’d have to be young, so it’s a little bit tricky. Do you know who I really like? Kat Dennings. I love her. The way she speaks and the way she acts. She’s sarcastic and she’s dry. Someone like that I think would be awesome.