J.R. Moehringer discusses one inspiration for his debut novel about real-life bank robber Willie Sutton: his anger over 2008's financial meltdown
In your novel, Sutton, the villain is less the bank robber than the banks, which are evil in ways that seem familiar. Did you have the modern financial situation in mind?
The global financial crisis was just unfolding as I was considering what to write next, and the source for the book was my anger at what was happening in the world. I really wanted to write about economic pain and joblessness and the history of bank-caused crises in this country. I started thinking of different ways to get at that subject, and that got me thinking of people who hate banks as much as I did at that moment, which got me thinking of Willie Sutton. I thought it might be cathartic to explore my anger about banks by inhabiting the skin of somebody who took them down at a prolific rate.
What sort of research did you do?
I started by requesting FBI files, and then visited all the places Willie mentions in his two memoirs. I talked to his granddaughter. I talked quite a lot to the daughter of Willie’s second ghostwriter. I read his memoirs over and over, which completely contradict each other. I mean, hilariously contradict each other. It is amazing how the FBI files contradict the police files, which contradict his own books, which contradict the newspaper accounts, which contradict each other.
At the time, a lot of people considered Sutton a kind of hero. What do you think?
I do not think he was a hero, and I was really careful not to glamorize him. I have no love for lawbreakers, and I have no sympathy for serial bank robbers — or robbers of any kind. I thought it was interesting that he was lionized. It showed how deep the pain went. Banks had completely screwed up the world, and as a result millions of people couldn’t find jobs. He turned to bank robbing because he felt he had no choice. I wanted the book to just simply ask the question, Is it fair that a bank robber gets 75 years in prison whereas a banker who robs his bank and drives the world into an abyss gets $75 million? That was a question that was certainly being asked, but I wanted to ask it in a different way.