How did you become a writer?
By contractually obligating myself to do so. I worked in Morgan Stanley’s derivatives group during the 1990s. After I left, I decided I had to tell the story of how people in that group had gleefully ripped off clients. I contacted Michael Lewis, the writer, who put me in touch with his agent, who put me in touch with W.W. Norton, and within a week I had a book deal for F.I.A.S.C.O.– and suddenly I was a writer.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Through my early 20s I was more of a reader than a writer. As a child, I loved fantasy, especially Tolkien. I read every Hardy Boys book. I read most of Stephen King. After high school, I became obsessed with William Gaddis and read a lot of experimental fiction. I also began reading The Economist regularly. I was a math major so I was attracted to the crisp precision of the writing there. I was probably a little too fixated on Strunk and White at the time, but I was interested in well-ordered writing and I read a bunch of writing manuals even though I didn’t write much. There’s a math geek for you.
After law school, I clerked for Judge Michael Mukasey in New York. He suggested I read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” carefully, which I did – along with most of Orwell’s essays. Then, for a year, the judge line-edited the memos and draft opinions I wrote, and showed me how to be more precise and transparent. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to learn from numerous superb editors: Andrew Franklin at Profile, Star Lawrence at Norton, John Sterling at Henry Holt, Clive Priddle and Niki Papadopoulos at Public Affairs, and my superstar agent, Theresa Park. They are all genius teachers.
When and where do you write?
Mostly at my home in San Diego. My yellow lab, Fletch, lies at my feet and encourages me. I don’t write at a particular time. It comes in bursts; I’ll often go a week or so without writing a word.
What are you working on now?
I go back and forth between writing trade books and publishing academic work (i.e., stuff no one reads). I’m now entering an academic phase, with several research projects on financial market regulation: riveting stuff like the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the loss causation requirement in securities class actions. But while I’m up in the ivory tower, I also think about my next trade press book: I read, take notes, and do a few interviews. Right now, I’m considering two topics: epistemology and American football. My wife prefers the former. I just know she does. (Yes, I like book topics that generate bad jokes, WAIT being the most extreme so far.)
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really, except with beginning paragraphs. I tend to write, rewrite, stare at – and hate – the introduction the entire time I’m working on a book. I obsess about it. I yell at the first paragraph. I despise the first word. And then, when I’ve nearly finished the last chapter, I go back to the beginning, delete it all, and write something fresh. I love slaughtering those evil words at the end.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Have some unique experiences before you start writing. Learn something no other writer knows. Develop expertise. Then, start specific and narrow. Write what you uniquely know.
Frank Partnoy is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the complexities of modern finance and financial market regulation. He is a frequent media commentator and has written dozens of essays for The New York Times, The Financial Times, and The New York Review of Books. His books include F.I.A.S.C.O., Infectious Greed, The Match King, and, most recently, WAIT: The Art and Science of Delay.