Phillip Y Kim worked for over twenty-five years in the finance industry at companies such as Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley. Nothing Gained is his first novel.
The cutthroat world of Asia’s wealthiest is governed by one basic truth: one must take in order to possess. So, when an influential banker drowns, the biggest casualty is the truth. His wife Cheryl is left with more questions than answers, and as she begins to unpick his complicated business affairs shady men from a world of secret and corrupt transactions begin to emerge from the woodwork looking for what they are owed.
Shanghaiist: You have worked in the finance industry for over twenty-five years, why did you decide to write a novel, and what in particular inspired you to write Nothing Gained?
Phillip Y Kim: I’ve always had creative urges, but was too busy over the years working as an investment banker to properly address them. However, I had accumulated many fascinating and intriguing experiences over the years, and the need to put them in writing finally became irresistible. I chose to write a novel because I felt that I could tell a better story by doing more than just presenting fact. Non-fiction would have also involved exposing too many people and embarrassing matters better left undercover!
Are you a writer or a banker? Have you always wanted to write a thriller, have you written anything else, and do you plan to continue writing?
I am currently both a writer and banker. For the past dozen years, I have been affiliated with boutique investment banks where I have a more flexible schedule than at a large bank. I originally set out to write a satirical novel, however, the plot idea drove me in the direction of a thriller. I have also written several short stories, some of which deal with twisted finance-related personalities. I am currently conducting research for my next book.
Did your years in banking give you enough insight into the world, characters, and situations you came to write about in Nothing Gained, or did you do a lot of new research? What type of research did you do?
The years in banking gave me loads of industry insight and oodles of plot ideas and character elements, so not much additional research was needed. One area of research that I did was in relation to the Macau casino scene. I knew that I had to weave that world into my story, but I had no direct business experience in Macau. I therefore sought out and interviewed people I knew who knew the industry well. Other than Macau, I did some research into the investigative process undertaken by Hong Kong’s regulators – the Securities and Futures Commission.
How do you expect those in the finance industry to react/how have those in the finance industry reacted to your book?
When I originally told my finance friends and colleagues about my story idea, a few expressed some concern that my book might come off as an expose of the industry. However, so much has come out in the media in the past few years about the antics of “bad” bankers that many in the industry are either numbed or bemused by public sentiment. Generally, the feedback that I have gotten from my banker friends who have read the book has been positive. They were entertained. And I can still sleep with the lights off.
The Executive Vice President of the Hong Kong Exchange read Nothing Gained and said that it ‘Zooms in on the global financial crisis from an Asian perspective.’ What part did Asia and people living in Asia play in the financial crisis and why did you make it the focal point of the action in your novel?
Asia had very little to do with causing the recent subprime-related financial crisis. That situation rose from an industry run amok in the US and the UK. In fact, sovereign funds in Asia helped the world avoid total economic catastrophe by continuing to fund US debt and committing capital to banks. However, Asia has contributed its share of financial crises over the past twenty years, including in 1997, as well as the collapse of Peregrine Investments and Baring Brothers. The tides of hot money that slosh around Asia combined with loose, inconsistently applied government oversight keep the region’s risk premium at an elevated level.
Has the crisis had a significant impact on the finance industry/life generally in Asia and in what way?
The global financial crisis has had less impact in Asia than elsewhere in the world. Asia is still the fastest growing region, and capital has continued to flow into it. Nevertheless, growth has slowed and asset values have corrected over the past four years.
Do you think that the recent global financial crisis was caused by shady bankers like the ones in your book?
The recent global financial crisis was a function of an ill-constructed and malfunctioned system, rather than simply the behavior of shady individuals. The problem was the conflicts-of-interest, lack of accountability and moral hazards that came to characterize the global banking sector. Gordon Gekko types were free to pop up everywhere.
Macau’s casinos still seem to be booming – do you think this will continue or are they in for a rude awakening?
Macau is still going strong. Even after its amazing growth ramp over the past decade, investors are optimistic about the territory’s prospects. Gambling in Macau will benefit from an increase in middle class gamblers rather than VIP junket-driven high rollers. Gambling is in the Chinese DNA, and many in the mainland have yet to fully satisfy their appetites.
To what extent are the characters in your novel based on real life people, do you think there are any real-life Howard Leitners in HK now? Is your archetypal HK investment banking playboy Winston Chan based on anyone in particular?
Other than one character (who I will not name!), all other characters are loosely stitched composites of people I have encountered over the years, or drawn from my imagination. Friends who have read drafts of the book have commended me for disguising people well. In any event, Hong Kong, China and Asia abound with scummy, sleazy characters like Howard and Winston whose ambitions trample their morality. So there is no shortage of inspiration for colorfully nasty characters.
Like you, Cheryl is Korean American and lives in Hong Kong – did being Korean American influence your writing in any other ways? Did it affect the way you wrote Cheryl’s relationship with her parents?
The primary reason I made Cheryl a Korean American was to feel closer to her emotionally. Her relationship with her father is influenced by what is not uncommon in Korean immigrant families. Also, her feelings of isolation as a third culture person in Hong Kong trying to make sense of her circumstances was important to her psychological make up.
The locations and settings in Nothing Gained are often very specific, places that exist in real life – why did you choose to make use of non-fictional places in your novel and why did you choose these places in particular? Is K.C. Goh’s pleasure palace based in fact?
I was paid millions of dollars for product placements, a rarity for a first-time author. OK, I’m kidding. I simply wanted to make the setting more realistic and immediate for those who have spent time in Asia and know the place. I hope that one of the key hooks to the story is its believability.
Goh’s place combines elements from night clubs that I have witnessed or heard about – it is an exaggerated composite. I have no doubt that similar over-the-top places exist in Asia and other emerging markets such as Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Nothing Gained is a roller coaster ride, in part financial thriller, in part detective escapade, your characters are international and so are your settings and no two are alike, and the line between fact and fiction is blurred by true to life events and settings – what other writers/books have influenced you and your style and in what ways?
I don’t read as many thrillers as I would like to. My tastes are flatter and thinner. Over the past few years, my favorite writers have included Haruki Murakami, Gillian Flynn and Michael Lewis. I think that all three are amazing writers who write both highly accessible and insightful material with distinctive styles. They have inspired me to try to develop my own voice with the specific gray matter and experiences I possess.
You initially self published this book in Hong Kong. What was that process like? Why did you decide to move to a traditional publishing model? What advice would you give to writers hoping to publish their first novel?
Discovering self-publishing was a revelation. It’s an amazing and incredibly empowering means for anyone to try to get their thoughts out into the world. There are soup-to-nuts resources available through the internet, from editing, design, print-on-demand to global distribution. And it’s not expensive. Having said that, I think that it is an incredible opportunity to work with a top-level publisher such as Penguin. For a first time writer, it is a gift that I should not refuse.
My advice to other aspiring writers? Focus on quality. Given the ability to self-publish, it is tempting to put forth a book before it is fully scrubbed, story-wise and editorially. There is no substitute for slogging away to write and re-write the best book that a person can produce. That itself is an achievement to be proud of, and it provides the best chance that the increasingly complicated publishing market will find the work.
What is next for Cheryl and Todd? Any plans for a sequel?/What are you working on now?
Rather than moving forward with Cheryl and Todd, I am researching the prequel to Nothing Gained. Nothing Gained deals with the downfall of a greedy banker and his institution. In that way, Jason Donahue is similar to Darth Vader in Star Wars IV-VI. I thought that I would follow in George Lucas’ footsteps and now write how my Darth Vader ascended to power in the cutthroat world of Asian banking in the mid-2000s era.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Besides pitchforks and torches in search of bankers to burn in the village square? I hope that they come away both entertained and informed. Asia and banking are both exciting and challenging experiences. They are also complex and elusive. Of course, I also hope that the morality aspect to the story dealing with overreaching greed stays with people.
Check back tomorrow for an exclusive preview of Nothing Gained.