News & Reviews
Interview with ‘Con Ed’ author Matthew Klein
There’s a thousand roads an author can take to becoming a novelist. Charles Bukowski
chose the bars and slaughterhouses of cities across America. Wesley Strick
wrote Hollywood screenplays for nearly two decades before turning to
novels. Most recently, Matthew Klein
parlayed a decade of raising venture capital and start-up technology
ventures into a debut with Warner Books. The setting of his novel, 'Con
Ed,' will surprise nobody. His solid plot and convincing portrayal of
Silicon Valley led WORD’N’BASS.com Editor BPM Smith to ask some questions
about how life experience drives prose, the perfect con, and what
happens when you go broke.
WORD'N'BASS.com: Congrats on your
Con Ed debut. Buzz has been flowing since its launch and I'm wondering
what you attribute that to, if there's one thing about this novel that
comes to mind.
Klein: I've been amazed
by the positive response that Con Ed received. You have to understand
-- when I sat down to write the novel, I didn't aim very high. I had
only one goal: to write an entertaining book that would be fun to read
on a beach blanket, or on an airplane. So when the New York Times
reviewed the book and said that it was "very, very hard to put down"
and that it "makes perfect airplane reading," I was blown away. I
suppose that's a lesson for all your readers. Whatever you do in life -
no matter the industry you work in - when you set a goal, make sure you
aim very, very low. That way, you might actually succeed. If I had
originally set out to write the Great American Novel, to write some
kind of Tolstoy-like epic, I would have fallen flat on my face. But a
fun and frothy caper novel? I suppose I could handle that.
loves a good ol' con story. It seems that's because grifters live on
the edge, a place where most workaday folks don't have the guts to go.
Is that a fair assessment, or do you think there's other things at
Klein: That's certainly
part of the reason why people like con stories - con men live in a
world where most rational people don't dare venture. There's a
vicarious thrill in reading about their exploits. But there's something
else at work. One of the joys of reading a good con story is feeling
smarter than the characters in the novel. As a reader, you try to
figure out what the con is before the characters do. Can you? Con
novels are a very small and peculiar genre, but one with very clear
rules: there's always at least one massive twist at the end, and the
crime is never exactly what you think it is. Readers enjoy that game.
It's part brain teaser, part country-club admissions committee. Can you
get into the exclusive club of people who figure out the twist ending
before they read the last pages of the book?
WORD'N'BASS.com: Con Ed
takes some traditional threads that we're familiar with. We've got the
con man who's cooling off, the hot yet dangerous woman, the
too-good-to-be-true scheme of a lifetime. What did you decide to bring
into the plot that would twist it up?
Klein: Con Ed is
certainly a genre book, and its genre has very clear rules. There's
always a con man who's trying to go straight. There's a hot, yet
suspiciously available, woman. And there's something other than money
that causes the con man to give up the straight life and try to pull
off one last big score. In Con Ed, the main character's son shows up,
and is about to be killed by the Russian mob… unless our hero can pull
off a big scam. What's a little different about the novel is that it is
set in Silicon Valley, in the middle of the first Internet bubble.
the dot-com setting is a contemporary angle we've not seen much in
novels. That's very post-Millennium.
Klein: I've always been
surprised that Silicon Valley isn't used more frequently as a setting
for novels. It's such a rich vein waiting to be mined! But then, after
a moment, I always realize, with a bit of regret, why this is so: 99%
percent of people who worked in Silicon Valley during the Internet Boom
are now multi-millionaires. These people - who know most about Silicon
Valley - don't have any desire to break a sweat by writing a book! In
fact, there are only two people who worked in Silicon Valley during the
Boom who actually lost money. There's me, and a guy named Hector.
Hector's book is being published by Random House in 2008. It's a
Tolstoy-ian coming of age story set in the venture capital office.
with Goldberg McDuffie sent over your bio. Very interesting - you
raised tons of VC, launched a bunch of start-up tech firms, and ended
up controlling a lot of peoples' dreams during a time when everyone
hoped to cash out rich with stock options. How did it feel when the
Klein: It felt lousy. I
lost a lot of money for a lot of people whom I considered friends. Even
worse: a lot of people counted on me as an employer. One day, when our
venture capitalists disappeared, we had to lay off people. All the
people. All 400 of them. You know what's interesting? All that talk
about how there's a New Economy, a new way of doing business,
disappears pretty fast when you can't make payroll. The New Economy is
exactly like the Old Economy. There are always losers.
WORD'N'BASS.com: When you
were raising VC and starting up companies in Silicon Valley, did you
ever think you'd end up writing a novel about some of that stuff?
Klein: May I propose an
alternate version of your question? When I was in college - and I knew
that upon graduation I wanted to be a writer - did I ever dream I would
move to Silicon Valley, start two technology companies, and raise $40
million dollars of venture capital? Absolutely not! I always thought
I'd simply be a writer. Somehow, I got sidetracked. You see, I happen
to be a decent (but not great) software programmer. I suppose I did
what most people would have done under the circumstances: I made hay
while the sun shined. When I got out of school, not many people were
offering me $20 million dollars to write a book. But they were offering
me that kind of money to start a software company. So that's how I
started my illustrious career. I took the money and ran.
important do you think first-hand experience is for novelists to write
convincing stories? And do you think your experience working and living
in the tech industry is why readers are now getting a strong sense of
authenticity in Con Ed?
Klein: The writing snob
inside me wants to turn up my nose and answer, "No, no, you have it all
wrong! A good writer can write about anything. He doesn't need to write
about his own experiences." But the honest voice inside me recognizes
that surely it's easier - from a purely mechanical point of view - to
write about what you know. Isn't that what they always tell you in
high-school English class? Write about what you know? And that's why we
have so many dreadful essays about summer camp and proms and baseball.
But, seriously, within that old saw is contained good advice.
about the con itself here? Kip Largo (Con Ed's protagonist) makes up a
technology that can predict the stock market. Naturally, chaos ensues.
That's quite a modern twist to the con angle, and I'm thinking someone
can pull it off in real life, no?
Klein: After my
businesses failed in Silicon Valley, I spent a year or so locked up in
my dingy apartment, writing software to predict the movement of
financial markets. I approached it very methodically. I created an
entirely new computer language that used genetic algorithms - software
which actually evolves over generations - to predict whether prices
will move up or down.
WORD'N'BASS.com: Did it
Klein: Let's put it this
way. My apartment is still dingy.
WORD'N'BASS.com: Are any
of your characters composite sketches of actual people you did business
with and if so, which ones?
Klein: The truth is that
most real people are boring. I admit that I'm the most boring of all.
If you invite me to a party, you'll be very disappointed. But the point
is, it's probably a bad strategy to base characters on people you know
in real life. Who wants to read about the same tedious bores you just
escaped from in the office? On the other hand, every person has at
least one or two interesting facets. So, I tend to extract the most
interesting essence of each person, and build a fictional character
around it. In that sense, being a writer is like being a vampire: you
suck the life out of a person, and use it for your own purposes. I
suppose it's a bit like being an attorney, too.
there metaphors in any of the characters or plotlines in Con Ed that
might say something about contemporary society? American greed? Desire?
Family values? Feel free to shoot me down if I'm going in the wrong
Klein: It's probably a
warning sign if you find yourself pontificating about your own book and
what it "says" about society. I'm not sure my book "says" anything. I'm
low-brow. I'm happy if a book has one fist fight and a good oral sex
But okay, since you insist. There are some parts of Con Ed I enjoy.
There's a little motif running through the book: everyone gives each
other business cards to establish who they are. Identity is whatever
you print on a card. So the con men make up business cards that say,
"FBI." The sexy vixen has her own business card. It gets to the point
where, when the real FBI show up, and they present their real business
cards, our character doesn't believe they're really FBI. That's a part
of the book that I didn't consciously think about while writing, but
now that I re-read it, I enjoy.
Finally there's a very obvious theme in the book - the similarity
between American business and the American con game. Both are American
inventions, in a sense. And both share common traits. As one of the
characters in Con Ed explains, both activities boil down to giving the
customer (or victim) an illusion, in exchange for money.
WORD'N'BASS.com: Now that
you've got a successful debut under your belt, what can we expect from
you going forward?
Klein: I'm working on a
new book. It's set about six thousand miles away from Silicon Valley.
But I hope it will have the right mixture of action, suspense, and
WORD'N'BASS.com: And one
good oral sex scene?
Klein: Why only one?
give us a dozen or so. Like I always say, 'Never fade to black when
your characters are about to Mack.' Is there anything you'd like to say
Klein: Yes. I want to say
to all the "Bass" people out there: Don't be afraid of "Words." And
"Word" people: You must learn to Rock. Can't we all just get along?
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