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WORD: 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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Everyone 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 play?

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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Well, 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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Megan 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 businesses failed?

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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: How 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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: What 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 work?

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.

WORD'N'BASS.com: Are 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 direction here…

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 scene.

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 humor.

WORD'N'BASS.com: And one good oral sex scene?

Klein: Why only one?

WORD'N'BASS.com: Nice, 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 in closing?

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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