A storyteller's take on finance

John Lanchester

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: There is no shortage of books about the financial crisis. No shortage at all really. And there are a couple of good ones, but the better part of the ones I've seen are a tad dry. Kind of tough to get through. That might be because they were written by people who aren't really writers, at least in the true storytelling sense.

John Lanchester, though, is a storyteller. He's a fiction writer who's written a true-life story of what happened to the global banking system over the past couple of years. It's called "I.O.U." John, welcome to the program.

John Lanchester: Thank you very much.

Ryssdal: You are a novelist by inclination, right?

Lanchester: I am.

Ryssdal: Yet, this is a distinctly non-fiction book. I mean, this is the events of the day. How did you come to write it?

Lanchester: It's a sort of mutant outgrowth of a novel in a sense. I had been working on a book for a few years. So I had been reading up on financial things as background to the novel I was writing, and then after a few months of that, the British bank Northern Rock blew up. And there was a run on the bank, first once since the 19th Century. This subject slightly took over from the novel, and I've ended up writing this nonfiction book about it.

Ryssdal: Your father was a banker. You grew up in the shadow of finance, I think it can be fairly be said. And you tell a great story about how your awareness of money actually started with an automated teller machine, an ATM.

Lanchester: This was in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. The first ATM in Hong Kong was actually at the foot of the bank. I remember my father using it. And I find it absolutely terrifying that something about the way the machine just kind of coughed up money with no difficulty. And I was very preoccupied by the idea that he'd accidentally taken too much out, or it would take it out of the wrong account, we'd get in trouble, or you know, we didn't actually have that much. There just seemed, the frictionless-ness, you know, the ease with which money just flowed out into the world from this machine just completely freaked me out. I used to mercilessly, I used to beg my father not to take cash out, and he'd kind of grimly say that tapping in his pin number while I wept on his arm.

Ryssdal: That's a great word, actually, frictionless-ness because that's really sort of what happened to cause this whole thing. I mean, money was moving all over the place and nobody really knew it.

Lanchester: Yeah, I think that is it. It's strange how easy it is for that to seem natural. It's almost a trick of re-branding. They didn't so much call it money, they call it credit. Once upon a time credit used to be called debt, which is what it is. But if you rename money as credit, and give people the idea that access to credit is something that is almost a right, it's something that should be easy, that should be freely available, that shouldn't really have consequences, I think it becomes much easier to jam people with all the debts that they got stuck with.

Ryssdal: So as you wrote the final pages of this book, what was it that you had in your mind that you wanted readers to get out of it? I mean, you tell a story and you go into some detail, but where does that leave us?

Lanchester: There's such a big gap between the world of money and people who say the word interest rates, and they automatically know that that means a whole set of things linking inflation, employment, balance of payments, exports, mortgages going up. There's an awful lot of us who don't quite speak finance, speak money. One of my real ambitious for the book was to narrow that and to talk across that gap and for people who got to the end of the book to feel, OK, I'm sufficiently well-informed about how we got here to be able to think clearly and informedly and for myself about the road forward.

Ryssdal: John Lanchester. His most recent book decidedly not a work of fiction is called "IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay." John, thanks a lot for coming in.

Lanchester: Thank you very much, Kai.

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