Shelf Life

Finding a way up when you’re down

Kai Ryssdal Oct 9, 2009
Shelf Life

Finding a way up when you’re down

Kai Ryssdal Oct 9, 2009

Kai Ryssdal: Matthew Prior has a wife, two young sons and a beautiful old house. He quit his job as a newspaper reporter to start an online business site. That went bust. So he got his old job back. Till he got laid off.

He’s upside down on his house. And he thinks his wife is having an affair. He could be your neighbor. But he’s actually the protagonist of Jess Walter’s new novel. It’s called “The Financial Lives of the Poets.”

Jess, welcome to the program.

Jess Walter: Thanks for having me Kai.

Ryssdal: This is an amazingly topical book. I mean, some of this stuff could be ripped from the headlines. But the thing is, I thought books took years to write.

Walter: I think they tend to, but in that time there are only three or four months of actual productive work. So I just tried to cut out all the self-loathing and just write it as quickly as possible once I realized what I had.

Ryssdal: You just got right to it.

Walter: It just felt as if all of a sudden there was this economic crisis that wasn’t the thing I was seeing on CNBC. Some theoretical, abstract thing, but a real thing that was affecting people around me. And it just felt like the opportunity to really take something and write it in a voice that I could do in a much quicker time.

Ryssdal: He, that is your character Matt Prior, he makes some amazingly bad decisions. But I think part of that comes from the fact that he was just caught so unaware of what was happening in the economy.

Walter: It’s easy to sort of blame the banks or blame the system that’s broken, but the truth is we spent years going deep into debt and borrowing against things. None of us was raised this way. So I think I wanted him to be both culpable and a sort of victim of these much larger forces that he has no idea about. And you wonder, can you wake up and just have everything collapse? And I think we all sort of did.

Ryssdal: Like a lot of people, Matt and his wife bought a big house in a sort of up-and-coming neighborhood. They watched it increase in value, they took money out as so many people did, and you write a great paragraph about that house, their relationship with it and what it really means. I’m wondering if you could pull up that page and give it a read.

Walter: “We became like derivative-crazed brokers. We stopped thinking of the value of our home as a place of shelter and occupancy and family, or even as the aesthetic triumph witnessed from our alley, but as a kind of faith equation. Theoretical construct, mechanism of wealth generation, salvation function on a calculator. Its value no longer what its worth, but some compounded value that might exist, given the continued upward tick of the market. Because this was the only direction housing markets could ever go — up. All the geniuses said so.”

Ryssdal: Matt Prior is a newspaper reporter. By the time of this book he’s a former newspaper reporter. Has quit to start what seems to him to be a brilliant idea, this thing called “Poetfolio.” You gotta help us understand that one.

Walter: I wanted Matt to be a newspaper reporter. I come from newspapers. I remember when all my friends were leaving to start Web sites, you know, that made no sense. You know, I wanted him to have something like that. So I made him a poet in college. So he decides that he’s going to blend his two areas of knowledge. He’s a financial business reporter, and so he’s going to have a Web site,, that blends business news and financial advice in poetry form.

Ryssdal: Just for the record, I’m pretty Marketplace got a poetry grant at one point, so you know, the two have been married before.

Walter: And that’s where he gets his funding is from the Poetry Foundation.

Ryssdal: Do me a favor and read us one, would you?

Walter: “M-Tronic Reports Strong Q3. Higher than expected orders and / A reversal of its earnings directions / Have led to an upward adjustment of / M-Tronic’s third quarter projection / And revived hopes for a sector move / Despite several analyst rejections.”

Ryssdal: Shakespeare it’s not, but you know, it’s got a certain something to it.

Walter: The real freedom was making Matt a bad poet, so that I didn’t have to try to write above my ability.

Ryssdal: Without giving away the ending, Matt wins a little and he loses a little by the end of this thing. What do you want people to be thinking about as they turn that last page.

Walter: Toward the end of the novel, I kept thinking if all that happens is that our 401(k)s go back up, that everything turns out the same. You know, I grew up … my father worked at an aluminum plant that closed as we were kids. We grew up without money. We survived it just fine. There are more important things and that’s, I think, the realization that I wanted Matt to come to. For him, the story is about his family. And I think, you know, if there’s any lesson in the book — though God help me if there’s a lesson ever in my work — but if there is, then it might be that.

Ryssdal: Well, Jess, thanks a lot.

Walter: Yeah. Thank you Kai.

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