Monday, July 31, 2023

Q&A with Gary Sernovitz


Photo by Pableaux Johnson



Gary Sernovitz is the author of the new novel The Counting House. His other books include The Green and the Black. A managing director at a private equity firm, he lives in New Orleans.


Q: What inspired you to write The Counting House, and how did you create your character known as “the CIO”?


A: Like a lot of what I’ve written, The Counting House came almost fully formed in broad shape, but only after I had spent years thinking about addressing the same themes in a completely different format—as a nonfiction book.


I was definitely reading a lot of Rachel Cusk at the time, and inspired by her structuring of novels (even if this novel has very different themes and voices and approach to humor). Some Cuskian spark sort of allowed the format to click into place.


I have a strong propensity to enjoy reading, and writing, fiction in which the main character is a lens to see the contemporary world from a very similar vantage as the author—but not necessarily auto-fiction (although I like some of that, too).


So the broad demographic outlines of the CIO, and some of his sensibilities, clearly overlap with my own. This is the case even if my working life has had me in lots of rooms talking to chief investment officers—but far from one myself.


Q: The writer Tom Bissell said of the book, “The Counting House takes its place alongside William Gaddis’s JR and Richard Powers’s Gain as one of the most absorbing and entertaining novels about American business ever written.” What do you think of those comparisons?


A: Well, I’m flattered, first of all, and I also don’t know if I’m up to that level. I think the similarity is rooted in those books and mine treating the ideas of investing and business as ideas with inherent, and deep, value in and of themselves as an equal part of the human condition.


So many novels, especially when they have “business” settings, treat the ideas of the work at a remove: satirically, glibly, or with a smell of research done to achieve some verisimilitude for books with other preoccupations (oftentimes important and juicy ones like class, money, sex, inequality, America!)

That being said, while JR in particular and The Counting House share themes and books told mainly in dialogue, mine intends to be much more accessible: literary without the avant garde aspects to Gaddis’s work.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I’m pretty sure I knew the ending, for which I used the shorthand of The Grand Inquisitor meets The Portrait of a Lady. That is, I always saw an everything-at-stake intellectual showdown scene between the CIO and Michael Hermann as part of the book.


Separately, I’ve always been heavily influenced by the work of Henry James, particularly in his innovations in creating interior, moral dramas as gripping as exterior plots.


And the sign of a successful Jamesian novel, to me, is that you are at the edge of seat until the end, particularly at the end, with the author so completely drawn a real, complex inner life that the reader doesn’t know until the final sentence what Isabel Archer will do—or the CIO.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I have “fiction” and “nonfiction” hopes.


The fiction hopes are straightforward classic ones: an exploration to how life is lived now, a sympathy with and critique of another human life, an appreciation for the writing at a sentence level, and an entertaining, funny, and gripping book. I want this to be gulped in two to three sittings.


The nonfiction hopes are split into two. For people completely unfamiliar with the world of investing or university endowments, I’d hope for them to barrel through some of the more technical (but not too technical!) passages and understand better, as citizens, the importance and mechanics and fundamental questions of finance and how universities work.


For insiders in those worlds, I’d love for the shock of recognition, the delight in the “names named” (or maybe hinted at), but also wrestling with some of the ideas on investing and the meaning of it all on a moral level.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on work. One of the reasons I was able to write this book is that I’ve worked full time in finance for most of last 28 years, first at Goldman Sachs and for nearly two decades in a senior position at a private firm. While I can carve time out to write novels, I can’t carve out too much time!


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve noticed early readers in two types, particularly those who are not steeped in finance. A few get intimidated very quickly by the finance and declare the book “not for them.”


More have understood what they understood and don’t worry too much about what they didn’t. That’s definitely the intention, as was a care to make sure that finance neophytes have enough to make this book readable, worthwhile, elucidating, and entertaining.


I compare it to when I go to a restaurant, and the waiter goes on about an ingredient I’ve never heard of a source farm of which I don’t really care! I don’t leave the restaurant. I just ignore them, eat, enjoy the meal or not, and forgot about what I don’t know. Or maybe I learn something new. Hey, I kinda like sorrel!


So I’d just encourage readers to allow that to happen, in the case of The Counting House, too.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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