Above, watch RealClearLife‘s Facebook Live interview with author Maureen Sherry, who discussed her latest novel, Opening Belle—and a number of other topics—with Pulitzer Prize winner and RCL contributor David Vise. Read the full transcription of the interview below (it’s been lightly edited for clarity).
David Vise: Hello, I’m David Vise reporting for RealClearLife and I’m delighted to have with me today Maureen Sherry. Maureen is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Opening Belle, a book about what it’s like for women who have children to work in the “college fraternity house” atmosphere found at some Wall Street firms. The book has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon, who plans to produce the book and turn it into a movie and who also plans to star in the movie. Maureen, congratulations on that.
Maureen Sherry: Thank you, David.
And also, today, our interview coincides with the paperback release of your book.
Oh, how lucky is that?
No less an authority than The New York Times had this to say about Opening Belle: “With a sure hand, the author leads us onto the trading floor, where publicly demeaning a woman is a spectator sport.” Maureen, why did you write this book?
I’m really glad you asked that question, David. I thought for many years that the culture that I worked in had changed. One thing that kept happening was these giant class-action lawsuits against these banks citing sexual harassment and unfair pay.
You spent 12 years at Bear Stearns, a major Wall Street firm.
Right. So I was the managing director of institutional equities, which was also called research sales in some places, and I had had a very good career, a good experience, but one thing that I noticed was when younger women were coming to the firm, the behavior—that I felt my generation had put up with fairly well—was not acceptable any longer. So these women would come, and they would spend a few years, and this very large pool of talent would walk out the door, and I felt a lot of it had to do with the environment that they worked in, and also the fact that so few of them were getting to senior positions. So many years passed, and nothing seemed to have changed, and I thought about bringing that story as fiction, where I wasn’t getting anybody in trouble, right?
Let me ask: You worked at Bear Stearns, you witnessed a lot of things, this is a novel, it’s fiction, but the book reads very true to life. Why did you choose to write this as a novel?
Because at first I started to write it as nonfiction. And here’s the problem with that: You’re naming names, you’re getting people in trouble, and it’s not really what the point of the story was. There’s a clause called arbitration that everyone who works on Wall Street signs up for. Your first day on Wall Street, you’re going to get a U4, where you sign up and say, “David, if I have a problem with you, I’m going to settle it in house at the firm; nobody’s going to read about it at The New York Times.” So it’s buried. Wall Street has very deep pockets and can pay out for all these sorts of claims, and so this culture has a chance to really thrive. It can go on and on and on, because the story’s never really told in public.
I mentioned that Reese Witherspoon has optioned this to turn it into a movie for the big screen, and that she wants to star in it. How do you feel about that, and how did it come about?
How do I feel about it? I feel ecstatic about it! [laughs] Before the book was published, it was sent to a few agents out in California, and they got a chance to read it. It had been 30 years—Working Girl had been the last movie about women on Wall Street—and so 30 years is a darn long time and enough time for someone else to shed some light on it. I felt like [Witherspoon’s] production company, Pacific Standard, truly wanted to [produce] this story in a very realistic way; not so much, maybe, as a Wolf of Wall Street, where people are swinging from the chandeliers, but it takes you into these women’s lives, shows you women who are working hard and raising families, and are doing what 40 percent of women in America are now doing, which is being the sole or primary breadwinner. [Showing] what it’s like to work in an environment like that where you truly want to excel but aren’t able to.
Your main character is Belle. Can you describe her for us and tell us how realistic she is and by the way, are you Belle?
No, I’m not Belle.
It is written in the first person, you know.
So it’s written in the first person, and Belle’s a composite. She’s this late thirty-something, who is raising children, and her husband is not really working. He’s mostly a stay-at-home dad.
You have an acronym for that: SAHD [pronounced “sad”].
I did some real research into this, and I interviewed a few dads who truly are 100 percent doing the laundry, mashing the carrots, and are fully stay-at-home fathers. One of them told me, “We call ourselves the SAHD Dads, the Stay-at-Home Dads.” So that’s where that part came from. But she’s also somebody who’s truly ambitious, she’s also thick-skinned, and she gets a lot of frat house behavior, but she sort of brushes it off until she no longer can brush it off. So she reaches out to other women, which is a phenomenon that is very realistic, and other women in the workplace don’t always often support one another, especially when they’re so outnumbered by men. They do it for a lot of reasons, but I tried to show the reader how this sort of thing transpires.
There’s a striking scene in the book where Belle speaks up, and none of the other women speak up. Nobody really steps forward, everybody gets up and leaves the table for lunch, when Belle has spoken her mind to the big boss. Why don’t women come to the defense of one another more readily in these situations?
Right, and you’re not just talking about Wall Street, you’re talking, perhaps, Gretchen Carlson and Roger Ailes. I thought it was interesting in that situation, even with the accusations against Donald Trump, one woman comes forward, she presents this, and the other women, like, run to the edges. They don’t want to be associated with this person, and they do it for very good reasons: They’re interested in keeping their careers moving forward; they want to be accepted; they want to be seen as a team player. I get all that. But I thought it was very interesting that, here, I’m writing about something that I set starting in 2008 and ending in the present, and yet here we are in 2016, seeing it played out for us in real life. Why do women do that? I don’t know. I think it is job preservation, I think if there’s 12 seats at the boardroom table and 11 of them are men, and you have that one seat, you want to be with the “winning team” and you don’t want to be with the outlier.
How much do you think has changed since 2008 on Wall Street?
I have had this great opportunity to spend some time with the screenwriter—he’s from Warner Bros.—and we went around and interviewed women who had a job similar to what I had and were also raising children, and they spoke quite freely to us, because we weren’t keeping track of names or the firms’ names that we interviewed. It was done anonymously, and I felt that they were sort of liberated to speak so freely. I would say not very much has changed. I think the overt bad behavior, such as drinking a shot of someone’s breastmilk, I think that stuff has really tempered. But I also feel like this feeling that there’s this subconscious bias, that it is still very much a “men’s club,” that there’s so much bro talk still going on, and to be accepted into this world, you really have to have a very, very thick skin and to be able to look the other way is very much alive.
You have what you call in the book “the GCC,” the Glass Ceiling Club. Has the glass ceiling changed for women on Wall Street?
Percentage-wise, women in very senior positions in the profit division of investment banks has not changed very much. In some of what they call the “pink collar” jobs—human resources, corporate communications, and things like that—women are in very senior positions. It has changed and it hasn’t changed. I would say the level of frustration is definitely still there. Here’s something really, really good, though: I expected when this book came out to be speaking at libraries and bookstores and places like that, and instead, the bulk of presentations I am doing are in financial institutions.
So financial institutions are inviting you in to speak about this book? Why in the world would they do that given the negative portrayal of Wall Street and its treatment of women?
I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think they want to change. I think that they’re frustrated, too. They don’t like settling these lawsuits, constantly, in the dark of night and writing these big checks, and you know, look, more women than ever are in college, in graduate school, are investing [in] and running companies who are the banking clients of investment banks, and so they know they need to change. I really feel like something like a novel is a very undramatic way of bringing about change and opening up [a] conversation and letting women talk about the things that frustrate them and ways to bring about change, again, without so much of it being finger-pointing and getting individuals in trouble.
Your character, Belle, is very well compensated; she makes a lot of money. Was it hard for you in writing this to create a character in Belle who is so wealthy and is probably not relatable to most people?
That’s an excellent point. It’s interesting; my editor at one point thought, “Do we really want to use real numbers in the book?” I interviewed women who had the position Belle had and got the sense that the number was a realistic number. I’ll say what it was: It was over $2 million a year. She was very well compensated.
There are people who don’t earn that over the course of a career.
Absolutely. But yet do you want to tell a false story, David, or do you want to say, “What is the price of money to this person?” She’s putting up with all this stuff, so that she can be very well compensated, but what is really the cost of that money? I also felt, though, to put a real number on there is not really done for women, but it is for men. You’ve read many books where it’s about a lawyer or an investment banker, and he makes a lot of money, and people think, “Wow, that’s really great.” And when a woman makes a lot of money, we have a different set of values about that, and I thought that’s something worth throwing out there and seeing what happens. I like to think that Belle is also a likable character, because despite the fact that she is earning a lot of money, her life is far from perfect.
What surprised you about the reaction to this book?
I would say a surprising reaction has been the amount of feedback I’ve gotten from not just women but men, who are not in the investment banking or Wall Street area at all.
You mean on other streets. Like Main Street.
In fact, there’s this whole discussion: Does breaking down the arbitration environment help? You know, women who work in other industries have also embraced arbitration as another way of keeping mouths shut, and I would say yes. I would say that the amount of feedback that I’ve gotten from women who are in research or education or work in the post office … it strikes a chord with many working women.
When you left Bear Stearns yourself, you did not sign what many people do sign, and that is a nondisclosure agreement, something that would prevent you from, perhaps, telling your story, or maybe even writing a book like this one.
We wouldn’t be speaking right now, David, but yeah, I did not.
Why did you choose not to sign that, and did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine you would write a book about all this?
No, I did not leave my job to go write a book about it. I thought I wanted to write, [or] do some sort of financial journalism or something nonfiction, but when I started to [write], I took a literary nonfiction class [and] I wrote a few stories …
[interrupts] … that was at Columbia?
That was at Columbia, and I was the old student; I had children. But I took it very seriously, and I would write stories about my workplace, and a professor once said to me, “These are hilarious stories, but this is a nonfiction class.” That’s when I started thinking I really should tell these stories, because they are worth telling; they’re still going on. But there are also a few things I hope people get out of the book, which is I do think financial literacy is very important, and not that this book is going to be a huge primer in investing, but you do get a sense of how it works, and I think that sometimes, it’s needlessly complicated. For instance, the mortgage crisis. Many people truly don’t understand what happened, so I tried to break it down in a simplified way. I also make it super easy for you to skim past those pages if you didn’t want to have a lesson in mortgages.
It’s interesting, because I wondered so many years after the mortgage crisis why you took the time to go back and explain in detail what that was all about.
Well, I think a way of us avoiding previous mistakes is knowing how they happened in the first place. So that was partly why. I also felt that the stay-at-home dad’s life had not been fully examined, and this brings that element in. I worked with women who were in that situation, where they were the primary or sole breadwinners in their family. And yes, I wanted to reach a reader, who wouldn’t be picking up a big financial book, such as Too Big to Fail or a Malcolm Gladwell book, so this is reaching [out] to a different reader.
We’re getting a lot of questions in this Facebook Live interview, so let me turn to some of the questions that are coming in from our viewing audience. How difficult was it for you to toe the line between the comedic line of the workplace and addressing sexual stereotypes that women are used to?
So that’s a great question, because you don’t want to sew comedy out of something that’s serious. And yet I wanted people to keep reading. I think if it came off as a very heavy story that would just get people angry about a situation, you wouldn’t really see how to move forward. I thought about that a lot. I did get some criticism: “Are you making light of this situation?”
[echoing Sherry] … are you making light of this mistreatment of women?
I hope not. I understand why it’s a very sensitive line, one versus the other, and yet I wanted a wider audience. Because I think that the people who are most likely to read a book about the mistreatment of women would be mistreated women. So I wanted others to, hopefully, read it, too.
I have a question from another viewer: What is it like to have your book adapted by a Hollywood figure as powerful as Reese Witherspoon? And do you have any control over that project once it gets into the filmmaker’s hands?
I wish I had lots of control, [but] the answer is no. I think that is pretty typical. I think one thing that Pacific Standard and Reese have done in their previous endeavors has been to make it as close to the real story as possible, so I think that that is one slight difference between perhaps going with a different production company. One interesting thing is that there are a number of chapters that were taken out of the book, and I shared many of those with the screenwriter, and so I do think it will be a more expansive.
So they hit the cutting room floor while you were writing the book, but they haven’t hit the cutting room floor in Hollywood yet?
That’s right. To give them more ideas. That’s why I think it was also great to go and meet people who are really in that position. We walked around trading floors, we had a really good education as to how quickly things are moving and the amount of money that’s just moving, and how what happens in different parts of the world truly does impact our markets, and so, hopefully, this movie will bring that to life.
Here’s another question from our audience: If there was one thing you could change about the storyline of this book, Opening Belle, what would it be? [clarifying] I would say if you could make a change in the narrative.
There was pressure on me. I was offered more money for this book from a different publishing house, who wanted the big happy, Hollywood ending. And so I really thought for the ending—and I’m not going to give it away—but it’s a little bit of a surprise and it’s not quite that. I think if I were to change anything about the narrative of the book, I probably move have shown better relationships between the women in the place of work. I feel like sometimes women in the workplace are their own worst enemies, and I feel like that is something that is changing. Women aren’t having great luck in some of the places where I met with [them] in mentorship programs, but the organic mentor, that they’re reaching out to more naturally, I feel like there’s been great success there. They see someone who’s doing a great job, they go to either him or her and ask for help, that person feels complimented, and that there’s some good stuff going on there. I think I would have brought more of that into the narrative.
This is also from our viewers: Do you think Wall Street is ever capable of losing the “old boy’s club” mentality?
Absolutely. I’m very optimistic. The conversations I’ve been having at the levels of groups—you know, very senior people wanting to engage in this conversation, I don’t think is lip service.
You think they really mean it.
I think they mean it. It’s good business. Forget about it being the right thing to do. It’s good business.
The paperback [of Opening Belle] is out this week. Today is actually the release date for your book. Is the paperback different in any way from the hardback? Is it the same thing? Did you add anything? What does it include that the hardback did not?
It’s the same book. I wanted to include a prologue to the book, which was not included, and it shows Belle’s early life and her rather humble beginnings. Her humble beginnings make it more understandable why having a job that was so lucrative was so important to her. I think it made her a more likable character, and unfortunately, it’s not in the book. We had to cut pages like crazy. ‘Cause I could write forever.
Well, that’s what editors are for. [reading from RealClearLife Facebook page]: What is your writing process? When you do write, do you have ideas that come to you, do you have full stories that come to you, pages that come to you? What was it like writing this?
I would like to say I have this incredibly organized process, but I do not. Sometimes, I’ll be thinking about a great, climactic part of a scene, and I write that part first, because it’s just right there, and you want to get it down, and then go back and back-fill up to that.
So you don’t always start with the beginning?
I don’t think chronologically, and so it just works better for me. The other thing that I do, I find [that] during the day—you know, I also write middle school books [like] Walls Within Walls and I have another middle-grade book, Lost in London—I tend to find [that] I write for a very short amount of time, meaning an hour, where I disconnect … like there’s no Facebook Live, there’s no email, no text, and I’m really, really good about it, and that’s when I write kids stuff. Then later in the day, I seem to riff more on the adult things I want to write.
Do you have any other novels in mind? You’ve written a couple of books for middle-school-aged kids, you have written this book, which is obviously for an adult audience. Are there going to be more books written by Maureen Sherry?
In the course of researching and talking to people for this book, I became very sensitive and aware, and also because it was my own situation, of this generation of people with grade school children who are also very involved in the care of their parents. It’s called the “Sandwich Generation.” So I started writing something that takes us into that world, too.
Does that have some of the levity in it? It sounds like a very heavy subject for somebody who’s found a way to convey important messages but doing so while being entertaining.
The adult being taken care of is in early-stage to late-stage dementia, so it sounds terrible that there’s levity involved, but in the most desperate situations, it’s important to have some humor. Something to look forward to—some lightness to it. So, yes, it does.
So here’s something else I’d like to read, and I’d like to get your reaction to it. This is another review of your book, Opening Belle: “That biting honesty is as refreshing as ginger slices on a plate of sushi.”
That’s pretty good. I like that. I hope it does feel honest. One thing I will say is the reaction of some people is “This is my life. Belle is living my life.” And then some other people will say, “What are you talking about?”
Because it’s unfamiliar to them.
Because it’s unfamiliar, and so I actually like that reaction, because it makes me feel like it is cultural to each firm. It’s cultural to your place of work. Sometimes these things are top down. I would say that that’s another optimistic sign, that you can operate a really great company or bank very well, and that that is not that person’s experience. However, for the rest of us who it was our experience, it’s worth noting.
This is another question that’s come in from our viewers: How different is it writing for an adult audience than it is writing for kids?
Someone once said to me, “You just have to make the sentences shorter for kids. That’s about it.” Well, I really like taking facts and twisting them into [fiction] … which is what I have done with Walls Within Walls and Lost in London, and so yeah, do you write it a little more simply? Sometimes I’ll go back and change a few vocabulary words, but that’s about it. Especially, eight and up, kids are very capable of handling complex ideas; it’s just a matter of how you present them. That’s really it.
Was this a book you dreamed about at night? That you thought about not just when you were writing it, but that you just couldn’t get off your mind. Was this a book that you had to write?
I feel clichéd saying it, but I couldn’t let this story go. I couldn’t let this go. I would think, “OK, it’s over, it’s done.” This was years ago. And then last year, [I] read another class-action lawsuit. I followed very closely a firm out in California, [and] that was the first time I went to a trial last year and read the transcripts. So there was something in me that wouldn’t let the story go away, and even when I felt enough people had experienced this—the story’s out there—it continually felt to me like it was being snuffed.