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Interview with P.T. Dawkins, Author of ‘The Ponzi’

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dawkinsA 28-year veteran of the investment world, P.T. Dawkins writes from experience about the insatiable desire for money that leads to unethical, illegal, and unscrupulous behavior. He majored in English at Dartmouth College, earned an MBA from The University of Western Ontario and completed extensive studies in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

Tyler: Welcome, P.T. I’m excited to talk to you today about The Ponzi. For starters, I understand the book is about a Ponzi scheme. Can I ask where you came up with the idea for the novel — Bernie Madoff maybe, or the recent economic downturn of the last few years?

P.T.: The Ponzi is the second of a series of novels I intend to write, each highlighting a specific white-collar crime relating to financial markets. Ponzi schemes — named for Charles Ponzi, who made the deception famous in the 1920s — have been a popular way to cheat people out of their money for many years. Madoff was a recent and extremely large example. In my novels, I am trying to emulate the structure of some of today’s well-known legal thrillers, but using Wall Street and other financial-related areas (as opposed to the court room) as the background. The crime highlighted in my first novel, The Analyst, is insider trading. I have started my third novel, which will highlight something known as “Pump and Dump” schemes.

But I don’t want my novels to be just about the crimes. I will always try to include compelling characters with unique backgrounds that become intertwined through some form of personal conflict. In The Ponzi, for example, I am more interested in describing the meticulous precision by which scam artists identify their targets and plan for the ultimate goal (of taking their money.) I would love someone reading this novel to look up and say, “Wow, this person who is being scammed could be me!” I am also interested in developing the background leading up to when the perpetrator decides, “OK, this is what I am going to do!” Presumably, younger people don’t start out dreaming of the day they will become massive white-collar criminals. What are the elements in their lives that eventually lead them to a choice of crime?

So, while the novel obviously has quite a bit to do with Ponzi schemes, there are unique, unrelated storylines that ultimately collide and are impacted by the deception.

Tyler: Tell us a little about your many years in the investment world and how they inspired you or supported you in writing the novel, since you’re obviously an expert on investing?

P.T.: One of the things I enjoy most about reading legal thrillers is the insight into the courtroom tactics and strategies. I’m fascinated to learn about the gamesmanship over things like selecting juries and preparing the defense and prosecution. I’ve found over almost 30 years in the business, when talking to people about the investment/money world, many find it confusing or vague. That’s why I thought structuring my novels along the lines of a legal thriller would perhaps allow me to impart the same kind of insight into the inner-workings of this world. As an aside, I’ve had a number of readers tell me that they learned something about the business from reading my novels. This is music to my ears.

Tyler: That’s always a great bonus, and I think fiction is able to teach people things in a way that non-fiction can’t always. Could you give us an example of some things readers say they have learned from the book?

ThePonziP.T.: One example was from The Analyst, where I had to use the phrase (and the action) of “shorting” a stock, which means selling a stock that you don’t own. It took me quite a while to write the paragraph that explained what “shorting” means in plain English. (Hint — it means selling a stock that you don’t own by borrowing the securities from someone else). I won’t go into the full explanation here because it would take some time. (It is, however, on page 55 of The Analyst.)

Tyler: What can you tell us about the main character, Michael Franklin, Jr., when the novel opens? I understand he finds himself in a difficult situation with the economic downturn.

P.T.: In every novel that I’ve enjoyed reading, the protagonist starts out facing an obstacle, sometimes more than one. The economic downturn is just one of Michael’s concerns. The reader quickly learns that he has far more on his plate that has nothing to do with the financial world but seriously impairs his ability to deal with his challenges at work. Everywhere he turns, his trials grow to the point where he must decide between an unbearable choice and the ultimate and final escape.

Tyler: How does Michael come to meet Jennifer and what about her makes him want to marry her?

P.T.: One day, Michael sees Jennifer in the local YMCA pool — think about the Bo Derek scene in the movie 10 — and falls hopelessly in love. As he gets to know her, she is intelligent, seemingly caring, independent, and strikingly beautiful. It is serendipity. But even this fledging romance becomes an additional source of angst. Jennifer is one of the few things his father has ever acknowledged to Michael as having any value. Michael’s focus in courting her moves from a positive (how blessed his life would be with her in it) to a negative (how he will reinforce to his father, yet once again, that he is a failure if he doesn’t win her heart).

Tyler: Jennifer first comes up with the Ponzi scheme idea. Could you tell us a little about what that plan is?

P.T.: Jennifer claims to have discovered a way to buy and sell stocks that virtually guarantees excellent returns. She has a detailed explanation of how it works, using terminology common to the investment world. When you hear her describe it, it sounds very plausible and real. But…is it too good to be true?

Ponzi schemes are very similar. They require people who are willing to believe in something that sounds fantastic, even when the opportunity lacks supporting evidence. There is ample research documenting the conditions under which individuals will do that and, given the history of these scams, a well-spoken, clever operator can be successful at bringing in money, at least for some period of time.

Tyler: Why does Michael go along with the plan?

P.T.: Michael is the first “victim.” He is well-schooled in the investment business and, when he first hears Jennifer’s pitch, says what she is describing is impossible. He knows what she says is a fantasy. But, as mentioned above, a smart Ponzi operator will identify a person or group of people’s “hot buttons” that will make them look past their rational mind. Think back to the old west and snake-oil salesmen. Medical care in those days was sparse and primitive. Towns were full of people with ailments. The salesman promised the local citizens that snake-oil would cure all their ills. They accepted it because they wanted to believe it worked, even though common sense said otherwise.

In Michael’s case, Jennifer is quickly able to identify his Achilles’ heel. She knows all about his fractured relationship with his father and that for him winning her heart is critical. It becomes relatively easy for her to convince him to believe, even though deep-down, he is still suspicious.

Tyler: I don’t want to ask too much more and give away the plot, but I understand the book is a mystery/thriller, so what are the mystery and thriller elements of it that you can tell us about?

P.T.: As Michael’s problems grow, and the true elements of the plot become known, readers will find themselves immersed in several characters’ lives. There are critical decisions to be made and a massive ($100 million) fraud in the works. Michael finds himself in the middle of a confrontational triangle with two women. How it all turns out and who gets away with what are questions I hope will keep the reader engaged to the end.

Tyler: Can you tell us, though, a little about this second woman since I understand she’s a big part of the plot also?

P.T.: Early on in the novel the reader is introduced to an unrelated story line about a young woman who is apparently in some sort of physically violent relationship. She comes to the park on a regular basis to order a gelato ice cream from the man in the ice cream truck. He knows she never eats it but rather prefers that choice because it is the coldest of all his products and will help reduce the swelling on her face. The ice cream man, Mr. Carrantino, refers to the woman as the “gelato girl.”

Tyler: P.T., did you have any worries or concerns about writing the novel about this topic, or did you feel you had any moral purpose, such as to reveal anything about the financial world? I’m curious because in your biography when I introduced you, I mentioned that you write “from experience about the insatiable desire for money that leads to unethical, illegal and unscrupulous behavior.”

P.T.: Let me start by answering that almost all of the people whom I have ever known or worked with in the investment world have the highest degree of ethics, and are smart and hard-working. Of course, not unlike many industries, there are bad apples, which creates an opportunity for someone with my background to fashion what I hope are entertaining fictional stories. But they are fiction. There are no real-life characters cleverly disguised as fictional in my novels.

But clearly the opportunity to make a lot of money (the “insatiable desire”) is one of the driving forces that motivate a few people to choose this path. Ironically, many perpetrators of some white-collar stock-market crimes are not employed in the investment industry at all (for example, Alexei Baikov, a character in The Analyst is the president of his drug-development company.) Regarding “moral purpose,” I will admit that if even one person who reads The Ponzi comes away with a greater sense of skepticism when he or she is faced with the “too good to be true” opportunity, that would be a wonderful outcome.

Tyler: Would you tell us a little more about your first novel and how it differs from The Ponzi?

P.T.: David Heart, a young, naïve analyst has come to Wall Street to make some of that good money he’s heard about, but in his case, not for personal gain. As a result of the ravages life sometimes brings, David’s widowed mother faces eviction and his grandfather needs life-saving surgery. They are broke and David’s success in a jungle for which he is ill-prepared to survive in is their only hope.

Tyler: And you mentioned you’re working on your third novel. What more can you tell us about that?

P.T.: I’m still in the outlining stage. The featured crime will be “pump and dump” schemes. I am working on making this the third book of a trilogy, with several characters from the first two books active in the third. I don’t want to say who the character that would appear in all three is (the central figure of the trilogy) because, for those who haven’t read The Ponzi yet, it would give away too much of the plot. I am excited about the challenge of putting it all together and making it work.

Tyler: Thank you, P.T., for the opportunity to interview you. Before we go, can you set out your web presence?

P.T.: My website is here. There you will find the back cover text for both novels as well as the first chapter(s). My biography is there as is a link to my e-mail if readers want to contact me and/or get added to my mailing list. I document “What I’m Reading”. There is a tab called “Odds & Ends,” under which you’ll find the headings “My Indie Author Journey,” “Novel in Progress” and “My MS Experience.” My Indie Author Journey is meant to share my experiences in self-publishing because in many ways, if you don’t know what you are doing (I didn’t but I am learning), it can be more difficult than writing the actual novel!  My MS Experience… well, I do have MS. I was diagnosed in 2002 and it is the disease that made me leave the investment industry. I don’t want to harp on that (ironically, the disease has given me the opportunity to write. When one door closes…) But, since a website is a public forum, and when, from time to time I have a personal experience that I think might be worth sharing with others who either have the disease or know someone who does, I’m going to do that.

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About Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, 7th generation Marquette resident, spent thousands of hours researching and writing The Marquette Trilogy: Iron Pioneers, The Queen City, and Superior Heritage. Tyler has a Ph.D. in Literature from Western Michigan University, and Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from Northern Michigan University. He has lectured on writing and literature at Clemson University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of London. Tyler is the regular guest host of Authors Access Internet Radio and the President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is the owner of Marquette Fiction and Superior Book Productions, a professional book review, editing, and proofreading service. Tyler lives in Marquette, Michigan where the roar of Lake Superior, mountains of snow, and sandstone architecture inspire his writing.