At the age of twenty-four, Joseph Finder (rhymes with cinder) published Red Carpet: The Connection Between the Kremlin and America's Most Powerful Businessmen, a controversial expose about multi-millionaire Dr. Armand Hammer's ties to Soviet intelligence. Though Hammer threatened a libel suit, the fall of the Soviet Union opened archives that verified the truth of Joe's account.
Joe turned to fiction with The Moscow Club, released in 1991. Its plot about a KGB coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was considered by some to be far-fetched—until six months after publication, when the coup actually happened. The book established Joe as an authority on espionage and political intrigue.
Joe followed with Extraordinary Powers, The Zero Hour, and High Crimes, which became a movie of the same name. In 2004 he published Paranoia, a thriller set in the corporate world. It made the New York Times bestseller list and is currently in development at Paramount. His next, Company Man (2005), also a New York Times bestseller, is available in paperback now. We talked to him about his May 2006 release, Killer Instinct.
Joe continues to write extensively on espionage and international affairs for a wide range of publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
[Bio adapted from Finder's website, www.josephfinder.com.]
tompeters.com asks …
Welcome, Joe. This is a first for tompeters.com, interviewing the author of a work of fiction. But we enjoy variety, and your book Killer Instinct is business related. Can you give me a brief overview of what your book is about?
JF: It is a story of ambition and the price of success. It is the story of a salesman in a large electronics company who lacks the killer instinct, lacks the necessary ambition, the necessary drive to make it. He’s being sidelined. He’s condescended to by colleagues and being passed over by his boss, until one day when he meets a tow truck driver who was in the Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They become friendly.
Our hero, Jason Steadman, gets Kurt Semko a job in corporate security for his company. Soon, Jason’s career begins to take a strange and unexplainable turn for the better. Bad things happen to his enemies. Good things start happening to Jason. He can’t figure it out until he realizes it involves Kurt. Once he realizes what Kurt’s role behind the scenes has been in all of this, he confronts Kurt. Of course this is where the thriller component takes over. It’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
In many ways, it is a takeoff on the notion of business as war. I’m taken by the extent to which you see books in the offices of top-ranking corporate executives with titles like Business Is Combat or SunTzu: The Art of War for Managers or Team Secrets of the Navy Seals, that sort of thing.
I remember thinking, “What do these guys actually know about war?” Most of them know nothing about war. War is sort of an artificial construct. What if I actually took someone who had been in war and had read all these books, and was as ruthless as some of these books advocate that you be? What would happen? That’s the real thematic “what if” of the book. Is business really war? How far will people go …?
It’s a brilliant construct. It raises the question, is it a thriller or is it a mystery? How do you classify your book?
JF: I classify my books as thrillers. In marketing terms, thrillers are big books and mysteries are small category books. That’s one distinction. There’s also a narrative distinction which I think is more important. That is, a mystery is all about whodunit. A thriller is about how-dunit, how something happens. So to me, that clarifies it. Mystery always involves solving a crime in one way or another. That may be a component of a thriller, but in a thriller, it’s all about what happens to the main character, the dramatic arc of the main character.
You’ve written a couple of books before this, Company Man and Paranoia.
JF: I’ve written six novels before this, and one nonfiction book. It was not until Paranoia that I hit the bestseller lists. I suspect the reason is that, with Paranoia, I started writing a very different kind of book and one that appealed to people because it hadn’t really been done before, that is, fiction set in the business world.
What led you there? Why did that happen?
JF: Actually, Paranoia really began as a classic, conventional spy novel. That was my intention because that’s what I’d written before. The idea of writing a book about corporate espionage was suggested to me by a friend in the CIA who told me that larger corporations, in their intelligence and counter-intelligence efforts and their security apparatus, often use the same techniques that governmental intelligence agencies use. In fact, they’re modeled on the CIA, the FBI, and the KGB. They often use people, hire people who were in the CIA or the FBI.
So I began to write a spy novel about corporate espionage and decided I had to start visiting corporations because I knew very little about the corporate world.
So you’ve never worked for a large company?
JF: No, no. The one large company I worked for was in fact a corporation, but it was Harvard. You know what they say about academic politics, the reason that academic politics is so fierce is because the stakes are so small.
That must be the most politicized place—
JF: It really is. The politics at Harvard are more ferocious than at any company I’ve ever visited or any governmental institution. But I still had not worked in a corporation. So I began to do research. And I found that it takes an outsider to appreciate the details and the strangenesses of this life—to hear things and see things that, once you’ve worked in this world for a while, you no longer see.
I think that’s what half of business books are about, you know, teach yourself to step back and look at the whole situation objectively. Clearly you were able to do that.
JF: You have to see with a fresh eye. I’ll tell you something else that I learned. The kind of books that I write, thrillers, have a kind of wish-fulfillment element to them. In order to write books like that, you cannot condemn the setting, the corporate world, you have to understand its appeal. You cannot automatically dismiss the corporate world as being boring or irrelevant or hostile, as I think a lot of writers tend to do.
Why did you choose a salesman as your main character?
JF: I wanted to explore the question of business as war. I think the people in sales tend to be the most outwardly aggressive. Sales is the part of most businesses in which a kind of ruthlessness, in some companies, tends to be rewarded and is often encouraged. So it seemed to me the most likely place to explore that theme.
It’s a corporation that produces plasma, flat-screen monitors. Where did you do your research?
JF: I talked to people in many of the electronics companies like Sony, Panasonic, and NEC. By good fortune I lucked into people at NEC who were fascinated by the process of cooperating with a novelist and were very, very candid with me.
I wanted to set it in this world because I wanted a world in which technology was ascendant. I wanted a world also that I wanted to know more about. That’s part of the reason I write these books, because I want to find out cool stuff.
What cool things did you learn about plasma screens?
JF: Well, the reason I actually set this book in an electronics company was that I had just bought a flat-screen TV to watch the Boston Red Sox in high definition. I was talking to the sales guy at Tweeter for a long time. I became very interested in the technology, the difference between LCD and plasma, and the fact that these products were made, almost all of them in Japan or in cooperation with Korea. I thought, “This is a cool world I want to learn something more about.”
When I began to do research, I found a professor at MIT who has invented a technology for a flat screen that you can roll up like a poster.
I love that. The main character’s boss has this in his office, doesn’t he?
JF: Yes. That’s right. It’s not on the market simply because the market doesn’t want this on the market right now. Billions have been invested in existing technologies.
One of the things that I love about doing research is that I learn things that I could not have foreseen, I would not have plotted. In this case it was the fact that most of these companies are Japanese-owned. I became intrigued by what it’s like to be an American working for a Japanese company. It’s a very different corporate culture. The etiquette is different. The Japanese who run these companies tend to be maddeningly opaque to a lot of the American executives. They often don’t know exactly what’s going on. It’s frustrating for a lot of the Americans.
In most of these companies there are Japanese expatriates who are placed in the companies in the U.S. to keep their eyes open, to report back home. They are considered by many of their American colleagues to be spies. I talked to some of those people and got a sense of what it’s like to be working in a company where everyone thinks you’re a spy.
What I learned is that, while they are distrusted, the savvier American executives use these people, use these Japanese expatriates, as a back channel, as a way to get information about what’s really going on in Tokyo or in Japan, or to pass messages on.
So in effect, they treat them as double agents?
JF: That’s right. That’s a very good point. Actually I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s exactly right. So that created some great fictional material for me.
What did you learn about salesmen or salespeople that surprised you?
JF: A number of things. First of all, my notion of salespeople had been informed by David Mamet’s movie and play, Glengarry Glen Ross. There were, of course, kernels of truth in it. That’s the reason it’s such wicked satire. But the best salespeople truly, sincerely believe that what they’re doing is helping people to get what they want or need, and that their job is really to figure out what the customer wants and get it to them and not oversell.
There are a number of corporations that push their sales reps so hard to achieve, to meet their “nums” and overachieve. In the process, these companies end up burning their customers. It’s a short-term benefit with a long-term deficit. The smarter companies have learned the importance of not overselling.
I learned that some of these super salespeople are born with a skill or perhaps have acquired a skill that most of us don’t have. They are what the Germans call menschenkenner. It means someone who understands other people on a fundamental, deep level. That is, they can meet you and they get you right away. They know you. They can look in your face and figure you out. They know how far to push. They know when you’re uncomfortable or when you’re being deceitful. There are some people who have this skill, and they make the best salespeople. They are a real minority, but I met some of these people.
Is it that they’re great observers? Or they just have this sort of intuition?
JF: It’s both. I have a 12-year-old daughter. She’s an only child. I’ve noticed that many only children learn to read their parents really, really well.
Read them or play them?
JF: Oh yes, certainly to play them, but, you know, all kids play their parents. But only children can look in their parents’ faces and detect things that the parents often aren’t aware of. I’ll come home from a hard day of work and I’ll put on my happy face, and she’ll say, “Daddy, you’re upset.” “No, I’m not!” She just knows.
That’s a primitive version of what I’m talking about. Children of alcoholics or children of abusive parents also learn to read these subtle shifts in a mood, in a parent’s mood or a parent’s face. There is a California psychologist named Paul Ekman. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in Blink. Ekman has devised a system whereby you can read the, I forget the number, 162 or so facial expressions that we make, with tiny, subtle differentiations to discover what’s called emotional leakage, to discover deception, to discover—
That’s a great term.
JF: Isn’t it? Ekman trains and has trained CIA interrogators and FBI interrogators. His methods are used in some large corporations. Salespeople are also trained in this method of what’s called micro-expressions, so that they can read customers. There’s a lot in Killer Instinct about this dance between the salesman and the customer, learning to read the body language as well as the micro-expressions.
That’s fascinating. I did notice your use of the business expression, the “BHAG”—big, hairy, audacious goal. Where did you find that?
JF: Isn’t that Collins?
It is Jim Collins. You probably don’t read too many business books. That’s why I was wondering where you came across it.
JF: Well not true, actually. I do read a lot of them. I certainly read a lot of them while I was doing research for Killer Instinct. I go into people’s offices, talk to them and listen to the expressions they use. The language is key. The language really indicates what they’re obsessed with, what the current vogue is. So I make fun of that as well.
The notion of language is very important to Tom Peters. You, in effect, become what you speak or what you write. So much of the business world gets warped because everyone seems to incessantly spout jargon. They really don’t even know what they’re talking about but—
—they’ve figured out the six buzz words of the day.
JF: This whole notion of disruptive technologies? I don’t think people even know what that means. It’s used so widely that it loses meaning. A lot of these shibboleths or these widely accepted, promulgated expressions, they achieve huge currency and they lose meaning.
This book takes place in the Boston area. You’re from Boston. Did you throw in any inside jokes?
JF: Oh God. I’m just trying to think. There are so many. For example, I’m completely frustrated with the Jumbotron at Fenway Park. While I was working on Killer Instinct, I was sitting there with my daughter. We were watching a replay on the screen. We couldn’t figure it out because the resolution was so poor.
I had just come from NEC, where I’d seen the latest technology for outdoor signs. I was thinking, “Why aren’t they doing this?”
No, that’s true. If that thing has any sunlight on it, you can’t see it at all.
JF: That’s right. The technology has been invented, which I researched. So I have an inside joke in which Jason goes to Fenway and he sells the CEO of the Red Sox on an LED billboard. Jason says later that the CEO of the Red Sox seemed like a really nice guy. A number of my readers and interviewers, Boston-based, have said to me, “I can’t believe you’re sucking up to Larry Lucchino that way. You’re trying to get Red Sox tickets? Is that it?”
Well, exactly! You should send them a copy.
JF: You know, I will send Lucchino a copy.
Yes, definitely! Put a little sticker in there near the Jumbotron conversation and say, “Hey, come on. Time to get it together.”
JF: Exactly. That will accomplish two things, I hope. One is, maybe they’ll actually buy a decent screen. Two, maybe I’ll get season tickets!
Exactly, more importantly, get tickets.
JF: And I want good ones!
Good luck with that, Joe. And thanks for your time.
Email: joe (at) – josephfinder.com