The competitive and intriguing worlds of law and finance have inspired countless novels. The most riveting and realistic are often written by authors who have first-hand knowledge about those careers. Scott Turow and John Grisham parlayed their legal expertise into dozens of bestsellers, while Michael Lewis translated his Wall Street days into a lucrative writing career. Bestselling novelist Cristina Alger has worked in both fields, incorporating her insider access, unique career trajectory, and brilliant writing into fascinating reads.
Alger started out as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and later pivoted to law, becoming an associate in the Corporate department at WilmerHale. Writing began as simply a creative outlet. “I definitely didn’t realize how much of an impact my previous careers would have on my writing,” Alger states. “But both my legal training and my finance background have managed to find their way into every book.” Alger’s breakout hit The Darlings was set during the recession and centered around a Madoff-like patriarch. Last summer’s must-read The Banker’s Wife, currently being produced for the screen by actress Rosamund Pike, involves off-shore banks and the some of their shadowy, dangerous clients. Alger relied on her legal expertise for her newest novel Girls Like Us is a thriller based on a real-life unsolved serial murder case.
Alger spoke to Forbes about her career leaps, how being a lawyer helped her writing, plus the real-life case that Girls Like Us is based on.
Sara Bliss: You started your career in finance. What drew you to that world?
Cristina Alger: My father passed away when I was a senior in college. All I wanted at that point was to come back to New York City and get paid enough so that my mother wouldn’t worry about me. So I took a job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, one of the few banks that would consider hiring someone without a quantitative background. I was totally out of my depth! I’d been studying pre-1600 literature and Anglo-Saxon poetry—really practical stuff.
Bliss: You spent two years at Goldman Sachs and went to law school. What made you think that law would be the right fit?
Alger: Law school seemed like a reasonable thing to do for an English major. Of course, when I graduated from law school, law firms wanted to hire me into their corporate departments because I had a finance background. So I ended up spending more than a decade in finance and finance-related law.
Bliss: When did you first have the urge to write fiction?
Alger: I was working in bankruptcy at the height of the financial crisis. It was a very stressful, surreal time. I kept thinking it would be a fascinating setting for a novel. I started chipping away at the idea for The Darlings a little bit at a time. It was a creative release. It never occurred to me it would get published. I’m still amazed that it did.
Bliss: When did you have the idea that you might want to be a professional novelist?
Alger: I find it hard to think of myself as a professional novelist! There’s no job security whatsoever. I know novelists far more successful than me who still struggle with the fear that they may never publish again. I’ve been lucky to work in this industry for as long a I have– I hope I always do. But it’s never felt like a given.
Bliss: Often when people make a career switch there is pressure to stay in their next role, especially if it required a lot of work to get there. While you were writing your first novel and working in law, did you feel like you had to stay because you had already made a huge investment into that path?
Alger: Oh, yes. Leaving was very hard. I was doing well at my firm. I was well-compensated and had job security, two things I’d worked hard to achieve. And I had invested a lot of time and effort into becoming a lawyer in the first place. After I sold my first novel, I sold the film rights to The Darlings to HBO. I was asked to co-write the script. It seemed like an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I gave myself a year. If it wasn’t going well after that, I go back to my firm and beg for my job back. That was seven years ago and I’m happily still writing.
Bliss: How have your novels drawn from the knowledge you gained in law and finance?
Alger: I write thrillers, often with a financial component. My first book, The Darlings chronicled the collapse of a hedge fund hiring the financial crisis. The Banker’s Wife is a thriller about offshore banking. My forthcoming novel, Girls Like Us, is a traditional murder-mystery type thriller, but it’s based on a real-life case into which I did a lot of legal and true crime research. I could never write the books I do without my background. I aspire to write like a lawyer. Lawyers have a wonderfully concise, direct way of writing. I love clean prose, particularly in thrillers. I’m always trying to streamline my writing the way I would a legal brief.
Bliss: Tell us about your new thriller Girls Like Us? What inspired this book?
Alger: Back in 2010, the bodies of four young women were found on Gilgo Beach in Long Island. They were all young sex workers, and all of them were murdered and buried in a similar fashion. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories about why it’s never been solved. That’s the premise of my book: a possible cover-up from inside the police department. It’s a fast-paced read with a tough, brilliant female protagonist. Nell Flynn is my favorite of all the characters I’ve ever written.
Bliss: So many people have this vision of writing as easier and less of a grind than corporate life. How does your life as a writer compared to your days in law? Is it what you expected?
Alger: It’s a different kind of pressure. I work less hours now than I did as a lawyer, and I certainly have more flexibility. But I also have far less security. I can’t phone it in. My work is judged publicly, and if it isn’t well-received, or I can’t come up with a new project and get it off the ground fairly quickly, I’m out of a job. I don’t love that part of it. I worry a lot more now, but I find my day-to-day life to be more fulfilling. There’s no better feeling than when I’m in the throes of a fun new writing project.