When I published my second novel Concealment I felt a huge sense of trepidation.
While on one level, it’s a tale of fraud and murder set in the world of high finance, it’s somewhat different from other books in the financial thriller genre because of its psychological aspects.
Amy, the heroine, is an outwardly successful finance executive, but underneath she’s desperately insecure as a result of a traumatic childhood. Amy’s vulnerability is key to the plot as it drives many of her actions and also makes her an obvious target for the devious and manipulative ‘management techniques’ of her new bully-boy boss Ed.
The book was painful to write because Amy’s backstory was loosely based on my own experiences growing up with a mother who was a compulsive hoarder, and I mentioned this explicitly in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Up until this point only my very closest friends and members of my online support group had any idea about this aspect of my life. In fact, for many years, I’d gone to great lengths to keep my shameful secret hidden. Now, in principle, it was out there for everyone to see – that snooty neighbour, the difficult client, the ex-employee with a grudge against me and the list goes on. I waited nervously for the reaction from friends and acquaintances to this humungous disclosure…
Much to my surprise, they took it in their stride. A few people told me how sorry they were that I’d grown up in such squalid surroundings – many didn’t mention it at all. Instead, something quite different emerged as the talking point. JUST WHO WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR EVIL BOSS ED?
Leaving aside the legal disclaimers about all characters being fictional, there was no shortage of possible candidates from my previous incarnations in several well-known accountancy firms. In truth, Ed is not based on any one of them, but rather he is a combination of character traits borrowed from many toxic colleagues over the years, plus a few mannerisms and modes of speech common to many in a big corporate environment, whether toxic or not. Ed is his own man, and he does not exist anywhere outside the pages of Concealment.
I explained this patiently to those who asked. But they weren’t having any of it. Names were bandied about, and some very strange ones at that. Suggestions included former colleagues who seemed completely benign to me and even people I didn’t know well enough to judge their toxicity, let alone write about it. Most bizarrely, someone who worked very closely with someone whose favourite expressions I’d cribbed for Ed’s lexicon had no inkling that there might be any connection.
The mystery of why there should be such definite views about the role model for Ed began to unravel when strangers began commenting on how he was exactly like someone they’d worked for in the past. Bottom line – it seems that everybody has worked for a boss like Ed – someone who’s abusive in subtle ways that chip away at your confidence. Because each individual act is trivial, or can be explained away, it’s difficult to report this kind of abuse to HR. He/she takes credit for your ideas, asks you to perform impossible tasks, ‘forgets’ to tell you vital information, subtly puts you down in meetings with snide little remarks. You get the picture. Cumulatively though, this constant low-level undermining can add up to serious abuse, which materially affects the victim’s self-esteem. So readers project the image of their own evil bosses onto Ed.
But it occurs to me that perhaps there is a more sinister side to all this. When asked about his source for Smiley, John Le Carre said ‘All fictional characters are amalgams – all spring from a much deeper well than their apparent counterparts in real life. All in the end, like the poor suspects in my files, are remoulded in the writer’s imagination until they are probably closer to his own nature than to anyone else’s.’
So, in creating Ed, have I inadvertently tapped into my own inner ‘evil boss’? Inevitably, after many years of hiring, firing and managing, there will be people out there (not too many I hope!) who regard me as some psycho bullying bitch. While I never consciously set out to distress anyone, sometimes I made mistakes as a boss, which may have been misinterpreted.
Indeed, no one is wholly good or bad, and the bad parts often come about as a result of some trauma. So although I’m loath to let Ed off the hook, I find myself wondering about him. What misery in his own life made him the way he is, what insecurities plague him, what keeps him awake at night? Because one thing is sure, he is not a happy man. I guess there might be another book there, but it will have to wait as I’ve already started writing the sequel to Concealment and so far Ed barely has a walk-on role.
And you know what – I kind of miss him!